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Winter escapes: treat yourself with a trip to the ‘Venice of the north’

If you’ve had a gruelling last 18 months (and let's face it, who hasn’t?), perhaps now is the time to really treat yourself. Whether you live in Sweden or fancy a European city break as travel opens up again, there are a multitude of reasons to put Stockholm at the top of your list of stress-busting destinations.

Winter escapes: treat yourself with a trip to the 'Venice of the north'
Stockholm in winter. Photo: Getty Images

Stockholm provides a unique experience thanks to its location on an archipelago of 14 islands; the city is sometimes known as the ‘Venice of the north’. Each island has a distinct feel, from the vibrant cobbled streets and alleyways of Gamla Stan to the rare combination of world-class museums and wide open green spaces in Djurgården. Stockholm is a destination of many faces, where you can jump on a water taxi and find yourself in a different world without ever leaving the city.

A long winter weekend in Stockholm is the perfect way to indulge yourself and recharge your batteries after a prolonged period of stress and anxiety. The locals really are experts in making the most of the deep midwinter. Mulled wine, fabulous spas, sumptuous food, and plentiful festive markets can turn Stockholm’s short, winter days into a positively blissful experience for discerning visitors.

And all this is just 18 minutes away from Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport on Arlanda express, the most comfortable, stress-free, and environmentally-friendly way to travel to Stockholm city centre. Even better, if you’re travelling with children, they can ride for free until they’re 18. 

Want to treat yourself by discovering (or rediscovering) Stockholm? Find out how choosing Arlanda express might save you time, stress and even money

A wintery view of Stockholm at Christmas. Photo: Henrik Trygg/mediabank.visitstockholm.com

Staying in luxury

Once you’ve disembarked from Stockholm’s top-rated means of transport (according to Tripadvisor), there are an impressive variety of accommodation options, from boutique hotels to Airbnb rentals with stunning views. But if cosseting yourself and your loved ones is the priority, there are two very special spa hotels you should know about, each only 30 minutes from the city centre by car.

Yasuragi combines Japanese and Scandinavian spa culture in a tranquil setting in Hasseludden that looks out on the Stockholm archipelago. It’s the perfect place for couples or friends to unwind after a busy day exploring Stockholm. Relax in the heated outside pools on a hill with incredible views over the pine trees and sea and feel yourself floating up towards cloud nine.

Hot springs at Yasuragi. Photo credit: Yasuragi

Or there’s Ellery Beach House, set in the lush landscapes of Lidingö, one of Stockholm’s most affluent areas. With its palm trees, spa, and day beds, it evokes something of the spirit of California. But this is very much Stockholm, hence there’s a heated outdoor pool at this inspired choice for anyone who missed out on a summer vacation – or can’t wait for the next one.

Markets, merriment and a medieval cityscape

Now you’ve found your base and enjoyed a rejuvenating spa treatment, it’s time to explore the twinkling winter lights of Stockholm. Time it right (from around the last week of November to the cusp of Christmas), and you’ll be able to immerse yourself in Stockholm’s magical Christmas markets. They don’t come much more atmospheric than the annual market in Gamla Stan (the Old Town), which happens to be one of the best preserved medieval city centres in Europe. Charming, little red huts are decorated with glittering lights and – fingers crossed – a veil of seasonal snow.

Wander among them to your heart’s content, browsing artisanal handicrafts, plates of reindeer and elk meat, and traditional Swedish Christmas sweets. The experience is best enjoyed with a glass (or three!) of warming glögg (Nordic mulled wine) – even if you end up feeling a little fuzzy, you’ll be merry as can be.

Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s Old Town, in the snow. Photo: Jeppe Wikström/mediabank.visitstockholm.com

When you travel to Stockholm Central Station with Arlanda express, it’s easy to start your winter break with a quick stop in Gamla Stan. You can walk there from the station in 10 to 15 minutes – and enjoy some of the city’s best views on your way. Not far away, on the island of Djurgården, you’ll find Skansen Christmas market, in the world’s oldest open-air museum, with its bonfires, market stalls filled with yummy goodies for the Christmas table, and locally produced crafts.

