Vacationing during the winter holidays is growing in popularity and could be a spectacular gift to share with loved ones. If you decide to forgo the traditional for something unique, Sweden is an unforgettable northern destination that embodies the sparkling spirit of the season.
Upon arrival in the land of Jultomten, which refers to the Swedish Santa that looks more like a gnome, you will want to explore Stockholm. Stockholm, the capital of Sweden is famous for its outdoor holiday markets festooned with lights. The tallest living Christmas tree in the world can be found in the Skeppsbron neighborhood. Also, the Grand Synagogue near Kungsträdgården park has a public menorah lighting for the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah.
The country is vast, and along with that, comes adventure and unique opportunities. Maria Ploberg, Press Officer for the Embassy of Sweden in the Washington, D.C. cites several essential Swedish cultural experiences that are not to be missed in wintertime. Maria says that the daily Christmas market is a must-see in Gamla Stan (Old Town) in Stockholm. Wander through the music-filled streets and immerse yourself in the wafting fragrance of baking gingerbread and simmering glögg. It's here that you can find Swedish traditional foods and handicrafts.
"Swedes are crazy about their glögg!" Maria says. "Glögg" is a warm, spiced and sugared mulled red wine served with raisins and blanched almonds in it. It is not uncommon to drink it at different social gatherings throughout the entire month of December in Sweden."
"In Old Town, the narrow streets and the old buildings make for a cozy winter stroll. And if you happen to be in Stockholm during New Year's Eve, you should visit Skansen, where they ring the New Year's bells at midnight," Maria says. While there, visit one of the many warm and welcoming cafes and restaurants.
Swedes celebrate a distinctive regional custom called "Lussenatten" that ushers in the holiday season. "Lussenatten," or Lucia night, held every Dec. 13, is symbolically the year's longest night. Lucia is an ancient mythical figure who brings light, festivity and hope into the winter darkness. As a part of this holiday tradition, children throughout Sweden dress in full-length white gowns with red sashes and crowns with lit candles to represent Lucia. The children form a procession and visit schools and workplaces, often in the dim early morning hours, to sing traditional holiday songs and get everyone into a festive mood.
Exploring outside the cities in the Swedish countryside, winter sports like ice skating, cross country skiing and ice fishing are readily available. For a magical experience combined with adventure, head to the north country or Lapland, where the temperature in wintertime stays around 20 degrees. The farther north, the less daylight, so be prepared for darker days; however, it's here you may have the unforgettable experience of seeing the Northern Lights. In the hinterland, another whimsical holiday activity could be speeding through the countryside on a reindeer sled. And while you are visiting, why not stay overnight in the incredible ICEHOTEL in the Swedish village of Jukkasjärvi, 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.
Getting there might seem like a hurdle, but Sherill Stitz of Platinum Travel Associates says using a travel agency to help with the details can create a seamless experience. An agent can make traveling to Sweden far more accessible and affordable than travelers might expect. Agents have more suppliers, discounts and deals at their fingertips than the average person can find online.
If making all the arrangements of a holiday getaway are a bit intimidating, Sherill says a seven- to 14-day Scandinavian cruise in the Baltic Sea may be more your style.
"Cruising is nice because it's like a floating boutique hotel. Combining multiple lodging, dining and entertainment options in one place can make vacation less stressful," Sherill says. "By adding land excursions at each port of call, travelers can immerse themselves in local cultures."
Not the traveling kind but still want to experience a little taste of Sweden? Visit the annual Julmarknad or holiday market at The House of Sweden, a part of the Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7 to hunt for unique gifts and food of Sweden. Offerings at this market include Kosta Boda and Orrefors glassware and seasonal décors like Christmas elves and candelabras. Take a Swedish Fika break, which involves strong, dark coffee served with cake, and enjoy Swedish Christmas carols performed during the Santa Lucia Procession.
Whether wandering the streets of Stockholm marveling at the dazzling Christmas lights or perusing the aisles of IKEA hunting for Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam, it's easy to add a touch of Sweden to your holiday season this year.
Facebook: Sherill Stitz Dream Vacations
Anna Liisa Van Mantgem is a 17-year-long Frederick County resident who recently learned through DNA testing she is 5% Swedish. You can reach her via Instagram at @AnnaLiisa_000.