The Unique Natural and Architectural Landscape of Stockholm’s Medieval Gamla Stan

As the capital of Sweden, Stockholm is the biggest city in the Nordic countries (having usurped Copenhagen of that title in recent years). Despite its self-proclamation as the ‘Capital of Scandinavia’, Stockholm still remains a small 'big city’ by global standards, with a population of just under a million people, and approximately two and half million people in the greater metro area. The city has long been highly acclaimed for its abundance of water and green spaces, and no guidebook fails to mention the charms of its medieval Gamla Stan (‘Old Town’ in English.) However, Gamla Stan’s unique natural geography and its fascinating and beautiful integration across centuries of urban development usually only receives passing mention.

A city of islands

Gamla Stan comprises the central islands in a city predominately comprised of islands (Stockholm essentially means ‘Timber Isle’ in English, which sounds suitably piratical for a former Viking nation). The city itself stretches across fourteen islands as well as the Swedish mainland. However, there are many, many more islands surrounding Stockholm. In fact, there are 24,000 islands in the forty mile stretch of the Stockholm Archipelago, while the freshwater Lake Mälaren to the west hosts over 1,200 islands of its own.

Stockholm is located at the confluence of the freshwater of Lake Mälaren and the saltwater of the Baltic and is surrounded by islands.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Google Earth, ©2021 Image Landsat / Copernicus, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, GEBCO, TerraMetrics

Most of Gamla Stan lies on the island of Stadsholmen (‘The City Isle’) – and includes three smaller islands, located so close by that they are not always immediately obvious as separate islands of their own. This part of the city dates back to the 1200s and correspondingly features cobblestone streets and medieval spires, all very well preserved. Additional building has, of course, taken place since then, and the multiple centuries of architectural and infrastructural development are layered on top of one another in splendid fashion.

The locations corresponding to the map below highlight some of Gamla Stan’s most special spots to observe and admire this layering of its historic architecture, modern infrastructure, and, though heavily manipulated, nonetheless spectacular, natural setting.

A map of Gamla Stan corresponding to the locations described below.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Google Earth, ©2021 CNES / Airbus, Landsat / Copernicus, Lantmäteriet/Metria, Maxar Technologies. Alphabetical labelling added by Rowdy Geirsson.

A: Evert Taubes Terrass

This terrace, named after Evert Taube – Sweden’s most famous minstrel in the early 20th century – is located at the western edge of Gamla Stan on Riddarholmen (‘The Knight’s Isle’). It is a predominately hardscaped, open plaza and faces Riddarfjärden, a bay of Lake Mälaren. The terrace provides excellent views of Stockholm’s iconic city hall across the water, which is where the Nobel Banquet is held every December 10th for the winners of the prestigious Nobel Prizes. Other significant structures can be found here too, including the 17th century building housing Sweden’s Supreme Court and Riddarholmskyrkan, the medieval church where most Swedish monarchs from the past four hundred years have been buried.

Stockholm’s City Hall viewed from Evert Taubes Terrass at dusk
PHOTOGRAPH BY Rowdy Geirsson

To the southwest, the cliffs of Södermalm (‘Southern Ore’) – can be seen. This is the area which Stieg Larsson’s protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, inhabited in The Millennium Trilogy (the crime novels that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and it now hosts a walking tour based on the popular books. In the distance lies the bridge, Västerbron (‘Western Bridge’), and the leafy island of Långholmen (‘The Long Isle’).

B: Kornhamnstorg and Munkbroleden

Kornhamnstorg (‘The Grain Harbour Square’) lies on the southern edge of Gamla Stan facing Slussen (‘The Sluice’); a spaghetti knot of criss-crossing transportation links and water-control machinery which is presently undergoing a major upgrade. It is a triangular plaza with views of Munkbroleden (‘The Monk Bridge Way’), as well as modern automobile and rail bridges. Nearby is the Gamla Stan Tunnelbana subway station, which, as a rather drab 20th century structure, is not much to look at itself, but the trains are clean and colourful, and it is delightful to see them whizzing over the water with the cliffs and spires of Södermalm in the background.

Kornhamnstorg is filled with shopping and dining establishments at its northern edges, and walking in that direction leads into the cobble-stoned spiderweb which characterizes most of Gamla Stan.

View from Munkbroleden across Mälaren’s fresh water with the cliffs and historic buildings of Södermalm in the background and one of Stockholm’s modern Tunnelbana trains in the foreground.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Rowdy Geirsson

C: Brända Tomten

Located in the heart of Gamla Stan is Brända Tomten (‘The Burnt Lot’). It exists on the site of a corner house which burned down in 1728 and was never rebuilt. This small, triangular urban square is paved with cobblestones, surrounded on all sides by historic architecture, and features a horse chestnut tree growing in its midst. It is a uniquely tranquil spot, blending Gamla Stan’s medieval, urban character with the natural softness provided by a mature tree; a combination that is rare to find in historic city centres. One block away from here is Gamla Stan’s main square, which is home to The Nobel Prize Museum.

