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No palace in the north of Europe is as grand and spectacular as this regal complex of stately buildings sitting on an island in Lake Mälaren. The royal family still lives here, but don't expect to discover the king walking the corridors in his underwear. The royal apartments are guarded and screened off.

The palace is dubbed the "Versailles of Sweden," and so it is. In fact, work began on this masterpiece in 1662 about the same time as Versailles. Nicodemus Tessin the Elder (1615-81), one of the most celebrated architects of the 17th century, was the master builder.

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Drottningholm needs about 3 hours of your time to visit it. Must-stops include the palace itself, the theater, the magnificent gardens, and the Chinese Pavilion. One highlight of any tour is the State Apartments, with a spectacular staircase decorated by Giovanni Carove, the Italian master. The apartments dazzle with opulent furniture and art from the 17th to the 19th century. You'll be as awed as we are by the painted ceilings, the precious Chinese vases, and the ornate gold chandeliers, as well as Hedvig Eleonora's state bedroom designed by Tessin the Elder and completed in 1663.

The Golden Age of Drottningholm came under the reign of Queen Lovisa Ulrika and her son, King Gustav III, who entertained lavishly. Lovisa married Crown Prince Adolf Fredrik in 1744 and demanded more rococo adornments, even going so far as to add another floor. A great patron of the arts, she was also responsible for ordering the building of the theater . Her library is a work of grand beauty, an excellent example of the Gustavian style by Jean Eric Rehn.

After checking out the grand interior, you should retreat to the Kina Slott (Chinese Pavilion). Built during the European craze for the exotic architecture of Asia, the pavilion was constructed in Stockholm in 1753. Later it was floated downriver to surprise Lovisa on her 33rd birthday. The pavilion, lying in the southeast corner of the park, is like an exotic silhouette of the Grand Trianon at Versailles. It was a favorite rendezvous place for Gustav III, who loved to pass summer days here with his court.

Allow as much time as you can to stroll through Drottningholm Gardens, the wonderful creation of Tessin the Younger in 1681. The baroque garden is flanked by an avenue of lime trees. The Hercules Fountain here is a famous bronze work, created by Adriaan de Vries and brought by Swedish soldiers from Prague in 1648. Other features of the park include English-style bridges, ornamental pools, canals, and a "water garden" with nearly a dozen water jets.

Drottningholm Court Theater is the grandest theater in all of Scandinavia. If we could grant five stars instead of the mandated three, they would go to this gem of baroque architecture designed by Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz for arts-oriented Lovisa. A previous theater on this site was destroyed by fire. The first performance was presented here back in 1766, and the theater reached its apogee under Gustav III. Even more so than Lovisa, Gustav (1742-92) was a patron of the arts, founding the Royal Music Academy and the Royal Opera, which presented performances here. The theater retains its original backdrops and props today. Even the same 18th-century ballets and operas are performed here, the productions authentic down to the original costumes. Between June and July, some two dozen performances are staged; seating only 450, the theater offers one of the most unusual entertainment experiences in Sweden. Many performances sell out far in advance to season ticket holders. The theater can be visited only as part of a guided tour, which focuses on the original sets and stage mechanisms. But theater buffs can visit the Theatre Museum, the setting for exhibits tracing the history of European theater since the 1700s, including displays of costumes, stage models, drawings, and paintings.

For tickets to the evening performances, which cost 165SEK to 610SEK ($33-$122/£17-£61), call tel. 08/660-82-25. For more information about the theater, call tel. 08/759-04-06 or 08/556-931-07, or visit www.dtm.se.