I love Gamla Stan.
I guess I should back up a bit and explain what and where Gamla Stan is for the benefit of those who, like me before my recent visit, are unfamiliar with Stockholm apart from knowing that it’s a city in Sweden.
I exaggerated a bit. Before going there I also knew that Stockholm is the capital of Sweden, but that was almost the extent of my knowledge other than it being a primary venue of the wildly popular Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest). I read that series (or, rather, I read the English translation), but the books didn’t consciously have any bearing on my decision to visit Stockholm.
Gamla Stan is a district in Stockholm that’s on an island. You would know the district in Stockholm part if you read the Millennium Trilogy because it’s mentioned there. The “on an island” part is not terribly helpful because Stockholm is made up of 14 islands at the confluence of the Baltic Sea and Lake Mälaren so pretty much everything in Stockholm is on an island.
A number of sites frequented by tourists (I was but one of a great many tourists even though it was the shoulder season when I was there) are in Gamla Stan, including the Royal Palace, the Nobel Museum, the Stockholm Cathedral and more. I’ll discuss those places in future posts. Here, I’m going to talk about Gamla Stan in general because, well, did I mention I loved it?
Gamla Stan is Stockholm’s Old Town. It was not always called Gamla Stan, but there’s been a town there since the medieval times of the thirteenth century, about 800 years ago.
Because of a few fires since then and just general erosion, only a few of the original medieval buildings still exist although there may be some buried ruins from others, but Gamla Stan is still laid out mostly on that medieval town plan, including a few narrow alleyways and town squares. Despite not being the original 13th century structures, there are buildings in Gamla Stan that date back to 300 or so years ago.
The colour palette on the buildings in Gamla Stan was what I would call boldly muted, to coin an oxymoron. I spotted a variety of shades of oranges and reds, along with some greens, blues, greys, beiges and yellowy tones. Yet, none of it was jarring. The impression I had was that it was exactly what I would expect to find there even though I had never visited Stockholm, let alone the Gamla Stan district, before this trip. I don’t know why I felt that way, but I did.
Because Gamla Stan was laid out well before city plans in newer cities and newer parts of old cities fell in the thrall of the needs of the almighty automobile, its streets are generally narrow.
Automobiles, apart from delivery vehicles, are banned from some of the streets in Gamla Stan. And a couple of alleyways are so narrow that no car could fit through them and still have its sides attached afterward.
My experience was that even on streets in the center of Gamla Stan that allowed and could accommodate cars, cars were still so rare that the streets might as well have been pedestrian-only. Walking along the cobblestone- and paving stone-covered streets in Gamla Stan was, therefore, a joy. (Some perimeter streets had heavier, but not oppressive, traffic.)
In addition to residences, offices, churches and a major palace, Gamla Stan is home to a variety of restaurants, bars and shops. Most of those establishments are of the independent variety, rather than outlets of international chains.
Absorbing the City
I’m a city boy (alright, at 61 I’m more of a city old man than a city boy). What’s more, I very much enjoy being a city boy (old man). Consequently, my vacations usually involve mostly visiting other cities. One of my favourite things to do in a city is just wander around, taking in the city without necessarily visiting particular sites (although I do plenty of that too as evidenced by the posts in this blog).
If your tastes are at all similar to mine and you find yourself in Stockholm (likely with some intent on your part to be there), I highly recommend wandering around Gamla Stan aimlessly, observing the architecture, absorbing the atmosphere and letting your mind wander along with your feet. I did that a few times on this trip.
Don’t worry about getting lost in Gamla Stan. It’s an island that you can easily walk across. If you ever lose your bearings, just walk in as straight a line as possible and you’ll soon come to some water that will allow you to figure out where you are.
Besides, doesn’t everyone travel with a smartphone with GPS these days? Unless you’re trying to get lost, getting lost is no longer possible as long as your phone’s battery lasts and the phone doesn’t conk out on you. (I use a mapping application that allows me to pre-load maps so I can leave data roaming off and not pay the exorbitant rates that my phone company wants me to pay for data usage overseas.)
But put your GPS-enabled smartphone away for a bit. Getting lost for a while in Gamla Stan is not the worst thing in the world—far from it. You can always haul out your phone if you start to panic.