Sweden has been a monarchy for 1,000 years, and this is your best chance to observe official court life. We don't consider it a match for Buckingham Palace, but a visit offers a real insider's look at the daily place of work for His Majesty and his Queen, plus the other people who make up the royal court. Kungliga Slottet is one of the few official residences of a European monarch that's open to the public. Although the King and Queen prefer to live at Drottningholm, this massive 608-room showcase remains their official address.
Nothing inside the palace is as impressive to us as the Royal Apartments on the second floor of the north wing. Decorated in the 1690s by French artists, they have the oldest interiors in the palace. The lavish ballroom here is called "The White Sea," and Karl XI's Gallery is the venue for official banquets. Privileged guests have called the ballroom and gallery the most spectacular in the north of Europe.
In Rikssalen (Hall of State), you can take in Queen Christina's silver throne, on which she sat during her ill-fated reign. This is a rare piece of silver furniture, and it was created for the queen's coronation in 1650. In the Bernadotte Apartments, designed by Carl Hårleman, investitures of foreign ambassadors take place. We'd like to be invited to spend a night in the Guest Apartment in the west wing, a sort of marriage of rococo and Gustavian classicism. Because the interiors were designed over a period of centuries, expect a hodgepodge of decorative styles, including Louis XVI and Empire. When Gustav III lived in these apartments, he sent out invitations -- highly valued at the time -- to Swedish noblemen to watch him wake up in the morning.
Second in importance to the state apartments is the Skattkammaren or Royal Treasury, entered through Södra Valvet or the south arch. These dark vaults contain the greatest collection of royal regalia in all of Scandinavia, a virtual gold mine when compared to the collections of Oslo or Copenhagen. The competition is rough here, but we think the most impressive exhibits are Gustava Vasa's etched sword of state from 1541 and the ornate silver baptismal font of Karl XI. Especially dazzling to our eyes are the crown, scepter, and orb used at the coronation of King Erik XIV in 1561. They have come to symbolize the principal emblems of the State of Sweden. You can also see the coronation cloak of King Oscar II, the last king of Sweden actually crowned. (These days, a crown is no longer placed on a king's head but is placed symbolically on a chair beside the new monarch.)
The original palace that stood here, destroyed in a fire in 1697, was called Tre Kronor (Three Kronors). On the ground floor of the palace's northern wing, the Tre Kronor Museum features objects rescued from that fire. The museum traces the development of the castle from the original defensive fort to the splendid Renaissance palace of today. To enter, you pass through thick -- really thick (5m/16 ft.) -- walls from the 13th century. You can walk through the old cellar and look down into the creepy excavations from the past, taking in such sights as an old well from the former courtyard and arched brick ceilings.
But don't think you've seen everything; there's more, including Slottskyrkan, entered by the south arch. That master of the rococo, Carl Hårleman, came here in 1754, adding his adornments to the existing baroque chapel. The sculptures, statues, and ceiling paintings were the work of the foremost craftsmen in Sweden in the 18th century. Ever since the time of Magnus Ladulas in the 1200s, there has been a royal chapel on this spot.
Before palace fatigue sets in, visit Gustav III's Antikmuseum, entered on Lejonbacken. This is one of Europe's oldest museums, having opened its doors in 1794. The nucleus of this museum was purchased when the king toured Italy in the 1700s. The sculptures, some 200 in all, were placed in the gallery just exactly as they were originally exhibited. We found the masterpiece here to be Apollo and His Nine Muses, but you may be drawn to The Sleeping Endymion.
Finally, we've spent years wandering through royal armories, but we must say that Livrustkammaren is among the most impressive we've ever viewed. Founded in 1633, it is also Sweden's oldest museum. Set in the palace vaults, this armory isn't just about weapons but displays some of the world's most magnificent state coaches and coronation robes, even the costume worn by Gustav III at a fatal masked ball. (The king was assassinated at the 1792 ball, and the incident inspired Verdi to write his opera The Masked Ball.)
The greatest oddity we found here was a stuffed horse -- called Streiff -- which was ridden by Gustav II Adolf when he was killed in the battle of 1632. The most revolting curiosity is a glass jar that preserves the stomach contents of one of the conspirators of Gustav III's assassination. If you like mounted knights, magnificent swords, and muskets too, you have arrived at Valhalla.
Outside the palace, military units from all over Sweden take turns at the Changing of the Royal Guard. A German women's magazine, having made a "scientific survey," claimed one summer that the Swedish guards are "far handsomer" than Queen Elizabeth II's Buckingham brigade. Come to make a comparison for yourself. Royal Guards have been stationed at the palace since 1523.
In summer, you can watch the military guard parade daily. In winter, parades take place on Wednesdays and Sundays; on other days there are no parades, but you can see the changing of the guard. The parade route Monday to Saturday begins at Sergels Torg and proceeds along Hamngatan, Kungsträdgårdsgatan, Strömgatan, Gustav Adolfs Torg, Norrbro, Skeppsbron, and Slottsbacken. On Sunday, the guard departs from the Army Museum, going along Riddargatan, Artillerigatan, Strandvägen, Hamngatan, Kungsträdgårdsgatan, Strömgatan, Gustav Adolfs Torg, Norrbro, Skeppsbron, and Slottsbacken. For information on the time of the march, ask at the Tourist Center in Sweden House. The changing of the guard takes place at 12:15pm Monday to Saturday and at 1:15pm on Sunday in front of the Royal Palace.
To wrap up your visit, call at the Royal Gift Shop, with unique gifts and souvenirs for the King or Queen in your life. Much of the merchandise here is produced in limited editions, including textiles based on designs from the 16th and 17th centuries.