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Swedes don't need an excuse to party, but the long days of May are just the start of a summer of fun in Scandinavia's grandest capital. Harriet O'Brien reports

WHY GO NOW?

Spring arrives in a sudden rush in Stockholm: right now you can practically see the leaves unfurling and fresh green spreading across this magnificent, watery city. What's more, the refracted and reflected spring sunshine presents Stockholm in sparkling form. This is a city whose inhabitants are happily looking ahead to the endless days of summer, with outdoor cafés in the many public spaces while yachts, jetskis and boats sail away to outlying islands.

BEAM DOWN

The main airport for Stockholm is Arlanda, served from Edinburgh, Heathrow, London City and Manchester by SAS (0870 60 727 727; www.fly sas.com). British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow and Manchester. The Arlanda airport express train leaves for Stockholm's central station (1) every 15 minutes and costs 200 crowns (SEK200/£14.70) for the 20-minute journey. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to two variations on Stockholm: Vasteras from Luton and Skavsta from Stansted, both over an hour away by connecting bus. There are also five flights a week between Prestwick and Skavsta.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Stockholm is perfectly set between the Baltic Sea and one of Sweden's largest lakes, Malaren. Although it comprises a collection of more than a dozen islands that are linked by bridges and ferries, it is a surprisingly easy city to get around, and the central area is easily manageable on foot. Alternatively, the clean and efficient metro provides a swift service. The main tourist office (2) is at Hamngatan 27 (00 46 8 508 28 508; www.stockholmtown.com); the location is off café-filled Kungstradgarden, once the royal kitchen gardens. It opens 9am-7pm from Monday to Friday, 10am-5pm on Saturdays and 10am-4pm on Sundays. Here you can buy a Stockholm Card (SEK270/ £20 for 24 hours, SEK420/ £31 for 48 hours) covering public transport, sightseeing by boat and entry to a host of museums - though before you invest, bear in mind that admission to some of the city's major galleries is in any case free.

CHECK IN

The best address in town is the Grand Hôtel (3) at Sodra Blasieholmshamnen 8 (00 46 8 679 35 60; www.grandhotel.se) right across the water from the Royal Palace (4). Here, old-world charm is combined with slick service in one of the city's most fabled buildings. The glittering, and eclectic, guest list includes Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Gerald Ford and Bruce Springsteen. The history here is almost palpable: ask to be shown the Hall of Mirrors, modelled on Versailles, where the first Nobel prize awards were handed out. Doubles cost from SEK3,330 (£244) including breakfast.

A good mid-priced option is Hotel Wellington (5) at Storgatan 6 (00 46 8 667 09 10; www.wellington.se), well-positioned in the Ostermalm area about 15 minutes' walk from the central station (1). It offers 60 chic and comfortable rooms, with doubles from SEK1,395 (£102) including breakfast.

Further north, a fine three-star choice is Hotel Oden (6) at Karlbergsvagen 24 (00 46 8 457 97 00; www.hotel oden.se) in the university area at Norrmalm. Doubles start at SEK1,050 (£77), including breakfast.

TAKE A HIKE

Pick up a free map of Stockholm from the main tourist office (2) and set off to explore Gamla Stan, an area of Stockholm that dates from the 13th century. To get to this island, walk through Kungstradgarden down to Stromgatan beside the water. Turn right, walk past the opera house (7) and cross Norrbro bridge to Helgeandsholmen. To your right is the Riksdagshuset, or Parliament (8), formerly the Bank of Sweden (1895). A notice in front invites people to fish for sea trout and salmon in the outlying waters; in summer wader-clad enthusiasts do. Below, on your left, is the Medieval Museum (9), which opens 11am-4pm daily (though not Mondays between September and June) and 11am-6pm Wednesdays, admission free. It displays reconstructions of old Stockholm based on archaeological excavations. Continue over the next small bridge and you reach Gamla Stan. In front of you is the Royal Palace (4), dating from the 18th century and built on the site of a much older royal castle. Follow Slottskajen around the building and turn left into Vasterlanggatan. Turn left up Storkyrkobrinken to reach Stockholm's cathedral, Storkyrkan (10); it opens 9am-6pm daily except Sundays, when it opens noon-4pm; admission SEK25 (£1.80). Walk on to Stortorget behind the cathedral, a magnificent square surrounded on three sides by old townhouses. On the fourth side the old Stock Exchange houses the Nobel Museum (11) (open 10am-5pm daily and until 8pm Tuesdays, admission SEK60/£4.40). Continue along Skomakargatan, past medieval costume shops, and turn right down Tyska Brinken and then left back into Vasterlanggatan with its array of craft and amber shops. Follow the street round into Jarntorget Square (12) and turn left into Osterlanggatan. Meander along this alleyway back to the Royal Palace (4) past troll shops, galleries and below a great statue of St George and a very scaly dragon.