Treat yourself: check out the full range of Arlanda express ticket options and prices now

Feast on music and Christmas foods

One of the real joys of this period is the return of live music. Many have missed the shared sense of wonder at great music being played by talented and passionate musicians in front of live audiences. Book yourself some tickets for classical concerts at Berwaldhallen, some of which will feature the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, who play a repertoire of classics. If that’s not your style, you could catch top Swedish rock outfits like The Hives at Stockholm’s Avicii Arena in mid-December. 

With Christmas just around the corner, you’ve got every excuse (if you need any!) to indulge in a delicious Swedish julbord (the Swedish Christmas buffet). You’ll find the festive banquet laid out on restaurant and hotel tables across the city. Gravlax (dry-cured salmon marinated in herbs), herring cooked and pickled in a multitude of different ways, cold meats, eggs, pates, sausages, salads, Swedish crispbreads and, of course, the centrepiece of every julbord, the julskinka, or Christmas ham.

Typical Swedish julbord (Christmas buffet). Photo: Getty Images

You can really treat yourself at the Grand Hotel. Or, with Stockholm being a city of awe-inspiring views over the water, try a julbord on one of the city’s skärgårdsbåts (the ferries that travel between the 14 islands). Don’t eat meat? Eatery offers a vegetarian julbord option in its four Stockholm restaurants.

Serene strolls, sublime sights

One of the most attractive aspects of Stockholm is just how easy it is to find serene spots, where you can walk or just sit and enjoy the views. After visiting the bustling streets of Gamla Stan, or the hipper charms of Södermalm with its vintage shops and the absorbing Fotografiska museum, you could head to a green (or perhaps white!) oasis in the heart of the city. 

Skeppsholmen and Kastellholmen islands are ideal for a romantic or relaxing mid-winter stroll. As you amble around these small islands, you’ll discover sublime views in all directions, with Strandvägen and Djurgården to the north and east, and Södermalm and Gamla Stan to the south and west. Stand still and drink it all in – peace, quiet, and loveliness in the centre of one of the world’s most majestic winter cities.

Want to discover Stockholm (or fly out of Stockholm)? Find out how choosing Arlanda express might save you time, stress and even money

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TOURISM

Tourism minister: Book your French ski holiday now

France’s ski resorts will be open for business this winter, tourism minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne has promised - but no decision has yet been taken on whether a health pass will be required to use ski lifts.

Skiers at a French Alpine resort
Photo: Philippe Desmazes / AFP

“This winter, it’s open, the resorts are open,” Lemoyne told France 2’s 4 Vérités programme.

“Compared to last year, we have the vaccine,” he said, adding that he would “invite those who have not yet done so to [book], because … there will soon be no more room.”

And he promised an answer ‘in the next few days’ to the question of whether health passes would be required for winter holidaymakers to use ski lifts. “Discussions are underway with the professionals,” he said.

The stakes are high: the closure of ski lifts last winter cost manufacturers and ski shops nearly a billion euros. 

This year ski lifts will remain open, but a health pass may be necessary to access them. The health pass is already compulsory for après ski activities such as visits to bars, cafés and restaurants.

COMPARE The Covid rules in place at ski resorts around Europe

Many town halls and communities which depend on winter sports have found it difficult or impossible to make ends meet.

“It’s time for the French mountains to revive,” Lemoyne said, pointing to the fact that the government has provided “more than €6 billion” in aid to the sector.

Winter tourism professionals, however, have said that they are struggling to recruit for the winter season.

“Restaurant and bars are very affected,” by the recruitment crisis, one expert told Franceinfo, blaming a lack of urgency from authorities towards the winter holiday industry.

“We are all asking ourselves what we should do tomorrow to find full employment in the resort,” the expert added.

Post-Brexit visa and work permit rules mean that ski businesses have found it difficult to recruit Brits for short-term, seasonal positions.

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