Stockholm’s Rooftop Tour
The best way to get a sense of the Swedish capital’s island landscape isn’t from the sea. It’s from the air – 43m in the air, to be exact.
A view from above
Stockholm is a city of water. Founded by seafaring tradesmen, the centre of the Swedish capital stretches across 14 islands on the Baltic Sea and Lake Mälaren. But the best way to get a sense of the city’s sweep isn’t from the sea. It’s from the air – 43m in the air, to be exact.
In the heart of Stockholm’s old town – an area that officially includes four islands: Riddarholmen, Helgeandsholmen, Strömsborg and Stadsholmen – visitors can clamber across the top of Riddarholmen’s Old Parliament building, taking in eight of Stockholm’s islands with 360-degree views. It’s a beautiful sight that’s not for the faint of heart… or those afraid of heights.
A centuries-old skyline
Dating back to the 13th Century, the neighbourhood surrounding the Old Parliament building still maintains its medieval feel, although numerous fires over the years mean that most of the current buildings were built in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. The view from above reveals a jumble of copper and shingled roofs, chimneys and church spires that can’t easily be seen – or appreciated – from the narrow alleyways and cobblestoned squares of street level.
Before our 10-person group left the Old Parliament’s attic, we were suited up in harnesses and helmets. On the roof, we walked on a narrow catwalk that runs around the length of the building. Our guide, Veerle Schrovens, warned us to speak up if we had shaky legs or felt nervous. “Sometimes, you don’t know you’re afraid of heights until you’re up here,” she said.
Clipped to a catwalk
Luckily, even the most anxious among us had to admit: risk seemed minimal. Each of us had a wire that connected our harness to a cable that stretched alongside the catwalk. That meant that we were always securely attached – even if we slipped or stumbled.
Taking it all in
As we became more comfortable with the sensation of climbing 43m in the air, we relaxed enough to take in the views. This image captures the rooftops of Stadsholmen (known colloquially as Gamla Stan), located just across a narrow canal from Riddarholmen, followed by the distant hilltop of Södermalm, a large island of bohemian cafés, trendy boutiques and increasingly expensive apartments just to the south.
Clambering on Parliament
The first residents of Riddarholmen were Franciscan monks of the 13th-century Grey Friar’s monastery. In 1527, the monastery was dissolved with Sweden’s Reformation, but remnants of it still can be seen in the basement of the Old Parliament building, constructed around 1670. The building housed Sweden’s first bicameral Parliament from 1866 until 1905, when Parliament moved to the island of Helgeandsholmen. Today, the structure is home to Stockholm’s Administrative Court (and, of course, the occasional rooftop-bound Upplev Mer group).
Cast iron and copper
Looking northeast, we had a beautiful view of the cast-iron bell tower of Riddarholmskyrkan, a church built on the site of the Grey Friar’s monastery and then rebuilt after a fire in 1835. The church is best known for holding the tombs of every Swedish sovereign from Gustav II Adolf, who died in 1632, until today, with only two exceptions.
The statues to the left and behind the tower, though, aren’t on top of Riddarholmskyrkan; they grace the copper-covered roof of Riddarhuset, or the “House of Nobility”, built from 1641 to 1647, which provided a place for Sweden’s nobles to meet. The sculptures include Minerva, goddess of art and science, holding a spear in the bottom centre.
The main cathedral
Thanks to legislation limiting the height of buildings in the old town to no more than four storeys, we had an unimpeded view of Storkyrkan, Stockholm’s main cathedral, located on the island of Stadsholmen. The first church here was likely built by Stockholm’s founder, Birger Jarl, in the 13th Century, although the cathedral was rebuilt in 1306 and renovated numerous times over the years. Its tower, built in 1743, stands 66m tall; the biggest of its four bells weighs 6 tonnes.
Schrovens pointed out the construction going on in the water beneath us on the southwestern side of Riddarholmen. Whenever you see cranes in the city centre, she said, they are most likely part of Stockholm’s massive effort to expand the city’s rail. With about one million residents (and another 1.2 million in greater Stockholm, many of them commuters), the city currently has 100 subway stations, but only two tracks for commuter and regional trains. When the project is completed in 2017, it will double Stockholm’s train capacity, creating a 6km-long tunnel with a track dedicated to commuter trains alone. Here, next to Riddarholmen, the tunnel will run beneath the water.
By the time our group reached the last stretch of catwalk, leading northeast toward the island of Stadsholmen and back to where we had begun, we were all stepping slowly – not because of nervousness, but to savour the views. On our left rose the tower of Storkyrkan; on the right was the 86m-tall spire of Tyskakyrkan, nicknamed the “German church” for the number of Germans in the parish during the Middle Ages.
The feature is written By Amanda Ruggeri