Winter break: the perfect time for a student to travel abroad. There are no classes and the university is closed down for the holiday. Back in February of 2017, we knew we wanted to travel abroad over the winter break and used our favorite Kayak tool (the Explore feature) to choose a place to go. By April, we’d narrowed our options to Peru or Scandinavia. Flights from JFK airport to Stockholm, Sweden were less than $300. Flights from Oslo to JFK at the end of the timeframe were about the same. We imagined ourselves in the land of the vikings, under the northern lights, and walking among reindeer. We thought it over for a few days and decided to book our trip to Scandinavia.
It took us a little while to figure out exactly where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. We flirted with the idea of going to northern Norway to see the fjords and Bergen. Ultimately, we decided to spend 3 days in Stockholm, 2 days in Copenhagen, Denmark, and 3 days in Oslo, Norway. It ended up being as ambitious as it sounds. While planning, we looked into taking trains between the cities, but it was cheaper and quicker to fly. By the end of the trip, we’d boarded 10 different flights.
On December 21, we flew from New Orleans (MSY) to New York City (JFK). We do this because flights from MSY are typically cheaper than from Memphis (MEM) which is closer to where we live. We flew out of JFK because it had the cheapest flights to Europe. When we’re exploring on Kayak, we search for flights from all the major East Coast airports to Europe. JFK has consistently been cheaper.
We’ve had layovers in New York City before, but didn’t feel too comfortable (or confident) going out into the city. It seemed daunting and expensive. Now that we’ve done this whole flying abroad thing a couple times, we braved the subway and ventured out to the city. We’ll recount our layover in New York in a separate post because it’s quite a story.
During our travel to Stockholm, we had a layover in both New York City and Reykjavík, Iceland (let us just say the Reykjavík airport is dripping with cozy goodness).
Our flight landed in Stockholm, Sweden at about 12:00pm on December 22. We purchased 72 hour travel passes (about $30 each) from the Information Desk (our first Swedish interaction!) and made our way toward our hotel. Steve is really good at figuring out foreign transportation systems. We stayed in this hotel, which was a little bit outside of the city center, but for about $55 a night, it was perfectly fine. It’s located close to a commuter train station, but we had to climb over road railings and walk around the building to get to the hotel entrance. The Ibis Styles hotel had complimentary breakfast, free wifi, free luggage storage, as well as gingerbread cookies, coffee, and caramels available to guests at all times.
We checked into the hotel, gathered our bearings, and headed to the city center in search of the Christmas Market in Stortorget (a small square in the Old Town ‘Gamla Stan’). We’re suckers for the older parts of European cities; something about them just feel so authentic. Stockholm is comprised of fourteen islands and we navigated our way across a few of them via bridges to find Sweden’s oldest Christmas Market. The square is small, unlike Prague’s Old Town Square. As we peeked behind the right building, we saw these little wooden stalls with garland around the edges and warm light seeping out of them. Right in the center of the market was a stall selling the thing I was looking most forward to: beautiful glögg (mulled wine). The translation of glögg means “to glow” and I mean, how much more perfect can that be? It was wonderful.
I purchased one little cup of glögg and sipped it as we walked through the market admiring the different items being sold (meat, candles, wooden spoons, salted licorice). We didn’t purchase anything as we had just arrived and weren’t sure what was in store for us during the rest of our journey.
We feel that it’s hard to figure out where to eat when we’re abroad; what claims to be an authentic restaurant may just be a mediocre restaurant in a touristy area. One thing we learned from this trip is to do more restaurant research before we arrive. We found out too late that there is a viking themed restaurant called Aifur where you dine like vikings and when you arrive, the hostess introduces you to the whole restaurant by exclaiming where you came from. You must book a table in advance.
When we’re looking for restaurants abroad, we typically walk up to them, read their menus that are on the door, convert their costs, and then move along in hopes of something better. After playing this game for about 30 minutes on our first night in Stockholm, we found a restaurant that boasted traditional Swedish food but actually ended up being South American themed. Though confused, we ordered a moose burger that Steve wasn’t super excited about. It had a strange sauce underneath the patty. Our first dinner in Sweden was a little rocky.
The next day, we started our morning with a Free Walking Tour. We were a little apprehensive at first about how it would be and if it would be worth our time. This tour was one of the best things we did in Stockholm. Our tour guide took us all over the city, telling us about Swedish culture, the various buildings, statues that we passed, and the history of Stockholm. We never would have known the little details and bits of history if we hadn’t gone on this tour. Really, it was worth every moment of our time and we feel like we really got to know Stockholm and what its inhabitants value. Our biggest takeaway was the Swedish sense of modesty. From the uniform buildings to the grayscale clothing, Swedish culture values no one being too flashy or different at least as an outward appearance. However, in private it is encouraged to have beautiful things as they are only for you.
After the tour, we headed to the Östermalms Saluhall to grab lunch. This venue has a lot of different vendors selling all kinds of foods. At this point, we’d realized that Stockholm was a bit more expensive than we’d anticipated. So, we opted for a fresh baguette, some Brie cheese, and a dessert tart for lunch (it cost about $12). This is a budget meal we’ve tried before when in an expensive city (I’m looking at you, Paris). We dined on a bench outdoors and then headed toward the Djurgården island to enter into the VASA Museum.
