Christmas in the Old Town
Celebrating jul the Swedish way in Stockholm’s historic Gamla stan
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
The Advent season is special throughout all of Scandinavia, with lights and decorations everywhere, concerts, special Christmas buffets—delights too many to name. Nearly every town has its own Christmas market, a tradition that dates back centuries in some places. Stockholm’s Gamla stan is one of them, and for nearby Norwegians and other tourists, it’s well worth a visit. The trip can be made from Oslo during the course of a day or a weekend, but of course, it is possible to fill up an entire week with all there is to see and do.
It has been said that “Nobody does Christmas like the Swedes,” and I have to say, after recently spending three days in Gamla stan, I can understand why. Swedish Christmas traditions are very similar to what we know and love from Norway, yet the winter festival is celebrated with a special panache in Sweden, especially in Stockholm’s Old Town.
Gamla stan, also known as the “city between the bridges,” is where Stockholm was founded in 1252 and is one of the oldest and largest medieval cities in Europe. There are still remnants of the old structures from the 13th century in cellar vaults. The most famous structure, of course, is the magnificent Royal Palace with 600 rooms, standing proudly atop the hill. It is open for tours throughout the year, and there is also a gift shop, offering unique collector’s items.
In the Old Town, everything is on a smaller scale, with the narrow cobblestone lanes winding between the houses, free of cars, but full of the hustle and bustle of everyday living—and lots of tourists. What is fascinating is that Gamla stan is still a living neighborhood, where locals live and interact with visitors from all over the world.
The Christmas Market
At the center of the action is Stortorget, the main square, famous for the colorful house facades, so often found on postcards and souvenirs. The oldest square in the city and once the central marketplace for the city, Stortorget, is home to Stockholm’s julmarknad (stortorgetsjulmarknad.com), where vendors set up their stands each year for the Advent season, Nov. 23 – Dec. 23. It draws thousands of visitors each year and is full of life, staring at 11 a.m. and going until 6 p.m. each evening, lit up by the sparkling lights of the season.
The first julmarknad as we know it was set up at Stortorget in 1915, and the stands that you find there today do not look much different than they did back then, painted in the traditional Swedish red. At the center of the square is an impressive Christmas tree, which is lit up each evening. It is also the location of the market’s stand offering warm glögg, Swedish spiced hot red wine, a welcome treat on any cold winter’s day. The cherished refreshment is also available in the many cafés throughout Gamla stan, and I chose to indulge myself at one them facing Stortorget, where I could wrap myself in a plush Christmas blanket and take in the sights and sounds of the market before proceeding with my shopping. Of course, I could also not resist enjoying a freshly baked lussekatt, the traditional St. Lucia saffron buns found everywhere during the Advent season.
Of course, a real Swedish julmarknad is about traditional handicrafts and fresh foodstuffs with holiday flair. Tomtar and nisser abound, along with julbockar, waiting to be snapped up to transform your living room into a quasi-Christmas chalet. I added to my collection, and I also enjoyed tasting—and buying—fresh breads, pickled herring, smoked reindeer, cheeses, cookies, candies, honey, spices, and nuts for our holiday celebration. Stockholm’s Christmas market serves up happiness, and I found the vendors to be both friendly and helpful, as they shared stories about their products.
Strolling, shopping, and singing
But a day’s shopping does not have to end there, as Gamla stan is full of small shops to explore. They range from run-of-the-mill souvenir stores to exclusive boutiques offering the best of Swedish design. And if you are looking for antiques, the Old Town is a paradise, filled with unique finds.
One can easily stroll along Västerlånggatan and Österlånggatan, the main shopping streets, for hours. Even if you are not looking to buy anything, you can admire the beautiful Christmas window displays, full of lush greenery, colorful baubles, and little elves dressed in red for the season. Of course, I did not get away without buying something. I snapped up a vintage-motif Advent calendar to start the season, a pair of Viking-inspired wrought iron earrings, and a warm, colorful poncho for the holiday season. With a strong dollar and so many pretty things, the temptation was simply too great to resist.
