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Insider Guide: Best of Stockholm
By Lola Akinmade Åkerström, for CNN
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It's smooth sailing in Stockholm, where a compact layout and efficient transportation make it one of Europe's most manageable capitals.
CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN)Island hopping isn't just the province of exotic locales like the Caribbean.
Within its greater archipelago, Stockholm and its 1.2 million residents are spread across 14 distinct islands, just a few out of 28,000 -- yes, you read that right.
Don't be surprised if stereotypes of tall, happy-go-lucky blondes eating Swedish meatballs while driving Volvos to IKEA are dashed upon your visit.
Today, the best of Stockholm is richly diverse with a darker, moodier side, and an eclectic reputation on par with Berlin and New York.
If you can't leave town without Swarovski crystal, glitzy Östermalm has more high-end designer stores per block than most anywhere in the world.\
If you're looking for vintage records and secondhand clothing, know that bohemian-chic Södermalm earns constant comparisons with New York's SoHo.
If you'd rather bask in the sun, lush Djurgården island, once the royal hunting grounds and now an eco-labyrinth of gardens and wide green spaces, is the place.
Not convinced? Our insider guide will show you why -- combined with Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy books -- the best of Stockholm is more popular than ever.
Classic double room at Grand Hôtel.
If you're the only hotel in town with panoramic views of the Royal Palace, chances are you're pretty grand.
The five-star Grand Hôtel has been hosting royalty, dignitaries, socialites, celebrities and Nobel Prize laureates since 1874.
Its prime waterfront location places it right next to the National Museum on Blasieholmshamnen.
With the help of a concierge, you can rent a yacht for the day, hire a custom tailor, dig into an eight-course, Nordic-inspired meal at Michelin-starred Mathias Dahlgren's restaurant (located within the hotel) and retire for the night in the stupendous 330-square-meter Princess Lilian Suite.
Grand Hotel, Sodra Blasieholmshamnen 8, Stockholm 103 27 Sweden; +46 8 679 3500
Double room with a view of Nybroviken.
While you don't get exclusive views of the Royal Palace from this hotel, you do get equally stunning waterfront views of Nybroviken, where ferries and steamboats regularly shuttle out to the archipelago.
Built in 1914 and located on Stockholm's most expensive boulevard (Strandvägen), Hotel Diplomat is housed in an art nouveau-style building with instantly recognizable orange awnings over its windows.
The Diplomat's interior is breezy and light, spanning six floors including a lounge area on the mezzanine floor that hosts art exhibitions.
Hotel Diplomat, Strandvagen 7C Box 14059, Stockholm 114 56 Sweden; +46 8 459 6800
OK, maybe a little ABBA-tinted '70s kitsch.
There's nothing 1970s kitschy about this posh boutique hotel owned by founding ABBA member Benny Andersson.
Located in Södermalm, an area known for its outdoor cafés, vintage stores and ethnic restaurants, each of the Rival's 99 rooms has a unique design.
Parts of its cocktail bar date to 1937 and the hotel has a 700-seat theater complete with a stage, heavy curtains and dressing rooms for conferences.
More importantly, the Rival also serves the most sought-after smörgåsbord brunch in town.
Bookings are made up to 30 days in advance to dig into the likes of gravad lax (Swedish cured salmon), pancakes, scrambled eggs, steak tartare and many more delicacies.
Hotel Rival, Mariatorget 3, Box 17525, Stockholm 11891 Sweden; +46 8 545 78900
Clarion Sign Hotel
Clarion's triangle suite.
Fresh. Hip. Bold. Bright. These and many other synonyms you can pull out of the dictionary describe the Clarion Sign Hotel.
While it's the largest hotel in Stockholm -- 558 rooms, to be exact -- it still feels tastefully pulled together with large rooms, clean lines, contemporary furnishings and a rooftop terrace with pool, where you may very well find those tall blondes congregating.
Another of its claims to fame is superstar local chef Marcus Samuelsson's restaurant Aquavit Grill & Raw Bar -- tagline "where Scandinavian flavors meet the Manhattan pulse." In lay terms, that means you'll find U.S. ribeye steak next to Swedish seafood options.
The word "budget" is relative in Stockholm, where a simple sandwich costs 65 krona. But when it comes to overall value, it's hard to beat this chain of 20 Scandic hotels that dot the city.
Fantastic breakfast buffet spreads with both cold and warm dishes, free high-speed wireless Internet in all rooms and on-site gyms and saunas mark a typical location.
While rooms are modest, minimalist and efficient -- you're in Scandinavia, after all -- each Scandic hotel lobby is designed with mingling in mind.
From locations in posh Östermalm to trendy Södermalm, you'll find locals sipping Champagne and cocktails while checking each other out in vibrantly decorated bars and lounge areas.
Scandic Hotels, Twenty properties; +46 8 517 5172
Reminiscent of a French boudoir gone awry, with its heavy textiles and vintage period pieces, Grill serves truly succulent meat cooked every which way: wood-fired oven, rotisserie, smoke, charcoal and table grill.
For the indecisive, Grill's popular charcoaled mixed grill plate comes with sirloin steak, lamb, loin of pork, free range chicken and spicy sausage to share with a buddy.
Sweden knows seafood and you usually can't go wrong if you stick to fish and shellfish while in town.
Short of catching your own seafood, you can pick out live lobsters and raw fish for cooking at Blasieholmens Akvarium och Restaurang -- thankfully shortened to B.A.R.
Run by award-winning chefs Henrik Norström and Peter Johansson, the restaurant has a fish market feel to it, offering sea bass, Arctic char, halibut, salmon, shrimp, crab, roe and a wide variety of raw seafood by the kilo to take home after dinner.
