Why you should visit Sweden in winter

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Some like it cold. While many beach travelers splurge to escape the seasonal cold, quite a few are saying: winter? Brrrrrrr!

That was my family last December, who were so longing for something chillier and fluffier than the Middle Eastern climate we lived in that we decided to have a Nordic winter break in Sweden. There we found winter temptations that grew more intense – and cozier – as we climbed higher latitudes. To the south, Stockholm offers Christmas markets, hot wine and stunning museums. Kayaking in the Baltic Archipelago is literally an icebreaker. And high up in Swedish Lapland, the Northern Lights shine over dog sleds and roaring fires.

“Swedes like to be outside, even when it’s cold,” says Birgitta Palmér from Visit Stockholm. “We dress warmly, go for a walk or go skiing, and then you go to a coffee shop with red cheeks and make yourself comfortable.”

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This old port town gets in the winter mood with lots of little bonfires everywhere. Small flames in sidewalk braziers flank the doors of cafes and shops, a log fire welcoming into the grand interiors of a culture that knows how to snuggle up for the dark months.

On a day just after the winter solstice, the sun is barely above the treetops at midday. The Swedes make up for the shortened day by doubling up on fire, flares and floodlights. Funky and welcoming, Hotel Hasselbacken, shrouded in lots of Christmas bulbs, shone like a little Vegas in the middle of Royal Djurgarden Island, the city’s harborside museum district.

“That’s how we survive, all the candles and lights,” said Karin Pettersson, a lifelong Stockholmer and editor at Sweden’s largest daily newspaper. We met near the city’s main train station for “fika” – the Swedish quick break for coffee and ginger biscuits. “April is pretty much our entire spring.”

Stockholm is a port city criss-crossed by ferries and marinas. We took a boat trip to Gamla Stan, the city’s sprawling old town, and after shopping for lambskin gloves and Moomin mugs, found excellent Italian food in a vaulted brick cellar.

At Skansen, a huge open-air culture and heritage museum, there were more traditional Swedish dishes from the grill. The smell of elk meat and fried chanterelles wafted over the stalls selling salmon and rosehip soup and pancakes fried with cranberries. People cooked their own sausages over communal fires stoked for the purpose.

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This is the hearty fuel that drives many to the city’s local winter sports, including cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding, all within city limits. Skaters are everywhere, in city parks and on dozens of lakes; With the deeper frost come guided long-distance skate tours on the Baltic Sea bays.

If you’re more of the indoor type, a number of top-notch and well-heated museums await you: the Spirits Museum is worth it for the gift shop alone. Laureate speeches are broadcast in the Nobel Prize Museum and catchy hits in the Abba Museum. Ship lovers have it best to wander between the Maritime Museum, the Viking Museum, the Museum of Wrecks and the spectacularly preserved Vasa, the towering 17th-century warship that sunk intact some 330 years after it capsized and sank minutes from Stockholm Port was lifted first voyage.

We rode the two-story Cinderella north to the delicate islands that separate Stockholm from the open Baltic Sea. On the island of Vaxholm, in the heart of the archipelago, it was a short walk from the jetty to Waxholms Hotell by the harbour, a warm Art Nouveau retreat with a spectacular view of the old Vaxholm Fortress from its wraparound dining windows.

During the cold months, the village, overcrowded in summer, prepares for its long hibernation. The local boutiques that line the main street are stocked with thick wool and shearling gloves.

Annika Mattson, co-founder of Vaxholm Yogacenter, urges winter visitors to wander the winding streets for a tutorial on Scandinavian architecture: classic half-timbered houses all resplendent, many including Mattson’s 17th-century home, painted with the distinctive red pigment Falu.

“It’s beautiful year-round, but winter comes when it’s quiet,” Mattson said.

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Two of us braved the cold to kayak through the semi-frozen water. “The ice tells us where to go,” said guide Andy Jurkowski as we paddled through the channel that a friendly workboat had just plowed through the surface crust.

“This is where Andy asked me to marry him,” his wife Milena said at the entrance to a rocky cove as we passed dozens of sleeping summer cottages. We ended the trip by purposely falling into the freezing cold water and chatting between steamy dips in the couple’s sauna.

On land we met Linda Wahlström and she invited us to the hilltop B&B she runs to warm us up with a glass of Glogg, the Swedish mulled wine, and some grilled Stockholm sausages. She was happy to hear about our baptism by Baltic earlier in the day.

“Now you’re Swedish,” she said, toasting us with Glogg.

It took one flight to curve us nine degrees north to Kiruna, just above the Arctic Circle, where severe winter reigns. Extremophiles have long flocked here for the sub-zero thrills of cross-country skiing and reindeer spotting in the day-long dark of the season. But more and more families are flocking from climates where winter is fading just to be in the failsafe snow.

“They want to experience the ‘Arctic lifestyle,'” said Hakan Stenlund from Swedish Lapland. “Of course, when it’s below zero, sometimes it’s enough to make a coffee by the fire and then go back inside.”

Stenlund points visitors to a growing infrastructure of hotels and outfitters offering this fire coffee, along with the snowmobile safaris and dog sled hikes being the key seasonal attractions. He points the many Northern Lights seekers to the village of Abisko, known for offering some of the most dramatic and reliable Northern Lights shows in the world.

We have chosen the location that put this region on the tourism map some three decades ago, the world’s first ice hotel on the nearby River Torne. A hybrid of conventional hotel rooms and chambers sculpted from solid ice, the resort is a sanctuary – and a center – of deep winter.

Based on two nights in regular (read “heated”) rooms, we ventured out for a refreshing few hours protected from the chill by hotel-supplied explorer-grade snowsuits. We drove snowmobiles over the frozen river and through the snowy forests including a late night tour under the magnet green skies. Dogs dragged us to a forest warming hut and back for hours.

We sculpted figures from crystal clear blocks of ice harvested from the torne (my shiny winter hat won a prize!) and wandered to a well-preserved 18th-century homestead for Christmas Eve. Next door was the Nutti Sámi Siida, an open-air museum dedicated to local indigenous culture.

Eventually we froze hard and spent our last night in the actual ice hotel. There are 24 ice rooms made from blocks freshly cut each winter and various suites sculpted by artists and machine frozen year-round, as well as a bar and gallery. Ours was the imaginative “Midsummer Night’s Dream” suite, with flowers embedded in the frozen walls, coffee table and bed.

It was frozen pizza weather there, but with an attached heated bathroom and an Expeditions sleeping bag provided, the coldest night of our lives was one of the cosiest.

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