STOCKHOLM IN WINTER IS SIMPLY THE BEST PLACE TO BE, WRITES XAV JUDD
Dank! Dark! Depressing! These are just a few of the clichés often trotted-out about Stockholm’s supposedly intolerably cold, wretched winters.
But hold on a minute! Yes, it’s true that the average temperature at this time of year is a paltry -2 °C, and there can be weeks on end with barely any sunlight. However, to add a little more perspective, one isn’t talking about a trip to some if-you-pee-outside-it-instantly-solidifies part of Alaska or Siberia. What’s more, a sojourn in the Swedish capital during this period affords the opportunity to indulge in a host of breathtaking experiences and activities that aren’t possible in spring, summer or autumn.
A terrific place to get acquainted with frozen H2O is the pleasure retreat Hellasgarden (Ältavägen 101; hellasgarden.se). Just a twenty-minute southward drive from downtown Stockholm; a pair of charming 1940s timber clubhouses adrift in a swathe of pine forest signals that you’ve arrived. One option to get straight into the swing of things is to go ice-skating on the nearby Lake Källtorpssjön. It’s a delight to glide over this huge, scenic expanse with the cold air flowing through your nostrils. In another activity they do here, it could only be swimming.The attendant staff will cut a hole in the ice to ensure that there’s a big enough area for people to plunge in (average temperature less than 0 °C), and bathe. An added bonus is that booking this pursuit also includes the use of a quintessential sauna (bastu). To change gears literally, Hellasgarden has an extensive network of bike and ski trails - perhaps the ultimate way to get up-close-and-personal to this stretch of unparalleled wilderness. Stockholm Adventures (stockholmadventures.com) also have a couple of escapades that will keep your adrenaline-junkie buzz-ticking over. The first involves an über-exploration in snowshoes. Today, they’re generally made from lightweight plastic or metal with the idea being that their large footprint disperses the user’s weight enabling them to travel chiefly on top of, instead of through, snow. In essence, this exhilarating half-day excursion encompasses a trek over frozen lakes and amidst forests in the Swedish capital’s pristine backcountry. Another unique jaunt on offer is a 3.5-hour kayak tour (if conditions are suitable). This is entirely apt, as this city is dubbed “Venice of the North” on account of its substantial system of waterways. Importantly, those without previous experience are welcome, but individuals should at least be able to swim. And as you row around at a lackadaisical pace, you’ll get a real sense of the character of this central part of the metropolis, or “Innerstaden”.
In effect, this vicinity is a combo of four key boroughs. The broad, tree-lined boulevards of the east’s Östermalm smack of old money; whereas up-and-coming Kungsholmen is all designer lofts, wow-factor drinking haunts and nosheries. Södermalmin in the south is the ultimate hipsterville, thus the antithesis of the north’s office-block and chain-store dotted commercial hub of Norrmalm.
Sandwiched between these last two areas is the most poignant note in Stockholm’s architectural symphony. Almost as if it were a Norse God’s afterthought, Gamla Stan (Old Town), the historic core of the municipality,it dates back to the 13th century and consists primarily of the island of Stadsholmen (officially, there are also three other islets). In an amble around, it’s difficult not to be absolutely stunned – it’s a fairy-tale labyrinth of cobbled streets, alleyways and tall salmon-and-honey-coloured buildings. If the heavenly aroma wafting out of one such edifice makes you imagine you’re drifting among the clouds, it has to mean you’re nearby Chokladkoppen (the Chocolate Cup -chokladkoppen.se). Positioned in this medieval enclave’s principal square, Stortorget (18), this gay-friendly café’s myriad of scrumptious pastries and cakes would be the superlative menu on Bake-Off. At Yuletide one of their appetizing specialities is glögg med pepparkakor (mulled wine with gingerbread cookies). Also of interest in this quad, which since 1837 has had an amazing Christmas market (stortorgetsjulmarknad.com-20 November to 23 December), is the Nobel Prize Museum (2; nobelprizemuseum.se).
Admittedly, in the darker months, there are those days when we all simply want to be inside. It’s good, then, that this metropolis has got a plethora of must-see galleries and museums. And perhaps the initial one you’ll fall head over heels for, is the one dedicated to the supergroup ABBA (Djurgårdsvägen 68, abbathemuseum.com). This thrilling interactive exhibition, where you can virtually don the band’s costumes and even sing along as the “fifth member”, has a new section dedicated to their just-released album, Voyage.