Turn left along Slottsbacken, past the Sweden Bookshop (13) (open 10am-6pm from Monday to Friday and Saturdays 11am-4pm in August and September), which sells a huge variety of books on Sweden in English, French, German and more, and walk around the palace until you are back facing Helgeandsholmen.

TAKE A VIEW

At Slussen, just south of Gamla Stan, the Katarinahissen lift (14) whisks you up to the Gondola Café; the elevator operates 7.30am-10pm daily (Sundays from 10am), fare SEK10 (£0.75). At the top you can buy a cappuccino to sip while taking in an amazing panorama of the city.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Head for the market, Ostermalmshallen (15). With stalls selling smoked venison, smoked salmon and herring in seemingly endless permutations, it offers an epicurean experience rather than a bargain bonanza. Tysta Mari is an upmarket outlet with wooden tables and benches, serving the likes of fish soup with aioli (SEK105/£7.70) and fried herring with mashed potato (SEK86/£6.30).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Skeppsholmen, one of Stockholm's prettiest islands, is the location of the Modern Art Museum (16) (open 10am-6pm daily except Mondays, until 8pm Tuesday and Wednesday; admission free). It offers works by Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky, Matisse and more. The collection is housed in the same light, bright building as the absorbing Architectural Museum (same times, also free).

WRITE A POSTCARD

The Modern Art Museum (16) has an excellent café with an outdoor terrace. So buy your card of Matisse's purple landscape or Chagall's old man and goat and write it here while admiring the watery views and indulging in a coffee and cinnamon bun.

WINDOW SHOPPING

The large Ahlens department store (17) at Klarabergsgatan 50 offers excellent value in its homeware department. The Sodermalm district, south of Gamla Stan, is where you'll find designer wear: visit Le Shop at Nytorgsgatan 23 (18) and Neu at 36 (19) for Swedish brands.

AN APERITIF

The covered veranda bar at the opera house (7) is where the cool crowd gathers. Drinks cost a small fortune (at least SEK75/£5.50 for a glass of wine), but it's fun to sink into the white leather chairs and mingle with Stockholm's stylish set.

DINNER WITH THE LOCALS

Prinsen (20) at Master Samuelsgatan 4 off Birger Jarlsgatan (00 46 8 611 1331; www.restaurang prinsen.se) is a hugely popular restaurant with art deco furnishings and stained-glass windows. It offers hearty Swedish dishes such as herrings with cheese (SEK165/£12) and meatballs with lingon berries, pickled cucumber and mashed potato (SEK159/£11.70).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Baroque St Jacobs (21) off Kungstradgarden dates from the 17th century and describes itself as Stockholm's "international church". Mass in Swedish is held at 11am on Sundays, with a service in English at 6pm.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Sundbergs Konditori (22) (00 46 8 10 67 35) is the oldest confectioner and café in the city, with gilt-and-blue furnishings and tables spilling out into Gamla Stan's Jarntorget square. It serves the likes of bagels with smoked salmon (SEK55/£4) and prawns on rye bread (SEK65/£4.80).

TAKE A RIDE

... on a boat along Stockholm's canals. From June until the end of August 50-minute tours, with commentary in English, leave half-hourly from 10.30am to 5.30pm by the bridge (23) outside Stadshuset, the City Hall. Trips cost SEK120 (£8.80).

A WALK IN THE PARK

The former royal hunting ground of Djurgarden is now a city park containing some of Stockholm's most popular attractions. Best for a saunter is the open-air museum Skansen (24), with about 150 traditional houses and reconstructed farmsteads plus a zoo. You can reach Djurgarden on the 47 bus, or take the Djurgarsfarjan ferry from Slussen. It opens 10am-8pm daily (until 10pm from 20 June to 31 August), admission SEK70/£5.10.

ICING ON THE CAKE

On the north-west shore of Djurgarden is the phenomenal Vasa museum (25). The Vasa was built in 1628 as a flagship for the Swedish navy but foundered on her maiden voyage. She was salvaged in the 1960s and pieced together. Today you can wander around and admire the detail of her wonderfully carved bow and stern; she is both an amazing ship and a treasure of 17th-century art. The museum opens 10am-5pm daily, Wednesdays until 8pm, admission SEK80/£5.90.

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