If you’re planning a Baltic cruise that visits Stockholm, you’ll definitely want to visit the Vasa Museum on the island of Djurgården. This maritime museum houses the Vasa, the only almost-fully-intact 17th-century ship in the world to ever be recovered.
Why you should experience the Vasa Museum
The Vasa Museum is the world’s most visited maritime museum, and the most visited museum of any type in Scandinavia. Each year, 1.5 million people walk through its doors. When I booked our Baltic cruise, the number-one thing I wanted to do in Stockholm was to see the Vasa. I love ships and maritime history, but even people who don’t share my passion will be fascinated by its range of exhibitions.
The six-level museum features the entire ship at its center, and the building’s atrium-style design lets you see the Vasa from top to bottom. Visitors will learn about the construction of the ship, what led to its sinking, and how it was eventually recovered. You’ll also get a glimpse into what life was like for Stockholm residents in the early 17th century.
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A quick history of the Vasa
King Gustavus Adolphus ordered the building of the warship Vasa while Sweden was at war with Poland-Lithuania. Construction finished in 1628, and the ship, armed with 64 heavy brass cannons, was set to take her place as the flagship of the King’s reserve squadron.
The Vasa set sail on her maiden voyage from Stockholm on August 10, 1628, bound for the naval station at Älvsnabben. According to the Vasa Museum, historians believe that there were about 150 people on board. As was the custom of the time, dignitaries as well as the officers’ families were also on the ship to celebrate the first sailing, including many small children.
Amid a festive atmosphere, the ship opened its gunports to fire a salute as she left Stockholm Harbor. But a gust of wind caused the ship to heel, letting water rush into the lower gunports. In front of the thousands of horrified onlookers watching from shore, the Vasa capsized in the harbor before she had even traveled a single nautical mile.
The ship, which was only 390 feet (120m) from shore, quickly sank to the seafloor, just 105 feet (32 m) below the waves. Although nearby boats came to the rescue of many passengers and crew, thirty people, including several children, went down with the ship.
Despite various attempts to recover the ship over the centuries, she remained at the bottom of the harbor. In the late 1950s, work began to raise the Vasa by tunneling under the ship to attempt to lift her using steel cables and pontoons. On April 24, 1961, the ship was finally hoisted to the surface after spending 333 years underwater.
Fun fact: the look of the fictional Flying Dutchman ship in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies was partially based on the Vasa.
What you’ll see at the Vasa Museum
If you can time it right, begin your visit to the Vasa Museum by watching their 17-minute introductory film. The museum screens the film in spoken English, spoken Swedish, as well as text versions in both languages throughout the day. Limited screenings are also on the schedule in spoken French, German, and Spanish.
Viewing the 172-foot-tall (52.5m) Vasa up close might just take your breath away! The ship’s hull has 460 sculptures and more than 300 ornaments. The king wanted to make it clear to his enemies that Sweden was a powerful force, so the ship’s artwork (many based on biblical stories and ancient myths) communicated without words.
Although the salvaged ship is nearly intact, it doesn’t look exactly as it did before it spent three centuries at the bottom of the harbor. The Baltic Sea’s low salinity isn’t a good home for the shipworms that often destroy shipwrecks, so the ship and carvings are in amazing condition. But the brown exterior of the Vasa was originally painted in bright colors, a much different look than how you’ll see her today.
The museum’s 1:10 scale replica of the Vasa in full sail shows the original color scheme of blue, red, and yellow for a more accurate representation of how she would have looked during her catastrophic maiden voyage.
You’ll also find a cutaway model showing what each deck would have looked like with the crew on board. Although visitors aren’t able to board the original ship, there is a full-scale model of part of the upper gun deck that you can enter and explore.
Part of the Vasa Museum is dedicated to telling the story of the people who died on the Vasa. At least seventeen skeletons were recovered from the ship, including several women and a child. Although most of the remains were buried soon after the ship was salvaged, researchers realized that the bones could give valuable insight into life during this time. With this quest for knowledge in mind, the skeletons were exhumed, and several are on display in the museum.
From researchers’ studies of the bones, they were able to discover their age, height, diet, and medical history. They’ve even done several facial reconstructions to show what these passengers and crew might have looked like in life.
