Built on 14 islands connected by 40 bridges, Stockholm is as beautiful as Venice when the sun shines – which is more often than many people think.

Just because it’s north of the UK, Brits tend to give it a wide berth, but it has history, culture, plenty of fun activities, and a lively bar and restaurant scene for visitors with energy to keep going after a hectic day seeing the sights

The best time to visit is summer, when the days are long and the tours operate. Buy a Stockholm Card – about £21 a day, but also available for longer periods – for free entry to museums, and free travel on buses, the metro and some of the ferries travelling between the islands.

Start early

8.30am:  you won’t cover all 14 islands in a day, but with an early start you can make a stab at it.

First stop is the Vasa museum, open daily from 8am to 6pm, June to August. The museum was built around a 17th-century warship that sank in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage but was discovered in 1956 and brought back to the surface in 1961. The ship is well preserved, but the story about how the ship was raised and the exhibition of 24,000 items found on the vessel is captivating.

Get your bearings

10.30am: the Vasa museum takes longer than you think, but you have to move on, to make it in time for a historical canal tour.

This is a good way to get your bearings around all the islands and it’s free if you have the Stockholm Card, but only on selected departures, and this is one of them. The tour starts at Stadshusbron, by the city hall, where the Nobel Prize banquets are held, and goes past the island of Gamla Stan, or the Old Town, Södermalm, Långholmen and round the island of Kungsholmen, with commentary in English on the way to point out the highlights.

Nearly lunch time

12am: this is a good time to be in Gamla Stan, for the changing of the guard. It starts at 12.15am Mondays to Saturdays, 1.15pm Sundays – in front of the Royal Palace.

It’s the usual pomp and ceremony and it will get you in the mood for a quick tour of the palace. The chances of seeing the royal family are slim as they prefer their retreat at Drottningholm, on a small island in Lake Mälaren, to the west of the city, but you can visit the royal apartments – they have stunning baroque and rococo interiors and are full of priceless paintings and tapestries; see the crown jewels and Queen Kristina’s silver throne.

Relax and refuel

1pm: lunch time at last. There are loads of nice cafes and bars in the Old Town, and restaurants in caverns below street level, but for a light snack try Café Art at 60-62 Västerlånggatan. It serves sandwiches, quiche with salad, cakes and coffee from about £5.

Off you go again

2pm: walk off lunch among the fine medieval houses on Gamla Stan, which date back more than 700 years.

The best way to enjoy the Old Town is just to wander the cobbled streets and alleys, admire the buildings and do a bit of window shopping. The shops here are big on arts and crafts. At Stortorget, Great Square, 80 Swedish noblemen were beheaded in 1520 following the successful invasion of Sweden by Denmark. Märten Trotzigs Gränd is a tiny alleyway, so narrow you can touch both sides at once.

Speed it up

3pm: after all that culture, it’s time for some high-speed fun. Find your way to Skeppsbrokajen in front of the Royal Palace and take a 45mph-ride in a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) into the Swedish archipelago.

It costs £24 per person but is money well spent for a 90-minute tour. Thoughtfully, life jackets and waterproofs are provided because it can get wet out there. RIB rides operate from May to September.

Retail therapy

5pm: walk over the bridges to Norrmalm, the city centre, for some retail therapy – there are shopping malls and department stores for the hardened shoppers – or make your way to Kungsträdgården and enjoy a beer at the open-air bar before heading back to the hotel. The park is full of performers in summer and there is an ice rink in winter.

Dinner’s ready

8pm: time for dinner. The island of Södermalm, on the south side of Gamla Stan, has become the place to be when evening falls. If you don’t want to walk, you can take the metro – free with the Stockholm Card.

There are plenty of restaurants, but Folkhemmet, at Renstiernas Gata 30 is a good choice. Popular with the 30-something crowd (it’s worth booking ahead – 00 46 8 702 0240), it’s trendy and informal, serves Mediterranean dishes with a Swedish twist and is not too expensive – about £25 per person for a three-course meal.

and finally

11pm: Södermalm is also one of the best places for pubs and music bars. For nightclubs, find your way to Stureplan square in the city centre.