Stockholm, Sweden: Warm in the Capital of Cool

The friendliest faces are found in fancy restaurants throughout Stockholm.
The friendliest faces are found in fancy restaurants throughout Stockholm. Photo Credit: Sonja Stark

A weekend escape to Stockholm during Christmas

Waterfront ferries and taxis are the perfect way to see Stockholm's famed archipelago. Go island hopping or make a series of day trips using The Royal Canal Tour.
Waterfront ferries and taxis are the perfect way to see Stockholm’s famed archipelago. Go island hopping or make a series of day trips using the Royal Canal Tour.

By Sonja Stark

Tall evergreens tastefully decorated with a single string of white, blinking bulbs. A plastic light installation bent into the shape of moose herds. Windowsills and doors playing host to electric candelabras and wreaths for Advent. Outside of most shops and cafes, cheerful candles burning bright.

Who says that Stockholm goes dark when the days are short? Over 700,000 lights brighten the city streets, squares and marketplaces of this beautiful, royal capital during Christmas. And though temps hover in the teens, the chill carries a magical intensity. Furthermore, currency experts agree that swapping the dollar for krona makes great travel sense in 2016. In city parks, torches are lit that cast a glow over passersby.

A Stockholm chef preparing fresh pasta.
A Stockholm sous-chef at Cafe Milano preparing fresh linguini pasta.

“I wouldn’t call the prices bargain basement, because it will never be that, but visiting Sweden right now is a tremendous value,” assures Magnus Lindbergh, Marketing Manager of the Stockholm Visitors Board.

Feeling the Heat on the Ice

In December, Stockholm plays Santa by granting wishes to almost twice as many travelers than the population (900,000). The city is built on an archipelago made up of 14 islands with another 30,000 islands extending out further into the Baltic Sea. The post-glacial landscape has shaped history, culture and sport for hundreds of years.

“In the summer, we swim in the bay but, in the winter, channels between islands freeze and we go tour skating,” said local guide Marco Giertz. “But, you need to wear long skates and carry spikes, just in case you fall through.”

Christmas market in Gamla Stan (Old Town) are busy right up until the day before Christmas Eve.
Christmas market in Gamla Stan (Old Town) are busy right up until the day before Christmas Eve.

The sport sounds too risky for my short weekend excursion so I opt to take photos instead from the mechanically frozen ice rink at Kungsträdgården.

Stocking-stuffer Shopping

There are too many shopping centers to count in Stockholm but, within minutes of arriving in Gamla Stan (Old Town), I could feel the yuletide spirit ebb and flow through its cobblestone veins.

I listened to a group of children sing familiar holiday carols while my friends pursued booths of handicrafts at the outdoor Christmas market. Stortorget is the main square in Old Town and a place of trade and commerce for more than 500 years. I stayed warm nibbling on sweet gingerbread cookies dipping each bite into a generous cup of steaming glögg (mulled wine).

We peeked inside the Nobel Museum in the same square to learn more about its founder, Alfred Nobel, and the creative work of the Laureates. If we had arrived 48 hours earlier, we could have witnessed the annual Alfred Prize Ceremony in the concert hall or the annual banquet at City Hall. Visionaries in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, literature and economic sciences gathered to receive praise and prize from King Gustaf of Sweden.

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From old to new, we made my way to the bohemian Sodermalm District, specifically SoFo, a favorite for foodies, fashionistas and movie stars. In 2014, Vogue dubbed it one of the coolest neighborhoods in the world. Writer Stieg Larsson’s crime hit The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was filmed here and Actress Greta Garbo grew up in the then poor, run-down working class neighborhood.

We bounced in and out of clever, eclectic boutiques like Grandpa, Pärlans confectionaries and Acne Studios. Admittedly, the retro clothing and fudge candy was a wee bit overpriced, but, then again, my justification for overindulgence is conceded when I buy stocking stuffers for family.

An affordable and delicious "Dagen's Lunch" is the reason so many employees have stopped brown-bragging it and go out to lunch instead.
An affordable and delicious “Dagen’s Lunch” is the reason so many employees have stopped brown-bragging it and go out to lunch instead.

