'Beauty on Water' or 'Venice of the North' - these phrases sum up the Baltic allure of a city built on 14 islands in an archipelago of some 24,000. Founded by Birger Jarl in 1252, Stockholm owes its existence to water, developing as a transit point for goods moving between the Baltic Sea and Lake Mälaren. A strategic and trade centre, the fortified town grew during the Middle Ages when it acquired much of its picturesque architecture. However, it only became the national capital in 1634, during the Thirty Years War, when Sweden was an imperial power. The Vasa monarchs left Stockholm with a Baroque magnificence that would grace a far grander setting than today's peaceful capital of a small Nordic nation: splendid palaces, gold and ironwork, dignified ceremonial and rich royal collections. Baroque monumental stucco blends beautifully with the colourful plastered walls of the medieval Old Town. The clear northern light falling across these surfaces, especially during the endless northern summer evenings, intensifies the freshness and cleanliness of even the most venerable districts. Modern Stockholm is a bustling business hub for the entire Baltic region yet anglers can still catch salmon in the centre of the city. Sweden was the envy of less dynamic economies during the 1960s and 1970s, with Stockholm a trading and commercial centre to be reckoned with, as anyone who has ever used an Ericsson mobile phone or an Ikea chair can testify. Swedish design genius, aesthetic and technical know-how, has ensured that many professionals in the creative and IT fields look to Stockholm for inspiration and partnership.
Prosperous, efficient and well-scrubbed, Stockholm balances its economic vigour with a remarkably unspoilt natural charm. With 30% of the city area made up of waterways and another 30% parks and green spaces, it has perhaps the freshest air and widest lungs of any European capital. But it has nightlife and a restaurant culture that belie any impression of a quiet garden city; Stockholm has almost as many restaurants per capita as Paris and a night in the hotspots of Stureplan should be enough to satisfy even the most demanding clubber. Sweden is the world's third most successful exporter of pop music behind the United States and Britain, a process that began with Abba's global success in the 1970s. A good night out here can soon blow away any clichés about Nordic gloom. And Stockholm's 150 or so museums and galleries means there's plenty to do on rainy days. Light on water and pure air may be the strongest impression a visitor carries away from Stockholm, especially in the summer, but they might equally be thinking of a particularly rowdy night in the Pelikan Bar on Södermalm, or hot jazz in the Lydmar Hotel. The entire world may descend on Stockholm each December for the Nobel Prize ceremonies, but they arrive in the winter cold and darkness; the smiles of a summer night are far more inviting for the traveller.