A couple weeks ago my crazy awesome friend Travis was on vacation from his job teaching English in France and came to visit in Sweden. We began our time together in Stockholm, where we were lucky enough to find a ridiculously cheap, brand new hostel called Hostels by Nordic, which seems to only be found on HostelBookers. Unfortunately (or fortunately for us) it seems we must have gotten some kind of promotional price since it had just opened, as we paid about $12 a night for a bed and now it seems to be running at almost $28 a night. Lucky us! That’s still a pretty good price for Stockholm, though, and it’s in a good location with brand new beds, a kitchen, and a good, sociable atmosphere. However, it’s a bit pricey to rent sheets and towels (although this is also something I don’t think you can avoid in Scandinavia) and there’s no free breakfast included.

I found Stockholm to be enjoyable, but I admit I often felt I would rather visit in summer. However, that tends to be a common expression here in Sweden: “But you should see it in the summer!” Well, snow does add some charm and of course one can always visit museums.

Oscar standing guard at the Royal Palace

Our first morning, Travis and I walked the length of Drottninggatan, the street our hostel was on as well as the busiest pedestrian shopping street, to Gamla Stan, or the Old City. The architecture is all really nice in the area, scattered with churches, medieval buildings, and many small cobbled streets and alleys. The area is also home to Stortorget, Stockholm’s oldest square, and the Royal Palace. We took our time exploring, ducking into a souvenir shop every once in a while to warm our feet (unfortunately the streets were covered in ice and snow that soaked through our shoes and kept our feet very cold and wet!)

After a while we met up with Oscar at the Royal Palace. He showed us the place where he used to guard when he was in the Swedish military. Coincidentally, the guards at the palace that day were from the same battalion that Oscar had been a part of. He even knew a couple of the soldiers from back when he was there!

Changing of the guard

We were freezing so we went to a nice rainbow-friendly cafe in Stortorget called Chokladkoppen for some coffee and (really delicious) hot chocolate and to warm ourselves up a bit. Once we were sufficiently de-numbed, we went back to the Royal Palace to see the changing of the guard. I was reminded of the day many years ago when we stood, also freezing, waiting to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Incredibly, I think we were actually closer there than we were at the Royal Palace in Stockholm — I never knew it would be such a tourist draw!

And like Buckingham Palace, the changing of the guard was very rigid and ceremonial, with lots of marching and manipulating guns and flags. Actually, though, it was a bit more exciting as they had a full band marching and playing some lively music while the guards changed.

The Vasa

Oscar reminisced on his days as the shouting guard, then we were all happy to get our feet moving again as we decided to make the long walk (actually not so long, but again we’re talking winter walking!) to the Vasa Museum.

My dad had been really insistent that we visit the museum, but none of us knew much about it except that it was about a boat. Well, actually, it is a fascinating museum! The Vasa was a 17th century Swedish warship that was supposed to be the best warship in the world, fitted with 64 guns. Unfortunately, the ship tipped and sank just minutes into its maiden voyage, with hundreds of spectators looking on.

After 333 years at the bottom of the sea, the Vasa was recovered. The story of the relocation and recovery of the ship is fascinating, and is worth having a museum on its own. The most amazing thing, though, is definitely the ship itself. Seeing the huge ship, standing right next to it, gives a sense of how big and phenomenal these old ships were. It reminded me so much of the pirate ships you see in the movies, except it was the real thing right there in front of me. And of course, the fact that this greatly intact ship was underwater for over 300 years is unbelievable. You would really never know.

Colorful pieces from the Vasa

Another thing I found really interesting is you get a glimpse both into what life was (or would have been) like on the ship. They also show you that the ship was actually painted very bright colors, which is I think a surprising fact to most of us. I always imagined all ships to be, again, like the pirate ships we see in movies: all natural wood colors. The Vasa was covered in intricate carvings, which were painted in yellows, reds, pinks, purples, whites, blues — the brightest of all colors. I can only imagine how magnificent it would be to see the ship in its original state.

The next day we decided we weren’t in the mood for another long day walking the city in the cold. Instead we opted to drive out to the Kaknästornet TV tower for some great views over Stockholm. Oscar and Travis each grabbed a semla, a traditional Swedish pastry available around Lent (pretty much from a little after Christmas until Easter). It’s a cardamum-spiced bun filled with almond paste, whipped cream, milk, sugar — basically it’s just another example of how Sweden is way too into sweets/candy/desserts for me (I say go chocolate or go home! haha). We snacked in the warm fully-windowed level of the tower before heading up to the outdoor part to take in the views without glare.

View of Stockholm

The views from the tower were definitely impressive. We were lucky and it was a sunny day. Down below us were tons of cross-country skiers, getting their weekend exercise. Out around us we could see great views of the city and archipelago of Stockholm.

Then we packed back into the car for the three and a half hour drive back to Jönköping. With Travis in tow we took it upon ourselves to do a bit more “touristy” things. Basically we took the time to walk all around the city, even going inside one of the churches (Jönköping is known as the church city in Sweden), which even Oscar hadn’t ever been inside. It was an interesting mix of modern and traditional. It had a bit of the grandness and formality of a traditional European cathedral, but at the same time it still had a bit of the smaller, homier feel I think of many churches here in the States having. And it had automatic doors entering into the church (which looked like regular, heavy wooden cathedral doors) which is something I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before!

We also — on our third attempt because of its funny hours — visited the match museum (Tändsticksmuseet), which is apparently the only match museum in the world (who would’ve thought?!). Surprisingly, it was actually quite interesting, and relatively large, and we spent over an hour there. One room featured all the old equipment — the museum is in the old match factory — while another showed the process of creating matches (these were safety matches, the kind that weren’t made with phosphorous and wouldn’t ignite unless struck on the box). The museum also had some creepy statues/models of factory workers in their homes, some pictures of actual old factory workers, a nice kids station with pictures to color and fake matchboxes to make (won’t lie, we spent a lot of time there), and an upstairs exhibit of various matchbox brands from around the world (really interesting!).

Travis had also never been to an IKEA before. Never, not anywhere! So we of course had to take him to one, especially in its homeland. We treated ourselves to lunch in the food court and then walked around the giant world that is IKEA, admiring furniture and posing in display rooms. It was a great time, and we were sad to see Travis go, but we had Oscar’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, and my departure coming up, so there was much to keep us busy.