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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Sweden.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Sweden.
1.AT A COOL HOTEL – And they don’t come much cooler than the ICEHOTEL, a glittery palace perfectly located in Jukkasjarvi, north Sweden – prime aurora territory. Not only will you have a night like no other, bedding down on a frozen divan and reindeer skins amid a gallery of snow sculptures, you can join aurora-watching trips straight from the door, and celebrate a successful night’s viewing with a cocktail at the ICE BAR. Norway’s Kirkenes Snowhotel offers a similarly spectacular set-up, its sparkling suites created by ice artists from the Chinese city of Harbin. From here, nightly trips take guests out to scout for aurora in the surrounding wilds.
2. BY HUSKY-SLED – Well worth the splurge, the most exhilarating way to explore the frozen north is by puppy-power – either as a passenger to an expert musher or by driving your own team of dogs. Short husky excursions run from many Lapland lodges; Sweden’s ICEHOTEL even offers transfers from Kiruna airport by sled. However, perhaps the best husky-aurora combo is to join a multi-day safari, mushing your own pack between stove-warmed wilderness cabins, far from light pollution and other people, ensuring that – if the lights do come out – you see them undiluted and without the crowds.
3. BY SNOWMOBILE – Some northern lights safaris use buses and jeeps to take you away from towns and position you in the best aurora spots. Perfectly fine, but not as much fun as roaring across frozen lakes and glistening tundra on your own snowmobile. This way you get to drive out to the darkest, clearest spots, perhaps stopping somewhere remote and northfacing en route to drinking a hot berry juice while you wait for the lights to show; if they don’t, at least you’ve had a thrilling ride. Just be sure to wrap up warm (balaclava essential) and select a machine that has heated handlebars. Alternatively, join a snowmobile-pulled sleigh excursion to be whizzed into the wilds by someone else.
4. IN BED – Don’t fancy freezing outside until the wee hours, waiting for the lights to appear? Then watch the aurora from the comfort of your own bed. Lapland has accommodation options that offer warm and lazy gazing via see-through, frost-free, steam-proof roofs. They come at an extra cost, but if you’re lucky enough to watch a long display from under a duvet, you won’t regret a penny. Finland’s Hotel Kakslauttanen has an array of glass-topped igloos, well spaced to ensure the privacy of those lying inside. Also in Finland, Nellim Wilderness Hotel (nellim.fi) is home to a handful of Aurora Bubbles -simple wood-and-perspex pods, with excellent heating, perched beside a frozen lake, under supremely dark skies.
5. BY SNOWSHOE – More active types might like to hike for their aurora. Guided night-time walks, using easy-to-master snowshoes to help negotiate the powder, will lead you away from any street or lodge lights; you can tramp to the ideal aurora-viewing spot, exploring the eerie lunar-lit wilderness as you go. Being on the move will also keep you warmer than just standing out in the cold for hours, potentially increasing the length of time for which you can keep a hopeful eye on the sky.
6. ON A CRUISE – For some of the darkest skies -and thus the finest aurora canvas – get away from land entirely: being out at sea ensures low light pollution. Plus many cruise ships in Arctic regions will have onboard northern lights experts, regular aurora lectures and passenger announcements when the lights are spotted, so you don’t have to spend hours freezing out on deck if you don’t want to. Hurtigruten, which runs voyages along the Norwegian coast, even offers a ‘northern lights promise’: if you don’t spot the aurora during its 12-day Classic Round Voyage, it will give you another six-day voyage for free.
7. THROUGH A LENS – Of course you can take your own aurora photos. But in order to get the very best shots of this magical phenomenon, you might want the help of a pro. Some Arctic lodges run aurora photography courses – lasting anything from a few hours to several days -offering tips on how to snap the lights; some will even lend you equipment, such as tripods, and issue you with an aurora-alert buzzer so you don’t miss a photo op. For example, Norway’s Lyngen Lodge employs an in-house photographer and has special platforms for viewing the aurora in all directions; its staff can also offer advice on post-production editing, so you can maximise the impact of your images with a little computer wizardry. Or try the Aurora Safari Camp, a scatter of remote Sami tipis in Swedish Lapland run by photographer Fredrik Broman, who offers winter workshops to help you capture the light in flight.
