The Swedish capital’s character has been shaped by water over the centuries — and life on this scattering of islands continues to be dominated by it.
The history of Stockholm is one of ebbs and flows, freezes and thaws, sunken ships and shifting locks. History, though, isn’t exactly at the forefront of my mind 20 minutes into a morning kayak tour, when I’m frantically paddling against the frothy, destabilising wake dispatched by a passing city ferry.
“Always look both ways before crossing the lake!” shouts our guide, Leon, as we breathlessly reach one edge of the freshwater expanse and pivot our kayaks to face the skyline. It’s an epic scene: the gilded crowns topping City Hall; the mint-hued spire of the German Church; the imposing brick structure of former brewery Münchenbryggeriet. All of it, in every direction, underlined by blue.
People talk about Venice and Amsterdam as being defined by their canals, but the DNA of Stockholm is every bit as watery. A patchwork of islands set on the edge of 75-mile-long freshwater Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea, its landscape was shaped by the last Ice Age, when glaciers compressed soils to below water levels. Over time, the terrain began to re-emerge from the depths, forming the 14 islands that now make up the city.
Leon, a guide for local tour operator Stockholm Adventures, leads paddling tours between some of them. Over two hours, we cruise the leafy, sun-dappled channel between Långholmen and Södermalm, past rows of polished wooden pleasure crafts, and skirt along the swan-dotted waterways between Kungsholmen and Norrmalm.
Back on dry land, my city guide Gunilla Kühner shows me around Stockholm’s historic centre, Gamla Stan, which dates back to the Middle Ages. Around us, colourful buildings vie for space along cobblestone alleyways. Here, in the 14th century, merchants would trade local iron and copper with Hanseatic League cities every summer, wrapping up business before the harbour froze over and ships were unable to sail in and out of the city.
“The Vikings were here much earlier,” says Gunilla, pointing out an old runestone carved by the famous Nordic seafarers and repurposed by 16th-century builders into part of a wall. She explains that the local Viking settlement Birka, on the island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren, was occupied for around 200 years until the late 10th century — and its archaeological remains are now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over time, the Vikings travelled further afield in shallow boats that allowed them to navigate far-reaching waterways with ease, eventually abandoning the settlement. “Water was a connector for the Vikings, not a divider,” Gunilla continues, ushering me from the warren of streets to an outdoor harbourside table for a coffee break. “At the time, it was easier to hop in a boat and paddle than to trek with supplies over land. Unlike today.”
Not that it was all plain sailing, of course. Ancient mariners faced plenty of perils crossing the waters around here, and both the Baltic Sea and Stockholm’s harbour are littered with shipwrecks. They provide fascinating exploration for experienced divers prepared to brave the cold, murky depths. Looking out over ferries, shipping liners and houseboats, with a cinnamon bun in hand, I contemplate what undiscovered gems might be lingering beneath the surface.
The cold, oxygen-starved, brackish harbour water prevents wood-eating critters from flourishing, meaning sunken ships can be left exceptionally well preserved for centuries. The most famous find here was the Vasa, a spectacular Swedish warship that sunk on its maiden voyage in 1628. Its remarkably intact remains now stand in a dedicated museum on the city’s Djurgården island. But there are other treasures still in the water’s depths.
“We don’t actually have any wrecks here,” says Mikael Dunker, communications manager at the Vrak Museum of Wrecks, a five-minute walk from the Vasa Museum. “We’re trying to bring to life what’s still below the surface.” This compact, digital-led space offers valuable insight into the city’s seafloor. I pass through a room highlighting renderings of the recently located remains of the Åpplet — the Vasa’s long-lost sister ship — and examine a timeline of major sinkings in the Baltics up to the present day. As I read the haunting details of the 1994 MS Estonia disaster, in which 852 people perished when their ferry sank en route from Tallinn, Estonia to Stockholm, I pause. Despite what we may sometimes like to think, we still hold little dominion over the sea.
An evolving city
Stockholm hums with summer-evening energy. Making the most of the warmth, I spend an hour walking west along the waterfront, passing the columned Nationalmuseum, along manicured Kungsträdgården, over to City Hall. At the water’s edge, there are historic barges converted into floating hostels for travellers and sightseeing boats pushing off from the docks for sunset tours. Eventually, I hit a lakeside park, where runners trot along and trees cast shadows across pathways.
It’s dinner time, so I head to popular waterside bar Mälarpaviljongen nearby. I pass through its bloom-fragranced gardens to a floating glass-encased drinking area, filled with off-duty Swedes loosening their proverbial ties over frosty beers. With the lake waters as a backdrop, I settle in with a räksmörgås (an open-faced sandwich topped with hardboiled egg, mayo, lettuce and a heap of tiny prawns).
