A faint smell of fresh, warm cinnamon rolls hangs in the crisp air. It’s dark outside, but it’s always dark outside at this time of year; that’s the magic of Northern Europe. As ever, Stockholm city centre is alight with city folk, in complete disregard of the bitter cold and ever lingering darkness. The swedes are a sociable bunch, and the weather won’t, by any means, get them down. That’s perhaps one of the reasons that a pre-Christmas trip to the “Capital of Scandinavia”, is an utterly charming excursion for those culture-hungry city enthusiasts.
The Swedes are renowned for their forward-thinking, no-nonsense approach to most aspects of life; from politics to civil rights, working hours, environmentalism, interior design and transport. Spending any amount of time in the vastly uninhabited middle sibling of the Nordics, squeezed between brothers Norway and Finland, will prove that the Scandi approach largely works. Public transport is one area these Swedes have down to almost the impressive calibre of London’s underground system.
The SL metro is a 24-hour operated system of train lines that run both underground and over-ground. It covers the majority of the capital city and its suburban outskirts, which are home to many of the country’s biggest exporters. In the context of capital city public transport, it is a relatively cheap way to get around the vast metropolis. Single tickets can be purchased for around €2.50 and will get you anywhere across the city. Tickets cover you for a period of an hour and a half before you must purchase another single ticket, or top up your pre-payment card.
Whilst all this might seem relatively uninteresting and logistical, some of Stockholm’s central stations are adorned with local art, from wavy ceiling frescoes to rocky platform sculptures and trippy tile art, the underbelly of the city’s subway is certainly a sight for sore eyes and more than makes up for the tedious periods of train waiting. If you every find yourself stuck in the relatively mighty maze of the SL underground system, be sure to download the Citymapper app to your phone and switch your location to Stockholm. The system will direct you to your chosen destination via the correct train lines, stations and subsequent linking transportation.
This log is your log
Stockholm is vastly made up of a collection of districts nestled into the east coast of the country, and includes a smattering of islands separated by estuaries heading to the Baltic Sea. The name Stockholm literally translates to ‘log island’, a name the city adopted in the old Norse legend that dictates how the metropolis was chosen by a log laden with gold that was set afloat in search of new capital city, after the former became corrupt and overrun with immoral business.
Stockholm’s most aesthetic feature is undoubtedly its Archipelago. A blissfully romantically sight, particularly in the crisp and clear winter light, it is home to 30,000 mini islands and an incredible host of natural surroundings and untouched flora and fauna. That’s perhaps Sweden’s best attribute overall, and most excitingly, it’s located a very short distance from the city centre. Accessible by boat, island hopping the perfect pre-Christmas pastime for the lovers of the outdoors. Boating is favourite activity amongst the Swedes, although more common in the summertime.
Saunter down the windswept, winding, cobbled streets of Gamla Stan in the old town for an afternoon of festive shopping at the Christmas markets and quaint tourist boutiques, which very much seek to exploit the Western world’s deep-rooted love for Finnish author and artist Tove Jansson’s ‘Moomin’ characters. The Moomin troll family are well loved across Scandinavia, and tourists from far and wide can rejoice in being able to snag all the necessary Moomin paraphernalia from many of the quirky old town shops.
If there is one word to learn before visiting Sweden, it’s fika. Loosely translated to ‘time for coffee’, fika is a very Swedish trait that calls for a pause in the bustling day to day of life to enjoy a coffee and cake with the people around you. Fika happens a number of times throughout the day and is the absolute perfect excuse for escaping the bitter and wintry chill of the December air. With the festive period comes a host of accompanying coffee flavours, and a myriad of perfectly iced Swedish delicacies. The centrally located Gamla Stan (literally translated to old town) is the ideal stop for fika, particularly within the central courtyard of Stortorget that is home to the Swedish Academy and beautifully ornate Alfred Nobel museum. In the run up to Christmas, Stortorget transforms into a festive market hub of artisan delights. The epicentre of rich and historic culture, Gamla Stan is linked by way of bridges to the city’s Norrmalm and Södermalm districts.
The original city centre dates back to the 1300s and is rife with medieval and gothic architecture. The Swedish parliament building, Riksdagshuset can be found in the midst of the cobbled centre. A mish-mash of neoclassical and gothic design, the circular building is home to the eight parliamentary parties that devise Swedish law. The front-facing façade is notably more classical and noble in architectural style, whilst the assembly house, facing West Stockholm, has a distinctly newer design.
