Be warned. Stockholm is one thing above all in December: dark.
The sun rises after eight o’clock in the morning, only to disappear again at around 3 pm, and is often obscured all day by clouds. Lucky visitors may get some snow, but December here is decidedly cold, wet and dark.
That’s why, until the days get noticeably longer again, the city is illuminated for all it’s worth: Central Station, alleyways and the Royal Castle – little lights are lit up everywhere.
In Berzelii Park opposite the Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern, the national theatre on the central Nybroplan square, even a herd of life-size steel moose is brightly lit, as are the ever-present evergreens.
In stark contrast to the weather, the mood in Stockholm in the run-up to Christmas is light and heady, especially at the famous Christmas markets, especially at the Lucia Festival on December 13 – the celebration of the winter solstice.
Diagonally behind the theatre is the Royal Stud Farm, which opens its doors on the first weekend of Advent. One of the most popular Christmas markets is held here, although admission costs 100 Swedish kronor (about €9 or $9.50).
Visitors can expect traditional Swedish winter food – smoked sausage, various types of fish, crispbread and gingerbread. You’ll find the usual array of winter market wares – knitted wrist warmers, hats, felted jackets and other things to keep you warm in the cold Swedish winter.
There are also endless tree decorations and, for those who want them, gnomes made of felt, wool, glass and ceramics.
So far, so typically Christmassy. But what’s special about this market is the opportunity to take a look at the royal horses nearby and staff will tell you about the noble animals. At the royal stud farm you’ll also be able to see the royal family’s vintage carriages.
Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town centre with its many winding, cobbled streets, also has a cosy atmosphere before Christmas. The displays of the small shops are decorated, while cafés wait to ply visitors with sweet cocoa and glögg.
On the city’s central square in front of the stock exchange and the Nobel Prize Museum, red wooden stalls form Stortorgets Julmarknad, the oldest Christmas market in Sweden, where traders have been setting up stalls every November since 1837.
Here and at the Christmas market in Skansen, expect more gnomes, sausages and mulled wine – as well as reindeer, moose and wolves in the Advent season.
Skansen is the largest and oldest open-air museums and zoos in the world, opened in 1903 on the island of Djurgården – one of the 14 islands on which the Swedish capital is spread out. All year round, it gives an impression of what traditional life must have been like in Sweden more than 100 years ago, and is your best chance of catching a glimpse of some Nordic wildlife.
A popular custom practised at the Christmas market in Skansen over the four Advent weekends is called “Julklapp 110 kr”: pre-wrapped presents for children or adults can be bought for a standard price of around 110 krona.
But here’s the interesting part: “Nobody knows what’s in the parcels,” says salesman Ludvig Bodén Granberg, dressed in traditional northern Swedish clothes.
Customers in front of the stand carefully weigh and shake the parcels to at least get an idea of what might be inside. “In almost all cases, the value is significantly higher than the price we charge,” claims Granberg. And the givers are also off the hook if they don’t like the gift: After all, they didn’t actually choose it.
Incidentally, Skansen’s founder, Swedish entrepreneur Artur Hazelius, had a democratic idea behind the custom: everyone should be able to buy a ready-wrapped gift for a moderate price.
But not everything on Swedish markets is this cheap. The Pepperkakor delicacies – thin, crumbly gingerbread cakes – that Katarina Curman sells in simple tin cans are more expensive than the Julklapp gifts.
In summer, Curman and her sister spend two months in the kitchen baking the biscuits. “You can only bake real gingerbread when it’s warm, otherwise they break,” she says. The recipe has been passed down in the family for many years – “especially the distribution of the typical spices is a secret that is closely guarded.”