Stockholm's delightful, diverse day trips
Stockholm is a highlight of any Scandinavian vacation, but don't discount the variety of fine day trips at the city's doorstep. Within an hour or so of the Swedish capital, you can bask in the opulence of a royal palace, swing through the home and garden of Sweden's greatest sculptor, see ancient rune stones in the country's oldest town, hang with students in a stately university city or island-hop through Stockholm's archipelago.
West of Stockholm, Drottningholm Palace is the queen's 17th-century summer castle and current royal residence. Though sometimes referred to as "Sweden's Versailles," that's a bit of a stretch. But it is a lovely place to stroll the sprawling gardens and envision royal life. Visitors tour two floors of lavish rooms, filled with art that makes the point that Sweden's royalty is divine and belongs with the gods.
I find the tour at Drottningholm Court Theater even better than the palace's. Built in the 1760s by a Swedish king to impress his Prussian wife (who considered Sweden dreadfully provincial), this theater has miraculously survived the ages. Still intact are the Baroque scenery and hand-operated machines for simulating wind, thunder, and clouds. The pulleys, trap doors, and contraptions that floated actors in from the sky aren't so different from devices used on stages today.
Another fine destination is Millesgarden, dramatically situated on a bluff overlooking Stockholm's harbor in the suburb of Lidingo. The 20th-century sculptor Carl Milles lived and worked in this villa, and lovingly designed the sculpture garden for the public. Milles wanted his art -- often Greek mythological figures such as Pegasus or Poseidon -- to be displayed on pedestals "as if silhouettes against the sky." Milles also injected life into his work with water, which splashes playfully amid the sculptures.
Twenty years ago, I visited the historic town of Sigtuna (north of Stockholm) and wrote it off as a tourist trap. But I recently reassessed the place: It's great. Established in the 970s, it's the oldest town in Sweden -- and the cutest. Visitors enjoy a lakeside setting and an open-air folk museum of a town, with ruined churches and a cobbled lane of 18th-century buildings.
Sigtuna is also dotted with a dozen rune stones. These memorial stones are carved with messages in an Iron Age language. Most have a cross, indicating that they are from the early Christian era (11th century). I even have a favorite stone here. Its inscription translates as, "Anund had this stone erected in memory of himself in his lifetime" -- showing that his rune carver had some personality and perhaps that Anund had no friends.
A bit north of Sigtuna is Uppsala, Sweden's fourth-largest city, known for its historic cathedral, venerable university, and as home to Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern botany. Uppsala's cathedral -- one of Scandinavia's largest and most historic -- boasts a fine Gothic interior, the relics of St. Erik, memories of countless coronations, and the tomb of King Gustav Vasa. Facing the cathedral is the Gustavianum museum, housing a collection of Viking artifacts, a cabinet of miniature curiosities, the first thermometer Anders Celsius made according to his own scale, and an anatomical theater -- a temple-like room where human dissection was practiced before student audiences. Nearby are the Linnaeus Garden and Museum, where the botanist studied 3,000 species of plants and developed a way to classify the plant kingdom.
On a warm summer day, nothing beats a ferry trip through Stockholm's archipelago, a playground of islands stretching 80 miles from the city. Locals love to brag that there are more than 30,000 islands -- but that must count mossy little rocks, so I ignore that figure.
Ferries serve over a hundred islands, such as Vaxholm, the gateway to the archipelago. This popular destination has a quiet and charming old town and well-preserved fortress just off its busy harborfront. The ramparts remain -- manned not by soldiers but by sun worshippers enjoying Sweden's long summer days. On Vaxholm, my favorite lookout post is the Hembygdsgarden Cafe. The coffee and pastry break is a Swedish ritual -- embraced with all the vigor of a constitutional right. And here, savoring life to its fullest just seems to come naturally.
Farther along is the car-free and largely forested isle of Grinda, a nature preserve that's laced with walking paths, beaches, and slabs of glacier-carved granite sloping into the sea. There's no real town, but there are a few hotels, a cafe on the marina, and busy ice cream stand. Other fine archipelago stops include the remote isle of Svartso (great for biking), and the sandy beaches of Sandhamn -- the last stop before Finland.
From royal palaces to a sculptor's garden, lazy islands to towns big and small, the area around Stockholm has something for travelers of all stripes.