Serene canals, stunning seafood and famous flatpack furniture have put the Swedish capital firmly on the tourist map. Paul Schoonenberg visits the 'Venice of the north'.
ONCE CONSIDERED AN OUTPOST ventured to by only a few travellers, low-cost airlines and the internet have made Stockholm a most attractive destination, both for those close enough to take advantage of weekend breaks as well as long-haul holidaymakers.
With its canals, historic buildings and location, where Lake Malaren flows into the Baltic Sea, many consider the Swedish capital to be the most beautiful city in Scandinavia. It's less densely populated than many other major European cities, providing a feeling of relaxation and space. And for those interested in culture, there are 100 art galleries and 70 museums to choose from.
At the heart of this north European gem is Gamla Stan (Old Town), a collection of cobbled streets, dotted with boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants. Stockholm is a city of canals (along with St Petersburg, it has earned itself the moniker, Venice of the north) and nowhere is this more noticeable than when you are walking through the old town, as you find yourself crossing bridge upon bridge to get to your next port of call.
On the edge of Gamla Stan, the imposing Kungliga Slottet, an 18th-century palace, lights up the hillside, while nearby at Stortorget Square is the Nobelmuseet, or Nobel Museum, where you can explore the history of the 20th century through the Nobel Prize and its laureates and gain an insight into more than 700 ingenious minds in the museum's exhibition, 'Cultures of Creativity'.
No visit to Stockholm would be complete without a trip to Drottningholm Palace, home to the Swedish Royal family. Built in the late 16th century, the palace is inspired by the chateau of Versailles, outside Paris, and is one of the finest examples of a northern European royal residence.
Walking through the grounds of the palace, you will come across the Chinese Pavilion. It was erected in 1753 as a birthday present for Queen Lovisa Ulrika and was built in a Chinese-inspired style, which at the time was the height of European fashion. The fusion of Chinese architecture allied to the European structure of the building is breathtaking, combining European Rococo with genuine Chinese influences. A pleasant way to approach Drottningholm is by boat. The journey takes an hour from Stadshusbron by the side of the City Hall (Stadshuset) to the palace.
The Museum of Modern Art - built in 1998 when Stockholm was European City of Culture - is well worth a visit. Just below the museum, visitors can walk to the Festivalplatsen where jazz and blues festivals are often held, especially in the summer. Stroll through the romantic Engelska Parken by its wooded footpath to Svensksundvagen, an 18th-century park. Finally, there is the Museum of Far East Antiquities - the last stop on this beautiful walk around Stockholm and highly recommended. Here you will find numerous historical collections of Chinese stoneware and art from Japan, Korea and India.
After all this culture, you can reward yourself with a day of shopping. The people of Stockholm are known for their chic dress sense and there is no lack of stylish shops in which to browse. Anna Holtblad, a Swedish designer who specialises in knitwear, leather and stylish accessories, is well worth a visit.
Swedish design is renowned throughout the world. The IKEA furniture store has its origins in Sweden - the branch at Kungens Kurva is one of the largest in the world. It has four floors and is a tourist attraction in itself.
For more discerning visitors, the upmarket NK - otherwise known as Nordiska Kompaniet - department store on Hamngatan offers a wide range of Swedish designer goods. Close by, the Biblioteksgatan is home to all of Stockholm's fanciest boutiques, while Gamla Stan, in particular Vasterlanggatan and Osterlanggatan streets, are full of souvenir shops catering to a variety of tastes.
The culinary delights of Stockholm include numerous local restaurants, as well as more international offerings. The seafood is superb and, in the centre of town, you will find more than enough choice to satisfy your appetite. Beluga has luxurious decor and offers tastes from Swedish and French cuisine. Clas Pa Hornet is a cosy restaurant dating back to 1736; it has a more modest menu offering local cooking for lunch and dinner. Berns Salonger is one of the places to be seen in the centre of the city. This classical restaurant has been transformed into a trendy hangout by designer Terence Conran, offering seafood as well as a variety of other Swedish and international dishes, accompanied by live jazz music. For connoisseurs of seafood, Wedholms Fisk serves classic Swedish and French food, with an outdoor oyster-bar during the summer season.
The city's nightlife does not disappoint. Stockholm is one of the clubbing capitals of Europe, with numerous options for night owls. Next month, the Stockholm Film Festival will host some of the most exciting new film releases of the year. This is one of the few 24-hour film festivals - and it will also provide a respite from the chilly temperatures outside.
For visitors missing the delights of Macau and the roulette wheel, there is the international Casino Cosmopol.
Set in a historical building in the centre of the city, it contains 31 tables for roulette, black jack, big wheel and poker and 300 slot machines.
Dressing correctly in Stockholm is important if you want to get into the right club. But after your forays into the local boutiques, you will be perfectly prepared for one of the city's trendy night spots. Berns Salonger is great for dinner accompanied by jazz, Spy Bar is the place to be seen among the stars and celebrities, while jazz club Mosebacke is more relaxed.
Whatever your tastes, the history, culture and modern chic of Stockholm will leave you inspired and impatient to plan your next trip to this jewel of the north.