‘In 50 metres, turn right,” my smartphone’s navigation app says. According to the app, after turning the corner, I’ll arrive at one of Stockholm’s most iconic spots — Gamla Stan, or the Old Town area.
Moments later, the friendly female voice says: “You have arrived.” But as I look around, I find myself asking, “Where am I?” I’m standing in a dark alley that looks like a crime scene waiting to happen. I get the feeling that I might be in the wrong place.
I step out of the alley and double check the map on my phone. As it turns out, I’m 2km away from where I want to be. I realise I can no longer rely on my phone — I’ve dropped it too many times. So I decide to trust my instincts. Forget the map, throw away the guidebook — let’s get lost.
DOWNTOWN: The iconic building at the Stortorget Square of the Old Town (Gamla Stan) is one of the most popular spots for photo opportunities among tourists. PHOTOS: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI
ONE DAY ONLY
Stockholm has never been on my travel bucket list. But when I was invited to a conference in a small Swedish city called Norrkoping, I realised I had to fly back to Bangkok from Stockholm anyway, so I gave myself one extra day to explore the city and get a feel for it.
Travelling to Stockholm from Norrkoping was simple. The hotel that I booked was only a short walk away from the train station where I was dropped off. Since Sweden is set on becoming a cashless society, buying a ticket can be done either online or with a card at a ticket machine.
The only issue with this system here is the fact there are no actual humans to offer information to visitors at the station. This forces you to rely on your senses and the information offered online. One good tip for any traveller in Sweden is to have a credit or debit card with you available because spending cash is not very common, as I soon found out.
The 90-minute train ride to Stockholm was quite pleasant, with the tracks looping in and out of different parts of the city along the way. The sky was largely cloudy on that day, but despite the lack of sunshine, the scenic route was certainly enjoyable to see.
I arrived in Stockholm by 4pm as the sun was saying farewell to the Scandinavian sky. I made my way on foot to the hotel in the Kammakargatan area, hauling my 25kg luggage and heavy backpack. It was meant to be a straightforward 10-minute walk. Then I got lost.
But after taking a few different turns, it didn’t take me long to find my way. After checking in, I walked to Stockholm Central Station to visit the tourist information counter where an actual human being can be consulted.
I decided to do a hop on-hop off bus tour and check out some of the big attractions dotting my city map. With my map and bus tickets on hand, I crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t get lost (again).
The first tour started at 9am. The sun hadn’t fully risen yet, but there was enough light peeping out to start the day. The weather was cold and rainy, resting at around 5 degrees Celsius. Locals I spoke with told me this weather was typical of November in Sweden.
As the bus departed, the rain seemed to beat down more heavily. Getting off at the next stop, Gamla Stan, seemed like a move I would have to wait out.
I remained sitting on the bus and listening to my audio guide, offering an explanation of each area. The bus tour’s whole route would take one hour and 45 minutes, but the ticket was valid for 24 hours after the card was scanned and activated.
No one came to scan or check the ticket throughout the tour, meaning the operators were relying on the visitors’ honesty. It didn’t seem to be a problem anyway as everyone seemed to be clutching a ticket in their hands.
Driving through the Old Town area, I got glimpses of the Royal Palace, some iconic churches and the Nobel Museum. Then after cruising through the business district, the bus crossed a bridge on to another island removed from the downtown area.
After 45 minutes, the bus stopped for a 15-minute break at the Skansen Open-Air Museum. Since the rain seemed to be easing up, I decided to make this my hop-off point. The area has four big attractions that I wanted to visit.
The Skansen, which means “sconce”, is the world’s oldest open-air museum and also includes a zoo. It is located on the island of Djurgarden. It was opened on Oct 11, 1891, by Artur Hazelius to show the lifestyle of different parts of Sweden before the industrial era.
The many exhibits spread over the 300,000 sq m site include a full replica of a 19th-century town featuring models of traditional craftsmen in their typical dress. These include tanners, shoemakers, silversmiths, bakers and glassblowers posing in their period surroundings.
There is a patch of land imitating those used for growing tobacco, as well as an open-air zoo featuring Scandinavian animals like the bison, brown bear, moose, grey seal, lynx, otter, red fox, reindeer and wolves. There are also farmsteads where rare animals can be seen.
On that day I felt like I had the whole museum to myself, with barely any visitors around.
The staff, dressed in traditional costumes from different parts of Sweden, were always on hand and ready to offer up information regarding the past lifestyles of the people.
After spending one hour at the museum, the rain finally let up. I was able to tuck away my umbrella and make my way towards the next stop.
Across the street from the Skansen, a stunning old castle drew me in. While straining my neck to get a look at it, I realised that I was standing in front of the Nordic Museum. After taking a few photos of the building’s exterior, I strolled inside.
The Nordic Museum traces the history of Swedish culture from the early modern period, starting in 1520, to today. The museum was founded in the late 19th century by the man who also founded the Skansen, Artur Hazelius.
Hazelius put together the museum by collecting donations of furniture, clothing and toys from all over Sweden and some other Nordic countries. He initially focused on curating objects from peasant culture, but his successors increasingly focused on objects reflecting urban and bourgeois lifestyles.
The current building, designed by Isak Gustaf Clason, was completed in 1907 after a 19-year construction process.
It was originally intended to be a national monument housing the material inheritance of a nation, but it was only partially completed by the Stockholm Exposition of 1897. It was never fully completed, with the original plan meant to be three times the present size.
The entrance features a counter lending out free audio guides in several different languages. The first floor has temporary and seasonal exhibitions.
