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What the ring of canals is for Amsterdam, Gamla Stan is for Stockholm: elegant and splendid, with colourful merchant’s homes, lovely squares and a majestic royal palace. Looking out from the rooftop, it is easy to see why Amsterdam is no match for Stockholm as the ‘Venice of the North’: this is genuinely a city on the water.
The numerous attractions of Gamla Stan are as regal as the palace. The Storkyrkan cathedral is the setting of fairytale weddings and coronations and Riddarholmskyrkan is the final resting place of all Swedish monarchs since the 17th century. This small island is the greatest tourist attraction of Stockholm and for good reason. Apart from the palace and Parliament, Gamla Stan is also home to excellent restaurants, surprising museums and charming cafés. Quiet winding streets and staired alleys with wooden houses merge with old squares with stately merchants’ homes.
With no say in the matter, the guards of honour standing in front of the gates of Stockholm’s Slott are the frequent subject of a favourite Kodak moment. This is the oldest royal palace in the world that still serves as a royal palace and, with its 1,430 rooms, is also one of the largest in Europe. The changing of the guard, daily at 12:15 pm (Sundays at 13:15 pm), is an impressive sight. The military parade makes its way by horse or foot from the Army Museum through the old city to the palace.
The medieval heart of Gamla Stan is Stortorget (the ‘Big Square’), which is surrounded by pastel-coloured merchants’ homes. This was where the famous bloodbath of Stockholm took place in 1520, when close to 100 aristocrats were executed. Nowadays, hip Swedes enjoy cafè lattes at the Kaffekoppen and Chokladkoppen outdoor cafés here. The old stock exchange building houses the Nobel Museum, with its modern furnishings and high-tech displays. Here you can watch films on all Nobel prize-winners, a complete moving Nobel encyclopaedia and display cases that exhibit the most famous invention of Stockholm native Alfred Nobel: dynamite.
Stortorget, Gamla Stan, T-bana Gamla Stan
The Riddarholmskyrkan is located on the adjacent Riddarsholmen, ‘Knight Island’. This royal church is not often visited by tourists, even though it is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Sections of it date back to the 13th century, when it was built by Franciscan friars. Perhaps even more importantly, it is the final resting place of virtually every Swedish monarch since the 17th century. The brick church itself is Gothic, and eye-catching features include an openwork cast-iron steeple and Baroque burial chapel. Guided tours are offered daily in English at 2:00 pm.
Riddarholmskyrkan, Birger Jarls Torg, Gamla Stan, tel. 0046 8 402 6130, T-bana Gamla Stan