Stockholm's old island core is full of charm. It could almost be a film set, complete with old lanterns along cobblestoned streets and painted ceilings in old buildings. While you could just wander at will and take it all in, it's better to have a plan to see the most in a limited time.
Birger Jarl had a fortress built on an island later known as Gamla Stan. Now Stockholm's Old Town, Gamla Stan is the beautifully preserved historical heart of the city that's easily explored on foot. The Royal Palace and the Swedish Parliament dominate the northern part of this historic district.
Before starting out, visit the Medeltidsmuseet, the Museum of Medieval Stockholm, over near the Swedish Parliament Building, which gives you a good look at what life was like in medieval Stockholm. Then cross over the bridge and walk a couple of blocks to the Statue of King Gustav III by the Royal Palace.
The Royal Palace encompasses a complex of sights. Before starting out, drop by the information booth in the semicircular courtyard for an explanatory brochure with a map.
The stately palace exterior encloses 608 rooms of glittering Baroque and Rococo decor. Steeped in royal history, it's richly decorated with furnishings and accessories from the 18th century and. Take the guided tour to learn about Swedish royalty. Within the Royal Treasury, you'll find crowns, scepters, jeweled robes, and plenty of glittering gold.
In the 1700s, Gustav III traveled through Italy and brought home an impressive gallery of classical Roman statues, now housed with other objects in Gustav III's Museum of Antiquities. Unfortunately, explanations are only in Swedish.
Livrust Kammaren, the Royal Armory, the oldest museum in Sweden, has the most interesting and best displayed collection of medieval royal armor anywhere in Europe. The incredible, original 17th-century gear includes royal baby wear, outfits kings wore in battle, and five centuries of royal Swedish armor — all described in English. An added bonus is a basement lined with royal coaches, including coronation coaches, all beautifully preserved and richly decorated.
Walk up the broad cobbled boulevard. Behind the obelisk stands the orange Storkyrkan, Stockholm's cathedral. The surrounding area is home to a number of Stockholm's higher end hotels. Just before the cathedral stands the gate to the churchyard, guarded by statues of Caution and Hope. Enter the cathedral to see centuries-old tombstones of more than 2,000 people buried the floor. Vaulted arches soar high above brick columns while a rose window above a black and gold altar sheds shaft of rainbow colored light onto worshipers. Outside, under the window, a statue of Biger Jarl looks out over the street. At the front on the left is an impressive sculpture of Saint George and the Dragon created in 1489 of oak, gilded metal, and elk horn. And near the exit you'll see a painting from 1535 with the oldest existing depiction of Stockholm — the historic area of Gamla Stan.
As you exit the Cathedral, turn left down Trangsund until you reach Stortorget, the city's oldest square. Though the town well is now dry, it's still a popular meeting place for locals who like to sit on the long benches on the cobbled pavement. The square was the site of Stockholm's blood-bath of 1520 in which most of the town's aristocracy lost their heads. Legends say rivers of blood ran through the streets. Later, this became the location of the town's pillory. As you turn left into the square, the neoclassic Stockholm Stock Exchange is on your left.
Exit the square at the far end and head down Svartmangantan to the Tyska Krykan, the German Church, with its Baroque interior and gilded altar and brick and weathered copper spire, a reminder of the days when German merchants worked here. After visiting the church, head back to the intersection and turn right on Kindetugatan, following a short distance to Sjalagardsatan, then turn left onto Kopmangatan, , browsing the antique shops, some of which still have their medieval painted ceilings. along your way back to Stortorget.
When you reach the square, turn left up Kallargrand past the Nobel Library to Slottsbacken, along which you'll find the Finska Krykan, the Finnish Church.
Crossing the square, stroll downhill for two blocks to Stora Nvgatan, Ganda Stan's main commercial thoroughfare. Take time out to grab a bite to eat. Taking a break for coffee and a biscuit is a Swedish tradition, commonly called fika in Swedish. Traditional Swedish filter coffee is relatively strong when compared to American, but it will certainly give you a lift to help you continue your exploration before returning to one of Stockholm's hotels.