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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.