As I was there in November, the first month that the northern lights can be seen in Scandinavia, the museum had set up a simulation of the aurora in a small, dark room. The experience isn’t quite the real thing, but it is realistic enough to get a sense for how incredible this phenomenon really is.
The museum has more than 1.5 million objects, including buildings like the Julita farm in Sodermanland, Svindersvik in Nacka, Tyreso Palace and the chaplain farm at Harkeberga in nearby Enkoping. It also houses an extensive collection of documents and about six million photographs dating from the 1840s until today. The museum’s research library contains 3,800 shelf metres of literature from the 16th century onwards.
After two hours spent at the museum, completed by a meal of Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes, I headed towards the Vasa Museum, which is credited as the most visited museum out of all the Scandinavian nations.
The Vasa is a maritime museum exhibiting the 17th-century eponymous ship, which rests almost fully intact. The 64-gun warship sank on her maiden voyage in 1628 after which it was salvaged.
The main hall of the museum contains the mighty ship itself alongside several exhibits on other archeological findings from ships and early 17th-century Sweden.
The Vasa has been fitted with the lower sections all three masts, a new bowsprit, winter rigging and other parts that were missing or heavily damaged, then replaced.
The replaced parts have been treated or painted, and clearly look different from the original material that has been darkened after three centuries submerged in water.
The interior is decorated to fit the times, with large sections of bare, unpainted concrete, including the ceiling. The ship can be seen from all six levels of the museum, from the keel to the top of the sterncastle.
A theatre shows a film in different languages about the recovery of the majestic ship.
RESTING PLACE: Riddarholm Church is the burial site of Swedish monarchs. It is located on the island of Riddarholmen, close to the Royal Palace.
HISTORY: Below right, the exterior design of the Nordic Museum.
WALK IN, DANCE OUT
I had never heard Sweden’s national anthem — the only music I’d heard from here being Abba. The pop quartet’s Dancing Queen might be mistaken for a national anthem, though, with the tune being played in airports, train stations and shopping malls everywhere I went.
It felt wrong to not pay homage to Abba on my travels, so after leaving the Vasa Museum, I followed the sign pointing towards Abba: The Museum, near to lots of other tourist sites.
The flashy entrance to the museum makes it hard to miss. It was probably the busiest museum I saw in Stockholm. A long queue extended over the red carpet entrance. The whole atmosphere of the place was fun, as if entering some secret underground discotheque.
The museum does not accept cash for entrance fees so visitors must come prepared with credit cards.
After entering the lobby, staff direct visitors to the floor below, where the space is directed in brightly coloured walls and the ground is lit up with neon, offering a 1980s ambience.
Despite its name, Abba: The Museum is not technically a museum as it has no collections, does not conduct research and is a for-profit venture.
What it does have is some fun interactive exhibits — for example, Benny’s piano, a self-playing instrument that imitates the one built in the pop star’s home and plonks out the tune Waterloo. Another section recreates the English city of Brighton where the group won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest and contains various items from the fateful event.
Then there’s the Polar Studio, which recreates the studio where Abba recorded much of their late-career museum. At the Folkpark, you can see the place where the band first met.
There is also an have a guided audio tour composed by Katherine Johnson, the screenplay writer for Mamma Mia! Then there is Ring Ring!, a special phone that only the members of Abba know the number to.
If you dream of being the fifth member of Abba, the museum comes with a stage where you can perform your karaoke take on their songs and dance alongside the members of the group in hologram form. On the way, you pass a disco room with Dancing Queen blasting away.
This marks the dancey finale of your trip — you can’t help but bop along to the hit song.
CULTURE: The Skansen Open-Air Museum displays lifestyles from different regions of Sweden.
LOST IN NAVIGATION
After a long day spent inside museums, I had a few more stops to make before close of business. I hopped back on the tour bus and head towards the Old Town, or Gamla Stan. The bus delivered me to Stockholm Central Station, from where I continued on foot.
At this point I was relying on my navigation app to get around. I tapped the name of the destination in and started walking in the direction it guided me to.
“Turn left, turn right, continue straight,” said the friendly voice. I started to get frustrated as the app seemed to dance around the destination I wanted to go.
My initial plan was to visit the Nobel Museum, then do a haunted walking tour of the Old Town area. But I ended up spending too much time making sense of my navigation app.
Ten minutes stretched into 40 minutes as I tried to find my way around. I pocketed my phone and started using the paper map. That’s when I finally got the directions straight. I arrived at the doorstep of the Nobel Museum only to find it was about to close. I proceeded to the walking tour counter. They told me they didn’t have enough English-speaking visitors to run a tour and would conduct one in Swedish only.
I couldn’t check everything off my list, but I still enjoyed exploring the charming area of the Old Town. I spent a solid two hours walking around from one shop to another, and doing what any good tourist is meant to do — sending postcards to friends back home.
Rain started up again in the evening, but I was in no hurry to get back to the hotel. I walked slowly from Gamla Stan through to Drottninggatan, the shopping district that is home to the world’s biggest brand names. Most shops close at 7pm. Restaurants don’t seem to stay open late either.
I took an unfamiliar route back to the hotel. Unfortunately, I found myself lost again. But the best thing about this was that I learned the streets well after walking them at least twice.
At the end of the day, I learned that it doesn’t matter if you get a bit lost. Every missed turn leads you into new scenes of local life, from different types of people to architecture, so that the time spent headed the wrong way seems all right in the end.
ARTEFACTS: An exhibition inside the Nordic Museum displays a huge collection of Nordic culture through textiles, furniture and more.
SCANDI STARS: Abba: The Museum details what made this Swedish band a global phenomenon.
OLD SOAK: Vasa Museum displays a huge ship that had been underwater for 333 years.