A capital of modern minimalism, Stockholm is ebullient with Baroque and Renaissance castles, waterside cafes, gracious parks, and a peculiar talent for fostering international pop culture phenomena. One of the more surprisingly interesting aspects of a Baltic Sea cruise is actually the hours spent sailing toward this port: The approach to the island capital takes time, as the ship navigates through a mere fraction of the 30,000 bucolic islands of the archipelago.
Be sure to sit outside or by a window for the long, lazy passage past stunning scenery. Once in Stockholm, if you’re a dancing queen or just hanker to follow the trail of that “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” take a chance on this 800-year-old city of islands.
Splurge: Grand Hôtel – Nobelists making the pilgrimage to Stockholm to receive their medals stay at the 139-year-old Grand Hotel. Each of the 300 rooms is appointed in high international luxe with polished woods, antique furniture and art, and extravagant textiles. Shell out for a waterfront-facing room to gaze across the canal at the copper spires, bell towers, and cupolas, and live it up like a laureate. Doubles with views from $470.
Steal: Hotel Skeppsholmen – Stockholm’s urban mix of old and new is on display in this 17th-century building, where the mod minimalist interiors were designed by Claesson Koivisto Rune, the first Swedish architectual firm to show in the Venice Bienniale. Located on the museum island of Skeppsholmen, one of Stockholm’s great public prizes, this boutique hotel is an excuse to stick around the verdant island park even longer. Doubles from $295.
Tip: The Swedish Tourism Board, figuring Swedes are the best ambassadors for their own country, created a website to pair visitors with like-minded locals. More than 10,000 Swedes volunteer to be personalized guides and friends to visitors from abroad, and you can search for a Swedish buddy by shared interest and destination.
Breakfast: Mellqvist Kaffebar – “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” author Stieg Larsson (and his alter ego in the novel, Journalist Mikael Blomkvist) were addicted to the coffee at Mellqvist Kaffebar in the Södermalm neighborhood, where fans of the trilogy can grab coffee and a croissant, and then explore the neighboring bohemian boutiques.
Lunch: Östermalms Saluhall – If it can be foraged, fished, or hunted, it can be found at the historic Östermalms Saluhall, a 19th-century market where cafes, bars, and stalls peddle native elk, reindeer, and bear meat. Nordic delicacies for less thrill-seeking eaters include Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam.
Dinner: Matsalen – The two-Michelin starred Matsalen, from Chef Mathias Dahlgren, is the place in Stockholm to experience seasonal Nordic produce put thoroughly through its paces. Here, classic entrees such as pickled herring meet modern creations like beet foam, in a room so down to earth and warm, it puts much modernist cuisine to shame.
Dessert: NK Konditori – Great dessert isn’t as easy to find in Stockholm as in some European capitals, but retail enthusiasts won’t be disappointed on the main shopping street of Hamngatan, where Nordiska Kompaniet — the swanky department store known to locals as just NK — sits in a lavish art nouveau building, facing off against the Danish emporium, Illums Bolighus. NK is as well known for its fantastic in-house bakery, NK Konditori. Look for old-fashioned sponge cakes and pastries filled with various combinations of custard, marzipan, and whipped cream, and topped with powdered sugar.
Tip: To chat with a Swedish eccentric, head to the Konstnärs Bar, where the intelligentsia have been drinking lager and swapping stories since the 1930s.
For Everyone: Skansen Museum and Zoo – Stockholm’s open-air museum island boasts the theme park at Skansen, where an enlightened 19th-century teacher relocated historic buildings from throughout the country, worried that Sweden’s pastoral record would be lost and forgotten in a mechanized future. There has always been folk music and dancing in the summer months on the Solliden Stage, but as of 2013, a slick new concert venue is open.
For Couples: Gamla Stan – The knotted cobblestone streets of the old town, Gamla Stan, are so narrow and twisty you can hardly ride a bike through. But once you cross the bridge, you’ll be in what’s known as the back pocket, the Bakfickan, of Operakllaren, where couples can sip aquavit in local bars at sunset — or in the extended twilight of the Swedish summer’s midnight sun.
For Families: The capital is home to the Swedish Royal Family, and the Royal Palace’s midday changing of the guard is a pleasure to rival — if not surpass — the lavish parade at Buckingham. Parents with strong backs and shoulders should expect to hoist little ones aloft to witness the world’s finest horseback military band in front of the 18th-century, 600-room palace. The horseback ballet is a treat for grown-ups too, but they might want to tack on a visit to the state apartments.
For the Adventurous: In winter, ferries throughout the archipelago are filled with day-trippers and long-distance ice skaters. Go with a guide, a set of ski poles to test the ice, and a spare set of dry clothes — falling through is common and, apparently, part of the fun.
Tip: There are as many gorgeous museums in Stockholm as there are Swedes — or at least it seems that way when you have to choose between them — but each one carries its own pricey entrance fee. Buy a Stockholm card for unlimited use of public transportation and admission to 80 museums and attractions. $100 for 48 hours.
Think the doormen at nightclubs only let the beautiful people in? That’s certainly true in Stockholm. To avoid the long queues and a night standing on the wrong side of the velvet rope, dress to the nines before you go out, and make sure you arrive before 10 pm, when the competition for a coveted place on the dance floor grows more fierce.