Giving more perspective on the people who were on the Vasa when she went down, clothing and personal effects from officers, crew, and guests are on display. Many of these items are in excellent condition after being submerged for so long!
The museum’s exhibition on the women of the Vasa was exceptionally fascinating to me. I was surprised to learn that the manager of the shipyard that built the Vasa, Margareta Nilsdotter, was head of one of the largest workplaces in Sweden at the time. When you visit, you’ll also hear about Brita Gustavsdotter Båth, a wood supplier who furnished the shipyard with timber.
Do you need to take a guided tour of the Vasa Museum?
Although the Vasa Museum usually offers guided tours led by museum staff, due to the pandemic these tours are temporarily unavailable. However, the museum does offer free audio tours. You can download these as MP3 files to play on your phone or tablet (be sure to pack headphones). The audio tour is available in English, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Somali, Sorani, Spanish, and Swedish.
I toured the museum without a guided tour, and learned a lot from the introductory film as well as from the detailed placards posted at each exhibit. But I did listen to the audio tour after my visit, and found it to be very informative. It’s broken up into 15 sections, each corresponding to a numbered station around the museum. You can do the entire audio tour in 40 minutes, or stop after listening to each section to explore further.
What else does the Vasa Museum have to offer?
In addition to the museum’s many exhibits, the property also houses a restaurant, gift shop, and a garden.
The Vasa Museum Restaurant serves Swedish meatballs, soups, sandwiches, and daily specials. Cakes and cookies are available for a traditional Swedish fika. The restaurant is open every day from 11 AM until 4 PM.
The Museum Shop stocks unique items relating to the Vasa and early 17th-century Sweden, including replicas of objects found during the ship’s recovery.
The Vasa Museum Garden features flowers, medicinal herbs, and vegetables that would have been used in the 1600s, including lavender, mallow, radishes, and cabbage. You can find the garden behind a gray fence at the back of the museum.
How to get to the Vasa Museum
If you’re taking an ocean cruise that has Stockholm on the itinerary, many of the larger ships dock at Nynäshamn Cruise Port, about 45 minutes away by car from the city. The spring of 2020 saw the completion of Norvik Port (just north of Nynäshamn), which can also handle super-post-Panamax ships.
If you’re docking at one of these ports, there is a train from Nynäshamn Station to Stockholm, but it will take you about an hour and 45 minutes each way. A quicker and easier option is to book a shore excursion by coach that includes tickets to the museum and a visit to Old Town.
Additionally, some smaller ships and ferries dock at Stockholm’s in-town terminals. By car, the Vasa Museum is only about 3.5 miles (5.7 km) from any of these locations. Although the museum is on the nearby island of Djurgården, the islands are connected by bridges. This makes it super-easy and inexpensive to get there by taxi or Uber.
The Vasa Museum is open daily from 10 AM until 5 PM.
Getting tickets for the Vasa Museum
You can purchase tickets for the Vasa Museum on site. Adult admission is SEK 190 (about $22 US/£16 GBP) from June through August and SEK 170 (about $20 US/£15 GBP) from September to May. Admission for children age 18 and under is free.
The museum accepts cash (Swedish Krona), but they prefer payment by card. The Vasa Museum accepts American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club, and Maestro.
To save some time waiting in line, you can purchase your ticket online before your visit directly from the museum. If you’ll have kids with you, make sure you add them to your order even though there’s no charge for their tickets. If you don’t, you’ll have to stand in line anyway to get their free tickets!
You’ll get your online tickets via email, and the museum accepts them up to 180 days from the date of purchase.
**UPDATE** The Vasa Museum has suspended online ticket sales during the pandemic. You can still buy tickets at the museum entrance.
More resources for your Baltic cruise
- Best Things to Do in Tallinn Old Town in One Day on a Baltic Cruise
- Tips for Visiting St. Petersburg Russia on a Cruise
- What to Pack in Your Cruise Carry On Bag
- How to Have the Best Embarkation Day on a Cruise
Have you been to the Vasa Museum? What did you think of your visit? Let me know in the comments below!
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