B.A.R, Blasieholmsgatan 4A; +46 8 611 5335
Rosendals Trädgård Kafé and Bageri
It doesn't get more eco-friendly and organic than dining on freshly baked bread and pastries made from biodynamic flour at Rosendals Trädgård café and bakery.
Don't be surprised by long lunch lines. This best of Stockholm restaurant is extremely popular with locals who wait to dig into its minimal yet tasty rotating menu of items, such as pan-seared pike, perch or Arctic char (yes, seafood again) with roasted root vegetables or couscous.
The café itself is inside a glass greenhouse surrounded by flower gardens and fruit orchards.
If you walk into a Lebanese restaurant to find a traditional wedding party that looks straight out of Beirut -- not unlikely at Libanesen -- chances are its food is authentic.
If you want to leave in a food coma, Libanesen's 18-item mezza (Lebanese for "appetizer") grill plate will do the job, from shish kebabs and various meats on a stick to fried Halloumi cheese, tzatziki sauce and fried calamari.
Packed with coffee-quaffing students and other assorted bohemians, there's a vibrant watering hole rowdiness to Café 60 that makes it feel more like a university café lounge than your typical city center java spot.
At this popular local joint on Sveavägen, you also get large shrimp and crayfish salads, grilled focacia sandwiches the size of small books and sweet pastries stacked atop each other seemingly as high as the café's two floors.
Cafe 60, Sveavagen 60, Stockholm Sweden; +46 8 235 522
At Chokladkoppen, the chocolate loves you back.
Along with grand old architecture, a big reason to recommend the touristiest spot of all -- Stortorget, right in the heart of Gamla stan (old town) -- is to grab a bowl of hot chocolate at Chokladkoppen.
For a double dose of chocolate, you can pair your bowl with "kladdkaka med grädde," a dense, sticky chocolate cake with whipped cream.
Another plus? Chokladkoppen has cushioned wicker chairs arranged in forward-facing rows for people-watching while sipping your chocolate.
This club is so popular it actually has two locations within walking distance of each other.
Boasting some of the best live stages in Stockholm, Debaser Medis in Medborgarplatsen spotlights live local and international acts almost daily across its three floors.
A walk down Götgatan takes you to its sister club, Debaser Slussen, located on Karl Johans Torg 1, for more of the same.
Debaser, Medborgarplatsen 8; +46 8 694 7900
Opened in March 2012, MOOD is Stockholm's newest upscale shopping district, spanning an entire city block.
A two-story-high fashion model in customarily contorted repose welcomes visitors to this stylish mall.
Keep an eye out for local celebrities and Stockholm's elite as you meander through brand name stores like Victoria Beckham, Ralph Lauren and Club Monaco.
MOOD, corner of Regeringsgatan and Mäster Samuelsgatan; +46 771 34 0000
Stockholm's first shopping mall.
More down to earth and affordable, Gallerian on Hamngatan offers a quintessential shopping mall experience.
That's not meant in a bad way.
This is Stockholm's largest galleria, with some 80 cafés, clothing stores, restaurants and other specialty shops.
Gallerian, Hamngatan 37, Stockholm Sweden; +46 8 533 373 00
Though pricier cousin Östermalms Saluhall is spotlighted in nearly every Stockholm guidebook, you can head to international food market Hötorgshallen in Hötorget for fresh goods -- cured meat, aged cheese, bread, jam, fruit, vegetables -- at a fraction of the cost.
Foods range from South American to Asian to Middle Eastern, all in a bustling beehive atmosphere.
Hötorgshallen; + 46 8 230 001
South of Folkungagatan (SoFo)
From rockabilly outlet Silvetto and vintage clothing store Tjallamalla to record store Pet Sounds, if you're into vintage of all sorts -- vinyl records, throwback clothes, paraphernalia, odd knickknacks -- you won't find them at all if you can't find them in Stockholm's SoFo district.
Should your visit coincide with the last Thursday of the month, consider SoFo night, when area retailers stay open till 9 p.m., often accompanied by DJs, special offers and refreshments.
South of Folkungagatan (SoFo), south of Folkungagatan and east of Götgatan
Located on Djurgården, an island park near the center of Stockholm, Vasamuseet ("The Vasa Museum") is home to the 17th-century Viking warship Vasa.
Sunk in 1628, the Vasa was salvaged in its entirety in 1961 and given this permanent home in 1990.
Preserved with 95 percent of its original components, the Vasa is the only intact 17th-century ship in the world.
If you have to pick only one historic museum to hit while in Stockholm, make it this one.
Also on Djurgården, you'll find the world's oldest open-air museum. Skansen was opened in 1891 to showcase, in founder Artur Hazelius' own words, "folklore and the history of civilization."
Despite Hazelius' ambitions, Skansen's main draw is its Nordic zoo, with animals such as moose and reindeer, in addition to more than 150 traditional red Swedish cottages and historic buildings, barns with farm animals, artists' studios and an aquarium.
In the unlikely event that you find yourself short of the time necessary to explore all 28,000 islands comprising the Stockholm archipelago, allow these excursions to give you an abbreviated idea.
Stuff your face.
If there's time left, see some islands.
Ferry services such as Strömma Kanalbolaget and Waxholmsbolaget regularly shuttle passengers around some of Stockholm's 28,000 islands.
Stromma's 1931 steamboat S/S Stockholm Brunch cruise runs every weekend and is a three-hour roundtrip ride to Vaxholm with an all-you-can-eat-till-you-keel-over Swedish smorgasbord of pickled herring, cured salmon, meatballs, warm dishes, breads, cheeses and desserts.