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Winter escapes: treat yourself with a trip to the ‘Venice of the north’

If you’ve had a gruelling last 18 months (and let's face it, who hasn’t?), perhaps now is the time to really treat yourself. Whether you live in Sweden or fancy a European city break as travel opens up again, there are a multitude of reasons to put Stockholm at the top of your list of stress-busting destinations.

Winter escapes: treat yourself with a trip to the 'Venice of the north'
Stockholm in winter. Photo: Getty Images

Stockholm provides a unique experience thanks to its location on an archipelago of 14 islands; the city is sometimes known as the ‘Venice of the north’. Each island has a distinct feel, from the vibrant cobbled streets and alleyways of Gamla Stan to the rare combination of world-class museums and wide open green spaces in Djurgården. Stockholm is a destination of many faces, where you can jump on a water taxi and find yourself in a different world without ever leaving the city.

A long winter weekend in Stockholm is the perfect way to indulge yourself and recharge your batteries after a prolonged period of stress and anxiety. The locals really are experts in making the most of the deep midwinter. Mulled wine, fabulous spas, sumptuous food, and plentiful festive markets can turn Stockholm’s short, winter days into a positively blissful experience for discerning visitors.

And all this is just 18 minutes away from Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport on Arlanda express, the most comfortable, stress-free, and environmentally-friendly way to travel to Stockholm city centre. Even better, if you’re travelling with children, they can ride for free until they’re 18. 

Want to treat yourself by discovering (or rediscovering) Stockholm? Find out how choosing Arlanda express might save you time, stress and even money

A wintery view of Stockholm at Christmas. Photo: Henrik Trygg/mediabank.visitstockholm.com

Staying in luxury

Once you’ve disembarked from Stockholm’s top-rated means of transport (according to Tripadvisor), there are an impressive variety of accommodation options, from boutique hotels to Airbnb rentals with stunning views. But if cosseting yourself and your loved ones is the priority, there are two very special spa hotels you should know about, each only 30 minutes from the city centre by car.

Yasuragi combines Japanese and Scandinavian spa culture in a tranquil setting in Hasseludden that looks out on the Stockholm archipelago. It’s the perfect place for couples or friends to unwind after a busy day exploring Stockholm. Relax in the heated outside pools on a hill with incredible views over the pine trees and sea and feel yourself floating up towards cloud nine.

Hot springs at Yasuragi. Photo credit: Yasuragi

Or there’s Ellery Beach House, set in the lush landscapes of Lidingö, one of Stockholm’s most affluent areas. With its palm trees, spa, and day beds, it evokes something of the spirit of California. But this is very much Stockholm, hence there’s a heated outdoor pool at this inspired choice for anyone who missed out on a summer vacation – or can’t wait for the next one.

Markets, merriment and a medieval cityscape

Now you’ve found your base and enjoyed a rejuvenating spa treatment, it’s time to explore the twinkling winter lights of Stockholm. Time it right (from around the last week of November to the cusp of Christmas), and you’ll be able to immerse yourself in Stockholm’s magical Christmas markets. They don’t come much more atmospheric than the annual market in Gamla Stan (the Old Town), which happens to be one of the best preserved medieval city centres in Europe. Charming, little red huts are decorated with glittering lights and – fingers crossed – a veil of seasonal snow.

Wander among them to your heart’s content, browsing artisanal handicrafts, plates of reindeer and elk meat, and traditional Swedish Christmas sweets. The experience is best enjoyed with a glass (or three!) of warming glögg (Nordic mulled wine) – even if you end up feeling a little fuzzy, you’ll be merry as can be.

Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s Old Town, in the snow. Photo: Jeppe Wikström/mediabank.visitstockholm.com

When you travel to Stockholm Central Station with Arlanda express, it’s easy to start your winter break with a quick stop in Gamla Stan. You can walk there from the station in 10 to 15 minutes – and enjoy some of the city’s best views on your way. Not far away, on the island of Djurgården, you’ll find Skansen Christmas market, in the world’s oldest open-air museum, with its bonfires, market stalls filled with yummy goodies for the Christmas table, and locally produced crafts.

Treat yourself: check out the full range of Arlanda express ticket options and prices now

Feast on music and Christmas foods

One of the real joys of this period is the return of live music. Many have missed the shared sense of wonder at great music being played by talented and passionate musicians in front of live audiences. Book yourself some tickets for classical concerts at Berwaldhallen, some of which will feature the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, who play a repertoire of classics. If that’s not your style, you could catch top Swedish rock outfits like The Hives at Stockholm’s Avicii Arena in mid-December. 

With Christmas just around the corner, you’ve got every excuse (if you need any!) to indulge in a delicious Swedish julbord (the Swedish Christmas buffet). You’ll find the festive banquet laid out on restaurant and hotel tables across the city. Gravlax (dry-cured salmon marinated in herbs), herring cooked and pickled in a multitude of different ways, cold meats, eggs, pates, sausages, salads, Swedish crispbreads and, of course, the centrepiece of every julbord, the julskinka, or Christmas ham.

