Scandinavia is a winter wonderland for every visitor – for those who are used to snow and those who have only ever seen it on TV. Whether visiting Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, or Finland, there is a myriad of winter activities across the region just waiting to be discovered.
Each country in Scandinavia prioritises different aspects of winter tourism, for visitors willing to brave the cold and unpredictable weather. There are countless festivals and Christmas-related activities throughout December, the awe-inspiring phenomenon that is the northern lights between November and March, eternal darkness throughout mid-winter, and various other uniquely Scandinavian activities to experience. And with more connections between major Gulf airports and Scandinavian capitals than ever before, there has never been a better time to visit the home of Santa Claus and his reindeers.
Stockholm, Sweden – Fika Time
Stockholm, the historic Swedish capital, may not be the first place to come to mind when people think about a Scandinavian winter escape. The north of Sweden, in the Swedish Lapland region, is more suited to those looking to experience dog sledding, age-old traditions of the Sami reindeer herders, and the northern lights, but other countries focus on those types of activities too. Stockholm’s winter traditions are truly unique.
The Swedish phenomenon known as Fika is fast becoming known around the world alongside its Danish cousin Hygge. Nobody in Sweden can give a specific definition of what fika means, other than the literal translation “to have coffee”, or where exactly the tradition first emerged, but it usually involves relaxing with friends, family, or colleagues with a steaming fresh cup of coffee (black, of course!) and a bright-coloured Swedish princess cake or pastry in one of the many cafes and coffee shops that line the picturesque streets of Stockholm’s Gamla Stan area.
Winter in Sweden is a particularly welcome time for a fika break. It means that you get to go indoors, usually inside a heated café, to escape the chilly winter snow and winds outside. It also gives you an opportunity to sample some of the region’s finest fresh cakes and pastries, the recipes for which have been passed down from generation to generation.
Picture it. A steaming cup of black coffee with a plate overflowing with Mazarins (a pastry case filled with ground almonds and sprinklings of icing sugar), Punchrulle (brightly coloured marzipan dipped in dark chocolate and filled with cookie crumbs and butter, and Kanelbulle (the most traditional Swedish teatime treat – a cinnamon bun tied in an intricate knot shape and baked until lightly brown). But taking fika is more than just eating tasty foods and drinking refreshing coffee, it is an event to be savoured. An escape from the world.
At the impressive domineering Radisson Strand hotel, located in the heart of Stockholm and alongside the boat-filled quay, the management are hoping to take a slice (pardon the pun!) of the new-found international interest in Swedish cuisine. The newly opened ‘The Strand – A Swedish Brasserie’ is recreating the dining experience that famous Swedish actress Greta Garbo enjoyed at the hotel in 1921. The brasserie serves a delectable selection of Swedish classic-meets-modern dishes, including reindeer fillet with celeriac puree and chanterelle mushrooms, meatballs with potato puree and pickled cucumbers and lingonberries, and aquavit and beet cured salmon.
The hotel itself is a large and historic building that stands at the intersection between the city’s largest shopping streets, the Gamla Stan historic area, and a short walk from the Central railway station and the 20-minute high-speed Arlanda Express train to Stockholm’s largest airport. The hotel has been hosting guests from across the Middle East for years and its large business class rooms, boasting panoramic views of the waterfront and flickering city lights, a Nespresso machine and complementary macaroons, and designer toiletries is the perfect base for a winter visit to Stockholm. Room 100 was a favourite with Greta Garbo herself.
When the winter festivities really get started, usually in the last week of November, the Stockholm city pass comes into its own. You can travel on the metro across the city (with stations decorated in works of art), inter-island ferries, and visit the many royal museums and historic attractions at no extra cost. When the Christmas lights are lit overhead along most major streets, and concerts take place outside Kulturhuset, everyone can get a feel for winter in the Swedish capital.
A major feature of the winter season in Stockholm, taking place alongside skiing on frozen lakes and taking brisk walks in the large and clean royal parks, is the St Lucia Day celebrations. On 13 December, both girls and boys, who have been chosen by their local communities after tough competition, host concerts dressed in pure white gowns with lit candles to bring light into the dark winter days. They sing songs that most Swedes have grown up learning, but that doesn’t mean that outsiders need to miss out on this most cultural of Swedish winter celebrations. Swedes are welcoming to outsiders!
Sweden, and Stockholm in particular, could almost have been built especially for the winter season. The medieval architecture in the older parts of the city cast shadows from the flickering street lights, glowing in the dark, and the locals get the chance to embrace their Viking heritage, formed by hardy men and women living with and amongst nature. Scandinavian winter doesn’t necessarily mean freezing in the wild north of the region. You can experience culture and heritage in the heart of Sweden’s capital, now with direct flights to Gulf hubs.
