STOCKHOLM, Dec 20 — Wintertime, Christmastime. The two go together hand in hand, and in Sweden, where winter comes earlier than many parts of the world (sometimes skipping autumn altogether), one is almost synonymous with the other. There’s no better place to experience a Swedish Christmas than in its capital Stockholm with medieval churches, Christmas markets and a smörgåsbord of Swedish delicacies.
Start with Gamla Stan, the Old Town of Stockholm. As a historical district, most of Gamla Stan (also known as Staden mellan broarna or “the town between the bridges”) is pedestrian-only which makes for a pleasant walk to see the real Stockholm first-hand.
There are many Christmas markets (julmarknader) in Stockholm. A perennial favourite is the Old Town Christmas Market (Stortorgets Julmarknad) in Gamla Stan. This medieval market started in 1937, making it the oldest Christmas market in Sweden.
Celebrate Noel with Swedish Christmas treats such as varm glögg (hot spicy mulled wine) and brända mandlar (sweet crunchy, caramelised almonds). Have a breakfast-on-the-go as you snack on smoked sausages, smoked reindeer and elk meat, and Swedish Christmas sweets such as candy floss and rose-shaped sweets.
Shopaholics will have field day with handmade knitted caps, toys in seasonal colours and other Swedish handicrafts. Tiny jultomten (Santa Clauses) come ready with spectacles to read lists of who’s naughty or nice. Seven-pointed stars, sparkling baubles and miniature carollers complete the Yuletide feeling.
Christmastime in Stockholm is as good a time as any to be a tourist. As Stockholm’s only remaining medieval abbey, the Riddarholmen Church (Riddarholmskyrkan) is considered the city’s most beautiful church. It’s also the final resting place of many Swedish monarchs, including Gustavus Adolphus (Gustav II Adolf) and Charles XII (Karl XII).
Don’t miss the iconic Riksbron (“The National Bridge”), a 44-metre arch bridge in the city centre. Its moniker is due to its proximity to important buildings such as Riksdagen (the Parliament Building) and Rosenbad (the Prime Minister’s Office).
Another must-visit destination is the Royal Palace (Kungliga Slottet), the official residence of the king of Sweden and one of the largest palaces in Europe. Built between 1697 and 1754 in an Italian Baroque style, the palace is open to the public and offers museums within such as the Tre Kronor Museum and Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities.
Besides its magnificent interior, the main attraction of the Royal Palace has to be the daily changing of the Royal Guards, who have been stationed here since 1523.
Tired of all that walking and need a pick-me-up? For lovers of Third Wave Coffee, head over to Drop Coffee Roasters for your fika (afternoon coffee break). The Swedes are the second biggest consumers of coffee in the world (after the Finns) so it’s no surprise they do coffee exceptionally well.
With a roastery in Västberga, an award winning streak (their baristas frequently end up in the semi-finals and finals of the Swedish Roasting Championship, Swedish Brewer’s Cup and Latte Art Championship), and a café in the hipster neighbourhood of Mariatorget, Drop Coffee Roasters is the epitome of Nordic cool.
Enjoy that perfect cappuccino with one of their hearty smörgås (Swedish open sandwiches). You can’t go wrong with a räksmörgås (shrimp sandwich) that arrives garnished with layers of boiled egg, lettuce and creamy romsås (crème fraîche mixed with dill and fish roe).
Had enough rest? Continue walking around town – there’s still plenty to see, from historical churches to shop windows decorated with grim-looking gnomes and scarlet poinsettias (also known as the Christmas flower).
Feeling the cold? Stop by one of the traditional cafés along the Stortorget in Gamla Stan for a hot cuppa. If you’ve had enough coffee, warm up with a chokladkoppen (“chocolate cup”) instead.
There’s nothing more festive than a traditional Swedish dinner. In the capital, a great choice is the renowned Blå Dörren Ölhall & Matsal (locals just call it Blå Dörren). Located in Slussen, in a 16th-century building, Blå Dörren has a rustic décor — picture wooden furniture, chequered tablecloths and candle lighting that creates a nostalgic ambience.
Blå Dörren’s menu likewise will bring you back to days of yore (perhaps not quite Viking times, but close enough). Enjoy the national dish of inlagd sill (pickled herring) with boiled potato, dill, chopped chives, mustard and sour cream — an acquired taste for some. A crowd pleaser is their köttbullar (meatballs), made from elk, and served with lingonberries, peas and mashed potatoes.
While you wait for these mains, snack from a basket full of homemade knäckebröd (Swedish crackers) that goes wonderfully with some butter whipped with beetroot. Wash it all down with a fine selection of Swedish beers.
For dessert, try something typically Swedish such as hjortronglass, an ice cream made from golden-yellow cloudberries. Cloudberries are much sought after in Sweden as they grow wild and are hard to cultivate. Slightly tart and quite divine tasting.
After dinner, take a stroll in the streets to see the city lit up in Christmas lights. If you’re up for it, why not head to Kungsträdgården for some evening ice skating?
This ice skating rink in the heart of Stockholm is a winter wonderland for both locals and tourists. After getting your rental skates (ask for them to be sharpened if you want to show off some fancy footwork), you can join the other skaters in gliding around like an angel.
There’s nothing like it to get your heart racing and keep you warm on a freezing Swedish winter night. If that’s not enough, you can always have another steaming mug of glögg. You may hear folks greeting one another with “God Jul!” That’s Swedish for — you guessed it — “Merry Christmas!”
Riddarholmen Church (Riddarholmskyrkan)
Riddarholmen 11130 Stockholm, Sweden
Old Town Christmas Market (Stortorgets Julmarknad)
Main square, Gamla Stan, 11130 Stockholm, Sweden
Open Nov 21 till Dec 23, daily 11am-6pm
The National Bridge (Riksbron)
Riksbron, 111 52 Stockholm, Sweden
The Royal Palace (Kungliga Slottet)
Slottsbacken 1, 11130 Stockholm, Sweden
Open Tue-Sun 12pm-4pm (Mon closed) during winter
Drop Coffee Roasters
Wollmar Yxkullsgatan 10, 11850 Stockholm, Sweden
Open Mon-Fri 7:30am-6pm; Sat-Sun 10am-5pm
Södermalmstorg 6, 11645 Stockholm, Sweden
Open Mon 10:30am-11pm, Tue-Thu 10:30am-12am; Fri 10:30am-1am; Sat-Sun 1pm-11pm
Kungsträdgården Park & Evenemang
Jussi Björlings allé 5, 10391 Stockholm, Sweden
Open Mon-Fri 9am-9pm; Sat-Sun 10am-9pm