‘Make sure you look down,” shouted guide Gabrielle, her words lost to the stiff breeze that whipped around us. From up here – on the roof of one of Stockholm’s most historic buildings – peering off the edge was the last thing I intended to do.
But Gabrielle wasn’t feeling torturous. There was good reason for her unusual advice. Our 75-minute tour – essentially completing a circuit of one specific rooftop – revealed a rather different perspective of the Swedish capital, one few visitors see. Vertigo sufferers need not apply.
“Do you have a problem with heights?” Gabrielle had asked, as we were fitted with hard hats and harnesses up in the rafters of the country’s first parliament, on the island of Riddarholmen. Between 1866 and 1904, all of Sweden’s major decisions were made here, before the 43m-tall property was deemed too small and too noisy due to the steam trains that passed alongside it.
These days it’s a busy courthouse where seven storeys below, the accused contemplate a bleak few hours ahead. I, too, felt more than a little unsettled.
I didn’t think I had an issue with heights – I’ve been to the top of buildings more than 10 times taller, even standing on the glass floor at Chicago’s Willis Tower without breaking a sweat – but this felt distinctively different. I was out in the open and exposed to the elements.
But therein lies the appeal. “Some people are paralysed with fear but most overcome it. It’s perfectly safe and there’s a big sense of achievement afterwards,” said Gabrielle reassuringly, as we ventured up on the black slate roof and connected our harnesses to a waist-high rail, which rings a specially built 250m-long track around the perimeter of the building that was chosen for its location overlooking many of Stockholm’s prettiest spots, both natural and manmade.
We shuffled forwards with slow and considered steps, each revealing more and more of Stockholm below. Flashes of blue and yellow added a splash of colour to the dark rooftops as the national flag billowed among countless satellite dishes. From up here, the startling geography of the island-studded city was suddenly apparent, with Lake Malaren to the west and the Baltic Sea to the east. Vibrant and cosmopolitan Sodermalm sat to the south, and lush Langholmen, where Stockholmers retreat for picnics and walks, to the west.
Eastwards, Gamla Stan – Stockholm’s medieval Old Town, on the neighbouring island – looked even more picturesque than it does at street level: a cluster of matchbox buildings with gabled roofs painted red, yellow, and green.
Closer by, buildings stood like modern day dolls’ houses. I peered through office windows, spying on the pint-sized figures stationed at their desks. Further afield, miniature buses patrolled the roads and tiny trains screeched along tracks into the distance.
The skyline, however, was dominated by the piercing spire of Riddarholm Church, opposite our lofty vantage point. The oldest preserved building in the city has been the final resting place for Swedish monarchs since the late 1200s. To the north, on the island of Kungsholmen, City Hall commanded some attention, too, its eight million brick-strong tower adorned with a shining, car-sized gold crown – a historic symbol representing the union of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark that came to an end in the 1500s.
My knees continued to tremble and I gripped the handlebar so tightly I was convinced it would shatter in my palm. Gabrielle stood casually with her back to the sheer drop, dishing out historical facts and pointing out interesting elements of the cityscape around us, most notably the sprawling Royal Palace to the east. Six decades in the making, it was completed in 1754 and is now the official 600-room residence of His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf.
Next, we came to a flight of steps that led to a narrow metal walkway with long drops on both sides as the roof slid away steeply. Most worryingly, there were no handrails. “To make it extra exciting,” laughed Gabrielle. The wind intensified and seagulls swooped down low, their stocky white bodies surfing in the strong gusts.
I concentrated on the 360-degree views: Lake Malaren and its scatterings of islands, the cruise ships heading towards the Baltic Sea and the wide arches of Vasterbron (Western Bridge).
Over my shoulder, to the north, Stockholm’s urban sprawl took shape: drab 1960s high-rises that supplanted beautiful heritage structures that were torn down, much to the dismay of residents. “It’s almost as if we bombed ourselves,” said Gabrielle mournfully.
More universally liked, and still standing proudly, is the ornate Riddarhuset (House of Nobility) on the north-western corner of Gamla Stan, considered by many to be the most beautiful building in all of Sweden. And for good reason. The Dutch baroque 17th-century masterpiece – all red brick orderliness and sandstone pediments – also served a stint as the national parliament. Its interior is even more decadent, with 2,345 coats of arms belonging to Swedish aristocracy on display.
I reached the end of the walkway without even realising it and had, unknowingly, started to relax and enjoy the sensation of being up high with all of Stockholm’s varied beauty laid out before me.
Best of all, though, it ignited an interest in corners of the city I had barely known existed: islands and neighbourhoods that I set off to explore, once safely back down at ground level.
British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Stockholm Arlanda from Heathrow, SAS (0871 226 7 760; flysas.com) from Heathrow, Edinburgh, and Manchester, and Norwegian (0330 828 0854; norwegian.com) from Gatwick, Manchester and Edinburgh. Return fares start from £80.
Guided rooftop tours with Takvandring (00 46 8 223 005; takvandring.com) cost Skr595 (£46).
Double rooms at the Freys Hotel (00 46 8 506 213 00; freyshotels.com) start from Skr995 (£78) per night.