In Stockholm, I walked from breakfast into history. On the elegant, cobblestoned Stora Torget square, a few footsteps from my hotel, I asked a passerby for directions to the scene of the city's most notorious tragedy: the 1520 massacre, when Danish King Christian II had more than 80 Swedish aristocrats and others rounded up during a banquet and beheaded or otherwise executed.
"You're standing right on it," came the answer.
Midsummer celebrations are part of the full-Swedish experience at Skansen, Stockholm's open-air museum.
(Russell Young/Stockholm Visitors Board/www.imagebank.sweden.se)
Before the week was out, my tour of the Swedish capital would take me on a zigzag through the past, from the location of a royal 18th-century assassination to a re-creation of a 14th-century farmstead and a restored 17th-century shipwreck.
For aficionados of European history, this stately 750-year-old Scandinavian stronghold is a destination waiting to be discovered. It's more novel than London and easier to navigate than Berlin or Paris. The heavy concentration of museums, medieval enclaves and historical monuments, including an ancient Viking trading ground and cemetery within easy reach, make for a rich itinerary.
Even for the traveler with only a casual interest in fallen monarchs and thousand-year-old antiquities, the city should be a top-of-the list stop. Set along the craggy Baltic coast, composed of an equal mix of waterways, inviting neighborhoods and green spaces, it has more than its share of distractions for a city of its size Boutiques throughout the city feature an attractive range of Swedish glassware and other crafts. A ferry excursion to Sandhamn or one of the other islands scattered around the city makes for a fun day trip. And the after-hours scene is hopping. One night I breezed from a bar featuring locals rapping in Swedish to the Icebar, where everything from the cocktail glasses to the bar itself is made from ice.
But those intrigued by the events and personalities that have shaped Scandinavia, a corner of Europe little known among Americans, should make it a point to see Stockholm. "Our history is a bit different from other parts of Europe," explained Pia Harjemo, a Stockholm tourism official. "A lot of outsiders leave amazed at what they discover here."
After a week-long visit, I knew what she meant. Every day brought a new lesson in the vivid and sometimes dark chronicles of this region and the boldly defined characters who lived here.
Stockholm is one of the most underrated destinations in Europe, perhaps because of its generally foul climate (in January and February the mean temperature is 27 degrees Fahrenheit) and its distance from U.S. gateway cities (reaching it takes 9 1/2 hours and at least one connection from Washington, compared with a seven-hour nonstop flight for London).
As a former correspondent covering Central Europe and Scandinavia who has traveled widely through the region, I rate the city as the most scenic in the vast stretch of Europe between Munich and St. Petersburg. Views across the waterways of the stately baroque and renaissance buildings easily rival those of Paris or Prague.
Even the novice traveler will find it easy to move around. Where else in Europe outside of Great Britain do almost all of the locals speak flawless -- if sometimes outmoded -- English, honed from watching "I Love Lucy" and "Miami Vice" reruns? And in what other monarchy can a visitor walk right into the residence of the royal family and take a self-guided tour? I did just that, in the reigning monarch's appropriately grand palace in the suburb of Drottningholm. For an hour and a half, I wandered about this 18th-century mansion, goggling over the massive marble staircase in the foyer and the rococo decor in the sitting area and bedrooms. The adjacent theater, built in the 19th century, still stages operas in the summer.
During my stay, none of the stock guidebook cliches of Stockholm rang true. Although by reputation one of Europe's priciest destinations, the city is manageable on a budget; my room in a B&B ran $85 a night. Stockholm is also known as the capital of gravy-covered mystery meat. But my meals, ranging from curried chicken to simple chicken salad lunches and the inevitable grilled Atlantic salmon, were imaginatively prepared. The only meatballs I had were a gourmet dish spiced with cumin and garnished with lingonberries, served in the chic restaurant Operabaren.
The city's population of 1.8 million is blond and Nordic by stereotype, but following a heavy influx of immigrants since the 1960s, 15 percent of the residents are immigrants, many from Africa and other parts of the underdeveloped world.
The locals, reticent by reputation, were gracious to this stranger. By my third morning, Sven, the amiable waiter in the corner bakery near my inn, called me by name and knew that I prefer coffee with lots of milk, love bran muffins and shy away from cheese.
And when I got lost looking for an art gallery in the trendy bohemian neighborhood of Sodermalm, I wandered into a compound of small wooden cottages and asked a woman for directions. "Oh, wait," she said, and leaned across the picket fence to query one neighbor, and then another.