Savoring Stockholm in Springtime

Sweden's capital blossoms as it emerges from the depths of winter.
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When the springtime sun sets, Stockholm fairly glows in light. Warm tones bathe the stone buildings that fringe the water, the sky gradually darkens and ferry boats, their outside lights switching on, glide through the urban archipelago.

The beguiling light in Stockholm,

Sweden's

capital and largest city, came as a surprise; I had always pictured the city as gray. Clean, of course. And almost unbearably ... nice.

Well, it is nice, but Stockholm's niceness is not hard to bear. It is clean, and that's fine, too. But as with its unexpectedly mellow light, this northern capital of 750,000 people surprises the visitor in a whole host of ways.

With food, for example.

Stockholm has become more multicultural in recent years, and the influx of newcomers has diversified the city's palate. Hearty Swedish meatballs and briny herring are still easily found, but Italian, French, Thai and sushi have arrived, too. It's no foodie destination like New York or Tokyo -- cities many times larger -- but Stockholm has an impressive variety of restaurants for a place its size.

Stockholm grew in concentric circles, expanding outward from the medieval district of Gamla Stan (Old Town) to 13 nearby islands, sprouting new neighborhoods one by one, then expanded to several dozen more of the 24,000 islands in the Stockholm Archipelago.

I journeyed to Stockholm on the sleek X2000 train from Copenhagen, a five-hour ride, then flew back from Arlanda Airport, 25 miles outside Stockholm, on SAS, Scandinavia's major airline. The land and air combination saved time and afforded a variety of looks at the lakes, forests and farms of the region.

Gamla Stan

, where my hotel, the

First Reisen

, is located, is the first place many visitors go in Stockholm. It has a touristy surface, with pricey antique shops lining narrow streets that can become crowded in high summer, but the tourist's city is easily skirted.

Gamla Stan is cross-hatched with three- and four-story heritage houses and cobblestone streets and is liberally sprinkled with cafes. Fika -- coffee break -- is one of Stockholm's most cherished customs, and a lively café culture has grown up around this tradition. Café Edenborg, with its racks of pulp novels, vegetarian sandwiches, a young bohemian crowd and good coffee, is an engaging example.

Gamla Stan is also home to many of the capital's signature buildings, such as the Royal Palace, the official residence of Sweden's royals, a low-key, well-liked family of constitutional monarchs. The palace, honeycombed with 600 rooms, faces an expansive square and is open for tours. A nearby crest in hilly Gamla Stan is crowned by Storkyrkan Cathedral, more than 700 years old. Stockholm has many historic buildings, though few are this grand. Sweden sat out World War II, so the city was not bombed; Stockholm looks like big European cities must have looked around 1925.

Gamla Stan is walkable, as is most of central Stockholm, the islands of which are joined by dozens of short bridges with sidewalks.

When the concrete becomes too much for your feet, an excellent public transport system is right at hand. Buses, trams and subway lines knit the town together; the system is best accessed with a Stockholm Card, which also provides free admission to museums such as the smallish but fine

Moderna Museet

art museum.

An island city, Stockholm is of course amply served by boats. Several companies run cruises through the archipelago; some tours stop on outlying islands graced with manor houses, cafes and picnic grounds. Stockholm Sightseeing's two-hour "Under the Bridges of Stockholm'' cruise (180 kroner, or about $30) provides a fine close-up glimpse of ornate, vintage bridges.

Ten minutes on foot from Gamla Stan is the Royal Dramatic Theatre, where

Ingmar Bergman

was a director until his death last year.

Just past the stately theater, where city-dwellers troop on the outside steps to chat and snack, is Nybbrosatan, a popular walking street with cafes and shops. Designtorget is a reliable source of contemporary Swedish design. Just up the street is Ostermalms Saluhall, a 19th century covered food market; it was there that I had an ABBA sighting.

Not all of ABBA -- just one former member, Benny Andersson, who went on to co-produce

Mamma Mia

, the hit musical that showcases bouncy renditions of

Dancing Queen

and other ABBA confections. My superb guide for the day,

Elisabeth Daude

, spotted him. Benny toted a string bag and shopped for deli food at the J.E. Olsen & Soner stall while fellow noshers pretended not to notice him.

The restaurant

Lisa Elmquist

is a good place for a seafood lunch in the skylit redbrick Ostermalms market, which dates from 1888.

Edgier fare in food, fashion and entertainment can be found in Sodermain, the large island due south of Gamla Stan, where the first roads were blasted through solid rock with a new invention by a local man called

Alfred Nobel

-- dynamite. Just south of Folkungagatan street, in a district inevitably dubbed "SoFo,'' are one-of-a-kind clothing shops, cool corner cafes, locals pedaling by on fleets of bicycles and still more places to have coffee; Folkungagatan Café is a good spot for caffeine in the 'hood.

For sheer density of diversions, though, Gamla Stan is hard to beat. The district has a wonderful comic book store aptly named Comic Heaven, a knick-knack-stuffed bar called

Stampen

with performances by local jazz and rock musicians and a bar/restaurant that specializes in Swedish microbrews, single malt scotch and caraway-flavored aquavit. The bar, Glenfiddich Warehouse -- with dishes like pickled Baltic herring and reindeer sausage -- is not edgy or surprising, but it is a savory place to wind up a visit.

David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer. He covers airlines and airports, hotels and resorts, food and wine, and writes travel destination features.