Sweden’s capital – a Nordic vision of waterways, parks and spire-filled skylines – is justifiably renowned as one of the most handsome cities in Europe. Spread over no less than 14 islands and surrounded by literally thousands of smaller, rocky islets, it combines the drama and open skies of Scandinavia with the verve, dynamism and urban cool of Western Europe.
As with any destination of this scope (there are close to 850,000 residents in the inner city), the soul of the place lies in its many faces: the stucco walls of the Old Town, the contemporary pulse of the galleries, the consumerist buzz of the shopping heartlands, the deep peace of the parklands, the thumping bass of the nightlife and, increasingly, the gourmet draw of the restaurants.
Stockholm’s location on the shores of the Baltic Sea means seasonal variations hit hard, and many locals will tell you that the only thing to match the beauty of a summer’s evening in Stockholm is the winter charm of its frozen lakes and snow-fringed skylines. Water surrounds the city, so there’s a distinct lack of the urban claustrophobia that affects other capitals, while the famously cordial Swedish temperament (generally friendly, polite and laid-back in equal measure) makes travel to the city easy and enjoyable – if not always especially cheap.
It’s very much the hub of affairs in Sweden, to the point where some of those in the provinces refer to the city as the isdrottning (ice queen) as a dig at the capital’s perceived sense of self-importance. This is highly unlikely to mirror the impression you’ll have as a visitor, however – it’s more probable that you’ll share the sentiments of Ingmar Bergman, who moved to Stockholm as a young man to study and work. “It is not a city at all,” he once said. “It is ridiculous to think of it as a city. It is simply a rather large village, set in the middle of some forest and some lakes. You wonder what it thinks it is doing there.”
It’s certainly true that Stockholm’s unique character is a major reason for its popularity among travellers and, in a continent where charismatic urban destinations come thick and fast, it says plenty that the city’s cultural scene is vibrant enough to rival anywhere else in northern Europe. On top of its exhibitions, museums and concerts, meanwhile, it’s also a deeply romantic setting in which to while away a long weekend – you’d have to be hard-hearted not to fall for the mix of preserved medieval architecture, sweeping water vistas and unfailingly intense nightlife.
And the legendary national knack for design? It’s apparent almost everywhere in Stockholm, from modernist high-rises and boutique fashion houses to sleek museums and baroque facades. Most importantly though, it’s worth stressing just how much this is a city apart. It’s the most populated urban area in Scandinavia, yet two thirds of it are still comprised of water and greenery. And if this doesn’t seem probable, well, you’ve got the ideal excuse to go and check.