Comprised of 14 islands, centred on medieval Gamla Stan, Stockholm guarantees visitors one breathtaking vista after another. And because most districts are on self-contained islands, the city breaks down into quickly recognisable, well-defined areas.
Stockholm's medieval heart, the island of Gamla Stan strategically straddles the gateway between the Baltic Sea and the inland Lake Mälaren. Its buildings are packed tightly into narrow, meandering streets that today echo to the footfalls of tourists and its lucky few inhabitants. The island's main drag, Västerlånggatan, offers the contemporary comforts of waffle cones, tourist treasures and kitsch craft boutiques.
Most of the downtown, commercial centre of Norrmalm – also known as City – resulted from a massive 'renewal' campaign in the 1960s, in which nearly all of the district's older buildings were torn down in favour of boxy office space. The area continues to develop today, this time decidedly for the better, with renovated shopping centres, new designer boutiques and ultramodern hotels under construction on its western border. Aside from all the hotels and shopping opportunities, Norrmalm is also known for its restaurants, nightclubs and some key museums and sights. Vasastaden is more residential and has some pretty pubs, restaurants and antique shops.
Make like the Stockholmers and head for the green oasis of Djurgården (pronounced 'your-gore-den'). The island, a short walk from downtown, has many of Stockholm's, if not Sweden's, best museums and attractions, as well as waterfront cafés and picnic spots, tranquil walking and cycling paths, and some of the best views in the city.
Södermalm's working class heritage no longer deters the posh folk from crossing the water locks at Slussen to eat, drink, live and be merry in the city's most diverse and colourful district. While museums are few, the stunning views of the city from the rocky northern heights outclass many other Stockholm sights. Trendy restaurants, cafés, bars and clubs continue to mushroom on the island known more affectionately and simply as Söder. The district's main focal points are Slussen and Medborgarplatsen, connected by Götgatan – a pedestrian shopping street that runs right through the middle of the island.
Långholmen is a beautiful green island with sandy beaches – perfect for swimming – and tree-shaded walks.
This urban playground for the rich, beautiful and, often, famous is a shopper's paradise by day and a clubber's paradise by night. The main focus is the bustling square of Stureplan, at the centre of which stands the concrete rain shelter known as Svampen (the mushroom). Formerly a rather run-down area, Stureplan was revamped at the end of the 1980s and is now party central for glamour-seeking, fashion-conscious Stockholmers. Aside from the nightlife, Stureplan is also the city's most upmarket shopping area.
The majestic Stadshuset (City Hall), an architectural gem visible from far and wide, faces visitors as they cross Stadshusbron from Norrmalm, and the city's famous landmark tends to leave the rest of the island in its shadow. But while what lies beyond is a fairly nondescript mix of apartments, shops and offices, Kungsholmen does also have a sprinkling of tranquil parks and some good neighbourhood restaurants, plus a few hip outposts worth the trek. The island is within a whisker of a Swedish mile (6.2 miles/10 kilometres) in circumference, and the island's waterside walkways are popular with joggers seeking a run with a view.
Rolling green lawns, cool woodlands and 18th-century architecture make Hagaparken a popular outdoor destination. One of its biggest draws is the fact that it's within easy reach of the city centre, just north-west of Vasastaden on the western edge of Brunnsviken Bay. Ekoparken, a national park within the city cuts a diagonal green swath from the island of Djurgården in the south-east to Ulriksdals Palace in the north-west.
The Stockholm archipelago
The Stockholm archipelago begins just a few miles east of the capital, covering about 140 kilometres (90 miles) from north to south. Only 150 of the islands are inhabited, but many Stockholmers have summerhouses in the archipelago and visitor numbers swell in the warmer months, especially July. The landscape varies tremendously, from the more populated, thickly wooded inner archipelago to the bare, flat rocks of the central and outer islands.
The archipelago is best visited from mid June to mid August – during the rest of the year many hotels, restaurants and other facilities are closed, ferries are few and far between, and some islands pretty much shut down to visitors. Always book ahead to ensure there will be accommodation available.
During the summer the archipelago often gets more sunshine than the mainland, but it's still a good idea to pack a raincoat and sweater. Sunscreen and mosquito repellent are also recommended. Take provisions as shops are not always open, and remember that cashpoints are few and far between.
The easiest way to get out to the islands is by ferry.