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40km (25 miles) NE of Lidköping, 318km (198 miles) SW of Stockholm, 180km (112 miles) NE of Gothenburg

Its slogan, "Pearl of Lake Vänern," is designed to lure tourists. But in this case Mariestad lives up to the billing. It's the most evocative stopover among the lake towns, both for its architecture and as a center for exploring the district.

Mariestad is known for its many well-preserved old structures in its Gamla Stan (or Old Town), including one building from the 17th century, all of which have survived despite several widespread town fires. The town lies on the eastern shore of Lake Vänern, taking its name from Maria von Pfaltz, the first wife of Duke Karl (later Karl IX).

This lakeside city is lovelier and less industrialized than Lidköping. Take along a camera, as its medieval quarter and harbor area have many scenic views. The town contains a wide array of architectural styles, including Gustavian, Carolean, classical, and Art Nouveau. Several magazines have accurately called it a "living museum" of architecture.