The Old Town of Stockholm or, as it is known in Swedish, Gamla Stan is recognised internationally as one of the most well-preserved medieval city centres. Even today, when Stockholm is a major metropolis, a cultural hub, and the home of many prospering businesses, you can literally feel the atmosphere of the Middle Ages in the streets stretching over three individual islands connected by a few bridges.
Well, perhaps not quite. As they would show you in the Museum of Medieval Stockholm (Medeltidsmuseet), you would probably not find the streets of actual medieval Stockholm very pleasant. During the Middle Ages, Stockholmers used to breed chickens, pigs, and even cattle directly in the streets and in their houses. The smells spreading through the streets are said to have been pretty repulsive, too, and as if that was not enough, the locals needed to constantly worry about protecting their food from rats.
Nevertheless, what we are left with today is a romanticised version of medieval Stockholm with some inevitable signs of the modern times, which I am sure you will love.
In this first part of our Ultimate Guide to the Old Town of Stockholm, I guide you around the most interesting places standing in the oldest part of the city delimited by two long streets, namely Österlånggatan (‘The Eastern Long Street’) and Västerlånggatan (‘The Western Long Street’). This area is pretty much all there was in Stockholm at the time when Birger Jarl established the city around the year 1252.
We begin in big style at an easy-to-find place which should be a good starting point for our tour. The massive Royal Palace of Stockholm standing in the north-eastern part of the Stadsholmen Island is one of the biggest royal palaces in the world. With its more than 600 rooms there is more than enough space to accommodate five different museums that you are welcome to visit if you would like. No matter from which side of the palace you arrive, I recommend you walk all around as the impressions are very different from each side.
Right next to the Royal Palace, on the southern side, you will find the oldest church in Stockholm known under different names. The Great Church (Storkyrkan), Church of St. Nicholas (Sankt Nikolai kyrka), and Stockholm Cathedral (Stockholms domkyrka) are all names that refer to the same building originating in the 13th century. You can, of course, get a peek inside (for a small fee) and admire the impressive original statue of Saint George and the Dragon (St Göran och draken). I say original because further down, I show you a place where you can see a replica.
One of the most famous places in town, its oldest square, stands very close to the oldest church, as you might expect. If you have ever been interested in Stockholm, you have probably seen pictures of the famous pair of houses with bright, colourful facades standing at Stortorget (‘The Great Square’). Since this is usually one of the busiest tourist places in Stockholm, here is an idea. Try and go to Stortorget either early in the morning or later at night. You might be able to enjoy the square more if you visit it when it is lit by the subtle morning sunlight or later when it gets calm and you can appreciate every piece of it by yourself.
Although Axel Oxenstierna, the longest-serving lord high chancellor in Swedish history, lived several hundred years after the places above were built, his residence found its place right at this historical location. Only a stone’s throw from both the Royal Palace and the Stockholm Cathedral, Oxenstierna’s palace has never been finished in its entirety. Despite that, its richly decorated, bright-red façade is a fair tribute to one of the most influential men Sweden has ever seen.
You might have a hard time guessing who originally lived in the house attached to Oxenstierna Palace. The so-called Beijer House (Beijerska huset) belonged to the General Postmaster of German origin, Johan von Beijer. Back in the day, the responsibilities of the postmaster were significantly different from today, which is probably why Beijer could afford to own several properties in the Old Town as well as in Södermalm. What is special about this house is that it is the only one in the city with a preserved 17th-century courtyard.
One of the very unusual things you should notice when strolling the streets of Gamla Stan is the wall anchors visible on many of the historical buildings. These can help you identify from which period a particular house comes and even if individual parts of a single building were built or reconstructed during different eras. Also, they are simply nice to look at. Remember that you can find all the information you need about wall anchors in Stockholm in this comprehensive guide I wrote earlier.
A house that displays a particularly interesting collection of wall anchors stands on Prästgatan which is a street parallel to Västerlånggatan. Although both these streets would lead you to the next attractions, I suggest you find a way to walk down both of them as each shows you a different face of the Old Town.
Coming back to the aforementioned Västerlånggatan, you will immediately notice the difference between this and the previous street. Västerlånggatan is essentially the main tourist path through Gamla Stan and is, therefore, often full of people and always full of boutiques, cafés, and restaurants.
This seems like a good place to mention that Stockholm’s Old Town manages to keep its historical spirit despite the presence of these businesses as most of them do a good job of adjusting to the environment and some of them even enchant it with their original and charming displays.
Something that is visible in Stockholm’s Old Town but not in newer parts of the city is the importance of the German population in the early days of the city. After Birger Jarl established Stockholm in the mid-13th century, he invited German merchants to get Swedish trade up to speed. These residents then had a strong say in the city’s internal matters as they occupied half of the seats in the City Council.
