Sweden has literally hundreds of castles, palaces and manors most of which are located in the southern part of the country. Throughout history kings and noblemen built their fortresses in this area as here it has always been the country’s most fertile region. About 70 km west of Stockholm, in the little town of Marifred in the municipality of Strängnäs, lies one of Sweden’s most prominent and beloved estates: Gripsholm Castle. Of all the castles in Sweden, Gripsholm seems to be the biggest crowd-puller. With its red brick walls and green copper domes, the elegant structure surrounded by the calm waters of Lake Mälaren presents more than 400 years of Swedish history. But why is Gripsholm Castle such a popular travel destination? Here are some of the reasons:
1. Built by a Legendary King
Gripsholm was one of the castles commissioned by King Gustav Vasa, who is considered to be the most influential king Sweden has ever had. In 1526, King Gustav I seized the land and built a fortification with circular corner towers and a defensive wall. The fortress was built primarily for military purposes, but after its completion it became one of the official royal residences of the Swedish monarchy.The exterior of the castle was built in Renaissance architectural style. The interior is quite big, with numerous rooms and corridors, furnished in the 16th to the 19th century styles. In the late 1800s, Gripsholm went through some extensive restorations that brought the castle to its initial splendor. The only room in the castle that was preserved almost untouched is the bed chamber of Duke Karl.The room still has the original furniture from the 1570s.
2. One of the Oldest Portrait Collections in the World
Gripsholm Castle is home to the National Portrait Gallery, one of the oldest and largest portrait collections in the world. The gallery was officially founded in 1822 with about 4000 works. The current collection has over 4500 portraits of not only kings and queens, but also of prominent Swedish personalities. That seems quite surprising, as you wouldn’t expect to see Hollywood star portraits like Greta Garbo’s and Ingmar Bergman’s hanging on the walls of a 16th century castle. Each year the Gripsholm Society commissions and donates a portrait of a famous Swede to the collection.
3. Gripsholm Theater
Perhaps the most unique feature of the Gripsholm Castle is its famous theater, built around 1780 by King Gustav III, who famously described himself as the ‘actor king.’ Gustav III was a real theater lover who also liked to act in the plays that were performed. The theater was built in the shape of a circle in one of the castle’s four round towers. The amphitheater could sit about sixty guests, whereas the servants could watch the play from the dome. The home-built theatre looks quite impressive and is equipped with a very sophisticated backstage technology. The painted set is still intact and has been preserved in its entirety since the last recorded performance in 1785.
4. The Stuffed Lion of Gripsholm Castle
Up in the attic of Gripsholm Castle there is a stuffed lion that was once a king’s precious possession. The story goes that in 1731 King Frederik I of Sweden received a lion from the Bey of Algiers. The King was so enamored with his lion that a few years later when the animal died he tried to have it mounted. But all that was left of the lion was the pelt and some bones. The taxidermist was not at all familiar with this animal called lion, but he did the best he could with what was sent to him. The result was a comic creature that bears very little resemblance to the mighty king of the Saranghetti. But none the less, the lion of Gripsholm Castle became the most famous stuffed animal in Sweden.
5. The Runestones Outside the Castle
Gripsholm is impressive both from the outside and the inside. The grounds of the castle are beautifully landscaped, although not in the style of the fanciful gardens around the French châteaux.
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In addition to the beautiful park that surrounds the castle, right outside the main entrance, there are two old runestones dating back to the 11th century. The runes are the oldest existing writing system in Scandinavia, used by the Vikings to record their history. They were carving their stories with a knife or chisel into stones, hence the name runestones. One of these two runestones has been discovered in the early 1820s by the caretaker of Gripsholm Castle. At the time it was discovered the rune was forming the cellar threshold in one of the castle towers. It took about 100 years before the stone was retrieved from the castle and could be deciphered. The inscription says that the stone was raised in memory of Haraldr, the brother of Ingvar, and he is believed to have died in the region of the Caspian Sea.
6. The Enchanting Town of Mariefred
Gripsholm Castle is located in the charming little town of Mariefred. With its narrow streets and colorful cottages, Mariefred makes the perfect base for visiting the castle and the area around it. There are a few attractions though in Mariefred that you might like to see, like Karnbo Church, the steamtrain and the little museum at the old train station.
Given its close proximity to Stockholm, Gripsholm Castle makes for a lovely day trip from the capital. The castle and the picturesque village of Mariefred can be reached either by train (a short 40 minute ride), by car, or by the steam engine boat (about three hours).