Stockholm: An offbeat travel guide for history lovers

Teleport to the 17th and 18th centuries and tour the Swedish capital through the eyes of the Polmans and Påhlmans, who mingled with royalty at some of the city’s most influential and historic locations.

Stockholm has a rich history as the capital of a glittering and once powerful and influential empire. Initially comprising wooden, and then brick structures, successive destructive fires in the 17th and 18th centuries greatly altered the architecture and face of the city. During the city’s later rebuilding, many important buildings were designed in Neo-Baroque and Art Nouveau styles.

Today, Stockholm is organised into seven main districts. Gamla Stan, or the Old Town, is the historic area where you’ll encounter the Royal Palace and the Swedish parliament. The island Djurgården boasts Skansen, an open air museum with buildings representing different periods in Swedish history, as well as the Vasa Museum, where the magnificent namesake ship – restored to its pre-shipwrecked glory – can be viewed from six floors.

City plan for Gamla stan in 1626
City plan for Gamla stan in 1626. Photo by Thomé via Krigsarkivet.

The Polman family has Baltic-German origins, and came to Sweden from Estonia. Upon being ennobled in 1650, the family name changed to Påhlman. They had close ties with Swedish royalty and society both before and after this event. Here’s our list of must-see places in and around Stockholm connected with the Polmans, but also of broader historical significance.

Travel with the Polmans

Exterior of The Royal Palace
Exterior of The Royal Palace as seen from Slottsbacken. Photo by Julian Herzog, CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons.

Royal Palace

Let’s begin in the heart of Stockholm. The calendar flips back several centuries to 1650. On 16 September, the Polman brothers, Johan and Gustaf, alight at Stockholm Castle, Tre Kronor.1Today the Royal Palace. It is a fortified wood and stone structure with walled gardens, home to the reigning monarch, Kristina. The Polman brothers are knighted by the queen, and the family enters Swedish nobility under No. 501, henceforth known by the name Påhlman. It is a historic moment.

Nearly five decades later, parts of the castle are destroyed by a mysterious fire2The cause of the fire was never clarified, but two officers in charge of the fire department at the castle on the fateful day were punished due to their negligence – one of them had disappeared for a side gig or two, while the other to satiate his hunger. They were sentenced to death, but the punishment was later reduced to running the gauntlet seven times, plus six years of hard labour., and rebuilt in stone and brick in the Baroque style. This new version, designed by the architect Nicodemus Tessin the Younger, welcomes the royal family’s return in 1754. 

Today, the palace invites visitors to its state rooms, or Royal Apartments, tours of which are conducted on weekends between January and May. These rooms include various historical items associated with Swedish monarchs, including Queen Kristina’s silver throne that can be viewed in the Hall of State. 

Explorer tip: Visit the Nationalmuseum to see David Beck’s portrait of Queen Kristina in 1650, the year she was crowned. Although she had been reigning for a while, her coronation was postponed due to war.

Aerial view of Riksdag
Aerial view of Riksdag (House of Parliament) in the Gamla stan district. Photo by Arild Vågen, CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons.


Christina Lilliesparre’s father Olof, a respected man, attends the Riksdag of 1573, wherein changes are made to the church order. In 1650 and 1660, brothers Johan and Gustaf Påhlman make an appearance.3The brothers attended in 1650 (to be admitted to Riddarhuset after receiving a shield letter), and Johan also attended in 1654.

More than a century later, at his first ever Riksdag in 1809-10, Otto Fredrik Påhlman shocks everyone by demanding an investigation of senior officials close to King Karl IV Johan. His eloquence pays off, however, and he is a member in 1815 – during which he emphatically defends Jewish rights – as well as in 1817; he attends every parliamentary session for nine years. In 1823, his uncle Adolf Fredrik takes a leaf out of Otto’s book, using the Riksdag to address the printing of blasphemous content.

In 1866, Sweden adopts a bicameral Riksdag, for which new buildings are commissioned. These are completed in 1907, in a majestic neo-Baroque style designed by Aron Johansson. 

Located in the old town, the Riksdag now welcomes the public to attend hearings and take guided tours (Swedish and English) as well as art tours (Swedish). Walking along the historic streets of Mynttorget and Västerlånggatan, one can also view artworks depicting the history of Swedish democracy in 16 window displays.

Explorer tip: Visit The Jewish Museum in the Old Town to learn the history of the Jewish community in Sweden. 

North facade of Riddarhuset
North facade of Riddarhuset (House of Nobility) in the Gamla stan district. Photo by Arild Vågen, CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons.


Proving himself an influential figure, Otto Fredrik Påhlman serves as the director of Riddarhuset between 1810 and 1814. The House of Nobility – situated in a chamber of the Riksdag – governs and organises the knighted families of Sweden, but an 1809 decree places limitations on the noble classes.

