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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.

In Sweden, embracing the cozy charm of a Nordic winter

The aurora borealis over the Swedish Lapland. (Shutterstock)

Some like it cold. While plenty of beach-bound travelers spend big to escape the seasonal chill, more than a few say: Winter? Brrrrrrr-ing it!

That was my family last December, so wistful for something frostier and fleecier than the Middle East climate where we lived that we opted for a Nordic winter break in Sweden. There we found winter enticements that got more intense — and cozier — as we climbed the latitudes. In the south, Stockholm offers Yule markets, hot wine and stunning museums. Kayaking in the Baltic archipelago is a literal ice breaker. And way up in Swedish Lapland, the northern lights glow over dog sleds and roaring fires.

“Swedish people like to be outdoors, even in the cold,” said Birgitta Palmér of Visit Stockholm. “We dress warmly, go for walks or to ski, and then you go into a cafe with your cheeks all red and get cozy.”

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This ancient port city puts itself in a winter mood with lots of little fires everywhere. Small blazes in sidewalk braziers flank the doors of cafes and shops, a wood-fire welcome into the great indoors of a culture that knows how to snuggle up for the dark months.

At noontime on a day soon after the winter solstice, the sun is barely above the treetops. Swedes make up for the truncated day by doubling down on fires and torches and flood lights. The funky and welcoming Hotel Hasselbacken, wrapped in plenty of holiday bulbs, glowed like a little Vegas in the middle of Royal Djurgarden island, the city’s harborside museum quarter.

“It’s how we survive, all the candles and lights,” said Karin Pettersson, a lifelong Stockholmer and an editor at Sweden’s biggest daily newspaper. We met near the city’s central train station for “fika” — the Swedish quick break for coffee and ginger cookies. “April is pretty much our entire spring.”

Stockholm is a harbor city, laced with ferry routes and marinas. We took a boat ride to Gamla Stan, the city’s expansive old quarter, and, after shopping for lambskin gloves and Moomin mugs, found excellent Italian food in a vaulted brick cellar.

There was more traditional Swedish fare grilling at Skansen, a vast outdoor museum of culture and heritage. The scent of elk meat and fried chanterelles floated over stalls hawking lax and rosehip soup and pancakes fried with lingonberries. People cooked their own sausages over communal fires kept stoked for that purpose.

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This is the hearty fuel that drives many out for the city’s local winter sports, including cross-country skiing, snowshoe hiking and sledding, all within city limits. Ice skaters are everywhere, in city park rinks and on dozens of lakes; with the deeper freeze comes guided long-distance skate tours on the Baltic inlets.

If you’re more the indoors type, a range of world-class and well-heated museums await: The Museum of Spirits is worth it for the gift shop alone. Laureate speeches stream at the Nobel Prize Museum, and earworm hits stream at the Abba museum. Ship lovers have it best, between the Maritime Museum, the Viking Museum, the Museum of Wrecks and the spectacularly preserved Vasa, the towering 17-century warship that was raised intact from Stockholm harbor some 330 years after it flipped over and sank minutes into its first voyage.

Vaxholm Island

We took the two-deck Cinderella north into the filigree of islands that separate Stockholm from the open Baltic. At Vaxholm Island, in the heart of the archipelago, it was a short trundle from the gangplank to the dockside Waxholms Hotell, a warmly vintage art nouveau refuge with a spectacular view of the ancient Vaxholm fortress from its wraparound dining windows.

In the cold months, the village that is chockablock with tourists in summer settles in for its long winter’s nap. The local boutiques lining the high street are filled with thick woolens and lambskin gloves.

Annika Mattson, co-founder of Vaxholm Yogacenter tells winter visitors to walk the winding lanes for a Scandinavian architecture tutorial: classic frame cottages all aglow, many of them, including Mattson’s 17th-century house, painted in the distinctive red pigment known as falu.

“It’s beautiful all year round, but in winter, the tranquility comes,” Mattson said.

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Two of us braved the cold to kayak through the semi-frozen waters. “The ice tells us where to go,” guide Andy Jurkowski said as we paddled through the channel that a kindly work boat had just plowed through the surface crust.

“This is where Andy asked me to marry him,” his wife, Milena, said at the entrance to a rocky inlet as we glided past dozens of sleeping summer homes. We ended the trip by falling, on purpose, into the icy water, braving a plunge between steaming stints in the couple’s sauna.

Ashore, we met Linda Wahlström, and she invited us to the hilltop B&B she runs to warm up with a glass of glogg, the Swedish mulled wine, and some grilled Stockholmer sausages. She was delighted to hear about our baptism by Baltic earlier in the day.

“Now you are Swedish,” she said, toasting us with glogg.

Swedish Lapland

It took a flight to vault us nine degrees north to Kiruna, just above the Arctic Circle, where serious winter is found. Extremophiles have long come here for the below-zero thrills of cross-country skiing and reindeer spotting in the day-long dark of the season. But increasing numbers of families flock from climates where winter is waning just to be in fail-safe snow.

“They want to experience the ‘Arctic lifestyle,’” said Hakan Stenlund of Swedish Lapland. “Of course, when it’s below zero, sometimes it’s enough to make a coffee on the fire and then go back in.”

Stenlund points visitors to a growing infrastructure of hotels and outfitters providing that fire coffee, along with the snowmobile safaris and dog-sled treks that are the top seasonal draws. He points the many aurora borealis seekers to the village of Abisko, known to boast some of the most dramatic, and reliable, northern light shows on the globe.

We opted for the place that put this region on the tourism map some three decades ago, the world’s first Icehotel on the nearby Torne River. A blend of conventional hotel rooms and chambers sculpted from solid ice, the resort is a shrine to — and a hub of — deep winter.

Based for two nights in regular (read “heated”) rooms, we ventured out for bracing hours, saved from the chill by explorer-grade snow suits provided by the hotel. We plied snowmobiles over the frozen river and through the snowy woods, including one late-night tour under the green magnetic skies. Dogs pulled us for hours to a forest warming hut and back.

We sculpted figures from blocks of crystal-clear ice harvested from the Torne (my glistening winter’s cap won a prize!) and hiked for Christmas Eve dinner at a preserved 18th-century homestead. Next door was the Nutti Sámi Siida, an outdoor museum devoted to the local Indigenous culture.

Finally, we went hard freeze, spending our last night in the Icehotel proper. There are 24 ice rooms constructed of blocks cut fresh each winter and various suites sculpted by artists and mechanically frozen year-round, along with a bar and gallery. Ours was the fanciful “Midsummer Night’s Dream” suite, with flowers entombed in the frozen walls, coffee table and bed.

It was frozen-pizza weather in there, but with a heated bathroom attached and an “expedition” sleeping bag provided, the coldest night of our lives was one of the coziest.