The Djurgården island has a handful of museums on it, so museum lovers are bound to end up on it. We wanted to see the VASA museum (featuring a 17th century viking ship that sunk and is preserved), the Nordic Museum (a Swedish history museum), and the Skansen Museum (the world’s oldest open air museum). Our plan was to visit the VASA museum first, but it was closed. Instead we went to the Nordic Museum (Nordiska Museet) where we were greeted with beautiful lights, Swedish traditions, and a christmas tree.
Before I continue, I want to say that it sounds like we did a lot on this day, but it got dark at about 3:30pm so everything seemed like it was happening in the dead of night. Later that evening (about 6pm), we went to the Kungsträdgården ice skating rink to watch people skate. The rink was open to anyone; there were children, couples, and young women twirling around and doing spins and jumps as if they were olympic athletes in training. It was really exciting to watch. We’d arrived at the rink at an opportune time because the rink was zambonied as someone announced that a performance was about to begin. The show featured groups of dancers representing skating in Sweden throughout history. We were enthralled by the whole show and learned about a time where skating was banned in Sweden and when there was a skating revolution.
After the show, we found a cozy restaurant called 22 Matgatan to have dinner. The restaurant had seats sort of like day beds with pillows and outlets nearby. It was quiet and the staff were friendly. We ordered a traditional Swedish Christmas dinner and it was a little bizarre. We tried four different types of mystery meat and fish. We had kale chips and some sort of meat filled dumpling. I’m glad we experienced this traditional cuisine, but it was a bit unfamiliar.
After dinner, we went on something of a scavenger hunt for various subway stations. The Stockholm subway system is said to be the world’s longest art exhibit. Before we arrived in Sweden, we had read a guide about all of the art and wrote down which stations we really wanted to see. Steve helped us navigate to the stations as we connected to different lines and found the ones we were looking for. We even saw other travelers doing the same thing. It’s clean, safe, incredible, and totally worth your time.
Speaking of transportation, it’s very user friendly in Stockholm. Before we arrived, we had downloaded the transportation map. When we arrived in the airport, we were able to connect to the wifi and figure out which bus line to take to get us to our hotel. The Stockholm transportation system encompasses the metro (underground subways), commuter trains (like, an above ground subway), buses, and even ferries. It’s pretty easy to switch between the subways and commuter trains. After a day of riding around on them, we got the hang of it. The central station was the most user friendly. As we were on the outskirts and in smaller stations, sometimes wait times would be longer or we’d be a bit confused. In some stations the metro is actually on the floor above the commuter train, which is quite disorienting.
The next morning was Christmas Eve. After encountering the closed VASA museum, we had spent the morning looking up different museums and now knew they would be closed so we took our time wandering around the city without a real agenda. Skansen, the open-air museum, had free admission on Christmas Eve, so it was a bit crowded. It was really really cold at Skansen, perhaps because it wasn’t directly in the center of the city. We saw Nordic animals (cows, pigs, goats, buffalo, wolves, wolverines, reindeer!) and traditional Swedish houses. The museum looked like it usually has a little market, but it wasn’t open when we were there.
We walked through the winding streets of Gamla Stan looking for a warm place to have lunch and looking through tourist shops that were open. We found a place called Ristorante Paganini and enjoyed some delicious pasta together. One of the best meals we had on our whole trip! We were among only a few other travelers wandering around Stockholm.
In Sweden, there is something called “fika” and it is basically a coffee break during the day with a pastry and good company. It’s similar to tea time in the United Kingdom. We should definitely have something like fika in American culture. In the spirit of slowing down and enjoying good company, we found a coffee shop called Cafe Schweizer (thank you for being open on Christmas Eve!). We left with a hot cocoa, a latte, and two Swedish pastries to try. We walked around the city for a little longer, found a place to eat dinner, and headed back to our hotel.
The last day we spent in Stockholm was Christmas morning. Our flight to Copenhagen would leave that afternoon at about 3pm. According to google, the City Hall was open on Christmas. We left our bag in the luggage storage at the hotel and headed downtown for one last activity. City Hall was not open, but we did find a clear and beautiful view of the city. We walked around the City Hall building, then tried to go see the Old City Walls. That turned out to be inside of the free, but closed Medieval Museum.
We located the nearest transport station and made our way back to our hotel. At this point, it started to rain and ice was starting to form on the streets. Our 72 hour transportation pass was running out. With the clock ticking and ice forming, we slid across ice, jumped over the road railings, ran into the hotel to grab our bag and make it onto the commuter train before our passes expired. We barely made it, but with our luggage in hand, we headed to the airport to check in and board the plane for our next adventure: Copenhagen, Denmark.
Stockholm was cozy and private. People didn’t talk much, but when they did it was full of cheer and kindness. The city, though not some glamorous European fairytale, was respectful and dignified. It felt like the city really knew its identity. Stockholm is a city that burns its waste to keep warm and convert waste into energy. It’s a city for coffee lovers. The Swedes believe in trust, something a little unfamiliar to us Americans. There is art everywhere: underground, in the trees, on business signs, and in parks. Stockholm is modest, yet beaming with mystery.