A century later, in 1918, a letter detailing the Påhlman family’s noble status finally finds its way to the House of Nobility. During this century, the right to grant nobility is abolished, as are the special privileges formerly held by this class. Despite being depoliticised, the noble assembly still exists, providing scholarships and aid, and operating out of a building designed by French architect Simon de la Vallée and his son Jean in the 17th century. 

While Riddarhuset is usually open to visitors and regularly hosts cultural evenings and lectures, it will remain closed through 2024 due to renovations. However, researchers of genealogy and heraldry can book an appointment with the library to explore its extensive specialised collection onsite.

Explorer tip: For those with Swedish ancestry, Stadsarkivet or the City Archive may be of special interest. It has two premises and engaging events for history and genealogy enthusiasts.

Exterior of Karlberg Palace
Exterior of Karlberg Palace in Solna. Photo by Arild Vågen, CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons.

Karlberg Palace

An imposing portrait of the Polman patriarch, Jürgen the Elder, hangs at Karlberg slott. It is the 17th century, and the portrait befits both the era and its subject. It is one among a collection of portraits of fältherrar or field commanders displayed at the castle.

In 1792, the Military Academy Karlberg (Militärhögskolan Karlberg), inaugurates its campus on the castle premises with its first batch of cadets. In 1796, the palace is enlarged to accommodate its students, gaining two wings designed by Carl Christoffer Gjörwell. Two years later, 13-year-old Otto Fredrick Påhlman finds his way to the esteemed academy to start his training. 

Today, the academy is the oldest military academy in the world to continue operating from its original location. The palace, formerly a royal summer residence that housed the royal court after the fire of 1697, is now primarily a military institution. However, the park is open to the public.

Explorer tip: The military academy was originally supposed to be housed at Ulriksdal Palace, also located in Solna. However, this plan was thwarted by the death of King Gustav III, whose widow, Queen Sophia Magdalena, decided to reside at Ulriksdal. Located on the banks of the Edsviken, the palace is open to the public.

Exterior of Axel Oxenstierna Palace
Exterior of Axel Oxenstierna Palace facing Trångsund. Photo by Holger Ellgaard, CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons.

​​Axel Oxenstierna Palace 

Sometime in the 17th century, Jürgen Polman takes it upon himself to write a letter to Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, Count of Södermöre, requesting him to intervene with the king and restore the fiefdoms previously guaranteed to Polman and then reassigned. Oxenstierna – formerly kammarjunkare (valet de chambre) to Karl IX, who was acquainted with Polman at least since 1600 – remains in office between 1612-1654. Later, he becomes close with monarchs Gustav Adolf and Kristina as well, and is rather influential in the 1620s, serving in Livonia and Riga. 

In 1653, construction begins on his palace, designed by architect Jean de la Vallée following the Mannerist style of the late Renaissance – but no one from the Oxenstierna family ever gets to live here. Located in the Old Town, it is a vibrant building with sandstone decorations, and comprises three storeys. After Axel Oxenstierna’s death, it serves as the headquarters of the Swedish national bank (Sveriges Riksbank) between 1668 and 1680. 

Nearly three centuries later, in 1935, Axel Oxenstierna Palace is designated a state monument. It is well-preserved and has been renovated several times since. Oxenstierna wrote that the development of Stockholm into a world-class city was significant to the success of the Swedish empire, and the striking architecture of his palace echoes that belief.

Explorer tip: A bronze statue of Axel Oxenstierna dated 1890 stands proudly at the north end of Riddarhuset.

Exterior of Påhlmans Gymnasium and Påhlmans Handelsinstitut
Exterior of Påhlmans Gymnasium and Påhlmans Handelsinstitut. Photo by Medborgarskolan.

Påhlmans Handelsinstitut 

Sweden gains its first ever private writing institute in 1846 thanks to Otto Magnus Påhlman, who realises that the Russian officers he mentors could use some guidance. He trains them in the language, and also creates an innovative writing method. Located at Drottninggatan 71, the institute covers both language and content.

By 1881, the school is so popular that numerous other courses have been added to the curriculum, including business and accounting. Now a trade school, its name is accordingly updated from Skrivinstitutet to Bröderna Påhlmans Handelsinstitut, after Otto’s two sons who now manage it. They’ve also set up a post office and bank, with their own currency, at Sveavägen. Six years later, the brothers part ways, with Otto Ottoson Påhlman establishing a new school in Copenhagen, and John Påhlman managing the Stockholm school.

The institute has continued to excel, offering both professional and vocational courses, and is now located at Hagagatan 23 A.

Explorer tip: Drottninggatan, the location of the original premises of the school, is one of Stockholm’s main pedestrian streets. Primarily a shopping district, it runs for nearly two kilometres and connects to most places of interest in the city. 

Exterior of Skeppsholmskyrkan
Exterior of Skeppsholmskyrkan (Eric Ericsonhallen). Photo by Ollove2, CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons.