Rovaniemi, Finland – Home of Santa Claus
Finland is the (un)disputed home of Santa Claus – who also goes by the name of Father Christmas, St. Nick, and jolly old St. Nick, depending on who you ask. You don’t need to be a Christian though to visit the Finnish town of Rovaniemi and enjoy the festivities that surround the year-round home of Christmas. Throughout the year the town is decorated in glistening tinsel, flickering fairy lights, and Christmas fir trees are everywhere, but it is in the month leading up to Christmas day that Rovaniemi really comes into its own.
Visitors can visit the man privileged enough to be appointed Santa Claus for the year in his grotto, surrounded by elves, real-life reindeers, and children’s’ concerts. In the Christmas village there is a post office where visitors can buy gifts and stamps to send home to boast to friends and family about meeting Santa. There are also restaurants serving traditional Finnish recipes, including reindeer, fresh fish, and vegetables that only grow in the cold north of the planet.
Legend suggests that Santa Claus actually lives in Korvatunturi (‘Ear Fell’), deep in the Lappish wilderness, but his exact location is only known by his closest elves; he decided to establish an office in Rovaniemi so that visitors could meet him every day of the year. Santa’s village is a light in the dark Finnish wilderness, with a wooden stage hosting Christmas-themed musical concerts, decorations and wooden chalets coated in snow where guests can meet Santa and his helpers.
Husky safaris are also popular in Rovaniemi. Dress up warm and hold on tight as six husky dogs roped together pull you on your sleigh through the snowy white forests, passing wolves and eagles. You can steer the sleigh yourself or let the expert guides do it for you whilst you relax and enjoy the awe-inspiring natural surroundings.
To truly understand a Scandinavian winter, visitors need to experience the region at night, when temperatures drop to well below freezing. The Arctic Snowhotel is a hotel made entirely from ice and snow. Ornate beds are carved from huge blocks of translucent ice, the floor is carpeted with a fine layer of powdery white snow, and the en-suite bathrooms are heated, offering an escape if the frozen bedroom gets too much. There is no need to freeze overnight though, because the beds are covered with fluffy sleeping bags.
In the morning, guests are treated to a steaming cup of lingonberry tea and can choose from the three on-site restaurants for food. At Kota restaurant, traditional Lappish delicacies are available, including salmon cooked slowly over an open wood fire, creamy mushroom soup, Lappish reindeer steak, or oven baked apple delight with syrup and custard. Finnish Lapland is home to many unique and wonderful foods that cannot be found anywhere else, so Rovaniemi is the perfect place to sample them as the aurora lights flash overhead.
Iceland – Unusual festive traditions
Icelandic winter traditions are as bizarre as they are interesting. Icelanders are strong believers in mythical people and creatures that are said to inhabit the rural wilderness in the centre of the frozen island.
One tradition that outsiders struggle to grasp is the local belief in elves and goblins, and in the lead-up to Christmas, a group of elves known as the Yule Lads wreak havoc across the country. Starting 13 days before Christmas (25 December), Icelandic children leave an empty shoe on their window before bed, and when they are asleep one of the Yule Lads visits, leaving sweets or small gifts for good children, or rotting potatoes and coal, depending on how well behaved the children have been in the preceding day. Each of the 13 Lads are believed to have specific behaviours, causing random acts of mischief across the country: Stekkjarstaur harasses sheep, Giljagaur hides in drains waiting for opportunities to steal milk from cow sheds, Stúfur steals cooking pans to eat left over food, Hurðaskellir slams doors at night. Will the Yule Lads appear when you visit?
As is the norm across Scandinavia, food features heavily in Icelandic winter traditions, some of the dishes may not sound very appetising though. On Þorrablót (Thor’s Day), which falls on 22 January, Icelanders cook and share Viking foods to remember the Nordic god of thunder, Thor. Families come together to share local delicacies including fermented shark, scorched sheep heads, whey-pickled ram’s testicles, and jellied lamb meat. The flavours are a very acquired taste, but to truly understand Icelandic winter traditions, it is worth sampling them on a visit to this chilly North Atlantic island.
Scandinavian winter traditions are complex and legendary, and are often difficult for outsiders to understand. Nonetheless though, the region is the perfect place to discover new and unfamiliar events and beliefs when temperatures drop and the nights grow longer. A unique insight into a part of the world that is growing in popularity with Gulf visitors looking for somewhere new to explore.
WORDS BY: JOE WORTHINGTON
PHOTOS BY: HENRIK TRYGG, JEPPE WIKSTROM