For Christmas cynics, a winter break in Stockholm is just the thing to put the magic back into the festive season
In my mind's eye Christmas should be about Father Christmas, snow, log cabins, children playing, turkey, carols and a glass or five of Buck’s Fizz. Today I fear (and it may be the cynical grown-up within) that children are growing up in a world of festive consumerism complete with pink plastic trees and microwaveable turkey ready-meals instead. If you want to reclaim some of that old wonder, but keep modern comforts close at hand (after all, you never know when you might need that microwave), there’s a beautiful city that’s perfect for a winter getaway only two and a half hours from London. From the land that brought us IKEA, Swedish meatballs, Volvo, Abba, saunas, Roxette and Björn Borg, Stockholm is a surprisingly vibrant city that is clean, compact and comfortingly traditional.
The city is scattered across 14 islands, part of an archipelago of 24,000 famed for their natural beauty, wildlife, fjords and spectacular channels and straits. Although this is a city, it’s one of the cleanest that I’ve ever visited – people swim in the canals, rivers and lakes surrounding the city and you can even catch salmon opposite the Royal Palace. The people of Stockholm are charming, with a naturally chic style that appears infuriatingly effortless. Art must be in their blood, as there is a great deal of excellent contemporary design scattered about the place – remember to bring the plastic! Despite this the city also retains a strong sense of its own history.
Sweden has remained at peace since 1814, basing its foreign policy on principles of neutrality. Because of this Stockholm was not bombed during the World Wars, and so some of its architecture dates back to 13th century. There are dozens of museums, scores of trendy boutiques nestled in medieval and baroque surroundings, and any number of cafés overlooking the attractive harbour – making this a stunning weekend destination.
Let it snow
Christmas in Stockholm is a magical time and hugely atmospheric – daylight only lasts from 8am to 3pm during the winter months, and the rest of the time the city is lit up with traditional decorations and thousands of twinkling fairy lights scattered across the rooftops. But if you do feel like you need some sun, visit Iglo, a light café in Hornstulls Strand where you can have light therapy to cure those winter blues whilst enjoying a fresh juice or hearty breakfast. And, although Stockholm is also getting “warmer winters than we used to” snow is always a strong possibility. But if that fails, cold weather is a cert; so cold that the rivers and canals frequently freeze over, to the delight of locals who get their skates on for some ice-skating.
From November to the end of December Christmas markets are a must for locals and tourists alike. These are just as popular as the famous German Christkindlmarkts and people travel far and wide to pay them a visit. In Stockholm you certainly have a fair few to choose from. Who could resist sipping on a steaming-hot glogg (a hot mulled red wine spiced with cinnamon sticks, cloves and sugar and garnished with almonds and raisins) and enjoying some home-made ginger cookies or toffee whilst strolling through the market stalls, browsing the beautiful handicrafts and one-off Christmas gifts on offer? As well as these traditional markets there are also fabulous names from Gucci and Armani to Swedish native H&M. Stockholm has a reputation as an expensive city, but there isn’t much difference to London or Paris. I’m sure you could find a few bargains at the markets, but Stockholm is more of a shopping experience than a place to pick up a little something cheap.
Friends and family
Sweden is famous for its Smorgasbords and Christmas is a great time to pig out on them. Arranged as a buffet with lots of dishes to pick and choose between, the traditional Swedish spread includes various different types of herring, salad, beetroot, cured meats, meatballs, potatoes, reindeer meat, pork dishes, pancakes, cheese, cakes and coffee. As Christmas is a time for friends and family, it’s a great way of getting everyone together and catering for all tastes. But as in the UK, more and more families are opting out of cooking at home and going out to eat instead. One of the most popular destinations is the Villa Källhagen, set in a stunning location only 15 minutes walk from the centre of Stockholm. A good test of a restaurant is whether the locals go there, especially if it serves traditional cuisine: if the cooking doesn’t measure up, such a place will descend into a mere tourist trap. Hearteningly, the Villa Källhagen is full of locals every day of the week.
Stockholm has a great restaurant culture, from traditional cuisine with a modern twist (such as that at Pontus in the Green House, Osterlånggatan, or the Veranda in the Grand Hotel) to the fantastic Asian food served at the absolutely stunning Berns Salonger at the historic (and definitely one to visit or stay in if you can) Berns Hotelor Wedholms Fisk in Nybrokajen. Other must-see places to visit are the markets at Hötorgshallen and Östermalmshallen.
Save the date
A great time to visit is on the 13th December, St Lucia Day, for the procession of the Queen of Light. The younger members of the family take part in a pre-dawn procession through the city. They dress in white with a crown of candles on their heads and sing traditional songs before serving the adults a breakfast of glogg, saffron buns and gingerbread cookies and cakes. When Christmas finally comes around (and in Sweden, as in many European countries, the high point of the holidays is actually Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day), a smorgasbord is served to celebrate and friends and family get together for a big party, while Christmas Day is a more peaceful occasion. But the whole run-up to Christmas is a fantastically traditional affair. If you’re like me, and sigh at the sight of the first Christmas bauble being sold in August, then book in a trip to Stockholm in December because it’ll give you the spirit of Christmas back again.