Stockholm in winter – isn’t that the end of the world? Cold, expensive, nothing to see or to do, and sour and grumpy people in thick overcoats that speak an exotic language nobody civilized understands? While the capital of Sweden certainly is at its best in summer with glittering water, street-side cafés and abundant green areas for walks, it’s not bad during the cold season either.
First, you have to know that Sweden is the paradise of centrally heated houses. Indoors, you will not be cold – not in your hotel, not in shops, restaurants, museums or private homes. Second, Swedish sports shops, malls and clothes stores cater to the cold season, so if you are inadequately supplied you could purchase a warm, down-stuffed jacket, really good boots, mittens, a scarf or a hat almost anywhere. Keep your receipt, VAT is deductible. Third, in Sweden, and in a large city like Stockholm in particular, everybody speaks English. Your taxi driver, the girl behind the supermarket counter, a doctor you see because of your chill blains (no, sorry, that was a bad joke) and the person on the street you ask for directions. You might not be able to have a discussion about politics, but you certainly can ask about finding your way or what things cost. So you see, the cold is manageable and the exotic language need not to be understood.
What about things to see or to do, then? Walking through the old city, the “Gamla Stan” on the island of Stadsholmen (City Island – this was where Stockholm originated) in wintertime when it’s nearing Christmas is a fairy-tale experience. Lights are strung across the small cobbled streets that still follow a medieval lay-out, softly illuminating the old houses from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries with their high gables and richly sculpted doorways. Be sure to visit Stortorget, as this square, surrounded by old merchants’ houses, is the place for a justly famous Christmas market in December. If you get cold walking the old town, step into a small café and order hot chocolate with whipped cream on top and a cinnamon bun!
There are many worth-while indoors experiences too, as Stockholm offers some very special museums – the Toy Museum (Leksakmuséet) f.
i. might make you sentimental, looking at old dolls, dolls houses, toy cars and tin soldiers by the dozens. Or you could visit an upper class home from around 1900, full of the owner’s collections of art, weapons, silver and porcelain, the Hallwyl palace which already at the turn of the last century bragged about electrical lights and water closets. And why not visit the Vasa museum where the astonishingly well preserved hull of the foundered warship Vasa from 1628 is on show?
Hungry after all this walking and sightseeing? Try the indoor food market Saluhallen on Hötorget square! Here you can get a taste of delicacies from all corners of the world, from Thai food to Greek sugary cakes via the salamis of Hungary and Italy! Shop for all kinds of teas, coffees and chocolates while you’re there – perfect gifts for your family and friends.
Well, what about expensive? Shopping could leave a large dent in your finances, unless you opt for IKEA, which is really fun in winter since you’ll get all kinds of Christmassy stuff for a very good price – and your kids can be safely left in the staffed playpen while you browse among the shelves and try out the feel of sofas and beds. The IKEA store at Kungens kurva in the suburbs of Stockholm was the first in the world and is also the largest.
Getting to IKEA and everywhere else in Stockholm, you should use public transport: city buses and underground trains (taxis will quickly ruin you, so avoid them). You buy a discount ticket for one or several days and travel as much as you like for a very reasonable fee – free museum entrances to over 80 museums are included, and you get a guidebook as well! Get the ticket and information about bus- and metro-lines at the Tourist Information office just opposite the railway station. If you’re on holiday and not on business, it means of course that there is no company to pay for your hotel room, so if you want to save on accomodation you could book a room in a hostel online before you go – in Stockholm that means the standard of a clean and simple hotel, private room and possibility to get breakfast.
Finally, are the Swedes really so grumpy and unapproachable? Of course not! People may be a bit private and reserved, but most will be happy to chat for a while and to help you on your way. Don’t ask them too private questions about their finances and their religion and you’ll be just fine!
Oh, and I forgot – if you see polar bears wandering the streets, it means you have had a warming shot to many in the bar… bad idea, since liquor is REALLY expensive, and polar bears are after all rather dangerous creatures.