Stockholm seems to have it all - beautiful architecture, excellent museums and a setting amidst picturesque little islands that is simply a dream. Being relatively small in size, with a hip and mostly young population, creates a laid back atmosphere cushioned in its flourishing café culture. However, Stockholmers are stylishly 'laid back' -, as the design capital of Europe, Stockholm is highly fashion conscious. High end designer boutiques and hair stylists outnumber bakeries by a ratio of 10:1, (at least, it seems).
Stockholm is distributed across 14 islands dotted around the point where Lake Mälaren, Sweden's third largest lake, meets the Baltic Sea. This makes its topography a little confusing at first, but you will be surprised at how easy it is to get around and how quickly you will find your bearings. Being an island city of course means there is water everywhere and an incredible amount of boats of all shapes, ages and sizes, from small motor and sailing boats to gigantic cruise liners that tower dauntingly over the old city. Yet, one would almost not believe that Stockholm is actually facing the Baltic - it is exceedingly well protected from the tidings of the sea by the plethora of large and small islands that are scattered all around it - the Stockholm archipelago, which when viewed on a map, gives the impression of spilled popcorn. The exact number of these islands is constant moot point. Estimates run from 24 000 - 30 000, but nobody is quite sure. Some are mere rocks poking out above the water; others are fully fledged islands, with villages and all. Others used to be islands, once upon a time, but over the years have become peninsulas - for Sweden has a unique geological feature - unlike other landmasses, which are disappearing under the rising oceans, Sweden continues to lift itself out of the waters of the Baltic Sea - at a rate of about 1 cm per hundred years. This is due to the fact that the glaciers which covered Sweden during the last ice age have all melted away, relieving the land of an enormous weight pressure and allowing it to slowly rise, centimetre by centimetre.
The Stockholm archipelago is magical island world of its own, and no doubt, one of the most enchanting landscapes of Europe. Although not designated a national park, most of it is managed by the Archipelago Foundation, an organisation that has acquired the islands with the aim of maintaining their original character. Traditional farmsteads are once again maintaining the cultural landscape of these small farming communities with their unique 'old world' island charm. Furthermore, some islands are either entirely protected as nature reserves (especially for birds), or have a designated protected area within them. The foundation publishes an excellent guide to the archipelago, which is available in English and free of charge at the tourist offices.
With such a wealth of islands to discover, each with their own individual character, this area is a dream for sailors and boats people. However, it is not hard to discover the islands by yourself, even if you don't have your own yacht and just want to take a little look while visiting Stockholm.
There are numerous ferries to all parts of the archipelago, many of which leave right from downtown Stockholm. To figure out the timetables and routes requires a bit of study, especially as the similar sounding names of the islands can be rather confusing at first. If you are having problems don't hesitate to ask at the tourist office for advice on the best routes and all the 'how, when and where' questions you may have. Depending on how much time you have available you can go on day trips, archipelago lunch cruises or multiple day island hopping adventures.
For those who want to explore independently, the tourist office provides a 'boat hiker's guide' and travel pass with which you can hop on and off any ferry for five consecutive days.
Be warned though, that during the summer the islands can get quite busy - especially around Midsummer Night, which is Sweden's biggest holiday. Out of season ferries don't run as often, and during the coldest months some passages may freeze over, making crossings a little less predictable.
In the islands a range of small guesthouses, hotels, bed and breakfasts and vandrahems -hiker's hostels that not only welcome youth, but provide accommodation to any nature lover. However, it is best to check and book in advance - out of season many places may be closed, while during the height of summer they might be booked up. Check with the tourist office in Stockholm. They will be happy to help.
Some of the smaller islands can only be reached by your own muscle power - which in fact will tax you not just once, but three times, even though they are free of charge. At certain crossings you'll find a rowing boat with which you can get from one island to the next. However, in order to make sure that there is always a boat available for the next person that comes a long, you are required to bring the boat back so there is always a boat on both sides. Thus, once you arrived on the other side you must pick up the boat that is tied up there, fasten it to your vessel and row back with both boats. Then you leave one at your original starting point and row once more across. Now you you can tie up your boat there and go on your way. It seems a little complicated, but it is a very social system and apparently it works quite well.
