A short stay in... Stockholm

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The Independent Travel
It's no surprise that Sweden's leading city is 1998's Cultural Capital of Europe, writes Gareth Lloyd. With the snow comes sunshine and cosy jazz cafes, idyllic islands, Viking longboats, avant-garde art, shoals of fish restaurants and vats of strong liquor

WHY GO THERE

Stockholm is deservedly the Cultural Capital of Europe for 1998. Set on 14 picturesque islands, the city has more than 70 museums and exhibitions, scores of theatres, opera and ballet houses and numerous venues covering every kind of music. Referred to as "the Venice of the North", it's cleaner and better run than its Italian cousin. Cheap airfares and a strong pound make it a more tempting destination than ever. Come now to enjoy the cosy cafes, as well as the winter sunshine and snow. You won't find bargains, but you will get style and quality.

WHEN TO GO

At the height of summer Stockholm never gets truly dark and temperatures can top 30C. Winter, on the other hand, is cold and sunny, with lots of snow making those long dark nights a little brighter. In January the average temperature is well below freezing, but don't be put off: simply copy the Swedes: wrap up warm, fuel yourself with fiery drinks and you'll love it.

HOW TO GET THERE

Air: Scandinavian Airlines (tel: 0345 010 780) offers the most convenient service. Ryanair (tel: 0541 569 569) has the cheapest flights, with daily departures from Stansted to Stockholm South, from pounds 99 return. Check high street travel agents and classified ads.

Ferry: Scandinavian Seaways (tel: 0990 333 000) travels from Newcastle (in summer) and Harwich to Gothenburg, from where there are frequent daily trains and buses for Stockholm, 400km away.

Rail: The standard rail fare from London is pounds 304 return. But there are many discounts and offers. Call International Rail Enquiries (tel: 0990 848 848) for further details.

Bus: Eurolines (tel: 01582 404 511) operates twice-weekly coaches from London Victoria to Stockholm that take from 25 hours and cost from pounds 147 return.

GETTING AROUND

Taxis are expensive. Transport from the airports should cost between pounds 30-pounds 40 but beware of cowboy operators. In town the taxi meters start at around pounds 5 and increase with uncomfortable speed. Two reputable companies are Taxi Stockholm (tel: 15 00 00) and Taxi Kurir (tel: 30 00 00). Ferries linking the islands leave from outside the Grand Hotel and cost from pounds 1.20.

Stockholm Card: Most journeys by public transport cost about pounds 1.50, although a better deal for most visitors is the Stockholm Card. It costs pounds 14 and gives one adult and two children the freedom of travel on public transport throughout the greater city area (except airport buses) for 24 hours. The card also allows free museum entry and discounts on boat trips and tours. Buy the cards from the city tourist office (see information) and Hotelcentralen in the Central Station.

Bicycles are available for hire from Skepp O'Hoy (Galarvarvsvagen 10; tel: 660 5757) from pounds 14 a day.

WHAT TO SEE

All the main sights are easy to find and have long opening hours. The following will help you whittle down the plethora of options.

City boat tours are an excellent way to explore. At weekends trips costing pounds 10 leave from Stomkajen at 10am and 1pm.

Vasamuseet (daily 10am-5pm, Wed until 8pm; adults pounds 4, children pounds 2.80).

National Museum (Tue, Thur 11am-8pm, Wed, Fri, Sat, Sun 11am-5pm; adults pounds 4.80, children free). The museum is home to high- quality sculpture, but the paintings make it world class. Artists of note include Canaletto, El Greco, Gainsborough, Gaugin and Renoir.

Storkyrkan, Stockholm's greatest church, has sat at the highest point of the old town since the 13th century. This is where kings and queens are crowned. Its interior has been renovated, leaving the red brick columns emanating a warm glow. There are organ recitals at 1pm on Saturdays.

Skansen (daily 11am-5pm; adults pounds 4.40, children 80p). This huge open- air museum is Sweden in a nutshell. More than 150 traditional buildings including windmills, farms and villages have been collected and reconstructed region by region complete with vegetation and animals.

Kakastornet TV Tower (daily 10am-9pm; adults pounds 1.50, children 50p). At 160m, this is the highest building in Scandinavia, and as such affords great views over the archipelago and towards the city. If you stop for coffee try and sit in the restaurant rather than the bistro - the latter overlooks a rather unattractive industrial dockland area.