How did Orjan, a gruff, weathered man in his 50s, explain his system for rating northern lights displays? A one out often, he said, was a faint smudge in the sky. A perfect ten was when the lights hung around you, 360 degrees, shimmering and cascading like a celestial waterfall. “It only happens every four years or so. And if I see them I don’t tell anyone. People would lose their minds.” I nodded sagely. To the local Sami, the lights represent the spirits of ancestors; pointing at them was regarded as bad luck. “Not the Sami!” he replied, incredulously. “The tourists!” That would be the people spending thousands of pounds to catch a glimpse of such a wonder. I was in Abisko on the cheap – and I’d still be teed off if he didn’t tell me.
The blue hole – I was staying at the hostel run by Orjan and his sons, Tomas and Andreas, in Abisko Ostra in Swedish Lapland. It was part of my attempt to see if it was possible to experience the northern lights on a budget of £250. I’d settled on Abisko because it was cheap to get to, cheap to stay in and regarded by many as the best place in the world to see the aurora. There’s a ‘blue hole’ in the sky over the town lake, apparently, that scientists say keeps the sky clear here even when it’s overcast in surrounding areas. In keeping with my budget theme I’d arrived the day before by bus from Kiruna. It dropped me in front of the MackaMat in Abisko Ostra, a combined petrol station, general store, restaurant and pub overlooking frozen Tornetrask lake and the mountain range to the north.
Ostra is the dowdy practical sister of Abisko Turiststation, the more glamorous, snowbunny resort 2km to the west. As well as the MackaMat, Abisko Ostra has a supermarket, a school and a smattering of quaint clapboard houses painted either red, brown or yellow. It may be utilitarian and functional but it’s still surrounded by the same spectacular wilderness. My hostel, Fjalturer, sat on a hill; snowshoes and cross-country skis hung on the outside wall while the staircase was lined with thermal jumpsuits and snowboots. Tomas explained that I was free to use any of the gear during my stay. “We also have a sauna,” he said. “You have to use it naked.”
Nakedness cuts down on bacteria, apparently. It was a rare overcast evening, so I asked Tomas what people did for fun. “Beer and sauna nights, organised on Facebook,” he told me. However, the next one wasn’t until Saturday, so he suggested I go back to the MackaMat. I ate reindeer linguine in a lounge bar with dim lights and dark-panelled walls; coverage of the Winter Olympics played on a television hung high in a corner. The clouds remained, so the huge photo of swirling green aurora that decorated the bar’s ceiling was the closest I got to seeing the lights that night. But I had tried reindeer. (It tastes like venison, in case you’re wondering.)
Stocking up – While the general store at the MackaMat was where locals shopped for outdoor gear, Coop Lapporten was where they bought groceries, posted letters and picked up their prescriptions. For me, it was the key to eating affordably during my stay. I love wandering around supermarkets when I travel; I love searching for unusual, exotic items, and get a juvenile thrill from everyday products with silly or rude names. Coop Lapporten didn’t disappoint. I found vacuum-sealed reindeer steaks and chocolate bars called Plopp and Kex. As well as pasta, broccoli, cheese and chocolate, I bought Swedish meatballs, a smoked cod roe paste called Kaviar, a packet of vinyl-sized crispbread wafers and a couple of bottles of Julmust, a festive root beer-like drink known as Christmas Sap that was reduced in price because Christmas was well and truly over.
The girl scanning my items was particularly impressed that I’d bought the crispbread. “They’ve got a hole in the middle, you know,” she said. “You slot them onto a pole that hangs across the kitchen.” She told me that she used to make them with her grandmother, using a kruskavel, a knobbly rolling pin, to make the distinctive dimples. Wafers would be taken down as needed, and replaced when the next batch were made, following harvest or in the spring when frozen river waters began to flow again. The tube of Kaviar caught her attention too. “Oh, you must get some eggs,” she said. “Hardboiled, on the crispbread, with Kaviar on top. It’s delicious.”
