Helsingborg, the "pearl of the Öresund," likes to call itself Sweden's gateway to the Continent. But it took us a long time and several visits before we warmed to its charms. We once viewed it as a not very impressive provincial town with a large ferry terminal, a passageway between Sweden and Denmark.

After having spent a lot more time in Helsingborg, we've changed our minds. More and more, the city is taking great care to make itself a more inviting and user-friendly destination. Now, at least there are enough attractions to make for a very busy day of sightseeing before you rush over to Denmark to see Hamlet's Castle or head south to sample the more continental charms of Malmö.

This industrial city and major port sits at the narrowest point of the Øresund (Öresund in Swedish) strait that separates Sweden and Denmark. Many people from Copenhagen take the 5km (3-mile) 25-minute ferry ride (leaving every 20 min.) across the sound for a look at Sweden.

What they get is a modern city with an ancient history. In the Middle Ages, Helsingborg and Helsingør together controlled shipping along the sound. Helsingborg is mentioned in the 10th-century Njal's-Saga (an ancient Viking document), and other documents indicate that there was a town here beginning in 1085. The city now has more than 100,000 inhabitants and the second busiest harbor in the country. This is the city that introduced pedestrian streets to Sweden, and it has long promenades along the shore of the sound.

In the 1990s, Helsingborg (Hålsingborg) rebuilt large, vacant-looking sections of its inner city into one of the most innovative urban centers in Sweden. The centerpiece of these restorations lies beside the harbor and includes an all-glass building, the Knutpunkten, on Järnvägsgatan. Contained within are the railroad, bus, and ferryboat terminals; an array of shops similar to an American mall; and a heliport. The sunlight-flooded railroad station is the cleanest, brightest, and most memorable we've seen in Sweden. In addition, many dozens of trees and shrubs have transformed the center city into something like a verdant park, with trees between the lanes of traffic.