Founded in the 13th century on a handful of islands, Stockholm quickly grew to become Sweden’s biggest city. It has remained so ever since, despite centuries of conflict and political upheaval.
While well-known as a destination for art, design and fashion, Stockholm is also a fascinating destination for lovers of history. It’s one of the best places in Scandinavia to understand the rapid development of cities during the Middle Ages and the challenges that increased population posed.
The best history museums in Stockholm
There are many museums in the Swedish capital, but these four are the best for history lovers to gain an insight into the fascinating stories of Stockholm.
Stockholm City Museum: Free to enter, the City Museum tells the story of Stockholm’s development from the 13th century settlers to the development of the modern metro system. Highlights include the Solberga hoard, discovered by two boys in 1955 and featuring more than 2,000 coins and pieces of jewelry.
Medieval Museum: In the late 1970s, work on the Swedish Parliament building uncovered astonishing archaeological remains from the Middle Ages. Remains of the 16th century town wall, a medieval churchyard and 11 boats were among the finds, which now form the basis of the Medieval Museum.
Vasa Museum: Whereas the two museums above take a general approach to storytelling, the Vasa takes a deep dive into one specific moment.
What makes that moment of interest is that it was one of Stockholm’s biggest ever failures, yet it is celebrated and remembered in what has become one of Scandinavia’s biggest tourist attractions.
The museum houses the incredible Vasa warship adorned with hundreds of wooden sculptures that sank on its maiden voyage before it had even made it out of the harbor.
Skansen: The world’s largest open-air museum is a chance for visitors to Stockholm to get to know rural traditions and history from across Sweden. Skansen is home to houses and farmsteads from all regions of Sweden, which together with wild animals give a true flavor of life in rural Scandinavia.
Walking through history
Simply wandering the streets is one of the best things to do in Stockholm, especially for those on a budget. Here are the best places to focus your walks to better appreciate the city’s history.
Gamla Stan: There are few more atmospheric old towns in Northern Europe than Gamla Stan. The cobbled streets and crooked, narrow alleyways seem to go on forever, yet the main island of Gamla Stan is less than one mile across.
Travelers arriving at Gamla Stan from the north are greeted by the imposing Royal Palace. This baroque-style palace home to more than 1,400 rooms took more than 60 years to build, interrupted by the Great Northern War that brought the Swedish Empire to an end.
The central square Stortorget is today known for its attractive North Germanic architecture but most of the camera-wielding tourists know nothing of the square’s horrific past. In 1520, almost 100 people—mostly Swedish nobles—were executed here by the new Danish King, a decision that would impact the direction of Scandinavian history for decades to come.
While you can easily soak up the atmosphere of Gamla Stan on your own, a ghost tour is an entertaining way to discover more of the lesser-known stories of Stockholm’s oldest neighbourhood.
Riddarholmen: Linked to the main island of Gamla Stan by a bridge, the small island of Riddarholmen is in many ways the historical nucleus of the city.
The striking Riddarholmen Church was inaugurated sometime around the year 1300 as part of a monastery, although it has been renovated and extended several times.
Following the reformation, the island took on a more military function before the construction of several Renaissance-style palace and court buildings.
Djurgården: The leafy island Djurgården is a wonderful place to walk on a summer day but it holds extra interest for history buffs. The west of the island plays host to the Vasa museum, ABBA museum, Nordic museum and Skansen, while the center is dominated by the Rosendal palace pavilion and sprawling royal gardens.