Snow patrol – Shopping done, and the sky still crisp and clear, I decided to do something active. There is no shortage of things to do in Abisko. For example, it is the head of the Kungsleden Trail, a 450km walk with huts every 20km or so that can be followed in both summer and winter. There’s the Naturum visitor centre, run by the Swedish Environment Agency, which explains about local flora and fauna; there’s a canyon that can be explored, and a chairlift up Mount Nuolja. If you have the cash, you can also go dogsledding, snowmobiling or ice fishing. I decided to take advantage of my hostel’s complimentary gear and go snowshoeing.
Once I figured out how to put the snowshoes on, I was surprised by how much difference they made. Earlier in the day I had ventured out to see the huskies in their kennels, and found myself struggling through a mini snowdrift like I was Scott of the Antarctic. Now I was skipping across the white, heading towards the mountains and their stubble of bare beech trees at a great rate of knots. Tomas had suggested I start in the area at the back of the hostel, just beyond the heliport, that was marked on his hand-drawn map as ‘The Unknown’. Here I would find a number of easy, flat trails. Walking in snowshoes, he said, was like walking on sand, but with poles to help your balance; it only got tricky on rough terrain or going down steep slopes.
The trails he suggested had neither, just the odd stand of pine trees, heavy with snow, and the occasional passing dog sled. I heard the dog sleds coming long before I saw them, the excited yelps cutting the crisp air like a knife. I stepped aside and watched them pass, the dogs running their noses along the snowdrift to cool down; I returned a nod to the musher as he whistled past. After an hour or so, I turned back towards the hostel, stopping only to watch the sun sink behind the mountains, without another human being in sight.
Aurora-ish – Soon it was time to venture out to see the lights, the main reason for my budget Arctic adventure. Tomas had told me that the heliport was as good a place as any, offering views across the lake, so I put on every piece of clothing I’d brought with me and trudged into the -20°C cold. After an hour of shifting from one foot to the other and shaking my hands to keep warm, a greenish-brown smudge appeared in the sky to the east, spreading like a spilt beer, before suddenly disappearing. I waited for it to reappear, but it didn’t. I’d seen the northern lights. I think. The next morning, in the kitchen of the Fjalturer hostel, guests swapped tales of aurora sightings and showed photos of the displays they’d seen. Alan and Seth from Hong Kong had taken a series of spectacular shots down at the lake at around 1.30am. I asked what had possessed them to stay up that late.
“We didn’t stay up,” Seth said. “We got up. The paper said it would be a ‘three’ at around that time.” He pointed to a note pinned to the notice board. Every couple of days, Tomas printed out a report from the local meteorological station that listed the likelihood of displays, their expected intensity and a rough approximation of the best time to see them. I admit I had deliberately steered clear of aurora websites before visiting Abisko. I didn’t want to know if the moon would be waxing or waning, or if a magnetic pulse from the sun was on its way from the sun. I had booked my trip three months earlier, based on when I could get the cheapest flights and a cheap bed in the hostel. I figured that by doing things as cheaply as possible I could increase my chances of seeing the lights by staying longer.
Having said that, I was pleased to see that tonight’s display was expected to peak at the more sociable hour of 9pm. I was less pleased that the lights would be at their most intense on Sunday, two days after I left. I spent the afternoon attempting a snowshoe reconnaissance of the lake, before giving up and going to the local craftshop / cafe for a coffee. It was run by Emma, a blonde Swede who looked like Agnetha from Abba; she chatted with customers as she glued sequins to dolls. She had grown up in Abisko under the northern lights, so I asked her if she got blase about them. “If they’re really spectacular I stop and look,” she said. “But most of the time I don’t even notice them.”
And the sky came to life – At 8pm I made my way down to the lake. I passed the small crowd that had gathered beside the wharf, and headed out to the spot I had found earlier in the afternoon. I had barely arrived when an unearthly green light leaked out from behind the mountain range and across the sky like an alien sunrise. It skittered and flickered, danced and throbbed. By 9pm it had faded and ebbed away. I turned and walked back towards town, content that I had seen the northern lights properly. But the aurora hadn’t finished with me yet. By the time I hit the caravan park – perhaps the least salubrious part of Abisko – the sky came to life. Lights of varying size, shades of green and intensity came at me from all angles. Some shimmied upwards. Others swirled like lava lamps. One transformed into a prehistoric cave drawing of a fox, its endless tail sweeping around the sky.