Alternatively, you can rent a canoe in one of the bigger villages and explore on your own from there. However, it is a good idea not to stray too far and to have good maps or a GPS system with you, as all these little islands can make navigation very confusing. So companies also organize guided archipelago canoe tours, which can be great fun and not only ensure that you won't get lost, but you will also learn much about the local history, culture, flora and fauna as you visit the best spots.
But this is not the only great place for nature escapes that Stockholm has to offer. In fact the city itself offers numerous possibilities - including renting a canoe or bicycle to explore the town. However, traffic can be a bit mad and if you actually want to see things, the bicyle may not be the ideal form of transport. Much better to get around on foot and by public transport, which consists of natural gas powered buses, subways, trams and ferries, and is very well organised and coordinated indeed. Depending on the length of your stay, it is worth getting a travel pass, which can be purchased for 1, 3, 7 or 30 days at a time and allows you unrestricted travel, not just within the city but actually quite a long way into the surrounding countryside as well. To plan your routes check Stockholm Transport Website
Stockholm has a wealth of recreational areas - there are numerous parks and green areas. But most significantly, Sweden is the first and only country that has actually given national park status to quite a large green area right within the city. The 'National City Park', officially known as Ekoparken, was established in 1995, as a protected city oasis for Stockholm residents and tourists alike. Despite the fact that it is not exactly 'wild' and also probably one of the most frequented National Parks in Europe, it is actually home to some rare species of plants and insects, some of which are only found here. The park comprises Djugarden Island, which also hosts many of Stockholm's excellent museums, Norra Djurgarden, a park-like area to the north of Djurgarden, Lill-Jansskogen, Stora Skuggen, Haga parken and Brunnsviken, Ulriksdal, Sörentorp and Fjäderholmarna. What makes this park especially interesting is its unique mix of nature and culture. Many interesting historical buildings, castles and other historic sites are dotted about the area, which invite exploration. The wildest area of the park, which also boasts the highest level of biodiversity, is Lill-Janskogen and Stora Skuggan.
For those who want to experience a bit more 'hearty' wilderness and want to get a feel for the original old growth forests of Scandinavia, a visit to Tyresta National Park is highly recommended. Still within easy reach of the city, the park is situated a mere 20km south of the city center and can easily be reached within an hour by public transport (with your travel card). Here you'll also find the National Park Center, an information centre, education and exhibition space for all of Sweden's National Parks. The park covers an area of 5000 ha, offering a great insight into different types of ecosystems typical of central Sweden, from old growth forest with 400 year old pines, to moorland and valley fissures, lonely lakes and great moss covered boulders that lie scattered in among the trees and make the forest seem like a fairy dreamscape where one expects hobbits and gnomes to crawl out from the mossy hollows.
Sadly, some ten years ago a large area right in the center of the park burnt down in a devastating forest fire. Today the skeletal remains of trees bear solemn witness to the disaster, as scorched naked trunks poke into the sky, like broken toothpicks. It is a sobering experience to wander through this area and realize the destructive power of fire - one that ignorant morons throughout the world all too often foolishly abuse without a second thought to the devastation they will cause. Here, in Tyresta National Park, ten years on life is beginning to return, but the scars are clearly visible and will probably remain so for a long time to come.
Hikers are spoiled for choice with the number of well marked paths that meander throughout the national park. A free map is available at the information center for orientation purposes.
Sweden also has a number of long distance hiking trails, some of which can be accessed in the Stockholm area. One of the longest long distance paths Sörmlandsleden, which runs for more than 1000km through the county of Sörmland, even passes right through Tyresta Park.
There are several other long distance paths that start near Stockholm, as well as several nature reserves, most of which can be accessed quite easily by public transport. However, information in English about them is not that easy to find. A good starting point is Stockholm's homepage
The county administrative board also publishes a little booklet with details of 10 hikes around the Stockholm area, but most of these are relatively short. The guide is hard to find in paper format, but it can be downloaded as a pdf: Walks and Excursions around Stockholm
For more ideas for outings and things to do in Stockholm and its beautiful surroundings, check out - Stockholm City's excellent and very informative website.
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