In winter, airfares to Europe, and Scandinavia in particular, drop dramatically. Then again, so does the temperature. Would you want to spend 10 days there, strolling city streets in a parka? Perhaps not. But a long weekend can be absolutely refreshing, as Erik Torkells discovers in Stockholm.
The cardinal rule of a long-weekend getaway: Don't do anything to make it less long--like miss your flight. My partner, Adam, and I took the subway to JFK airport, feeling pretty good about ourselves for getting to the AirTrain transfer earlier than we'd expected on a Wednesday afternoon. I scanned the list of airlines and their terminals. Saudi Arabian Airlines, Singapore Airlines . . . . Where was Scandinavian Airlines, or SAS?
In Newark, it turns out.
I called SAS. "The flight to Stockholm is never delayed," said the agent, drolly. "Except tonight." It took us a total of six trains to get there, but we made it.
Having lived in a sublet while renovating a new apartment, Adam and I didn't travel much last summer, because there were always apartment-related things that needed to be done. And we didn't plan any big trips for after we moved in, because (a) renovating is expensive, and (b) we figured that all we'd want to do is savor finally being in our new place. But we found ourselves living inside a to-do list: Everywhere we looked, there was another task staring back.
We needed to get away. In honor of a certain special someone's birthday--mine--I proposed a quick trip to Stockholm. While we may not have wanted to spend 10 days in the Scandinavian winter, three sounded like a hoot. I've always believed that part of the reason people travel is so they have something fresh to talk about, and right away, it was a relief to focus on something besides, say, the fact that our new oven makes a strange booming noise when it hits 200 degrees.
I saw some appealing hotel/airfare packages, but bagged the package idea when I went to SAS's website. The airline was promoting a "Campaign Fare" on its home page: Newark (ahem) to Stockholm for $399, including all taxes. Our preferred dates were available, but every time I tried to book the flight, I kept getting error 140004. "Please try again later," the message said, so I did, every 15 minutes, convinced that someone was about to snap up the last two Campaign Fares. Eventually, I spoke with someone at the SAS offices in Sweden who knew how to fix the problem: I was entering myself as "passenger #1" and Adam as "passenger #2," but because Adam's last name comes before mine alphabetically, the system couldn't process it. That was a new one.
I bought the Time Out guidebook to Stockholm and checked out a bunch of hotels online. Adam likes a hip hotel, and the Nordic Light fit the bill. It had a weekend deal for $140 a night, but it was only valid Friday and Saturday nights. I e-mailed asking if they'd kindly extend the rate to Thursday. One of the many benefits of traveling off-season is that hotels get much more flexible.
Was it cold? Yes, generally about zero degrees Celsius--the sole Celsius temperature anyone can convert easily. Was it dark? The sun never got high in the sky, and it set around 4 p.m. The city's beauty was often accentuated by the long dusk: Restaurants place a pair of candles outside their doors, the very definition of a warm welcome.
Was it fulfilling? Was it ever.
Stockholm, situated on 14 islands, is geographically blessed: Walk 15 minutes and you'll probably end up with a water view. We didn't have a lot of preconceived notions about the city, and consciously didn't do a lot of advance planning. What was the point of trading one to-do list (our apartment) for another (guidebook essentials)? We mostly wandered, getting a real thrill when we'd happen upon something monumental. On the way to Gamla Stan--the old town, crisscrossed with narrow lanes--we passed a hulking brick building. I insisted we check it out, only to discover it was Stadshuset, the city hall. We entered a majestic courtyard, then passed through another set of arches, to a terrace area that runs right down to the water. It was like Venice for people who can handle the cold.
Considering we'd never actually follow through on it, Adam and I spent a lot of time talking about moving to Stockholm, coming to the optimistic conclusion that we'd be happiest in the upscale neighborhood of Östermalm. Two parts, in particular, struck our fancy: Strandvägen, a waterfront street, and Karlavägen, a broad avenue with a park down the middle, like Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. On Karlavägen, we stopped for lunch at the fussy little Café Foam. Seated next to us were three overly groomed young men and a woman with a Chihuahua dozing in her lap, forcing us to reconsider exactly how well we'd fit in.
Stockholmers, generally, were just lovely. The day we arrived, we went for panini and double espressos at Tintarella di Luna, a café in the city center. A woman overhearing our conversation recommended several places we should see during our stay. At the time, we were surprised, but then it happened again and again: Locals would offer suggestions, or help us if we looked lost.
As easy to manage as the city was, we still got that delicious sensation that we were somewhere foreign. For one thing, we saw no other Americans, and people thought we were Swedish. For another, while everyone spoke impeccable English, signs were written in Swedish, and maybe it's because I traffic in words for a living, but I love the Swedish language. They call an elevator a hiss, which had us ridiculously hissing the word--"Hisssssss! Hisssssss!"--every time we rode one. Instead of pull, doors are labeled drag, though not often enough. (Sweden, in my limited experience, has yet to realize that doors that push open shouldn't have handles. It leads folks like me to tug awkwardly, especially after we've had a glass of wine.) And the word chickybits, which we spotted on a street-food stall, makes me giggle just thinking about it.
The shorter your trip, the less you should feel like you have to see everything--because you can't. Whether that's true or not, it gave us a nice excuse to laze about the hotel room. The front desk clerk, bless her, had upgraded us. (She didn't know that I work at Budget Travel, or that I was writing an article.) Our new room was remarkably small, but if the floor plan posted in the room was any indication, we got very lucky. We still found it relaxing, if only because there weren't unpacked moving boxes in the corner.