Today, you can clearly see the remains of the Stockholm’s German community in the central area of the Stadsholmen Island. The most notable structure that is hard to miss on the city landscape is the beautiful German Church (Tyska kyrkan). From outside, you can admire the elegant façade and some of the most impressive portals in Stockholm while the unusual layout of the interior might come as a surprise once you find yourself inside.
We continue exploring the former German area by visiting Tyska Brunnsplan which is the home of the German School and a small plaza with some very nice architecture. From there, it is not far to one of the most unusual places I show you in this guide.
By now you might have noticed that the streets of Gamla stan are not particularly wide. In fact, apart from the few major streets, they are very narrow as was usual in the Middle Ages as space in the small towns was rather scarce. Mårten Trotzigs Gränd will show you, though, that there are narrow streets and then there are ‘narrow’ streets. You will see what I mean when you find yourself at one of the ends of the narrowest street in Stockholm which is only around 90 centimetres wide.
If you visit the places in the order as they are presented in this guide, you will find yourself only metres away from Järntorget (‘The Iron Square’) after passing through Mårten Trotzigs Gränd. A couple of buildings at this square are particularly interesting. The first one of them is known as the Southern Bank House and it was the first proper headquarters of the world’s first central bank.
Across a narrow street from the Southern Bank House, you can see the Northern Bank House. While the names are not particularly interesting or original, notice the obvious differences between the two buildings. The southern one is clearly more decorated whereas the façade of the northern one is much simpler due to the fact that the Northern Bank House was used primarily as a storage facility. That is also why the two houses are connected by an over-ground tunnel so that the personnel would not have to carry valuables across the street.
I have mentioned in the introduction that the oldest part of the city is bordered by two long streets. We have visited Västerlånggatan and now it is time to have a look at its counterpart, Österlånggatan. This street will take you from Järntorget through Köpmantorget all the way back to the Royal Palace while along the way you can admire medieval residential houses and cute alleys on the other side of the street.
Köpmantorget (‘The Merchant Square’), which you will encounter while walking down Österlånggatan, is the place where you would find the replica of the statue of Saint George and the Dragon (St Göran och draken) from the Great Church. Not only that but notice the colourful buildings on the corner of the square and they will add some extra joy to your day.
Remember that there are always more details to look for in the Old Town of Stockholm. Let me now bring your attention to the unique stone portals that are spread all across the historical islands. You can meet a few of my favourites in the places included in this guide but that does not mean these are all you should notice. Make sure to read my earlier post on portals in the Old Town if you would like to get to know more about the kinds of portals you can see in Stockholm and how they were made.
A number of monumental entrances with properly decorated stone portals can be found on Bollhusgränd which is a street starting right between the beautiful colourful houses I just talked about. On the other end of Bollhusgränd, there is our next place of interest.
That next place is the former residence of none other than Nicodemus Tessin the Younger. Nicodemus Tessin was, much like his father, one of the greatest architects who have ever left their mark on Stockholm. Even his own residence, the Tessin Palace (Tessinska palatset), acts as a proof of his skills and vision visible in his work which includes buildings such as the above-mentioned bank houses, the Bonde Palace, Ulrika Eleonora Church, and the Royal Palace itself.
If you take the street on the other side of Tessin Palace, you will first get to see some of the inner yards in the Old Town and eventually, get to a cosy alley called Skeppar Olofs Gränd. Simply enjoy the character of the alley and the colourful architecture when passing.
A similar alley awaits you only a few metres further by Köpmantorget that we have already visited. While you will not get very far if you walk down Staffan Sasses Gränd, there is a treat for you at its end. The oldest preserved portal in Stockholm, the so-called Rosenportalen (‘The Rose Portal’) dates from the late 1500s.
To show you that this area is full of historical treasures, now I show you a house right on the corner opposite the alley we just visited. The Bartel House (Bartelska huset) is a unique, gorgeous house whose looks have been preserved from the 1600s. Apart from the façade itself, notice the adorned portal on Själagårdsgatan, which is one of the most impressive ones in the city.
Finally, let’s have a closer look at the street we have already seen several times. Köpmangatan (‘The Merchant Street’) which connects two major squares – Stortorget and Köpmantorget – is considered to be the oldest street in Stockholm. Hundreds of years of history are gathered on this street filled with charming boutiques, traditional signs, and decorated facades that are all waiting for you to be discovered.
At the very end of this guide to the oldest parts of Stockholm, let me give you a pro tip on how you can get the most out of exploring Stockholm’s Old Town (Gamla Stan). Although I show you a number of streets in this guide, there are still many other, narrow, charming, historical streets that you should absolutely visit to get into the real medieval spirit.
There is nothing to worry about, the island is fairly small, the streets fairly short and sooner or later they will lead you to one of the big squares anyway, so you can simply get lost in the cosy streets without too much worrying about where you are.
That way, you can enjoy the most historical of streets in Stockholm as a proper Stockholmer.