Music is also a big part of the Christmas season everywhere in Sweden. In Gamla stan, with its many historical churches, there are lots of opportunities to enjoy a variety of music. To my delight, there is a “living Advent calendar,” when on each evening of Advent, a window somewhere in the neighborhood is opened and a short musical program is presented. On the fist night of Advent, the window happened to be right in the house where I was staying, and we got to enjoy a traditional brass band sounding out the old and beloved Christmas carols for us.
There are also more formal concerts to enjoy, with both classical and traditional offerings, often taking place in the historical churches of the Old City. If you are there on a Sunday, you can attend an Advent mass with the locals and join in on one of the old beloved Christmas hymns to get into the true spirit of the season.
Staying in style
I was fortunate to stay with friends in Gamla stan, but there are many great options if you need to find a room. Two of my favorite hotels are the Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, twin establishments named after the famous British admiral and his paramour. Located right in the center of the action in old historical buildings, they offer an atmosphere that is not easy to replicate.
At the Lord Nelson (www.thecollectorshotels.se/en/lord-nelson), undoubtedly the narrowest hotel in Gamla stan, you may get the feeling that you are on board a ship, with all the nautical antiques on display. And you can take the stairway to the rooftop to get a bird’s eye view of the Old City and its many chimneys.
The Lady Hamilton (www.thecollectorshotels.se/en/lady-hamilton) is a more feminine, romantic hotel. The décor combines a more maritime object Swedish folk style, with antiques from various provinces in Sweden. The hotel is known for its elaborate afternoon tea—definitely something you would not want to miss. There are also apartment rooms available for longer stays.
If you are a hardcore nautical type who enjoys being rocked to sleep by the waves each night, Mälardrottningen Yacht Hotel & Restaurant (malardrottningen.se/en/malardrottningen-eng) is right around the corner at Riddarholmen. Here on the repurposed luxury yacht once owned by Cary Grant’s second wife, heiress Barbara Hutton, there is an excellent restaurant on the upper deck, where you will also have an unblocked view of Stockholm’s stadshus, the landmark City Hall building.
Food is not a problem anywhere in Sweden, and it is abundant and delicious in the Old Town. You will find cuisines from all over the world offered at its restaurants and cafés, but I recommend going for a Swedish experience, especially at Christmastime.
Lunch is a fun meal to eat out, because there is so much variety offered. If you are looking for a lighter meal, pop into one of the Old Town’s charming cafés. Sweden, like Norway, is famous for its open-faced sandwiches, or smörgåsar, and these days most are served on artisan breads. If you are looking for a little more, it is always a good bet to choose dagens rätt, the daily special. If you are lucky, you may be served Swedish meatballs with lingonberries. And there are all those fabulous pastries to choose from, jul specialties galore. Myself, I would not go home without a freshly baked pepperkaka and cup of good strong Swedish coffee.
Some of Gamla stan’s eating establishments date back to the 1700s, including the illustrious Den Gyldene Freden (gyldenefreden.se), where some of Stockholm’s best chefs prepare classic Swedish food with style. This is the time of year to make reservations for a traditional Swedish julbord, which you will find to be different from what is served in Norway, but oh, so tasty—let yourself be amazed.
Just around the corner—and even older—is Fem små hus (femsmahus.se), another first-class restaurant, offering a mix of Swedish cuisine with a French twist. With its various vaults and rooms, it’s a fantastic venue for a larger party, but be sure to call ahead for reservations. These old and famous restaurants are popular, especially during the holiday season.
But for those less hungry and wishing to spend less, there are other great options for a good Christmas meal. Many smaller establishments offer a jultallrik, a Christmas plate with a sampling of the most popular dishes from the traditional julbord. I found myself in the cozy and comfortable vault at Magnus Ladulås (magnusladulas.se) with my friends, and we certainly didn’t go away hungry. There was also beer and aquavit to enjoy, as we celebrated my last evening in Stockholm, soaking up the atmosphere and warmth of the Advent season in historic Gamla stan.
To learn more about Gamla stan and other tourist opportunities in Stockholm, visit www.visitstockholm.com.
Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Nowegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.
This article originally appeared in the December 13, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.