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.
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 91/2 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.
"We're not sure," came the answer. "But in the hotel next door they should be able to help you." And so off I went, into the Clarion, a swank place with a lobby that had the airy feel of a bowling alley, albeit one with brightly colored modern furniture and a bartender mixing apple martinis. The front desk clerk made two clicks on a computer. "Oh, yes," he said. "It's near." And then he took me to the corner to point out where to go.
Even the notoriously punishing weather was sunny and bright every day during my mid-May stay. On wintertime visits, I have watched snow pile up outside my hotel window at the rate of two inches per half-hour. But between mid-May and September, when the light of day extends until late evening, the breezes are generally calm and the days long and sunny.
Gamla Stan, or Old Town, with buildings dating to 1255, is the logical starting place from which to explore the city. A lattice of attractive low-rise buildings connected by narrow stone streets, it's 20 minutes by foot from Stockholm's center or five minutes by light rail or bus. You can easily spend a whole morning or afternoon wandering the streets. Originally merchant homes and offices, most of the buildings have been converted into boutiques, cafes and restaurants.
Guided tours are available, but it's just as fun to take a good map and guidebook and chart your own way. I did both. When I asked shopkeepers about the history of their buildings, they would often happily recount the line of ownership going back several hundred years. At the Kallaren Diana restaurant, for example, a waiter told me that the narrow stone building once belonged to Jonas Alstromer, a manufacturer who introduced the potato to Sweden by smuggling a couple of bags from England.
The Royal Palace, built in the early 1700s after the original burned down, is the most visited attraction in this area. Curious about Sweden's aristocratic past? A stop here is a must. The exterior, painted burnt orange, is appealing. But the endless network of drawing rooms and state rooms inside are even more so, with their intricate baroque and renaissance fixtures and period furniture. The Swedish monarchy dates to the Middle Ages. The current ruling family, the Bernadottes, have held power since 1810.
The museums spread across Stockholm are even more intriguing. With options ranging from the Vasa shipwreck to the National Museum, which showcases fine art, to the home of playwright and novelist August Strindberg, choosing can be tough. After visiting eight museums over six days, I whittled my list to three favorites.
Skansen, billed as the world's first open-air museum, is a re-creation of 150 houses and farmsteads built between the 18th and 20th and taken from across Sweden. Among them are the Town Quarters, a traditional settlement of low-rise wooden homes and workshops taken from Stockholm in the mid-1800s, and the Alvrosgarden, a cluster of wooden structures ranging from a barn to a stable and farmhouse. It would take a full day to see everything here up close, but in the course of a morning of moving between displays, I gained an excellent sense of Sweden's cultural history.
The Nobel Museum, housed in a stately building in Gamla Stan, offered a glimpse into one of Sweden's best-known institutions. A display showed an unvarnished biography of Alfred Nobel, whose fortune funds the esteemed annual international prizes for peace and other academic accomplishments that bear his name. At the time of his death in 1896, the reclusive Swedish-born inventor owned 16 explosives factories. Another exhibit explained how the prize was started and how the selection process works.
More interesting to me were displays devoted to the recipients since 1901, when the prizes were first initiated. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, I learned, was offered an award in 1964 but declined, saying all prizes made the recipient less free. I also listened to tape recordings of prizewinner William Faulkner. "I'm a far better farmer than writer," the 1949 Nobel laureate said, in a tone so modest I believed it.
By far, my most memorable afternoon was spent touring the Vasa, the massive oak ship that sank off Stockholm's harbor in 1628, 20 minutes after departing on its maiden voyage with 150 people on board. Specialists later said the 64-gun warship was too top-heavy to sail. Lost for centuries, it was dredged up 43 years ago, complete with the bone combs used by crew members. The museum housing it, on the island of Djurgarden, a 20-minute walk down a couple of pleasant streets and over a bridge from the city center, offers a breathtaking account of one of the biggest dramas in the Baltic's seafaring heyday. Seeing the awesome 228-foot-long vessel, covered with 700 intricate figureheads and other wood carvings, is alone worth the price of admission. The adjoining exhibitions, chronicling the ship's sinking, discovery 328 years later and painstaking restoration, absorbed my attention for three hours.
One more reason to visit Stockholm: Historical sites elsewhere in Europe are swarmed with busloads of tourists, particularly in summertime. On the day I toured the Vasa, I shared the place with only a couple of dozen other visitors.
And yet the events that occurred in these parts were as profound as any in Europe. This was, after all, a gathering place of the notorious Vikings as long as 1,200 years ago, and the center of tugs of war for royal power in the Middle Ages.
On my last day, for a look at another side of Stockholm, I toured the Hallwyl palace, the former home of Countess Wilhelmina and Count Walther von Hallwyl, five minutes by foot from downtown. The couple, one of Sweden's wealthiest in the 1800s, built a lavish home and furnished it in grand style. The art nouveau structure is a riot of Venetian arches, marble stairways and oak-paneled sitting rooms. The Hallwyls' collections include Belgian tapestries, Meissen ceramics, armor, swords and oil paintings from throughout Europe.
The place has been left exactly as it was when Wilhelmina died in 1930, right down to the table set for servants in the downstairs kitchen. The countess had wanted it that way. "I want everything included, such as brooms, dust brushes and suchlike," she had instructed. "One day, when everything is being done by electricity, these will be the most remarkable thing of all."
Gary Lee will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.