Stockholm and Reykjavik
They might be colder and darker than Scotland right now, but nobody does festive cheer like the Nordic countries. Allan Radcliffe and Doug Johnstone headed for Stockholm and Reykjavik in search of a wintry wonderland
Let there be light
As the largest metropolis in the biggest of the Nordic countries Stockholm proudly lays claim to be the capital of Scandinavia. Yet, the city – essentially a collection of small islands which collide at the point where the Baltic in the east meets Lake Mälaren in the west – is easily negotiated on foot. Filmmaker Ingmar Bergman even referred to the Swedish capital as ‘a large village, set in the middle of a forest and some lakes.’
For all its modest size Stockholm might not at first seem the ideal winter destination for sun-starved Scots travellers. Indeed, a woman sitting next to me on the plane advises me to ‘come back in May’, warning me that the temperature barely tops five degrees at this time of year. With skies darkening at around 2pm in December, it’s worth rising early in Stockholm to catch that all-too-scarce shot of vitamin A.
Yet, despite the harsh conditions, Stockholm radiates light during the festive season. Large, ornately decorated trees twinkle down from the grand buildings which line the harbour, while the main shopping drag, the Drottninggatan, sparkles beneath an awning of Christmas lights. Alighting from the airport transfer bus at central station I am immediately absorbed into a bustling winter market. Warming my hands around a beaker of strong, freshly brewed coffee I wind through trestle tables groaning with traditional Swedish food, handicraft stalls and delicious-smelling Korvstånds (sausage stands).
Even by British standards, Stockholm’s prices can seem prohibitively expensive, but it’s possible to see the sights and sample the excellent local cuisine without first arranging a temporary overdraft. The first essential purchase for sightseers on a budget should be the Stockholm Card, which costs 290 Swedish kroner (around £26) for 24 hours and allows unlimited entry to the many local attractions.
One thing Stockholm certainly doesn’t lack is museums, with a handful of art galleries and numerous historical collections all clustered around the harbour. Head and shoulders above its rivals is the Vasa Museum, home to the eponymous 17th century warship, which sank in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628. Having lain preserved in the mud for over three centuries, the ship was hoisted from the depths in 1961 and now occupies a purpose-built building in the old naval dockyard. At 62m-long, still bearing many of its original intricate carvings and statues, and bathed in a stark, white light, the vast vessel carries the sinister air of a resurrected ghost ship.
If the idea of spending the few hours of daylight cooped up in a museum doesn’t appeal, the Stockholm Card also offers free access to the Royal Canal Tour, which takes a leisurely jaunt to the mouth of the harbour, taking in much of the east of the city and floating past the enormous city park, the Djurgården, whose trees glitter with tiny pinpricks of light during the festive season.
Alighting from this journey, and with the sky shrinking, I wander across to Gamla Stam, the oldest part of the city. Home to the Kunglia Slottet (Royal Palace), whose many opulent rooms and treasures can be accessed using the Stockholm Card, and the impressive Storkyrkan (Cathedral), the small island is a lively network of medieval cobbled streets lined with funky cafés, bars and restaurants, many offering local specialities such as elk meatballs and reindeer at reasonable prices. At this time of year, the Gamla Stan’s main square, the Stortorget, boasts numerous Christmas-themed stalls offering food and drink, hand-crafted clothes and accessories. And there can surely be no more enjoyable way to end a (short) day’s festive sightseeing than by sipping a warming cup of glög (mulled wine) and munching on a gingerbread and cinnamon biscuit.
Rocking with festive fun
The ride from Keflavik Airport into Reykjavik is your introduction to the extraordinary Icelandic landscape, and it is breathtaking. The road is carved from colossal bleak lava fields covered in strange green moss, and it’s easy to understand why they used this environment to train astronauts for moon landings.
While most of Iceland is made up of such jaw-dropping unspoilt wilderness, Reykjavik is the very picture of modern living. The world’s most northerly capital city is a thoroughly cosmopolitan place, yet also so compact that it feels like a small, friendly village.
The city’s name means ‘smoky bay’, and its sheltered location gives it a more temperate climate than the rest of the country, but it still gets extremely cold at this time of year, so be warned. Around Christmas, you’ll only see a few hours of daylight, but that doesn’t seem to get the locals down, and there’s certainly plenty to keep you occupied.
A quick caveat: Iceland isn’t cheap. If you’re looking for a bargain getaway, Reykjavik isn’t for you. The shopping is fantastic, especially for interesting jewellery and arty and crafty stuff, most of which is centred around the two main streets of Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur, but it all hits the pocket pretty hard.
The same goes for eating out, where a meal for two in a decent restaurant will set you back a small fortune. The food is excellent, though, with great seafood and smoked lamb amongst local staples, alongside more unusual offerings like puffin and even whale and shark. A beer will set you back around 600 kronur (roughly a fiver), which is why most bars and clubs don’t get busy ‘til very late – all the locals get tanked up at home first.
Reykjavik has a reputation as a party town, and rightly so. Things get going around 11pm, and at the weekends most bars stay open all night. NASA on Austurvollur Square is king of the club circuit, while great live music from Iceland’s vibrant scene can be found round the corner at Gaukurinn and Organ. In fact, almost every bar has a band or DJ playing at weekends, and if you’re on a serious pub crawl, it wouldn’t be complete without a visit to both Kaffibarinn (part-owned by Damon Albarn) and bohemian late-night haunt Sirkus (recently featured in a Björk video). And you should note that, while Christmas is busy, it’s New Year that Icelanders really go nuts for, with fireworks and debauchery guaranteed all night.
For daytime culture seekers, there’s plenty to see, the highlights being Hallgrimskirkja, the striking church that overlooks the city; the Einar Jonsson Sculpture Museum next door, and the fantastic Culture House.
There are also loads of great day trips outside the city, to see the likes of the original Geyser, the Gullfoss waterfalls, or the astonishing Northern Lights. The most popular trip is to the Blue Lagoon – the hot springs between Reykjavik and Keflavik which are the most famous image of the island internationally, and a visit here doesn’t disappoint. The weirdness of sitting outdoors in geothermally heated bright blue waters, surrounded by plumes of white steam, amidst sheer volcanic rock, never gets boring. In fact, it makes a perfect stop-off point on the way back to catch your flight, leaving you with yet another lasting memory of a totally unforgettable country.
Return flights from Glasgow to Reykjavik cost around £250–350. Flights from Scottish airports to Stockholm cost from around £200. However, if you don’t mind going via London prices start from about £40 with budget airlines.
Getting around in Stockholm is easy as the Stockholm Card (around £26) covers buses, trains, trams and the subway around the city. Travelling in Reykjavik is similarly simple with the Reykjavik Tourist Card (around £9) which works in exactly the same way.
Accommodation in Scandinavia is similarly priced to most European cities, but food and drink are relatively expensive.
www.stockholmtown.com offers comprehensive advice on the Swedish capital. www.virtual tourist.com/travel/Europe/Iceland/ is a helpful site offering information on all aspects of travel in Iceland.