Typical Swedish julbord (Christmas buffet). Photo: Getty Images

You can really treat yourself at the Grand Hotel. Or, with Stockholm being a city of awe-inspiring views over the water, try a julbord on one of the city’s skärgårdsbåts (the ferries that travel between the 14 islands). Don’t eat meat? Eatery offers a vegetarian julbord option in its four Stockholm restaurants.

Serene strolls, sublime sights

One of the most attractive aspects of Stockholm is just how easy it is to find serene spots, where you can walk or just sit and enjoy the views. After visiting the bustling streets of Gamla Stan, or the hipper charms of Södermalm with its vintage shops and the absorbing Fotografiska museum, you could head to a green (or perhaps white!) oasis in the heart of the city. 

Skeppsholmen and Kastellholmen islands are ideal for a romantic or relaxing mid-winter stroll. As you amble around these small islands, you’ll discover sublime views in all directions, with Strandvägen and Djurgården to the north and east, and Södermalm and Gamla Stan to the south and west. Stand still and drink it all in – peace, quiet, and loveliness in the centre of one of the world’s most majestic winter cities.

Want to discover Stockholm (or fly out of Stockholm)? Find out how choosing Arlanda express might save you time, stress and even money

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TOURISM

Denmark’s ‘freetown’ Christiania hangs onto soul, 50 years on

A refuge for anarchists, hippies and artists, Denmark's 'freetown' Christiania turns 50 on Sunday, and though it hasn't completely avoided the encroachment of modernity and capitalism, its free-wheeling soul remains intact.

Denmark's 'freetown' Christiania hangs onto soul, 50 years on
Christiania, one of Copenhagen's major tourist attractions, celebrates its 50th anniversary on Sunday. JENS NOERGAARD LARSEN / SCANPIX / AFP

Nestled in the heart of Copenhagen, Christiania is seen by some as a progressive social experiment, while others simply see it as a den of drugs.

On September 26th, 1971, a band of guitar-laden hippies transformed an abandoned army barracks in central Copenhagen into their home. They raised their “freedom flag” and named their new home “Christiania, Freetown” after the part of the city where it is located.

They wanted to establish an alternative society, guided by the principles of peace and love, where decisions were made collectively and laws were not enforced.

Soft drugs were freely available, and repurposing, salvaging and sharing was favoured over buying new.

It was a community “that belonged to everybody and to no one”, said Ole Lykke, who moved into the 34-hectare (84-acre) enclave in the 1970s.

These principles remain well-rooted today, but the area has changed in many ways: tourists weave through its cobblestone roads, and the once-reviled market economy is in full swing.

Perhaps most importantly, it is no longer a squat. Residents became legal landowners when they bought some of the land from the Danish state in 2012.

Now it is home to some 900 people, many artists and activists, along with restaurants, cafes and shops, popular among the half a million tourists that visit annually.

“The site is more ‘normal’,” says a smiling Lykke, a slender 75-year-old with ruffled silver hair, who passionately promotes Christiania, its independence and thriving cultural scene.

Legislation has been enforced since 2013 — though a tongue-in-cheek sign above the exit points out that those leaving the area will be entering the European Union.

‘Embrace change’
It is Christiania’s ability to adapt with the times that has allowed it to survive, says Helen Jarvis, a University of Newcastle professor of social geography engagement.

“Christiania is unique,” says Jarvis, who lived in Christiania in 2010.

“(It) endures because it continues to evolve and embrace change”.

Some of those changes would have been unthinkable at the start.

Residents secured a bank loan for several million euros to be able to buy the land, and now Christiania is run independently through a foundation.

They also now pay wages to the around 40 people employed by Christiania, including trash collectors and daycare workers.

“Money is now very important,” admits Lykke, who is an archivist and is currently exhibiting 100 posters chronicling Christiania’s history at a Copenhagen museum.

But it hasn’t forgotten its roots.

“Socially and culturally, Christiania hasn’t changed very much,” he says, noting that the community’s needs still come first.

‘Judged a little’
Christiania has remained a cultural hub — before the pandemic almost two dozen concerts were held every week and its theatres were packed.

But it is still beset by its reputations as a drugs hub.

Though parts of Christiania are tranquil, lush and green with few buildings, others are bustling, with a post office, mini-market, healthcare centre, and Pusher Street, the notorious drug market.

Lykke says it’s a side of Christiania most could do without.

“Most of us would like to get rid of it. But as long as (marijuana use) is prohibited, as long as Denmark doesn’t want to decriminalise or legalise, we will have this problem,” says Lykke.

While still officially illegal, soft drugs like marijuana and hash are tolerated — though not in excess.

Since early 2020, Copenhagen police have seized more than one tonne of cannabis and more than a million euros.

“Sometimes I don’t tell people that I live here because you get judged a little bit. Like, ‘Oh, you must be into marijuana and you must be a smoker’,” says Anemone, a 34-year-old photographer.

For others, Christiania’s relaxed nature is part of the appeal.

“It’s different from what I know, I really want to see it,” laughs Mirka, a Czech teacher who’s come to have a look around.

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