The Royal Palace is also located in the city’s medieval heart. Open to the public, the beautifully baroque structure quite frequently hosts public displays and stately ceremonies. The Royal Family’s place of work is guarded by a host of Royal Guards who protect the palace round the clock. Within the building the public is welcome to peruse the Treasury with the regalia, the Tre Kronor Museum that portrays the palaces medieval history and Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities.
Further North is the vibrant theatre and shopping district of Norrmalm, bustling with hip restaurants and shopping centres. Towards the end of the November the city’s Christmas lights are turned on. Deemed one of the most spectacular displays in Europe, the lights are made of environmentally friendly materials and energy-saving LED technology. The ceremony is carried out on November 25th in the buzzing Drottninggatan district.
During the winter the central Kungsträdgården square, usually brandishing blooming cherry blossom trees, transforms into an outdoor ice skating rink. Bordered by very hip and relatively wallet friendly bars, Kungsträdgården is always throbbing with activity. For distinctly cheap eats, and to counter all the calories burned skating, pop into Sweden’s favourite centre of culinary excellence: its local chain of fast food restaurants, Max Burger.
The wonder of Max burger
Max Burger is special for a whole host of reasons, not least for its impressive selection of vegetarian and vegan options, but also because it encourages the country’s arguably most positive attribute: the Swedes’ love of dips. Seriously. Max Burger has the biggest offering of accompanying sauces possibly ever of any fast food joint. Don’t be afraid to tap on each and every one of the offerings on the very efficient, self-service ordering system, they are all wholly delicious. For a more traditional Swedish meal, be sure to check out any of the more authentic eateries in the area. Be warned, however, that even at Christmas, much of the Swedish diet is made up of cold buffet style foods, famously dubbed the smorgasbord. The feast involves a variation of smoked fish and meat dishes and salads, generally paired with sour cream or mustard, and dill. They do love their dill.
After lunch, head east on the tram to the much more tranquil island of Djurgården to take in its breath-taking surroundings. Home to a friendly pack of free roaming deer, across the water is the district’s theme park Gröna Lund, which opens in the late spring but is closed for the duration of the winter months. In the pre-Christmas weeks, the idyllic woodland island is more than likely to be snow laden, transforming it into a veritable winter wonderland. Djorgården is a relative epicentre of Nordic education with myriad museums located within its confines, including the ABBA museum, the Nordic Museum, and the world’s oldest open-air museum, Skansen, which also hosts an annual Christmas market that draws in tens of thousands of market revellers from across the globe. As you saunter around the park, be sure to keep an eye out for the current home of Swedish Prince Carl Philip and wife Princess Sofia, called Blockhusudden.
Escape the evening cold in Slussen, the trendiest downtown hotspot for Swedish nightlife. Be wary that whilst drinks are expensive, they are also strong, and Swedes are known for being a particularly revelling bunch. The Södra Teatern and Mosebacke, the city’s oldest theatre, offers an expansive roof terrace that although might not be ideal for the wintry chill of December, is an obligatory stop off on any Stockholm pub crawl, just to gaze upon the charming city and take in its vastness. What’s particularly striking about Sweden is its expansive physical space and very small human population of just over nine million (interestingly the same size as the population of the city of London). During the daylight hours Slussen doubles as a fashionable shopping district, rife with very minimalist and Scandinavian boutiques covering the famous interior design and fast fashion movements.
In Scandinavia Christmas is typically celebrated on the 24th December with evening present opening and a buffet dinner with family, followed by much schnapps consumption and very jolly singing. The annual candlelit Lucia procession on 13th December is utterly unmissable for those seeking the utmost Swedish Christmas experience. Lucia is an ancient mythical figure with an abiding role as a bearer of light in the dark Swedish winters. Every year, a ‘Lucia’ is chosen on national television whilst many local communities declare their own darling light of Christmas. The biblical Lucia is said to have been Adam’s first wife, as well as referencing St Lucia of Syracuse, a martyr who died in 304. Of course, the Lucia celebration comes with its own unique fika offering, often made up of ginger snaps and sweet, saffron-flavoured buns (lussekatter) and mulled wine. Perhaps the most romantic element of the Lucia tradition is the magical adornment of candles, particularly worn by the children.
In agrarian Sweden, young people used to dress up as Lucia figures (lussegubbar) that night and wander from house to house singing songs and scrounging for food and schnapps. Stockholm is rife with Lucia celebrations, from classic church concerts, to the Djurgården, Skansen stage, at which tourists will be able to follow the tradition through its vast history and see how the holiday has changed over time.
Whether it’s beautiful buildings or beautiful people, Stockholm sets the bar high for wintry weekends of culture and tradition. The stunningly historic city will deliver a relaxing and wholly festive jultide experience, with a blanket of crisp white snow almost a certainty for the season.