STOCKHOLM is both charming and civilised - a wonderfully dramatic yet relatively understated northern European capital - but it can still seem downright ordinary on a drab day in late-February, when the skies are permanently overcast, the sidewalks are heaped with snow and a layer of ice covers the waters surrounding the city. That's when the Swedish capital's 1.7 million inhabitants - all of whom appear to own knee-length boots, furry winter hats and pets of the canine persuasion - switch to hibernation mode and begin the slow countdown to summer some three months hence.
To its credit though, the city - built on 14 islets that form part of a large archipelago and connected by a series of roads and bridges - remains an elegant proposition for visitors. It is the largest city in the largest country in Scandinavia, and it beckons invitingly - bleak winter days notwithstanding.
There is a regal air to Stockholm that is not apparent in many other cities, due perhaps to the fact that its history dates back to the mid-13th century, when a certain gentleman named Birger Jarl chose to establish a trading post there.
Visitors who wish to explore the main Stockholm neighbourhoods have to in effect go island hopping, and the constant proximity to water - the city is positioned where Lake Malaren meets the Baltic Sea - only adds to its overall charm. In addition, the older districts such as Gamla Stan (Old Town) are suitably well preserved and historically significant, alive with antique shops and boutiques selling products that showcase the Swedish crafts and design movement.
Despite the less than favourable winter conditions at this time of year, residents of Stockholm - otherwise known as Stockholmare - have a habit of taking their children and pets for walks in the park. The city is filled with parks, squares and tree-lined boulevards as being outdoors is obviously part of the Swedish psyche.
Stockholm is also a destination for the culturally aware - people come here for the food, the design and the music. There are also dozens of museums, art galleries and cultural institutes to visit (the city has the highest density of museums and galleries in the world) and a similar number of festivals to attend in any given year.
Perhaps the most famous - and certainly the most prestigious - event on the Swedish calendar is the Nobel (named for the Swedish industrialist who initiated the awards in 1901) ceremony that takes place at the end of each year.
Just across the water from Strandvagen, the most exclusive street in Stockholm (where wealthy businessmen and rock stars own restored 19th-century apartments), are some of the city's main museums, including the National Museum, the city's main art museum which houses a large collection of international works as well as rooms filled with important Swedish art.
A short walk across a bridge from the National Museum will lead you to Skeppsholmen, a smallish island which is home to various other museums, including the Ostasiatiska Museet (Asian art), the Arkitekturmuseet (architecture) and the Moderna Museet, which features many works from the biggest names in the contemporary art world.
The main tourist season in Stockholm runs from mid-May to mid-September, but unless you want to catch 24-hour stretches of daylight around the summer solstice, it might be a good idea to visit during the spring or autumn, when crowds are less evident.
However, summer is the time when people head for the island of Djurgarden, which is the city's most popular green space. Beyond the parks and the amusement rides, the most unique museum is the Vasamuseet - built around a warship that capsized on its maiden voyage in 1628, then was salvaged in 1961 and restored in 1990.
World cinema buffs are advised to make a pilgrimage to the Swedish Film Institute on the outer reaches of the city.
Here, inside a large, maze-like building, everything you always wanted to know about Sweden's cinematic heritage can be found: cinemas screening obscure Swedish films of the 1950s, paraphernalia from the movies of Greta Garbo, rare archival material and even the actual studio space where director Ingmar Bergman filmed the interior shots of his classic period piece Fanny and Alexander.
After the sedate distractions of the cultural circuit, there's nothing like a few hours of hard core shopping to bring you back to the real world. Stockholm is almost custom-made for shopping because stores are clustered together and every neighbourhood has something to offer.
For style, quality and class (with prices to match), the name on most people's lips will be Nordiska Kompaniet - more commonly known by its initials NK - the venerable high-end department store in town with six floors worth of brand names and designer goods. At the more affordable end of the fashion spectrum is Hennes & Mauritz - also known as H & M - which is to fashion what Ikea is to furniture.
Stores around town that emphasise products with Swedish design include Orrefors (glass art), Design House Stockholm, DesignTarget and Svenskt Tenn. Meanwhile, edgier fashion choices and trendsetting boutiques can be found in Sodermalm in the south of the city. It was traditionally a working class district but in recent years, young residents have been moving in and upping the hip quotient there. The SOFO (South of Folkungagatan) area, for instance, is the equivalent to SoHo in New York, with a similar artistic and intellectual sensibility.
For a design-conscious city like Stockholm, there are surprisingly few boutique hotels around. The Lydmar Hotel - which is in the heart of the business and shopping district of Ostermalm - bills itself as a 62-room exception. It overlooks Humlegarden, a large park, and is just down the street from the Ostermalms saluhall, a charming 19th-century building with a bustling market and food hall. The large, contemporary-style Clarion Hotel in Sodermalm also has a strong design aesthetic, featuring specially commissioned works by local artists.
For more conventional accommodation, a well known place is possibly the Grand Hotel, which is across from the Royal Palace and virtually next door to the National Museum. The hotel has housed Nobel laureates and their families for over a hundred years. The Hotel Diplomat is also a popular luxury choice, located on Strandvagen and facing the harbour.
For more information on Stockholm, visit www.stockholmtown.com and www.visit.sweden.com