Stockholm: Northern Exposure

It may be dark and frigid in Stockholm during winter, but the Swedish capital remains a delight thanks to its cosy atmosphere, icy entertainments and warming cuisine.

Words by Brian Johnston


Stockholm in winter is finger-numbing and sets your cheeks aglow. Jack Frost nips at your toes, but layer up, venture out and experience the winter wonderland many of us only see on Christmas cards. Snow dusts Old Town roofs, streets smell of roasting chestnuts, and the edges of the harbour are frozen waves sculpted by the wind. Sightseeing boats sometimes break through thin surface ice with a thrilling crunch. In parks, kids roll snowmen and knock snow confetti off pine trees onto friends beneath. Gotcha!

Start your winter wanderings in old-town Gamla Stan, whose medieval townhouses blush red and yellow. The palace is pink and the Great Church, where Sweden’s monarchs are married and crowned,is faded orange, luminous in evening snow. Candles shimmer in the windows of cafés, enticing sightseers and shoppers in for fika, the Swedish tradition of coffee and cakes. The Swedes drink more coffee than anyone else, making Stockholm’s cafés the place to linger over berry-piled waffles or cinnamon-sprinkled apple cake as you people-watch. Sometimes you hear the whoosh and thump of sliding roof snow outside: no more cosy a sound when you’re enveloped in warmth and chatter.


After heavy snow, a magnificent hush falls over the Old Town. Streetlamps sport little white caps and the landscape is frigid and lovely. When the sun comes out, the harbour is blue and white and glittering. Darkness comes by mid-afternoon, but museums and restaurants await. It’s time to tuck into seasonal Swedish produce such as meat-stuffed cabbage rolls (kåldomar), pickled fish, hearty pea-and-pork soup, and Jansson’s temptation, a gratin of sliced herring, onion and potato baked in cream. Adventurous eaters can try moose and reindeer. Linger over a smörgåsbord buffet (though this is usually a lunchtime meal): pickled herring, fresh and smoked salmon, cold meats with salad, hot dishes such as Swedish meatballs and a finale of cheese, crackers and fruit.

Potent snaps (also called akvavit), an alcohol made from distilled potato or grain, is the traditional smörgåsbord accompaniment.It has a spicy taste, is often flavoured with various fruits or lemongrass and, despite being served icy cold even in winter,will send you aglow back into the outdoors. Take a spin on the ice rinks in Vasaparken or Kungsträdgården, the historic royal gardens where, at weekends, locals use communal barbecue stands to cook up sausages on the edge of the rink. Or head to Hammarbybacken on the outskirts of the city (but still on the metro line), where you’ll find four simple ski slopes, a ski school and a snowboard park. It’s not for the savvy skier, but is a great way to give your first wobble on the slopes a try.


For rather more excitement, head out onto the harbour ice with an experienced guide for a fabulous spin on ice skates against a backdrop of Gamla Stan’s towers and turrets. The truly bold (or perhaps quite mad) can head to Hellasgården recreation area 20 minutes out of the city and take a tingling dip in a swimming hole hacked out of the icepack. The ultimate winter dare will have your adrenaline pumping and your lungs gasping in shock.

A more sedate combination of indoor and outdoor winter pleasures can be found in Ekoparken, a massive 2,700-hectare sprawl in the city centre that encompasses royal palaces, museums, sports venues and historic buildings. Locals take to their cross-country skis here and sometimes encounter deer, foxes and badgers. Snow crunches underfoot and your breath clouds in the icy air. Oak trees are stark and knobbly but, if you’re here during the right weather conditions, come draped
in icicles like a Swarovski crystal creation.


The southern part of Ekoparken, Djurgården, has a terrific open-air museum featuring windmills, farmhouses and other buildings relocated from across Sweden. Old-time Christmas decorations linger on into January, and kids will love the reindeer enclosure. When the chill sets in, head to Waldemarsudde, a former royal villa that houses paintings by leading Scandinavian artists. The other Djurgården highlight is the Royal Flagship Vasa, an almost-intact 1628 warship salvaged from the harbour, right down to its candlesticks, pewter beer mugs, sailors’ trousers and fabulous gilt mermaids.


Make a final stop across town at City Hall, a strange but alluring modern pastiche of Byzantine and Italianate styles. Its main mosaic-gleaming hall is where the Nobel Prizes are awarded. Clamber up its tower for a dazzling view of Stockholm harbour. The Old Town appears to float on its islands like a medieval fairy tale, clanging with bells and encrusted in snow.

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From Colours January 2016


5 Senses – Taste

This is possibly Stockholm’s most famous eatery, open since 1722 and the haunt of lawyers, artists and members of the Swedish Academy. The food lives up to its reputation and features all the classics of Swedish cuisine, which in winter might include poached cod, pigeon breast and beef stew with pickled beetroot. Save room for the chocolate cake, served with poached cherries, said to be the best in Sweden.