Star Attraction Rises to the Surface in Stockholm – The Vasa Museum

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Through the strength of its innovative displays and awe-inspiring main exhibit, Stockholm’s Vasa Museum brings seventeenth-century Swedish history to life. It is a must visit.

Walking across the bridge from downtown Stockholm to the island of Djurgården, an early morning fog obscured everything from view except the pavement directly in front of me. Although I couldn’t see my destination - the Vasa Museum -, I already knew a great deal about it. My Swedish hosts had raved about it multiple times and their detailed descriptions almost made me feel as if I’d been there before.

NEED-T0-KNOW DETAILS

SUMMARY: For an unforgettable experience that will bring the past to life, visit Stockholm's Vasa Museum

WHAT: Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet)

WHERE: Stockholm, Sweden

WHEN:  The Museum is indoors, but summer is by far the best time to visit Stockholm. Give yourself at least 90 minutes to see the museum. From June 1 to August 31, it is open daily from 8:30 AM to 6 PM. Go early to avoid the lines.

COST: Adults - 130 SEK, Students (with valid student ID showing expiration date) - 100 SEK, Visitors under age 19 - free

MORE: Click HERE for up-to-date information on prices and dates

The Vasa Museum is less than thirty years old, yet it has acquired a reputation for excellence equal to that of the Louvre, the d’Orsay, or the Prado. TripAdvisor recently ranked it as the ninth-best museum in the world, ahead of more storied institutions like the British Museum. In 2015, over one million visitors took the same bridge I had just crossed on their way see the Museum’s star attraction - the nearly perfectly preserved remains of the Vasa, a seventeenth-century Swedish warship.

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View of the Vasa, Vasa Museum. Stockholm, Sweden.

The story of the Vasa Museum began in 1628, when the eponymous ship sank in Stockholm’s harbor on its maiden voyage. An overly top-heavy design caused the ship to heel over after a slight gust of wind. Water flowed into the gun portals, which had been left open for ceremonial purposes. Thousand’s of well-wishers watched in shock as the newest symbol of Sweden’s naval power sank before their eyes.

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Model of the Vasa's sinking, Vasa Museum. Stockholm, Sweden.

The wreck stayed at the bottom of the harbor until 1961, when experts raised the ship to the surface using a series of steel cables tied to pontoons. Despite being underwater for over 300 years, the ship was in remarkably good condition. Layers of mud and the Baltic’s brackish water prevented shipworms from destroyed the wood as they normally do in warmer, saltier seas.

Over the next thirty years, conservationists cleaned the ship and slowly covered it in layers of polyethylene glycol to preserve the wood. During this process, they discovered human remains, military items, and personal effects onboard. In 1990, after nearly thirty years of restoration work, the ship was moved indoors and the Vasa Museum opened to the public.

As I approached the Museum, I was struck by the structure’s odd appearance. Three ship masts pierced the building’s roof, suggesting the Vasa’s original profile. After a lengthy wait in line, I bought a ticket and entered into a massive, climate-controlled room, at the center of which was the Vasa.

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Exterior of the Vasa Museum. Stockholm, Sweden. CC by-SA 3.0--photo by Holger.Ellgaard.

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Bow of the Vasa, Vasa Museum. Stockholm, Sweden.

When I first saw the ship, I was completely taken aback. Countless rides as a kid on Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean did nothing to prepare me for the sense of awe I felt. With a height of 176 feet and a length of 226 feet, the Vasa dwarfed everything else in the room. At the same time, the ship was so well preserved that it seemed I had stepped back in time to the very day the Vasa first set sail.

Once I overcame this initial shock, I followed a group of fellow awestruck visitors into a nearby auditorium to watch a highly-informative, twenty-minute film on the history of the Vasa. I caught the Swedish-language version, but English subtitles are provided for nearly every showing (visit here for up-to-date showtimes).

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Stern of the Vasa, Vasa Museum. Stockholm, Sweden.

At the end of the film, it was finally time to explore the Vasa. The exhibit portion of the Museum wrapped around the ship, allowing me to study the ship from nearby every angle over seven different levels. The level of detailing on the ship was incredible. I was particularly impressed by the array of sculpted angels, soldiers, and decorative architectural motifs adorning the stern of the ship. While I noticed some wood decay upon closer inspection, I still found it hard to believe that the ship had sat in Stockholm bay for over 300 years.

As I made my way through the Museum, I came across displays detailing all aspects of the Vasa - from its construction, to its sinking, to its recovery. Climbing through a partial replica of the ship’s interior allowed me to briefly experience what life on board such a ship would have been like, while a series of sculpted faces with corresponding life stories - based on the skeletal remains of crew members that were found aboard the ship - brought a tragic, human touch.

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Replica interior of the Vasa, Vasa Museum. Stockholm, Sweden.

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Skeleton found on the Vasa, Vasa Museum. Stockholm, Sweden. CC by-SA 2.0--photo by Dennis Jarvis.

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Reconstructed face, Vasa Museum. Stockholm, Sweden. CC by-SA 3.0--photo by Wolfgang Sauber.

After roughly 90 minutes or so, I found myself at the end of the exhibit. Making my way back to the ground floor, I reflected on my visit. When I arrived at the Vasa Museum that morning, I came harboring great expectations. Fortunately, the Museum exceeded them by managing to be one of those uncommon experiences where an exhibit becomes more than just a series of artifacts. Through innovative displays and the sheer brilliance of the ship itself, the Vasa Museum brought back to life the people and works of seventeenth-century Sweden. I strongly recommend visiting.

Have you been to the Vasa Museum? What did you think of it? What's another travel experience you've had that has helped to bring the past to life?

Top photo: CC by-SA 3.0--photo by OneHungLow.

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