Dear Diary: A culture-filled day in Stockholm

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STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- As a regular traveler across Europe, I make a habit of jotting down observations and impressions in a personal journal.

One of the latest entries in my newest scrapbook of experiences was recorded here. For a change of pace, I've decided to share one day of that stay in diary format:

Sunday, June 8, 7 a.m.: Arriving at Arlanda Airport, I gather my bags and cab it to the Clarion Hotel Stockholm on Sodermalm, one of the largest islands in this urban archipelago.

Once a working-class district, Sodermalm is now a trendy neighborhood, home to art studios and galleries, up-to-the-minute shops and nightclubs.

One of the newest hip additions to the Sodermalm scene, it turns out, is the Clarion, which opened May 27 on the island's southern edge, next to the Eriksdalbadet public pool.

The hotel (see Room Key, below) sports a stark, hypermodern design aesthetic that I assume would appeal most to business travelers working in fashion or music.

However, several large tour groups, as well as a handful of families, are checking in ahead of me.

9:30 a.m.: Unpacked, showered and with guidebook in hand, I stroll two blocks, in 75-degree sunshine, to the Skanstull subway station.

I'm in a bit of a hurry, as hotel staff informed me that today is the second day of Pingst, or Pentecost, a three-day holiday in Sweden; many museums and businesses will shorten their hours or shut their doors both today and tomorrow.

(It always seems to be a holiday when I'm in Europe; agents would do well to scope out the events calendar in advance for Continent-bound clients.)

Stockholm is best seen from the water; above, a sightseeing boat docks at Gamla Stan, or Old Town. Stockholm boasts over 100 museums, and I have a few must-sees on my to-do list.

After a two-stop metro ride, I disembark amid growing weekend crowds just across the Slussen lock from the medieval Gamla Stan, or Old Town.

There, I use my discount Stockholm Card visitor's pass to board a standing-room-only ferry to Djurgarden, a wooded island that's home to several top draws, including the Grona Lunds Tivoli amusement park; an aquarium; and Skansen, the city's famed ethnographic park.

The Stockholm Card, valid for 24 hours (about $27 adults, $7.50 kids) or 48 hours ($47, $15) or 72 hours ($67, $22), offers free admission or discounts at 70 museums and attractions, free public transit, free boat sightseeing and other perks.

Alighting on Djurgarden, I make a beeline for the Vasa Museum; this incredible institution houses the Vasa, a 17th century warship that was raised nearly intact from the depths of Stockholm's harbor in 1961 after 333 years under water.

Half a day could be devoted not only to the intricately carved warship itself but also to all the artifacts, documents and presentations on display.

Pressed for time, I limit myself to a generous two hours before striking out for Skansen.

12:30 p.m.: I spend an hour or so -- far too little time -- strolling through the open-air Skansen, which showcases earlier Swedish cultures.

Here, more than 150 historical structures, some dating from the 1700s and moved part and parcel to Stockholm from around Sweden, now house restaurants, shops and exhibits.

I pop into a 19th century-style bakery for a snack before exiting via a zoo with 70 Nordic animals (including elk and brown bears) and the Mountain Train funicular, for a ride back down to the 21st century.

2:45 p.m.: Back on the Gamla Stan islet, Vasterlanggatan -- a narrow street of souvenir shops and cafes -- is teeming with tourists; although it's Pingst, all the shops are open.

After angling through the crowds, I opt to branch off into the Old Town's comparatively empty side streets, where I have cobblestoned alleys and gorgeous older buildings, tinctured in pastel hues, largely to myself.

Soon, I stumble on a ruddy, blond, all-Swedish choir performing American gospel music on Stora Torget square, in front of the Nobel Museum. Intrigued, I grab an outdoor table at the Chokladkoppen cafe just across the way, order an espresso and enjoy the cross-cultural show.

5:30 p.m.: After a late lunch, I hurry to the Royal Palace a few steps away, hoping it's open. It is, so I choose quick tours of the Treasury and Armory.

Later, emerging from the subterranean collections of crown jewels, horse-drawn carriages and suits of armor, I head north for a stroll on Strandvagen, a chic boulevard of 19th century mansions. However, encountering a downpour without an umbrella, I take shelter in a conveniently docked Stockholm Sightseeing boat bobbing near the Drama Theater.

Now I'm halfway through a two-hour harbor tour of Stockholm, a city that's best viewed from its waterways, I believe.

Although scores of harbor cities north of the Alps claim to be the "Venice of the North," only Stockholm -- along with Amsterdam, perhaps -- can seriously stake a claim to the title.

We pass through two locks, ply five bodies of water and circle seven islands. Then we sail past enormous cross-Baltic ferries just as the sun breaks through the clouds and illuminates the spires of the Old Town, to breathtaking effect.

8:30 p.m.: Tonight I'm dining at Kallaren Aurora, an atmospheric restaurant in the vaulted cellars of the 17th century Petersen Palace, once a merchant's residence, a cadet academy and -- some say -- a house of ill repute. According to legend, the restaurant is named for Aurora von Konigsmarck, mistress of Augustus II, King of Poland.

My appetite whetted for a taste of Sweden, I order the noisettes of reindeer -- my first-ever encounter with the national dish. The verdict: delicious.

10:30 p.m.: I'm winding down from my day in the Clarion's stylish sauna, amazed that the long summer day continues to spill through the hotel's large windows.

Twilight won't arrive for another hour -- and then will last only a few hours, before the sun reappears and a new day, Annandag Pingst, begins.

For more on Stockholm, contact Swedish Travel & Tourism at (212) 885-9700 or visit www.visit-sweden.com.

Room Key: Clarion Hotel Stockholm
Address:
Ringvagen 98, Box 20025, SE-104 60 Stockholm
Reservations: (800) 4-CHOICE; (800) 424-6423
Phone: (011) 46-8 462-1000
E-mail:[email protected]
Web:www.clarionstockholm.com
Director: Pelle Lindberg
Rates: $211, standard; $372, deluxe; $621 penthouse suite (with VAT, breakfast)
Commission: 7% to 9%
Rooms/Suites: 522/10
Facilities: 2 bars; lounge; breakfast room; restaurant; health center with sauna, jacuzzi; roof gardens; conference rooms
Review: Not your father's chain hotel; on the edge of Stockholm's trendy Sodermalm district, the city's cutting-edge Clarion -which opened May 27, 2003 -- fits right into its avant-garde neighborhood. Hyper-trendy Scandinavian design may put off traditionalists at first, but the plush modernist beds and spacious, well-lit bathrooms will win them over. Hobnob in two trendy bars, chill in the lobby's waterfall lounge to live music, or hop the nearby, convenient subway to the Old Town. One drawback: Some service kinks still needed ironing out two weeks after opening.

Sales pitch

• Contact local chapters of Swedish-American groups, such as the Minneapolis-based umbrella group the Swedish American Council (www.swedishcouncil.org), to inquire about group heritage-travel planning and members' vacation plans.

• Host a smorgasbord-themed Swedish culinary evening -- with aquavit, herring, crisp breads and lingonberry jam -- for your best clients.

• Become an accredited Scandinavia specialist by joining the Scandinavian Travel Agents' Reward (STAR) program, which supplies leads from consumer inquiries to the tourist board; e-mail [email protected] or call (212) 885-9700.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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