When I reached town, it was like a scene from Ghostbusters. The aurora appeared out of the top of buildings like ectoplasm, twisting above Abisko before making a dash for the mountains. At the hostel, guests gathered outside laughing, clapping and, I’m afraid to say, pointing like overgrown children. Was this what Orjan had meant when he said the aurora made people lose their minds? Eventually the lights ebbed away, drifting off to play over another part of the northern skies. Maybe they would return. If I ran into Seth and Alan they would probably tell me where and when. But I felt that now I had seen them – really seen them – I could go to bed, content that I had got my £25o’s worth. But the next morning I woke to what felt like a different Abisko, one buffeted by high winds and closeted by cloud.
The wind had blown the top layer of snow off the lake and now it was the exposed chilly blue of a Glacier Mint. Return flights from Kiruna to the UK had proved expensive, so I’d found a cheap fare home from Stockholm instead; my overnight train to the capital left at 2.19pm. On the way to the station I ran into Orjan and asked him how he rated the display the night before. “Eight out of ten,” he said, matter-of-factly. I had thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. Maybe he was right to keep a ten to himself.
Why go? The Aland Islands do it their own way. Adrift in the north Baltic Sea, this cluster of 6,500 outcrops is ‘an autonomous and monolingual Swedish region of Finland’. It even has its own stamps and its own flag. It’s also the place to have a proper Scandinavian summer stay. Rent a cottage by the coast on the main island, Fasta Aland – itself, only 50km north to south – and make the most of the long days. Cycle to 14th-century Kastelholm Castle; hike the three-day 63km Sadelin trail, which wends via primeval forests and ancient burial grounds; and explore capital Mariehamn’s maritime heritage. Or kayak with sea eagles around the uninhabited atolls – the safe, isle-scattered Foglo area is ideal for beginners.
When to go: June-August is high season, when temperatures can reach the mid-20°Cs and most Finns/Swedes visit; around this time it’s light from 3am to 10pm. May and September are quieter options. Winters can be cold (-10°C).
How to go: The fastest ferries leave from Grisslehamn or Kapellskar (both Greater Stockholm; 2hrs) and Turku (Finland; 5hrs). Flights to Mariehamn airport leave from Stockholm (30mins), Turku (30mins) and Helsinki
On August 10, 1628, the magnificent royal warship Vasa sank on her maiden voyage in front of thousands of horrified onlookers before she even left the Stockholm harbor (sudden gusts of wind and not enough ballast are the most popular explanations).
Built at vast expense to be the largest and most powerful battleship ever constructed, the 226-foot, 64-cannon man-of-war was supposed to become the pride of the Swedish war fleet. She took two years to complete on the site where the Grand Hôtel now stands.
Salvaged 333 years after her demise, and since then painstakingly restored, she can now be seen with her complete lower rigging at the Vasa Museum, the only maritime museum of its kind in the world. Large enough to dwarf even the wondrous museum especially built around her at enormous cost and completed in 1990, she is the oldest fully preserved warship in the world.
Elaborate wooden carvings cover the exterior of the boat; of the 700 sculptures, 500 are figure sculptures, all of which had been stripped of their original paint and gilt. Almost as interesting was the ship’s cargo, which included 4,000 coins, medical equipment, and a backgammon set.
A video is shown regularly, illustrating the painstaking five-year resurrection of the ship upon its discovery in 1961. The Vasa is the most visited museum in Scandinavia, and an immediate favorite for anyone visiting Stockholm.
There are a number of ways to see Sweden’s archipelago, a latticework of some 24,000 islands and smooth glacier-polished outcroppings that dot a 150-mile stretch off its eastern coast. You can travel by ferry, vintage steamer, three-mast schooner, private sailboat, or yacht.
But the most important thing is not to miss them: they are one of the country’s most important natural attractions and its wild frontier. Only 6,000 people live on 1,000 islands; the rest are uninhabited.
