The large island of Gamla Stan and the small islets of Riddarholmen, Helgeandsholmen and Strömsborg are the heart of Stockholm city. It was from this collection of islands that a city grew. This is a city that retains the charm of medieval Europe, preserved from destruction because of Sweden’s two centuries of peace and a strong commitment to defending the beauty of the city.
Cobblestone streets pave the streets and narrow alleys, hidden paths appear out of every corner. Circumnavigating the main island is simple but walking around the many streets is almost like navigating a labyrinthine maze.
Gamla Stan was first built in the 13th century and its oldest buildings were influenced by northern Germanic Brick Gothic architecture. The centre of Gamla Stan is Stortorget, the former merchant square.
Situated around the square is the Stockholm Stock Exchange Building, presently the home of the Nobel Museum as well as many former merchant houses that are today cafes and restaurants.
The centre of the square is a functional well that was built in 1856 (it was reconnected to the water conduit system in 1950).
Today, tourist (including Buddhist monks), families and lovers sit around the square enjoying the quiet of the day over a cup of coffee.
Unbeknownst to them, lying under their feet is a history of morbid skulduggery and chicanery. Hidden underneath the unevenly cut stones is a historical blood-trail of chilling proportions. It was in this square that the infamous Stockholm Bloodbath (where Swedish nobles were slaughtered by the Danish King Christian II) of 1520.
Next to the Square is the oldest church in town the Storkyrkan, the oldest church in Stockholm and the present Cathedral of the Lutheran Diocese of Stockholm.
Apart from its luxurious golden interior (in another post), the church is well known for the stature of St George and the Dragon, made on order of Sten Sture the Younger in a symbolic way of how he saved the maiden Stockholm from the dragon (Christian II of Denmark).
The church is also the royal church, with pews reserved for the royal family. It is also the site of royal weddings and christenings.
Gamla Stan is today still the political seat of power in Sweden. Adjacent to the Storkyrkan is the Kungliga Slottet, the official residence of the Swedish monarch and the royal family.
A changing of the guard takes place at around noon.
Also situated in the area is the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament on the islet of Helgeandsholmen.
It is here that parliament sits and the royal family opens the session of parliament.
While parliamentary business is run on Helgeandsholmen, the day to day running of goverment used to be run on another islet in Gamla Stan – Riddarholmen. Many former government buildings were located here (most have since expanded responsibilities and been relocated throughout Sweden), the old parliament house is also located here. Today Riddarholmen is more known for have a great view of Stockholm’s more modern islands,
and also the home of the Riddarskyrkan, the royal burial church.
The original Gamla Stan was defended by stone walls with towers and a citadel. Gamla Stan remained the frontiers of Stockholm until 1611, when the Swedish Era of Great Power saw Stockholm grow sixfold and the surrounding islands become populated. By then, the city walls were very much useless. This era of development coincided with the start of the Thirty Year War, which turned Sweden into a great political, economic and military power in the 18th century.
Gamla Stan is today a tourist must see. The picture of Stockholm that will probably greet you in videos and brochures of the place. It’s a beautiful backdrop for many creative endeavours.
And this small place has many stories waiting to be uncovered and told.
ON THE MAP