City of islands offers unforgettable stopover
Stockholm, Sweden's bustling capital, is a mixture of open spaces, residential areas and dream-like expanses of water. Home to 870,000 people, the town proper is actually 14 islands, haphazardly scattered between Lake Malaren and the Baltic Sea. With its medieval architecture and hi-tech builds, such as the new glass structure at Hornstull, this metropolis is the perfect setting for an eclectic array of bars, galleries, restaurants and shops.
The city, which lies on the south-central east coast, was established in 1250 by the statesman Birger Jarl in an attempt to defend his country from attacks by enemy naval forces. Over the next three centuries, Stockholm's influence grew because it benefited from the Baltic trade of the Hanseatic League and the Kalmar Union (when Scandinavia was allied under one monarch). By the 1600s, Sweden had developed into a great European power which was mirrored by its capital's evolution - the population increased fivefold. Yet, to witness one of the gravest catastrophes of this golden era, take in the fascinating Vasa Museum. It's named after the warship that foundered in 1628, before it had even sailed a mile. Raised from the seabed in the early 1960s and now reconstructed and preserved, its creaking hulk seems to echo with the despair of the 30 or so souls who perished on board.
For any visitors drawn to art or literature, a must-see is the atmospheric (August) Strindberg Museum. Situated in the last flat the 19th-century-born Swedish writer lived in, it contains press clippings, a library, furniture, and recreations of other interior decor like textiles and wallpaper. Alternatively, peek into the world of a more contemporary Nordic author and go on the Stieg Larsson Millennium tour. Occurring largely in Sodermalm, it includes the major haunts of the principal characters (Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist) from the eponymous trilogy of novels and films.
Fans of Swedish pop icons ABBA can visit the innovative ABBA Museum opened in Stockholm's Djurgarden district this year. Part of the brand-new Swedish Music Hall of Fame, the intimate exhibition chronicles the supergroup's incredible career from before their formation in the early 1970s up until their 1982 split. Items on display include costumes, photographs and original handwritten lyrics. After saying Thank You for the Music, check out the modern Nordic cuisine in Restaurang Jonas in the district of Kungsholmen. The menu is based on seasonal fare. Meanwhile, plush red velvet interiors reminiscent of fin-de-siecle Paris and exquisite French fare identify Le Rouge as another temple of gastronomy in Gamla Stan.
The centre of this city is composed of four very individual boroughs. Undoubtedly, Kungsholmen and Ostermalm have their merits; nonetheless Sodermalm, with its urbane nightclubs and the hip fashion enclave of SoFo (South of Folkungagatan), and the upmarket eatery-peppered commercial hub of Norrmalm, are the most appealing. Yet, nestled in between these two fantastic districts, is probably even more of a heart-stealer, Gamla Stan (Old Town). Dating back to when the capital was first constructed, its terracotta-coloured merchant houses, winding cobbled alleys and Renaissance churches are a wonder to behold. Stortorget, the main square, was the scene of 1520's Stockholm bloodbath: Christian II, an invading Danish king, massacred 80 to 90 predominantly Swedish nobles and clergy. There's still a cannonball in the wall (in the corner of Skomakargatan) from this time. These days, one can savour a host of attractions. The Nobel Museum, Storkyrkan (the cathedral) and Royal Palace - don't miss the soldiers' parade and the daily changing of the guard - are the standouts.
Since the 1950s, Sweden has been renowned for design, which typically embraces simplicity and function ahead of decoration. To unearth the classiest of what's on offer in Stockholm, pop into legendary lifestyle boutique Svenskt Tenn for Josef Frank's modernist furniture and floral-patterned fabric. Asplund has a similar smörgåsbord of elegant interior trappings, while Kosta Boda, which was founded in the mid-18th century, is brimming with beautiful handmade clear and coloured glass.
Due to Stockholm's high northerly latitude, daylight varies from just over 18 hours in mid-June to under six hours towards the end of December. The metropolis enjoys a relatively mild climate with four noticeably different seasons. Expect snowy winters that average a few degrees below freezing and entrancing summers, where temperatures can reach 30 degrees Celsius. May to late August is the best time for a stopover, with an unforgettable excursion being the thousands of picturesque islands.