Sweden’s summer is brief but glorious and this is the place to celebrate it – kayaking, picnicking, biking, and walking the unpaved island roads. Take a thirty-minute ferryboat ride from Stockholm out to the well-known restaurant Fjaderholmarnas Krog, accessible only by boat, for a leisurely lunch of just-caught fish, perfectly prepared. Alternatively, stay on board one of the steamers for the scenery: skerries (skärgärden, the Swedish word for archipelago, means “garden of skerries”), islets, flower-bedecked fishing cottages, landing stages, meadows, farms, beaches, and a late evening sky of changing pastels.
Writers and artists have traditionally been drawn to Vaxholm, while the boating crowd firmly favors Sandhamn, hub for the prestigious annual Royal Regatta.
The archipelago has two environments – the wooded, protected inner part and the barren, wild outer archipelago, the latter home to seabirds, seals, and a few very hardy fishermen. Take a leisurely, blissful sail and you’ll understand a lot more about Stockholm, built on fourteen of the archipelago’s islands, and its connection to the sea.
During the second week in December, the Grand Hotel hosts the Nobel Prize winners and their entourages, but everyone can enjoy the same elite hospitality year-round at Sweden’s best hotel, standing proudly on the waterfront and in the very center of town.
Nonguests too should stop at this 1874 landmark of old-world ambience, if only for a meal in the glassed-in Grand Veranda overlooking the harbor (known for its legendary smörgåsbord and homemade pastries) or a tipple at the classic Cadier Bar.
The Grand is privately owned – a fact that seems underlined by the personable ambience and the management’s sacrosanct credo that each arrival be treated as a “holy guest.” Some of Europe’s most demanding palates return regularly to the hotel’s refined Franska Matsalen (French Dining Room), whose candelabra-lit setting is pure magic. Magnificent nighttime views across the water to the illuminated Royal Palace accompany an over-the-top dinner and Sweden’s most impressive wine cellar. If you still have any kroner left, ask for a room with a waterside view, then book your next meal at the nearby Operakällaren.
Unabashedly luxurious in its location within the Royal Opera House, right across from the Royal Palace, the Operakällaren is one of Scandinavia’s most famous restaurants, a landmark since it opened in 1787 by decree of King Gustav III (whose 1792 assassination in the Opera House during a fancy dress ball was the inspiration for Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera).
It has since evolved into a complex of many restaurants that vary in formality and price, but the main Belle Epoque dining room is the draw, overseen by co-owner Stefan Catenacci, culinary adviser to the king and queen of Sweden.
This is the city’s most theatrical venue for an evening’s repast, featuring plush Oriental rugs, carved oak wall and ceiling panels, once-risqué murals, extravagant crystal chandeliers, and service as impeccably polished as the silverware. A fillet of tender young reindeer and seasonal game dishes highlight the Swedish and international cuisine. The wine list is excellent, but consider toasting the long summer days with Stenborgare, the restaurant’s own schnapps.
Famous throughout the country for its unrivaled smörgåsbord, Sweden’s great culinary art form, there could be no lovelier setting than this country inn within its own royal park, built in 1868 upon request of the Swedish Crown.
Most other restaurants serve smörgåsbords only during summer months and again at Christmas (when it’s called a Yule Table or Julbord), but guests come to Ulriksdals Wärdshus at all times of the year (the present-day king and queen have been known to appear) to tuck into the groaning table of more than seventy-five different offerings.
According to unofficial smörgåsbord etiquette, one visits the food-laden table five times, the first for herring (there are twenty variations), the last for desserts. In between are a panoply of Nordic specialties such as smoked eel, sweet Baltic shrimp, reindeer, those famous Swedish meatballs, pork chops with the ubiquitous lingonberry sauce, and the much-loved national specialty, Jansson Temptation – a delectable quiche of anchovies, potatoes, onions, and heavy cream – that no self-respecting smörgåsbord or Swede goes without.