Brända Tomten after dark
PHOTOGRAPH BY Rowdy Geirsson

D: Riksplan

The northernmost island of Gamla Stan is Helgeandsholmen (‘The Holy Spirit’s Isle’), where a public park called Riksplan (‘The Realm’s Field’) can be found. The park lies between the Riksdag (Sweden’s parliament) and Norrbro (‘North Bridge’) and on the same street as Stockholm’s Medeltidsmuseet (The Medieval Museum). Riksplan is a flat space, mostly dominated by lawn and pedestrian pathways, and offers excellent views of Kungliga Slottet (‘The Royal Palace’), which was built after the previous palace burned down in 1697. With 1,430 rooms, the palace is one of the largest in Europe and the Changing of the Guard is performed on its premises every day of the year.

Across the water on nearby Norrmalm is Kungsträdsgården (‘The King’s Garden’), a green oasis surrounded by buildings of both historical and modern architectural styles, including the Neo-Renaissance Royal Opera House and Nordiska Kompaniet’s Art Nouveau department store. This area is also home to many outdoor cafes, open air concerts in the summer, and an ice rink in the winter.

The Riksplan’s manicured lawn, pleached trees, and ornamental flowerpots in front of the Riksdag; the Medieval Museum is located directly below the location where this photo was taken and Stockholm’s Ström, the westernmost inlet of the Baltic, lies behind the view of the camera.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Rowdy Geirsson

E: Skeppsbrokajen/Strömsbron

The long stretch of the eastern edge of Gamla Stan is dominated by Skeppsbrokajen (‘The Ship’s Bridge Quay’); a bike and pedestrian-friendly street running alongside the docks for pleasure boats and ferries.

This area boasts excellent views in the direction of the Baltic towards leafy Skeppsholmen (‘The Ship’s Isle’) as well as the former royal hunting grounds of Djurgården (‘The Animal Yard’). It also features some of Sweden’s most renowned museums, such as Vasamuseet (dedicated to the sunken 17th century warship, The Vasa), Moderna Museet (Sweden’s foremost museum of modern art), Nordiska Museet (covering Nordic history and culture), and Skansen (the world’s oldest open-air museum), as well as Gröna Lund, the country’s oldest amusement park. But the islands are also a pleasure to walk around in their own right.

View from Strömsbron on the Baltic side of Gamla Stan facing Skeppsholmen with the cliffs of Södermalm in the distance
PHOTOGRAPH BY Rowdy Geirsson

Much more to see

Stockholm – with Gamla Stan at its heart – lies at a truly unique, geographic location where fresh lake water meets salty sea water, where rocky, forested islands extend for as far as the eye can see, and where natural beauty blends with historic architecture and modern transportation networks. There is much more to Stockholm than can be covered in this article, especially when one ventures into the surrounding islands and neighbourhoods, but this is hopefully a good starting point.

The Swedish musician, Lasse Berghagen, perhaps said it best in his 1992 pop hit Stockholm i mitt hjärta (‘Stockholm in My Heart’), which has become the theme song of Allsång på Skansen (an open-air group-oriented sing-along festival held at Skansen each summer), with its emphasis on the city’s unique traits:

“Stockholm I mitt hjärta, / Stockholm in my heart,

Låt mig besjunga dig nu, / Let me sing of you now,

Åldrad I ungdomlig grönska, / Aged in youthful green,

Öarnas stad, det är du! / City of islands, that is you!

Av städer jag känner i världen / Of cities I know in the world

Är du den stad som fått allt. / You are the city that has it all.

Genom Mälarens kärlek till havet / Through Mälaren’s love of the sea En blandning av sött och salt. / A blending of sweet and salt.”

Gamla Stan viewed from Södermalm with Norrmalm in the distance
PHOTOGRAPH BY Rowdy Geirsson

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Rowdy Geirsson

Rowdy Geirsson attempts to promote Leif Eriksson awareness but generally fails, and barely maintains Scandinavian Aggression, a mediocre blog about Vikings past and present. He is the editor of Norse Mythology for Bostonians, a humorous retelling of the trials and tribulations of Odin, Thor, and the other Norse gods as conveyed in the charmingly quaint dialect of a foul-mouthed Bostonian, and is a regular contributor of humor articles to McSweeney’s, Metal Sucks, Points in Case, and Slackjaw. He lived in Norrköping as a guest researcher of the local university in 2015. Follow him on Twitter @RGeirsson, or don’t.