Gamla Stan is the oldest part and original city center of Stockholm. In fact, the district of Gamla Stan, which means Old Town, constituted the entire city of Stockholm in the mid-13th century. The land has risen since then, making the island much bigger than it was. In the 14th century, a wall was erected surrounding the two streets Österlånggatan and Västerlånggatan with the sea directly on the other side. You can see how much the island has grown since then when walking outside of these streets.
What we today refer to as Gamla Stan is usually only the main island called Stadsholmen, Helgeandsholmen where the Parliament building is, together with the tiny island of Strömsborg. Riddarholmen, however, which is attached to Stadsholmen to the west, is its own district.
Sightseeing in Gamla Stan
Gamla Stan is the biggest tourist trap in the city but you shouldn’t come here primarily for the shops and restaurants. If you instead just walk around and look at it as a big museum, it will be the most memorable time of your visit in the nation’s capital. The islands aren’t big but you can easily spend an entire day here without getting bored. The first thing you will encounter if you walk across the bridge from the city center is the Royal Palace. There are several bridges you can cross from the city center to get here and, if you’re coming from Drottninggatan or Gustav Adolfs Torg, you will automatically walk past the Riksdag, or Parliament Building, on Helgeandsholmen.
Storkyrkan, the cathedral, is next to the palace and is worth a visit. This is the oldest church in Stockholm and inside is the oldest wooden statue in northern Europe. The statue is called St. Göran and the Dragon, carved in 1489 to commemorate the Battle of Brunkeberg in 1471 when the Swedish leader Sten Sture and his troops defeated the Danish troops and gained control over the capital. Continue down towards Stortorget, the main square, where the Stockholm Bloodbath took place in 1520 (read more about this under History, page 167). The Stock Exchange building is here in an impressive building from 1776 that also contains the Nobel Library.
Take one of the streets leading to the southern end of Stadsholmen, for example Prästgatan, running parallel to the shopping street Västerlånggatan. Look for Mårten Trotzigs Gränd on your right side, the narrowest street in the city, only 90 cm (three feet) wide in some places. The alley will take you to Järntorget (the iron square), which got its name in the Middle Ages when trading iron was one of the biggest businesses in the city.
The Royal Palace
The Palace became the home for royal families for two centuries, starting with King Adolf Fredrik in the mid-18th century. Even today it is called “the official residence of His Majesty the King,” though, technically, the present king, Carl XVI Gustaf, lives in Drottningholm Castle just outside the city. The unique thing about the Royal Palace is that it’s open to the public. Visitors are not allowed inside the entire building but there are many interesting rooms, such as the Treasury and the Royal Armory, that can be visited. And don’t miss the Museum Tre Kronor, which gives you a fascinating insight into the palace in the Middle Ages.
It is no coincidence that the Royal Palace is here. The location was the natural choice to build a fortress over 700 years ago as it was the best place on Stadsholmen to survey the surrounding area. The fortress eventually turned into the palace called Tre Kronor, where Gustav Vasa and many other kings lived before it was burned to the ground in 1697. After the disastrous fire, a new palace had to be built and the respected architect Tessin was the man asked by Hedvig Eleonora to create the plans. Hedvig Eleonora was the widow of Karl X Gustav, the mother of Karl XI and grandmother of Karl XII. It was for the latter, who became king of Sweden at age 15 only months before Tre Kronor was destroyed, that the palace was built. But the young king had other plans and left Sweden a few years later to conquer the world, never returning to his native city. Lack of money, mainly due to the many wars, delayed the construction of the palace, which wasn’t completed until 1754.
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