Getting your Bearings

We spent several minutes at the observation deck on the cliffs of Monteliusvägen Street getting oriented with views of Riddarfjarden Bay. As a professional photographer, I reveled in the golden hues of midday December that capture the cradle of historic Stockholm in such glorious light. The moment segued perfectly with our first museum stop: the contemporary works of prominent photographers.

A Museum for Every Mood

From photography to classic ships to modern art, there’s an endless number of museums to visit whatever the weather and many are free. At the time of my visit, the Fotografiska Museum was showcasing the work of German photographer, Martin Scholler. His Up Close exhibition runs through early February, 2016. The world-renown portrait photographer takes photos of subjects that run the socio-economic gamut from presidents, movie stars and billionaire entrepreneurs to female body-builders, naked volunteers and the homeless.

Photography at the museum.
Clever photography at the museum.

After, we convened in the café atop the third floor of the former industrial custom house for a brief tour of Stockholm’s newest art restaurant. The chef relies not so much on a menu but rather serving meals according to season, admittedly, a risky concept, but based on the long queue for a table, a successful endeavor.

Other must-see museums photographed to accompany this article include a gallery on Skansen; the world’s first open-air museum, Vasa; the maritime museum with a fully intact 17th century ship on display, and, Moderna; a collection of pieces by Picasso, Dali and Matisse. (Visit Authors Flickr Album). Read another story detailing what you can find in Stockholm’s many museums.

Dagen’s Lunch

Fast services at Meatballs for the People prepare the national dish for a restaurant full of hungry patrons.
Fast services at Meatballs for the People prepare the national dish for a restaurant full of hungry patrons.

“The dining-out experience has changed in Stockholm,” admits Miia Lee, the Director of Sales at PDF Brassiere restaurant group. “Years ago, Swedes would eat out only once a week, in the late evening. Today, we enjoy three or four days of dining out thanks to affordable options during “Dagen’s Lunch”.

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There’s a thriving food scene in Stockholm but the national dish sounds timely given the hunger built up from sightseeing. Swedes share a special affinity for the beloved köttbullar (meatball) because it’s been a staple in their diet since they were young children. Savory contenders include michelin-star restaurants to gourmet food trucks to grocery stores, arguably, some that even rival mom’s recipe!

While we were still in the Sodermalm district, our guide escorted us quickly to the self-declared meatballeria: Meatballs for the People – a cozy haven with far too few tables given its popularity. Our server rushes us several baskets of knäckebröd crisp bread, baked in Sweden for over 500 years, it too is a staple.

Elk, boar, moose, ox, salmon; these unusual fillings make for an irresistible temptation from the traditional ground meat and pork combination. Our dishes come sided with mashed potatoes, cream sauce, lingonberry jam and fresh pickled cucumber. Wanna-be vegetarians will serious find it hard to resist licking the plate clean.

Singers on St Lucia day in Stockholm, a holiday tradition.
Singers on St Lucia day in Stockholm, a holiday tradition.

Song and Dance

In the evening, under the dim flame of small candles, a long procession of young girls encircles us in song for an hour at Rosendal Garden. The maidens are dressed in simple white gowns with red sashes around their waists. They parade gracefully to the front of the dark, damp greenhouse, a space normally reserved for fertilizer and flowers, while the lead singer wears a crown of electric candles perched precariously on her head.

The crowd sat huddled under woolen blankets on wood benches transfixed by the incredible acoustics of the moment. The angelic voices made our eyes water.

Ice skaters enjoying the season at Christmastime in Stockholm. Sonja Stark photos.
Ice skaters enjoy the chilly season at Christmastime at Kungstradgarden in Stockholm.

It’s December 13th, the shortest day of the year, and St. Lucia Day always culminates into a final concert to honor the young Christian girl, Lucia, killed for her faith in the year 304. Words don’t do justice to the mellifluous harmonies, but hopefully this video I shot and edited will.

LINKS:
Visit Sweden: http://www.visitsweden.com/sweden-us/
Visit Stockholm: http://www.visitstockholm.com/
PilotGirl’s Flickr Sweden Album Gallery