I fell in love with Stockholm at the airport. From that moment on, the largest city in Scandinavia continuously impressed me, from its magnificent churches to its unending water views to its content-looking citizens who made it appear as if every one of them was happy to be living here. When you’re not out among them enjoying their spectacular city, you can head indoors to the dozens and dozens of museums that the city offers for your education, appreciation, and entertainment. These are my favorites.
#1 Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet)
The Vasa Museum is not only the most visited museum in Stockholm; it’s the most visited museum in all of Scandinavia, attracting millions of people since it opened in 1990. It’s also the most popular maritime museum in the world — quite a feat for a museum that is dedicated to exactly one ship. The Vasa Museum’s distinctive design, with its copper roofs and three accurately sized masts, hints at the stellar attraction inside: the Vasa, the only intact 17th-century ship that has ever been salvaged. Give your eyes a moment to adjust to the dim lighting inside, an opportunity to feel the noticeable humidity that is regulated to a specific level to ensure the ship’s preservation. Then step forward and feast your eyes on a magnificent sight. After 333 years at 105’ below the surface of Stockholm harbor following a catastrophic maiden voyage, the warship Vasa was raised in 1961 and floated to a nearby shipyard, and the museum was built up around it. As I walked around the six different levels surrounding the ship, I was drawn to the supplemental exhibits that focus on the state of the Swedish Empire at the time of the Vasa; the story of the ship’s construction, sinking, and recovery; and some of the 45,000 archaeological objects that were found during the salvage, everything from pewter utensils to the sailors’ clothing. But, of course, it’s the Vasa itself that’s the star of the show. Remarkably preserved, this massive ship measures 226’ long and was made from 1,000 oak trees, weighing in at 700 tons. I was totally enthralled by the ornate stern embellished with rich sculptures of national, historical, and mythological figures; the cannon portholes; and the main top, nearly 56’ above the deck. Poland was quite lucky when this ship sank on its way to attack her; history might have taken a very different turn if it hadn’t. Although an unmitigated disaster for the Swedes in 1628, the Vasa has become one of their undeniable successes.
#2 National Museum of Fine Arts (Nationalmuseum)
I got my first view of the National Museum of Fine Arts from across the water, just below the Royal Palace. It’s an exceptionally handsome building, inspired by Northern Italian Renaissance architecture and completed in 1866, without electricity, which didn’t arrive until 1931. The façade of the three-story building features statues and busts of Swedes important to art, literature, and science. I entered onto a grand central staircase with magnificent colorful frescoes on the walls and began to explore the deep, superior collection of 500,000 objects that range from drawings from the Middle Ages to 17th-century Dutch art, 18th-century French paintings, Russian icons, and Asian lacquer cabinets and furniture, among other items. There are works by Rembrandt and Manet, landscapes, portraits, still lifes, an assembly of fine glassware, and paintings and photographs of Great Garbo. Swedish artists are well represented, too, whether it’s Carl Gustaf Hellqvist’s historical Valdemar Atterdag Holding Visby to Ransom, 1361, Mårten Winge’s fantastical Tor’s Fight with the Giants, or Alexander Roslin’s refined The Lady With the Veil. If you’re hunting for fine art in a very fine setting, the National Museum is your destination.
#3 Nordic Museum (Nordiska Museet)
In a phenomenal building that’s only one-third the size of its original plan, you’ll find everything Swedish housed in one space (although its name is misleading, as it was intended to be a pan-Nordic celebration). The building itself is a city treasure, a huge structure built in the Dutch-influenced Danish Renaissance style. Cathedral-like in shape and form, the brick and granite museum boasts towers and dormer windows, onion dome steeples and sculptures. Unlike the National Museum, filled with international art, the Nordic Museum tells the Swedish story through its collection of 1.5 million objects of often ordinary use. I entered into the grand main hall that runs for more than 400’ and was greeted by a colossal oak statue of King Gustav Vasa seated under the roof lantern. Underneath him, the words “We are Swedish” leave no doubt as to the museum’s purpose. I was able to time travel through nearly five centuries of everything Swedish, displayed in exhibits of homes, interiors and furniture, table settings, textiles, fashion, jewelry, dollhouses, folk art, and traditions. Its gamut of cultural treasures is guaranteed to give you a comprehensive understanding of the little things that have made this country so great.
Home to the Vasa Museum and the Nordic Museum, the green and lovely island of Djurgården also holds the expansive grounds of Skansen, one of the world’s first open-air museums — and one of Sweden’s most fun, where you can certainly feel like a kid again. Founded in 1891 to show and preserve the way of life from all around Sweden before the industrial age virtually eliminated it, Skansen is a 75-acre delight, and I spent hours wandering around its attractions. Many of the museum’s 150 buildings that were transported from all over the country are open for exploration, including those making up an average 19th-century town. I checked out the tiny homes of poor laborers and the elegant homes of the wealthy 18th-century elite, a church where people can still get married, a farmstead, allotment huts, a Finnish settlement, mills and workshops, a post office, a market street, gorgeous wood belfries, and a fantastic brick tower. Throughout, craftsmen and craftswomen in period dress demonstrate their tanning, shoemaking, silversmithing, and glassblowing skills. A zoo with animals native to Scandinavia, from bison to wolves, delights visitors of all ages. The observatory is ringed by orbits, with stones of different sizes representing the planets. And, of course, the aroma wafting out of the functioning bakery was too tempting to resist — the perfect place to pick up fresh snacks to continue my exploration of this marvelous place.
#5 Museum of Medieval Stockholm (Stockholms Medeltidsmuseet)
Almost always, when a parking garage is built, it replaces something beautiful; we’ve all seen gorgeous buildings razed to accommodate these usually ugly utilitarian structures. In Stockholm, at least on one instance, things went in the opposite direction. During an excavation for a parking garage in 1979–80, extensive archaeological remains were discovered. The garage was never built; instead, we now have the fascinating Museum of Medieval Stockholm, constructed around old monuments and 180’ of the 16th-century city wall. Opened in 1986, the museum won the European Museum of the Year Award the same year. Tracing the history of the city from the 1250s to the 1520s, the exhibits include reconstructed brick buildings, warehouses, workshops, a market square, a church, and a cloister with a garden that explain how people lived, played, and worked during the medieval period and how the city developed. One of the items I found particularly interesting was the remains of the Riddarholmsskeppet, a warship from the 1520s, its ribs exposed like the decaying carcass of a 500-year-old savage beast. Another was The Sun Dog Painting. The original painting, from 1535, was the oldest Swedish landscape painting, the oldest depiction of Stockholm in color, and the oldest depiction of sun dogs. Although it was lost over time, this 1636 copy faithfully restores the scene: atmospheric optical phenomena called a halo display and sun dogs observed over the city in 1535. The less astronomically inclined and the religious zealots interpreted this as a sign from God, which rankled the sitting king. The third exhibit, in great contrast to those displaying jovial feasts, dancing, music, and children’s games, is the positively eerie Gallows Hall, which illustrates crime and punishment from five centuries ago. In this darkened section with menacing lighting, a chill will course through you as you check out torture instruments and a couple of hanging figures swaying in their nooses, and you’ll be happy that Sweden’s medieval era ended a long time ago.