We also decompressed at Sturebadet, a grand day spa, where we each had 20-minute massages--all they had available--and pondered using the gym. This will make me sound like a prude, and for obvious reasons I probably care less than most men, but I was shocked to see that women work inside the men's locker room. There's nothing like a trip to Sweden to make you realize you're not as progressive as you think you are.
Three days just might be the ideal amount of time to get jolted out of one's routine. Any longer and we'd be in rehab: We don't really drink before dinner anymore, but we did on this trip--at Berns Hotel, a neat old building, and Fräcka Halvpannan, a restaurant in Söder (as locals call Södermalm, the hipster neighborhood) where our waiter was friendly to the point of perky. We don't drink after dinner, either, but that didn't stop us from going for a Carlsberg at Pelikan, an old beer hall in Söder.
We drank, in part, because we couldn't get into a restaurant we wanted to eat at. We had read that you need to call ahead, especially on weekends, but we didn't pull it together to actually make reservations (see the part about decompressing, above). Sometimes we waited until a table was available, like when we went to Tranan, just north of the city center. I had the pork sausage, with potatoes drowning in cream; they were the richest thing I have ever eaten, and I'm no stranger to the dairy aisle. Another night, we planned on trying a restaurant called Matkultur, but the wait was an hour and 20 minutes, so we backtracked to a little Italian joint we'd passed, Zucchero. It reminded me of the kind of place where I'd eat when I was fresh out of college: The pasta was no more than fine, but it was fairly priced, the crowd was fun, and the room was done up in Italian kitsch.
In another way, our trip to Stockholm was serendipitous. Every other shop there seems to be selling exactly the kind of housewares you buy when you've moved into a new place only to realize you hate everything you own. For some reason, we were on a quest for place mats. We bought plastic ones, based on Josef Frank fabrics, for $5.50 apiece at upmarket Svenskt Tenn in Östermalm, and woven ones for $3 at Granit, which is like Crate and Barrel with a cooler, more organic, almost Asian sensibility. The other two stores that made an impression on us were DesignTorget, a showcase for cutting-edge design where we bought pillowcases with electric guitars silk-screened on them, and Asplund, where I couldn't pass up a coffee mug illustrated with hippos. For the first time in awhile, thinking about our apartment became fun.
Before we'd come to town, I had asked the photographer who'd be shooting this story, Martin Adolfsson, for advice on his city. I had never met Martin, but it turned out that he and his girlfriend were having a housewarming party the weekend we were there, so he e-mailed an invitation. I can count on one hand the times I've been invited to see how people in other countries truly live. I can also remember exactly the look on the face of the front-desk clerk at the Nordic Light when I asked her to translate the directions on the invitation. Martin had made it himself, using a photograph of Dave Chappelle as Rick James; IT'S A CELEBRATION BITCHES!!! was blazoned across the top in multicolored type.
The party brought out our insecurities. Martin is 24, and we were sure he'd have hip, creative friends who would make us feel like yuppies at best, fogies at worst. The other guests were indeed hip and creative, and I didn't help matters when I said that we'd found Östermalm to be particularly charming.
"It's not the real Stockholm!" protested Martin. He's right, of course. Then again, Beverly Hills isn't the real L.A., but I sure like to visit.
As is often the case when people from two countries hang out, we talked a lot about cultural differences--the irony being that we have much in common. From what Martin's guests had to say, Scandinavia is obsessed with poker, sudoku, and Harry Potter. The Ikea lamp Martin has in his bedroom is the one I have in my office. And like at every party everywhere, most of the guests loitered in the kitchen.
Adam and I had such a good time that we stayed a half hour longer than we intended, and we were late for a reservation at Bistro Süd, which Martin had recommended. He insisted we come back afterward, as they were going to play Ping-Pong at Lysy Pingwin, a bar around the corner. (He even did a sprightly Ping-Pong jig.) Alas, we're older and more bourgeois than we like to admit. I learned later that the party went on until 5:30 a.m.
It was snowing, the first of the winter, and as we walked across Söder to Bistro Süd, where we had a wonderful birthday dinner of steak frites and Arctic char, I felt more alive than I had in months. If that's not why we travel--and the best reason for going anywhere, at any time of year--I don't know what is.
General advice for long weekends in Europe
Fly direct whenever possible. I came across an appealing air/hotel package on Go-today.com--$449 per person for three nights--but the company wouldn't promise direct flights. We'd be in Europe for all of 72 hours; I didn't want to spend any of them sitting around Heathrow.
Stay at a hotel that's centrally located. Stockholm has an amazing airport train, the Arlanda Express: It goes from the Arlanda airport to the city with no stops in between, and costs $24 one-way. Even better, we walked from the train platform at Central Station to the hotel lobby in less than 60 seconds. Also, because all of Stockholm's subway lines stop at Central Station, we didn't have to connect to get back to the hotel.
Accept the fact that you won't be able to see everything. Stockholm is home to 75 museums (see stockholmtown.com for info); we only went to two: the Moderna Museet, which has a great selection of 20th-century art, and the Vasamuseet, which houses a wooden ship that capsized in 1628--15 minutes after it launched--and was dredged up only 45 years ago. What about the other 73? Think of it this way: If you love a city you're visiting, you can go back and see whatever you missed.
Don't make too many set plans. The massages we reserved at Sturebadet were nice, but it was a distraction to have an appointment of any kind looming in the afternoon. Moreover, the whole experience--finding the spa, checking in, changing, showering, paying--took a much larger chunk of time than we'd expected. I wish we'd skipped it and walked around Söder more, spontaneity being more fulfilling.
Don't be afraid to relax. I don't sleep on planes, and find flying to Europe hard. But, boy, the sleep you get when you're jet-lagged is the best, and that alone is almost worth the trip.
Where the Scandinavian deals are