The typical drink to accompany such indulgence is Swedish aquavit with a beer chaser or schnapps. But the inn also has one of the finest wine cellars in the country, and all except the most expensive are available by the glass. If you’re still lucid at sunset (which is not until 9 P.M. in July), the country’s blue and yellow flag is ceremonially lowered out on the lawn, and everyone stands to sing the national anthem, one of the inn’s more delightful traditions.
This endearing lakeside village, with its main attraction, the impregnable redbrick Gripsholm Castle, is Stockholm’s perfect day trip. Throw in an excellent lunch at the acclaimed country manor Gripsholms Värdhus Hotel, Sweden’s oldest inn, and this is anybody’s idea of a perfect day. It’s about the journey as much as the destination when you arrive by a nostalgic little coal-fired steamboat, the Mariefred, then return by narrow-gauge steam train.
The day in Mariefred revolves around the 16th-century onion- towered castle, attentively watching over the town from its position on Lake Mälaren. The castle was occupied until 1864 and is still considered one of the five royal palaces of Sweden. But it’s principally known as the national portrait gallery, with one of the finest collections in the world (and, with 1,200 of its 4,000 portraits on display, Europe’s largest).
Reserve a table for a wonderful lunch on the lakeside glassed-in veranda of the Gripsholms Värdshus & Hotel. It first welcomed guests in 1609 when it was just a hospice built on the site of an earlier monastery (ceiling beams date back to 1507 and the wine cellar, where tastings can be arranged, was used by the monks as early as 1493).
The staff here is a delight, so are the romantic guest rooms and lakeview suites beautifully decorated in country style. It all makes for a wonderful and easy getaway and day-trippers often regret their haste: bring your toothbrush and check in.
Clearly inspired by the style of Versailles, the official year-round home of Sweden’s present-day King Carl XVI and Queen Silvia is widely held to be one of the most delightful European palaces. On its own tree-covered island (Drottningholm means “queen’s island”) in Lake Mälaren, the many-windowed rococo palace is open to the public even when the royal family is in residence.
Built in 1622 for Sweden’s Queen Eleonora, the interior still dazzles with its collection of opulent 17th- to 19th-century art and furniture, gilt ceilings, and magnificent chandeliers. Fountains and formal gardens further encourage comparisons to the real Versailles.
Visit the unforgettable Drottningholm Court Theater, the world’s most perfectly preserved 18th-century theater, where performances are still given using original sets and stage machinery. Originally lit by 400 candles, today it is illuminated by as many flickering flame-shaped electric bulbs.
The wooden theater was built in 1766 by the mother of King Gustav III for an intimate audience of his friends and courtiers. The 18th-century operas and ballets performed today by some of Europe’s premier talents (and by an orchestra playing original period instruments) transport audiences back in time.
Is this the coolest place to stay in the world? You bet. The Ice Hotel is a magically translucent palace with guest rooms (there’s even a Honeymoon Suite), a cinema, a 45-foot vodka bar using “glasses” crafted from ice, galleries, and a futuristic-looking colonnaded reception hall whose pure ice chandeliers are lit by fiber optics. Built every November since 1990 out of 4,000 tons of densely packed snow and ice, the hotel disappears each spring when it melts into the River Tome on whose banks it is constructed.
The surreal ice building is a marvel in itself, but the interior trappings can be even more amazing: the furniture, art, and sculptures in the public rooms are the work of engineers and well-known ice carvers. Things can be surprisingly toasty (well, maybe that’s an exaggeration): your ice-block “bed” is lavishly draped with layers of reindeer hides beneath your high-tech sleeping bags.
You can roast in the sauna before a hearty breakfast, then set off for a day full of fun (but remember you’re north of the Arctic Circle and the sun doesn’t shine for six weeks from December to January): choose from snowmobile (or reindeer) safaris, dogsledding, ice fishing, experiencing the eerie patterns of the Northern Lights, cross-country skiing, helicopter tours, or visits to native Sami (the once nomadic people formerly called Laplanders who herded reindeer for a living) villages.
For those who get their share of been-there-done-that kicks after just one night of chilling out in a freezer whose internal temperature hovers around 25 degrees Fahrenheit, nearby conventional chalets (featuring creature comforts like central heating) offer alternative accommodations.