Two other essential stop-offs that are situated on the isle of Djurgården, are the Vasa (Galärvarvsvägen 14;vasamuseet.se) and Nordic museums (Djurgårdsvägen 6-16; nordiskamuseet.se). The former contains and narrates the remarkable story of the ship that sunk in the 17th-century, but was raised and restored to full glory; while the latter is a showcase for Scandinavian culture from the 1500s up until now: art, fashion, furniture, jewellery, and literature.
Traditionally, Sweden has been one of the most liberal countries in the world with regard to LGBTQ+ rights. Even so, as Stockholm has a relatively small population (approximately 975,000) in contrast to certain other continental European cities such as Berlin and Madrid, it has a commensurately smaller queer scene. But not to worry, it’s still possible to have more bliss and excitement here than a squirrel that’s snuck into a peanut factory. And you’ll definitely be on the right path if you kick off proceedings in the cosy and intimate Side Track (Wollmar Yxkullsgatan 7; sidetrack.nu). Located in Södermalm and over 20 years old, in the early evenings the pub-like joint serves up a (mainly) Nordic menu. Later, their friendly, diverse clientele relish resident DJ sets as they sip house cocktails (opening hours: Wed – Sun 6pm to 1am). Another great spot to mingle is eatery-cum-watering hole, the Secret Garden (Kornhamnstorg 59; secretgardensthlm.se). Situated in Gamla Stan, inside what is a very popular, two-level venue, the décor is more colourful than Elton John’s stage outfits – a rainbow motif abounds. Food is available in the day an at weekends, their lively basement blow-out welcomes all-comers – expect a mishmash of tunes (until 3am). Alternatively, held at the Tele2 Arena, Club Backdoor (Arenavägen 75;tolvstockholm.se/en/at-tolv/club-backdoor) is on the outskirts of the capital. It bills itself as the best hangout of its type “north of Ibiza” – and it doesn’t disappoint. The action largely occurs in one gargantuan room – there’s also a smaller one, and a cutesy balcony area – that’s got an industrial vibe and futuristic lighting. A host of international disc jocks keep a bevy of bright young things entranced with hip-hop and classic 90’s tracks on Fridays, and dark-house and techno Saturdays(till 5am).
Open until a similar time every Sunday, you won’t quite need your sea legs for the ultra-marvel that is (MS) Patricia. Why not? Because although it’s a 1930s-built yacht, which was drafted into service in the Second World War (1939 – 1945), the reconstructed four-deck vessel is now permanently moored at Söder Mälarstrand (Kajplats 19; patriciastockholm.se). This shindig is routinely packed to the rafters with a gregarious crowd of all ages; who cut loose in front of drag shows, or on several dance floors. Sounds-wise, disco, rock and Schlager prevail.
According to notable queer historian and author John Boswell, winter “is a time to gather golden moments, embark upon a sentimental journey, and enjoy every idle hour”. And nowhere in the world is this more abundantly possible than in the beating heart of Scandinavia, Stockholm.
WAY TO GO
The Go City (Stockholm) card (gocity.com/stockholm/en-us) is an all-inclusive phone app that allows you to save money on various attractions and tours in the Swedish capital. It is available in 1, 2, 3 or 5-day versions.
Scandinavian Airlines (flysas.com) have regular flights to Stockholm Arlanda (ARN) from London Heathrow (LHR), Birmingham (BHX) and Manchester (MAN).
Where to Stay
Hotel Hasselbacken(Hazeliusbacken 20; hasselbacken.com)
Located on Djurgarden, this pink-painted gem can trace its origins back to the 1700s when a restaurant on the same site started using the name Hasselbacken (there’s still an eatery on the premises). Long since a hotel and recently renovated, other features number: a gym, a relaxation area and sauna, and free Wi-Fi.
Hellstens Glashus (Wollmar Yxkullsgatan 13;hellstensglashus.se)
Luxury, style and bonhomie collide in the latest edition (opened 2016) of Per Hellsten’s stable of hotels. Situated in Södermalm as the name suggests, this boutique three-star (and restaurant) is housed behind an exquisite glass façade. Their boldly-coloured rooms (43) contain elements such as French balconies, brick walls and high ceilings, with a few over looking the quaint courtyard.