Riddar Huset (Mon-Fri 11.30am-12.30pm; adults pounds 3.20, children 80p). The House of Nobles was where the Swedish aristocracy met for parliament between 1668 and 1865. Some 2,325 family coats of arms are splattered all over the walls, of which about 600 families are still going. Downstairs in the Chancery, there's a great store of heraldic bone china and racks full of fancy signet rings - an essential accessory for an 18th-century noble-about-town.

n Gamla Stan (old town) is a network of cobbled medieval lanes bordered by picturesque houses. From 9am-12pm, it's possible to nip down the alley at number 11 Kopmangatan to view the usually private communal area at the rear. Its main square, Stortorget, was the site of the 1520 Stockholm Bloodbath during which 82 nobles and burghers were killed.

n Island Exploration. If you're feeling intrepid you could escape to the archipelago's deserted islands and coves. Canoes or kayaks can be rented from either Skepp O'Hoj (Galarvarvsagen 10; tel: 660 57 57) or Tvillingarnas Bathuthyrning (Dyurgardsbron; tel: 663 37 39). Count on paying about pounds 8 per day or pounds 28 for a long weekend.

CULTURAL EVENTS

To celebrate its year as Europe's Cultural Capital 1998, Stockholm will be hosting over 1,000 different events on different themes, including history, art and photography, architecture, design and drama.

New Year's Eve at the Dance Palace. The cultural centre is where over 5,000 people, spread over six floors, danced in the New Year to a wide range of music, from rock and jazz to Viennese waltzes.

The Ice Cathedral: An immense pavilion with sculptures made of ice and snow from Lapland will be sculptured in Kungstradgarden (The King's Tree Garden), 18 January-18 February.

Marie Antoinette: The world premiere of a Swedish opera about the romance between the French queen and Axel von Fersen, a diplomat, will take place at the Swedish Opera from 24 January to March.

Museum of Modern Art: The newly built museum opens on 14 February with Wounds, an international exhibition covering the development of contemporary art from the 1960s onwards. Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Mathew Barney are just some of the exhibiting artists. 14 February-19 April.

Viking Invasion: More than 40 Viking longboats will sail into the city on 1 August. Spear forging and other Viking skills will be demonstrated on the shoreline and a market will take place in front of the Museum of National Antiques. 1-3 August.

Under/Exposed: A unique photographic exhibition displaying more than 700 works by 248 living photographers will replace the advertising billboards in 19 of the city's underground stations to create a gigantic gallery. 21 September-4 October.

Midwinter Festival: Choirs and choral singers will gather for a colourful finale to the celebrations. Taking part in the programme is the World Chamber Choir and the Vokalethno camp for promising young singers. 28 December-6 January.

FOOD AND DRINK

There's no escaping the fact that eating and drinking are going to devour a large part of your budget. Take advantage of restaurant lunchtime offers though, and you shouldn't suffer too much. Swedish food relies heavily on potato, fish and meat in many sauce-steeped guises. Alcoholic drinks are expensive. Strong lager-beer will set you back between pounds 2-pounds 4 for a small glass with wine available by the glass from about pounds 4. Akvavit, the local spirit, comes in a variety of weird and wonderful flavours.

Kaffekoppen & Chokladkoppen (18-20 Stortorget, Gamla Stan). The Cup of Coffee and The Cup of Chocolate are a pair of cosy cafes looking out on the old town square. As the names suggest each has a speciality, although Chokladkoppen's white chocolate with cinnamon is my favourite.

Operkallaren (Operahuset, Gustav Adolfs Torg). The smorgasbord (Mon-Sat 11.30am-3pm, Sun noon-6pm) in this famous opera house is fabulous and affordable. pounds 20 gets you all the meat balls, marinated herring, veggies, curd cake and rich cheese you can scoff.

Den Gyldene Freden (Osterlanggatan 17, Gamia Stan). The Golden Peace is Stockholm's oldest restaurant and host to the Swedish Academy). The atmosphere and home-style specialities are unbeatable. The quotation on the rest-room tiles is from Carl-Michael Bellman (one of Sweden's national poets) who used to drink here.

Bon Lloc (Bergsgatan 33, Kungsholmen). Mathias Dahlgren was named the world's best cook in 1997. In his new, modern restaurant he blends Swedish and Catalonian traditions. It's so "in" you have to reserve a table days in advance. Enjoy the superb wines but don't forget your plastic.

Bistro Jarl (Birger Jarlsgatan 7, Norrmalm). The main reason for calling by is to visit the new champagne bar which has a great selection, all sold by the glass.

NIGHTLIFE

Whatever your taste, be it pubs, classical music, jazz, opera, theatre or throbbing nightclubs, there is stuff to do, though it has to be said that summer is livelier than winter.

n Pelikan (Blekingegatan 40, Sodermalm) is a traditional Swedish beer hall complete with high ceiling and paintings of rural life. Stand at the bar to meet the characters.

n Fasching (Kungsgatan 63, Norrmalm) is the city's leading contemporary jazz club with live music and dancing most evenings after 12pm. The vibes are friendly and the drink prices quite reasonable.

n Patricia (Stadsg1ardskajen, Slussen, Sodermalm). The former royal yacht for England's Queen Mother is today a restaurant-disco-cum-bar. This romantic setting often has drag acts and stand-up comedy. Queens call by for gay night on Sundays, when it's free entry.

