For all the Swedish capital's charms, some might think its greatest asset is as a jumping-off point to the Skaergaarden - an intricate archipelago stretching some 40 miles to the open waters of the Baltic.

Boats of all sizes wind among the estimated 25,000 islands in the archipelago: small turn-of-the-century steamboats, prosaic and efficient cutter-style ferries and towering, garish overnight boats to Finland.A popular excursion for many tourists is the hour-long ferry to Vaxholm, with its pleasant shops and well-preserved fortress. The more adventurous head to some farther-flung islands for walking and secluded swimming (if one's hardy enough to handle the cold waters). Favorites include Grinda, Moeja and windswept Sandhamn at the edge of the open sea.

Going out to sea may make one fantasize about being a Viking. But the best tastes of Viking life in the Stockholm area are found along fresh-water Lake Malaren. Boats run up the sprawling lake to the painstakingly reconstructed Viking island settlement of Birka.

They also steam to Sigtuna, Sweden's oldest town, where ruins of churches stand side-by-side with the pre-Christian Vikings' runestones (with their cryptic inscriptions considerately translated).

Also on the lake's shore is the very antithesis of primitive life: the elegant Drottningholm. It is home both to the main royal residence and to the world's oldest theater still using original stage equipment. This summer's program focuses on C.W. Gluck, whose operas date from the 1760s when the Drottningholm theater was brand-new.