My walk has shown Stockholm’s waterfront is a landscape in flux. In any city, change is part of the equation — but it’s particularly true for those built on water. Even now, Stockholm’s topography is still bouncing back from the Ice Age’s glacial compression, making adaptation a constant feature of life here. Its islands are rising out of the water at a rate of up to nine millimetres a year — so around once a century, the city locks, which manage the flow of water from the lake into the harbour, are updated to keep pace. The current project at Slussen, the lock area connecting Gamla Stan with fashionable, restaurant-filled Södermalm island, is due to be completed in 2025.
The next day, surrounded by soaring cranes and construction workers in Slussen, I pour over the plan on public display in a small pop-up exhibition space. Gunilla had explained the details to me the day before.“When the locks were last done in the 1930s, it was to make everything easy for cars,” she had said, using a map to point out roundabouts and bus parking lots occupying prime waterside real estate. “But this time, we’re designing the area for people.” When the locks around Slussen are eventually finished, roads will be rerouted from the city centre and the waterfront will be open for large, pedestrianised walkways and plazas. The district will also host a glittering new Nobel Prize Museum, relocated from its current spot on Gamla Stan. In many ways, Stockholm will be transformed.
As the Swedish capital grows, there’s also another new consideration: commuters. With property prices high, many locals are relocating to further-flung islands, either within the lake or within the wider Stockholm archipelago, a cluster of 30,000 islands stretching from east of the city centre into the Baltic Sea. More people moving between the city and its islands each day means an increased demand for water-based transport.
“I love that I can just sit back and get work done on the way,” commuter Ulrika Lööf tells me as we board the number 89 ferry outside the City Hall that afternoon. She’s making her way to her home island of Ekerö, about an hour’s boat ride away, which she moved to almost 30 years ago. For a long time, before the ferry service was launched, she had to travel by car, bus and metro to work in downtown Stockholm.
There’s no question that this is the better way to go. Sitting on the top deck, enjoying the panoramic views, with sunshine on our faces, we watch the city centre slip away and the full expanse of Stockholm unveil itself. I spot Mälarpaviljongen on one shore; on another, I catch sight of a beach flanking the green swathes of Långholmen island.
Stockholm’s first ferries were boats rowed by roddarmadam (literally ‘rower madam’) — pairs of local women who ran a kind of water taxi system from the 15th century until the early 20th century. And while commuting has evolved since then, it’s still developing. Ulrika’s 55-minute journey is set to drop to just 25 minutes when a new electric boat comes into service. As I step off at the city outskirts and bid her goodbye, Ulrika has one last insight for me. “One other benefit of the ferry is that it’s always on time,” she says. “No traffic!”
Despite their intensely rural nature, the islands of the Stockholm archipelago are considered an extension of the city, especially in summer months. And there are endless options to choose from. Just 20 minutes’ boat ride from the city, Fjäderholmarna brims with artists’ studios. On small, privately owned Idöborg, an hour from the city, you can sample yoga and sauna. And on Utö, a particularly large and enchanting sweep of forest and beach dotted with red clapboard cottages, you could lose a whole week to the wilderness. I spend one afternoon here touring the rejuvenated wetlands, hiking through untouched forest, eating in a grand inn and lazing on beaches fringed by granite boulders. The crush of Gamla Stan, just a couple of hours away, feels incomprehensible in this untouched space.
Utö is charming, but it isn’t necessary to go to the ends of the archipelago to find a serene island. On my final evening, I take the ferry to Skeppsholmen, a tiny isle in the city centre. It’s green and sleepy apart from a few buildings, including a former military barracks that’s now a heritage hotel. As I walk the quiet, leaf-lined circular path, the view across the harbour reveals a highlights reel of Stockholm across the ages: the timeless splendour of Gamla Stan stands alongside bobbing fishing boats, a castle fort and the rollercoasters of Gröna Lund, Stockholm’s 19th-century amusement grounds. There are couples dining al fresco at a waterside restaurant and families sprawling on the grass. And, sewing it all together, ever a constant, is that glittering expanse of blue.
Swedes love caffeine and are famous for their fika (social coffee breaks). Decaf coffee and herbal teas can be hard to come by in some cafes, so consider packing your own if you have a strong preference.
In winter, some waterways take on a whole new character as they become natural skating rinks. If you’re interested in getting involved, check with the locals where it’s safe to go. Stockholm Adventures rents out ice skating equipment and also runs guided tours.
Ferry schedules can vary depending on the time of year, with the most frequent services typically in the peak summer period of July and early August. Check routes with your hotel to ensure you can get where you want, when you want.
Like elsewhere in Scandinavia, salted liquorice is a local obsession. Visit Lakritsroten to stock up on edible souvenirs; its salted liquorice and raspberry ice cream is unmissable.
Source : Nationalgeographic