Sturecompagniet (Sturegatan 4, Norrmalm) is the hippest club in town, with several floors catering for most musical tastes. Konserthuset (Hotorget, Norrmalm) and Berwaldhallen (Strandvagen 69, Ostermalm) are just two of many venues for classical music.

Regina (Drottinggatan 71, Norrmalm) is the only theatre which has regular performances of English language productions. For cut-price theatre tickets check the kiosk in Norrmalmstorg.

Operan (Gustav Adolfs Torg) is Sweden's most famous operatic venue, although Folkoperan (Hornsgatan 72, Sodermalm) has more productions.

WHERE TO STAY

There are lots of hostels and hotels, though note that if you go for one of the Cultural Capital events, it's probably wise to book ahead to make sure you've somewhere to sleep that suits you.

The Bed and Breakfast Service arranges accommodation in flats and family homes from around pounds 18 per night. Call them on 00 468 660 5565, or fax: 00 468 663 3822.

Af Chapman (Vastra Brobanken, Skeppsholmen; tel 679 50 15). This square- rigged sailing ship must rate as one of the most novel hostels anywhere. The views over Gamia Stan are outstanding. Beds cost pounds 8.50 per night. Advanced bookings essential.

Kallbagens Wardshus (Djurgardsbrunnsvagen 10, Ladugardsgardet; tel 665 0300). Overlooking the calm waters of Lake Djurgardsbrunnsviken, all rooms at this spotless hotel come complete with en suite bathroom and high recommendation. Doubles start at pounds 60.

Grand Hotel (Sodra Blasieholmshamn 8, Norrmalm; tel: 679 3500). This 19th-century hotel, overlooking the harbour, is one of Stockholm's finest.

OUT OF TOWN

The sights include the Santa World Theme Park, the splendid Drottningholm royal palace and a steamboat trip to the quintessentially Swedish village of Mariefred; but perhaps best of all, is a day trip around the Stockholm archipelago.

Many Stockholmers have small wooden summer houses and it's pretty obvious why. As mainland Sweden splinters into the Baltic, it produces an array of hundreds of idyllic pine-clad islands ideal for getting away from it all. Getting out there is easy and cheap with most boats leaving from just in front of the Grand Hotel and costing between pounds 2 and pounds 8. The Waxholmsbolaget boat office on Stromkajen is a good place to pick up a timetable and plan your route. Places to look out for are Vaxholm, Grinda Gallno and Svartso.

SHOPPING

High prices mean most visitors content themselves with window-shopping. In the January sales it's not uncommon to pick up quality Swedish goods at a 50-70 per cent discount. If you're there for the weekend remember that many shops close at around 3pm on Saturdays.

n Biblioteksgatan, from Norrmalmstorg to Stureplan, is the place to find internationally renowned fashion shops such as Kenzo, Ralph Lauren and Emporio Armani.

n Drottinggatan, from Sergelstorg to Tegnergatan, has speciality shops that deal in odds and ends and also tools and books. Highlights include Gunnarsonns, a family business that specialises in caricature wood carvings made to order.

n Gamla Stan is home to old-fashioned toys, crystal, textiles and antique shops. A stroll around the shops here is a must - even if you don't buy anything.

BOOKS

The Swedish Bookshop, on Hamngatan, has a selection of expensive English language guide books to the city. The Rough Guide to Sweden (Rough Guide, pounds 10.99) has a great section on Stockholm. Another interesting book to read before your visit is Culture Shock Sweden - A Guide to Custom and Etiquette (Kuperard, pounds 7.95) by Charlotte Rosen Svensson. Providing an often humorous and invaluable insight into the Swedish psyche.

LANGUAGE

All Swedes are forced to learn English from the age of 10 and do so alarmingly well. If you fancy a bash at learning Swedish most good book shops stock phrase books and dictionaries.

DEALS/PACKAGES

Scantours (tel: 0171 839 2927) and Crystal (tel: 0181 241 5040) charge from pounds 265 for a two-night weekend stopover in a three-star hotel (including breakfast) with flights from most airports. Specialised Travel (tel: 0181 810 6999) are able to offer tailor-made breaks to suit all budgets.

CURRENCY

The currency is the krona, of which there are around 12.5 to the pound. Be warned that other Scandinavian krona currencies (Danish, Norwegian) are not interchangeable.

INFORMATION

Swedish Travel & Tourism Council, 11 Montagu Place, London W1H 2AL (tel: 0171 724 5868, fax: 0171 724 5872) offers good, free maps and heaps of information. The main city tourist office, at Sverigehuset (tel: 789 2490) on Hamangatan in Norrmalm, is open daily from 9am-3pm and often later.

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