Fourteen islands, scattered throughout the watery maze between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea like steppingstones, make up the Swedish capital of Stockholm. Some are small and distinctly isolated; others are large and barely distinguishable as islands. But just about anywhere you turn in Stockholm, the backdrop involves the deep glittering blue water of the harbor, lined with striking architecture, making it one of the most beguiling cities in Northern Europe.
Stockholm’s historic quarter is called Gamla Stan, and its cobblestone streets, lined with fairytale German architecture, are cloyingly picturesque. With the standard array of landmark churches, palaces, and museums, Gamla Stan is very touristy but still a must-see before you move onto the more vibrant parts of the real, modern Stockholm. Back across one of the three bridges that connect Gamla Stan to “mainland” Stockholm is the busy and well-groomed Norrmalm, Stockholm’s commercial heart and a shopper’s paradise, with venerable Swedish department store N.K. (Hamngatan 18–20) anchoring the retail offerings. Norrmalm is one of the poshest neighborhoods in the city, along with tony Ostermalm to the east, where you can browse around Scandinavia’s top gourmet market, Ostermalms Saluhalle (Nybrogatan 31; www.saluhallen.com), located in a fortresslike neo-Gothic red-brick building that’s been around since 1888. (If you’ve ever had a hankering to try reindeer meat, now’s your chance.) One of the best places to spend time for visitors and Stockholmers alike is the city’s parks and recreation island, Djurgården. To the west, the mostly residential island-district of Kungsholmen is home to the imposing red-brick Stadshuset (City Hall), where the Nobel prize award banquet is held every year. The expansive lawn out front is a wonderful place to relax and watch the boat traffic on Lake Mälaren.
Södermalm (“south island”) is to Stockholm as Brooklyn is to New York City. Söder is where the hip and bohemian boutiques and cafes are, but also where you’ll find some of the city’s oldest and most traditional eateries, like Pelikan (Blekingegatan 40), an atmospheric beer hall that makes Stockholm’s best kottbullar (Swedish meatballs). Suspended over the Slussen locks between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea (between Södermalm and Gamla Stan) is Eriks Gondolen (Stadts-gården 6), a touristy restaurant that nevertheless boasts one of the best views in Europe and provides a good overview of the city’s countless waterways.
Summer is the absolute best time to appreciate the island-rich topography of Stockholm. On waterfront esplanades like Strandvägen and Skeppsbron, alfresco cafes spring to life and buzz with activity until the wee hours; it doesn’t get dark until 1am or so, and the sun comes right back out a few hours later. Stockholmers hate to miss even 1 minute of the mild weather and plentiful light, creating a lively energy that permeates their city all season.