When you step out of the airport, you start to wonder why you came. It’s 10 below zero, and the clothes you wrapped yourself in on the plane in a hopeful attempt to keep out the Nordic chill just aren’t winning the fight.
It’s dark, it’s cold and you’re in one of Europe’s most northerly, most isolated countries.
The bus ride through desolate forest on the way from Arlanda Airport to the central bus terminal is even less reassuring than the weather, but slowly, the lights of the city suburbs emerge over the horizon and break your sense of foreboding.
It feels a little less cold and more encouraging when you’re reminded that the city isn’t just a myth. The plane hasn’t abandoned you in Sweden’s vast white wilderness. You’re on your way to Stockholm, a city that shrugs off the darkness and cold of winter, warming its people with fantastic architecture and lively culture.
The central bus terminal is one stop away from Gamla stan, which — at more than 700 years old — is Stockholm’s oldest district. It’s a pedestrian’s paradise with its narrow medieval streets, and walkers are tempted from both sides with trendy cafés, niche bookstores and clothing shops.
But what makes Stockholm special in the wintertime is its scenery, according to Tim Röhlcke, a local tour guide.
“We have very clear air, and when the sun is shining you have the sparkling of the snow on the rooftops and in the streets,” he says. “The ice in the water, and the way the snow and ice play with the rays of the sun makes the whole city sparkle.”
Water is a big part of the Stockholm experience. The city is actually an archipelago and ferries take people across Stockholm’s waterways throughout the year, ploughing through the winter ice en route to destinations like Djurgården, the city’s entertainment island. This is where Stockholmers go to warm up at one of the many cafés before visiting museums like the Vasa Museum — a huge building that houses The Vasa, a 17th-century warship that sank in Stockholm Harbour and was preserved by the mud and cold water. The wreck was discovered and raised in 1961 and is now on display as one of the few surviving ships from that era.
People with more adventurous tastes will enjoy skating as far as 70 kilometres up Lake Mälaren, which forms Stockholm’s harbour. Skiiers can take a short commuter train ride to Hammarbybacken, a ski hill built on garbage collected when the city was modernized in the 1950s and 1960s.
The presence of nature and outdoor activities draws many people to Stockholm in the wintertime, according to Röhlcke.
“You can go 50 minutes by commuter train and be out in the wild,” he says. “You can go cross-country skiing for an hour without seeing another person. I think Stockholm offers a modern city but also access to nature.”
Many Canadians only know Sweden exists because it produced hockey greats like Peter Foresberg and Mats Sundin. Hockey fans who want to watch the sport Sweden-style can see Stockholm’s two professional hockey teams play at the Ericsson Globe Arena, which is hard to miss because it’s shaped like a giant golf ball.
Ice isn’t restricted to indoor arenas. Sidewalks in Stockholm can be very slick in places, and visitors should take along sturdy winter boots.
Bringing lots of toothpaste is another good idea because Swedes love sweets and you can find candy sections in almost any shop you visit. Pastries called semlas are very popular this time of year, and are traditionally eaten on the day before Lent begins.
Singles should also pack warm socks and thermal underwear, but Röhlcke says couples coming to Stockholm won’t have any trouble keeping warm.
“I think it’s a very romantic place in wintertime,” says Röhlcke. “For a romantic weekend we have great hotels. The Stockholm archipelago is probably one of the more romantic places in the world during this time of year.”
Sweden might be cold and dark in winter, but it draws people closer together, and the snowy scenery just adds to the sense of tranquillity in Scandinavia’s biggest city.
“It’s a beautiful city during winter,” says Sofia Lindh, who has lived in Stockholm most of her life.
“As soon as the snow comes it lightens up the city. It’s the darkest period of the year, but the snow gives us energy and everything gets quieter. There’s a peaceful atmosphere over the city.”