48 hours in the life of ... Stockholm

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The Independent Online
Each week, 'The Independent' provides a prescription for the perfect two-day break to the soul of a city. This week, Simon Calder forsakes Waterloo for Stockholm, and couldn't escape if he wanted to.

Why go now?

Can you hear the drums? In 1997, the Swedish capital has finally become accessible at a sensible price; new, cheap flights make a weekend break affordable. But don't hang around; every day until midwinter, the Scandinavian gloom deepens, exacerbated this autumn by losing the 2004 Olympics. And from the New Year, the city becomes European Capital of Culture, so accommodation could be at a premium. Must be funny in a rich man's world.

Beam down

Until this summer, flying from Britain to Sweden for a low fare was as tricky as, say, getting from Stansted to Skavsta. Then Ryanair (0541 569569) solved both problems at once. For pounds 99 plus tax you can fly from the Essex airport to what is euphemistically described as "Stockholm South". A connecting bus covers the 60 miles into town in about 80 minutes, for pounds 11 return. British Airways (0345 222111), Finnair (0171-408 1222) and SAS (0345 010789) have been obliged to trim their fares from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester to compete; they fly to the main Arlanda airport, half-an-hour north of the city.

Get your bearings

A bus from either airport will drop you at the central bus and rail station, on the most important of Stockholm's 14 islands. You are on the western edge of the main commercial district, Norrmalm, where you will end up spending lots of your time. The other attractive landmass is just south of here: Gamla Stan (old town), an island out of time. The most comprehensively stocked tourist office in the northern hemisphere is half-a-mile east of the station; ask anyone for directions to the Sweden House.

Check in

My first visit was spent at the Bredang campsite, well south west of the city. If I had to do the same again I would, my friend, but with winter approaching (the site closes on 31 October) I recommend instead the Maladrottningen - a handsome old steamer once owned by Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and now converted into a "botel"which costs around pounds 60 double (book on 00 46 824 3600); or the Scandinavian-sterile Scandic Park (00 46 822 9620), squatting squarely on the north side of Humlegarden, pounds 90 double including an eat-all-you-can breakfast - a critical advantage hereabouts.

Take a ride

Take tram 7 out to Djurgarden, Stockholm's very own national park, (though out of summer the Tivoli funfair looks a little dismal). Take the ferry back to Gamla Stan to sense the resonances of a city which has found harmony between land and water.

Take a hike

Lunch on the run

In the opulent district of Ostermalm, the local market looks like Harrods' food hall and sells a zoo's worth of cold cuts from warm-blooded beasts: elk, bear and other non-endangered Nordic nosh. You have never assembled so exotic a picnic.

Cultural afternoon

You have four brief hours, from noon to 4pm, to visit Millesgarden, the home of Scandinavia's most famous sculptor. The tough part is finding it; take the Tunnelbana to Ropsten, then a bus to Torsviks. What sets this place apart from the dozens of other museums in Stockholm is that Carl Milles spent most of his life constructing his own extraordinary epitaph. The garden terraces that tumble down towards the steely water are populated by a large, dysfunctional family of sculptures.

An aperitif

For the first (and probably last) time in the 48 hours series, I recommend you take an early evening drink in your hotel room - not to save cash, so much as to experience the social stigma attaching to the Swedish drinker. Even if you've never thought you had an alcohol problem, you will when you visit a Stockholm off-licence - known as Systembolaget. Ten of these are dotted around the city. You enter an alarmingly sanitised hall where the beer and wine are kept well out of reach. Like a schoolboy buying condoms, you have to queue up and ask the assistant clearly for your chosen poison.

Demure dinner

Stockholm New magazine says the city has changed "from a stale mashed potato and gravy outpost into one of Europe's most dynamic gourmet metropolises". That's going it a bit, but certainly my best meal this year was at Cliff Barnes. There was something in the air that night.

The three surprises about this place are (a) that anyone should name a restaurant after a bit player in an Eighties series such as Dallas; (b) that it would be located in the middle of what looks like a giant sanatorium; (c) that the food should be such exceptional value for money. It's where they play the right music, too; the only reason you can get a table on a Saturday night is that it's a couple of miles north west of the centre.

Sunday morning: go to church

Stockholm's citizens still shed tears for their lost humanitarian, Prime Minister Olof Palme - assassinated in 1986. He is buried at Adolf Fredriks church, which poses prettily in the north of Norrmalm.

Bracing brunch

Almost all the city's restaurants and cafes are closed on Sunday mornings. Be first in the queue for the National Museum when it opens at 11am, and ignore the collection of paintings and sculptures in favour of the Atrium restaurant. The 60kr museum admission fee will soften you up for splashing out on a fishy feast.

A walk in the park

Stepping just a little further takes you over the bridge to the island of Skeppsholmen. They call Stockholm the Venice of the north. In places it looks more like the Portsmouth of the east, or the Murmansk of the west. But walking around the green spaces of this pocket-sized, teardrop- shaped isle reveals the capital in its best light and shade.

The souvenir

A tin of herrings with the brand name Abba, sold in most supermarkets. If the person in front of you grabs the last can, just say, "If you change your mind, I'm the first in line."

Simon Calder will donate his copy of 'Abba Gold' to the person who spots all the references from Abba songs AND comes up with the best anagram from the 24 letters of "Agneta, Frida, Bjorn and Benny".