Towering above them is the imposing Royal Palace, the official residence of the Swedish monarch (though the royal family’s private residence is the separate Drottningholm Palace).
Fit for a king
After the changing of the guard, I wander through the Royal Apartments where visitors can check out the staterooms used for official functions — including the ballroom where an annual Nobel Peace Prize dinner is held. While the glitz of some of the rooms, including one with four chandeliers dangling down, is impressive, others appear dank and dark thanks to heavy drapes adorning the windows.
Back in the fresh air outside the palace, the cobbled streets of Gamla Stan, the historic central island of Stockholm, are mainly free from cars, leaving plenty of room for visitors to navigate the narrow alleyways.
The small island is steeped in history. The large central square Stortorget was the site of the gruesome Stockholm Bloodbath that sparked Sweden’s rebellion against Danish forces in 1520. Nowadays it’s used for the annual Christmas market and is home to the city’s stock exchange.
While a visit to Stockholm will no doubt focus on Gamla Stan and its historic sites, the city is made up of a collection of islands which are worth exploring at leisure. The funky island of Sodermalm, south of Gamla Stan, is home to many of the city’s art galleries, quirky shops and cosy bars.
I stroll along the two main strips, Hornsgaten and Gotgaten, taking me past a treasure trove of quirky shops and trendy restaurants, including the newly opened Bauer which turns into a nightclub as the evening wears on.
There’s a section south of the main road Folkungagatan that’s recently been nicknamed SoFo (adapted from SoHo). Once home to factories and warehouses, it’s now full of record stores complete with their own in-house DJs, and vintage emporiums.
North of Gamla Stan you’ll find yourself bang in the middle of the shopping district in Norrmalm. There’s a long strip on the main street Drottningatan where you can pick up tourist tat such as Swedish memorabilia and Viking hats, but the northern end of the street is well worth a look around for smaller boutique stores.
I wrap up the day by heading to the neighbourhoods of Stureplan and Ostermalm, both packed with nightclubs and bars.
It’s here I come across yet more strapping Stockholmers, though thankfully this time without the bellowing and bayonets.
Staying Abba style
Up there alongside Ikea as Sweden’s most famous export is ’70s band ABBA.
Since the band split in 1983, band member Benny Andersson has diverged his interests and bought and developed a boutique hotel in the trendy neighbourhood of Sodermalm, only a short stroll from the Old Town of Gamla Stan.
Opposite a square park, the Hotel Rival is decorated with Swedish movie paraphernalia, and includes a Hollywood-style bar in the lobby, with red velvet decor and a cinema that has been restored from its 1930s glory.
The interior design is brightly coloured with kitsch bold carpet patterns, while the bistro is filled with images of actors.
Not only a hotel, the Rival has a bar that is frequented by many of the suited Swedes who flock there after work for a few cocktails, while a café attached to the hotel draws in the coffee set for lattes and cake.
» Hotel Rival, Mariatorget, Stockholm. Rooms start from £161.