Erik Ericsonhallen

On 5 March 1869, Anders Gustaf Påhlman, a distinguished priest, commences his role as parish priest of the island of Skeppsholmen. The parish church is an octahedral structure inspired by the Roman Pantheon, designed by architect Fredrik Blom, with white walls and a green dome.

Exactly a century later, in 1969, the church is no longer in use; and in 2001, it is desacralised. However, eight years later, it is reinvented as a concert hall and event venue, named after renowned Swedish choral conductor Eric Ericson.  

The former church now features an eventful roster of musical concerts, in addition to offering a historical backdrop for dinners, weddings, conferences, exhibitions and more. 

Explorer tip: The building of the Royal Swedish Naval Academy, now used by the organisation Nordregio, ceased to be a naval training centre in 1943. This was largely the reason for the discontinued use of the Skeppesholmen church. The building was designed as a Renaissance-style palace by Axel Fredrik Nyström.

Exterior of Skokloster Castle
Exterior of Skokloster Castle. Photo by Tanel Pärs, CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons.

Skokloster Castle 

Skokloster is adorned with paintings. Estonian-born Herman Wrangel, a successful military commander in the Swedish military, has been bequeathed the estate from King Karl IX for his outstanding service. An art connoisseur, Herman begins building a collection, and commissions a series of 20 portraits of the loyal officers who were by his side during the 1621 siege of Riga. Among them is Captain Jöran Polman.

In 1654, Herman’s son, Count Carl Gustaf Wrangel, decides to honour his place of birth, and turns Skokloster into a majestic Baroque castle befitting its rich history and cultural value. He continues his father’s legacy of collecting the works of the finest artists of the era, including Lucas Cranach, Jan Steen, David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl, and Giuseppe Arcimboldo. 

Impeccably preserved, Skokloster is an easy day trip from Stockholm. It is state-owned, the country’s largest private palace, boasting a remarkable museum with over 600 works of art. Twenty portraits of Wrangel’s officers, including Polman, painted by their fellow soldier and artist Georg Günther Kräill von Bemeberg in 1623, still adorn the walls of the light-filled first floor corridor.

Explorer tip: The striking Wrangel Palace in Gamla Stan, a townhouse mansion, was also built for Count Carl Gustaf Wrangel. When the royal palace was partly destroyed in the fire of 1697, the royal family moved into Wrangel Palace, remaining there until the renovation was completed. Wrangel Palace boasts a collection of distinguished paintings of the royal family.

Exterior of Gripsholm Castle
Exterior of Gripsholm Castle. Photo by Raphael Stecksén, © Kungl. Hovstaterna.

Gripsholm Castle

In 1600, Jürgen Polman, amtmann4Middle ages; an official in German-speaking countries similar to a bailiff. in Livonia, receives letters of appreciation from Sweden’s Duke Karl of Södermanland. In four years, the duke will be crowned Karl IX, sovereign of Sweden – but for now, he is all praises for Jürgen’s success in enlisting more than a hundred farmers during the Polish-Swedish War (1600-1611).

Four centuries later, it takes about an hour from central Stockholm to arrive at Gripsholm Castle, a highlight of the Vasa period built in the 16th century. In addition to a remarkable theatre and portrait collection, it includes the castle’s “only fully preserved room from the Vasa period, […] one of the oldest Renaissance interiors in Sweden” – the chamber of none other than Duke Karl himself. The chamber is thought to date from the 1570s, before the Duke’s first marriage. 

Though Duke Karl may not have written his letters of appreciation to Polman from this chamber – their correspondence began slightly later – it undoubtedly provides an interesting insight into the life of the Swedish king. Guided tours as well as walks of the palace park are available from May to September.

Explorer tip: In 1636, Queen Kristina’s mother Maria Eleonora was exiled to Gripsholm Castle by none other than Axel Oxenstierna. These connections bring us full circle to the Royal Palace, where Maria Eleonora’s glorious crown – used as the royal crown till 1818 – can be viewed.

  • 1
    Today the Royal Palace.
  • 2
    The cause of the fire was never clarified, but two officers in charge of the fire department at the castle on the fateful day were punished due to their negligence – one of them had disappeared for a side gig or two, while the other to satiate his hunger. They were sentenced to death, but the punishment was later reduced to running the gauntlet seven times, plus six years of hard labour.
  • 3
    The brothers attended in 1650 (to be admitted to Riddarhuset after receiving a shield letter), and Johan also attended in 1654.
  • 4
    Middle ages; an official in German-speaking countries similar to a bailiff.
Kriti Bajaj
Kriti Bajaj

Kriti Bajaj is a writer, editor and researcher. She has studied English literature, social anthropology and languages, and has worked with international publications, auction houses and independent clients. Despite being a city dweller, she is a mountain person at heart, and enjoys travelling the world. Her goal is to write and live stories.

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