Surrounded by water, a sprawling network of islands make up Sweden’s grand capital, Stockholm, where medieval character meets modern dynamism on the edge of the Baltic
Criss-crossed by glittering seas, the Swedish capital sits majestically on 14 islands. Founded in the 13th century at the point where the fresh water of Lake Mälaren meets the brackish Baltic Sea, Stockholm feels like a large village set in the middle of forests and lakes. Pristine waterways swirl through the centre, fresh-faced locals cycle along the cobbled alleyways, broad boulevards are etched with pastel-coloured buildings and painted wooden houseboats sit neatly in the harbours. Yet the city is also utterly modern with futuristic skyscrapers and characterful districts, from bohemian Södermalm to the glitz of Ostermalm. Explore the Baltic waters by kayak, lounge on an island beach and stroll past the historic buildings of the old town.
What to do
Start at the heart of the city in Gamla Stan, the old town, and amble through the jumble of medieval lanes towards Kungliga Slottet, the 18th-century Royal Palace and Court (www.royalcourt.se), on the waterfront. Admire the sumptuous tapestries and jewel-studded crowns, then head outside to the Storkyrkan (Stortorget 1), the medieval cathedral where Swedish monarchs were once crowned.
Go east to the island of Skeppsholmen, home to an eclectic clutch of museums including the National Museum (www.nationalmuseum.se), for Swedish and European fine arts. Along the waterfront to the west is the island of Kungsholmen, home to the Stadshuset (City Hall). The simple exterior gives way to a stunning interior, from kitsch Viking-style chambers to the echoing golden hall.
Nearby is Djurgården, a little green forested island that was once a royal hunting ground and is now home to one of Stockholm’s best city parks. Visit the Skansen open-air museum (www.skansen.se) and the Vasa Museum (www.vasamuseet.se), dedicated to an ornate 17th-century warship raised from the seabed in 1961. Take a ferry out to the fashionable southern island of Södermalm and wander round the boutiques and vintage shops, or relax on the beaches of nearby Långholmen island. Spend the evening hanging out with the locals in a hip bar.
Where to stay
Regally presiding over the waterfront, the Grand Hôtel is the apple of Stockholm’s eye. Posh and plush, it has good looks, charm and the best views in town (overlooking the Royal Palace and Gamla Stan). It’s popular with the great and the good, and you might find yourself sharing the breakfast table with a Nobel laureate. At the other end of the spectrum is the Rival Hotel in the heart of the Södermalm district. Owned by Benny Andersson of Abba fame, this boutique hotel is full of quirky charm and boasts an art deco cinema, original 1940s cocktail bar and its own bakery. For pure Scandinavian style go for Hotel J. Perched by the water on Nacka Strand, it feels like a seaside bolthole with a city address due to its cool blue and white interiors and oak furnishings. Make sure you ask for room 216 – it has a private roof terrace.
Where to eat and drink
Traditionally, Swedish food has largely revolved around hearty fish, meat and potato dishes, but today the cuisine is marked by exciting and unusual variations. Start with a smorgasbord at the Grand Hôtel’s restaurant, Veranda (see Where to stay). The table will be groaning with gravadlax, shrimps, herring, eel, smoked reindeer, cheese and breads.
For traditional Swedish cooking head to Den Gyldene Freden (www.gyldenefreden.se; Österlånggatan 51), which is Stockholm’s oldest tavern, where fresh Baltic fish and game from the surrounding forests top the menu. Go for the home-made duck sausages with three kinds of mushrooms in a black pepper sauce.
For all-out glamour, though, it has to be the Michelin-starred Operakällaren (www.operakallaren.se), opposite the Royal Palace. Here, everything seems to shimmer and shine, and chef Stefano Catenacci works his magic by adding a French twist to Swedish cooking. Try the platter of northern delicacies, from smoked eel and reindeer to Swedish red caviar.
Time running out?
Hire a kayak (www.kanotcenter.com), paddle out to your own private sandbar and enjoy a picnic and swim.
Buy a Stockholm Card for unlimited travel (including the Djurgården ferry), plus free entry to many of the city’s museums.
Currency is the Swedish krona. Stockholm is one hour ahead of GMT and a two-hour 25-minute flight from London.
Scandinavian Airlines (0871 521 2772; www.flysas.com) flies from Heathrow and London City, British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Stockholm.
Stockholm Visitors Board: Hamngatan 27 (00 46 8508 28500; www.stockholmtown.com). Visit the website for opening hours.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.