Old Meets New in Gamla Stan, Sweden

It was my brother-in-law’s idea to stay in Gamla Stan for a few days during a family pilgrimage to Sweden. This old town neighborhood of Stockholm seemed like a good place to dip into Swedish history and get a flavor for the old ways. Narrow cobblestone streets led us to our rented apartment, a 500-year-old residence with thick walls that we wished could talk. 

On our first evening, a mysterious and charming guide regaled us with tales of murder and sin in the early days of Gamla Stan as we wound through rain-damp streets. Through his descriptions, we could almost hear wagon wheels clatter and swords clang in the night. He walked us up the narrowest street in the city – a mere 35 inches wide – where violent muggings took place beyond pools of flickering lamplight on dark nights of yore. 

Our apartment’s exposed beams, stone walls, timber spiral stairs and tight quarters told of those old days, too, but it had been modernized with radiators for cold rainy nights, modern appliances and bathrooms. Rope handrails helped us up and down our stairs, but we needed a Bluetooth key to enter from the street below – a satisfying blend of past and present. 

A tour of the Royal Apartments in the Royal Palace of Stockholm was also a historic and contemporary blend. One room had been designed to emulate Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors and another was used by a long-ago king who invited visitors to watch his morning bedroom rituals. He also invited guests to attend royal feasts, but only as standing observers, in a room that is now used by the Swedish parliament members to meet with the current king and his daughter, the future queen. At her wedding reception, another palace room had been transformed into a disco complete with lights and well-known DJ. 

Back outside, we listened to the military band that accompanies a changing of the guard. Crowds gathered to watch the ritual marching, calls, and presentation of flags and arms, and I could see cell phones capturing the historic ceremony. These guards protect the palace and its 11 floors of more than 600 rooms, and although the king no longer lives here on a daily basis, he uses the space regularly to host receptions, official meetings and visiting guests. 

Not far from the Royal Palace is the Nobel Prize Museum, a modern museum housed in the original stock exchange building from the 1770s. The museum exhibits items donated by Nobel Laureates who each describe the importance of their entry. We learned the great lengths that are gone to in creating unique and spectacular meals for the recipients’ celebrations. One dessert had been made with raspberry seeds that were ground into a flour for a delicate crust. Creativity is essential in cuisine and in attire. A black gown on display was donated by May-Britt Moser who had embroidered on it in silver the geolocation brain cells that had garnered her prize. And hanging over the entire museum is a conveyer belt of banners honoring the hundreds of past recipients since the prizes began in 1901. 

The museum opens onto a square that has a sad history. It was here that the term Blood Bath was coined in November of 1520. The Danish King Christian II had just defeated Stockholm and invited more than 80 aristocrats who had resisted him to dine at the palace with a promise of amnesty. Once they had arrived, however, he had them arrested and marched to Stortorget, the main plaza of Gamla Stan, where they were systematically beheaded. It is said to have taken two days to complete and that a downpour of rain toward its end caused the square to be a literal bath of blood. 

Now, the cobbled streets throughout Gamla Stan are much safer for visitors. Cars are mostly prohibited from driving here and shopkeepers are interested in keeping customers protected and happy. Lost on my first day in the winding streets, three different merchants offered me free WiFi and much-appreciated directions. In their shops we found hand-knit sweaters, glass ornaments, paintings, candies, and Viking souvenirs. My favorite, Dadeli, sold dried fruits and dates that had been stuffed with treats like ginger, nuts, coconut and traditional Swedish licorice. 


Tucked between shops were cafes where cardamom and cinnamon buns lured travelers in for a cup of coffee. Others stuffed crepes with Nutella, bananas and strawberries for afternoon snacking. And at mealtimes there is no lack of selection in Gamla Stan. Tables with candles and cloths spill into walkways in some places, and in others hand-lettered signs lure visitors into glowing cellars with promises of historic experiences in centuries-old locations. 

Our last night in Gamla Stan was spent at one such Viking dinner. We followed shadowed steps into a candle-lit cellar where a man in Iron Age attire seated us on benches covered with furs. My very tall husband was seated in a large wooden chair at the head of the table and given a helmet and sword after a lovely waitress in a gauze dress cheekily draped an animal skin around his shoulders. We were given pottery vessels of beer and ate game and seafood prepared in ways they would have been 1000 years ago. The décor and atmosphere were lively and festive, and a man played period music in one corner to entertain us. Walking back to our renovated old apartment we were grateful for modern amenities like indoor plumbing, comfortable bedding, refrigeration and antibiotics, but it was also fun to pretend – just for a little while – that we could hear sabers rattling in the night.  


Get There: www.icelandair.com

Old Town Lodging: www.airbnb.com

The Original Stockholm Ghost Walk and Historical Tour: www.viator.com

The Royal Palace: www.kungligaslotten.se/english

The Nobel Prize Museum: www.nobelprize.org/about/nobel-museum/

Viking Dinner at Aifur: www.aifur.se

Lesley Frederikson is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.