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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

The architect trying to finish the Sagrada Familia after 138 years

Jordi Faulí is the seventh chief architect of Barcelona's iconic Sagrada Familia since Antoni Gaudi began work on the basilica in 1883, and he had been expected to oversee its long-awaited completion.

The architect trying to finish the Sagrada Familia after 138 years
Jordi Faulí is the seventh architect director of the Sagrada Familia following Antoni Gaudi and, for many, the one destined to finish it. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

But the pandemic has delayed efforts to finish this towering architectural masterpiece, which has been under construction for nearly 140 years, and it is no longer clear whether Faulí will still be in charge when it is finally done.

“I would like to be here for many more years, of course, but that’s in God’s hands,” says Faulí, 62, a wry smile on his lips.

He was just 31 when he joined the architectural team as a local in 1990 — the same age as Gaudi when the innovative Catalan architect began building his greatest work in the late 19th century, a project that would take up four decades of his life.

“When I arrived, only three of these columns were built and they were only 10 metres (33 feet) high,” he explains from a mezzanine in the main nave.

“I was lucky enough to design and see the construction of the entire interior, then the sacristy and now the main towers.”

When finished, the ornate cathedral which was designed by Gaudi will have 18 towers, the tallest of which will reach 172 metres into the air.

READ ALSO: Pandemic to delay completion fate for Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia

The second-highest tower, which is 138 metres tall and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, will be officially inaugurated on Wednesday with the illumination of the gigantic 5.5-tonne star crowning its highest point.

It is the tallest of the nine completed towers and the first to be inaugurated since 1976.

The long-awaited completion of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia will no longer happen in 2026 because the coronavirus epidemic has curtailed its construction and frustrated funding, basilica officials admitted. Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP
 
Construction halted by Civil War

In 2019, the Sagrada Familia welcomed 4.7 million visitors, making it Barcelona’s most visited monument.

But it was forced to close in March 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, with its doors staying shut for almost a year.

This year, there have been barely 764,000 visitors, municipal figures show.

And as entry tickets are the main source of funding for the ongoing building works, the goal of finishing the basilica by 2026 to mark the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death — he was run over by a tram — has been abandoned.

“We can’t give any estimate as to when it will be finished because we don’t know how visitor numbers will recover in the coming years,” Faulí says.

It is far from the first time Gaudi’s masterpiece has faced such challenges.

During the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, construction work stopped and many of Gaudi’s design plans and models were destroyed.

For critics, this major loss means they do not view what was built later as Gaudi’s work, despite the research carried out by his successors.

READ ALSO: Central spire will make the Sagrada Familia tallest church in the world

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has only granted World Heritage status to the Sagrada Familia’s crypt and one of its facades, both of which were built during Gaudi’s lifetime.

But Faulí insists the project remains faithful to what Gaudi had planned as it is based on the meticulous study of photographs, drawings and testimony from the late Modernist architect.

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has only granted World Heritage status to the Sagrada Familia’s crypt and one of its facades, both of which were built during Gaudi’s lifetime. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

Some local opposition

Nominated chief architect of the project in 2012, Faulí took over at the head of a team of 27 architects and more than 100 builders.

Today, there are five architects and some 16 builders working to finish the Sagrada Familia.

“It is a lot of responsibility because it’s an iconic project, which many people have an opinion about,” says Faulí.

Building such a vast monument which draws huge numbers of visitors is not welcomed by everyone, with some arguing that the hoards of visiting tourists are destroying the area.

Many also oppose plans to build an enormous staircase leading up to the main entrance, the construction of which will involve the demolition of several buildings, forcing hundreds to relocate.

“My life is here and they want to throw me out,” says one sign on a balcony near the Sagrada Familia.

Faulí said he understands their concerns and wants to find “fair solutions” through dialogue.

And if he could ask Gaudi one question? Faulí pauses to reflect for a few moments.

“I would ask him about his underlying intentions and what feelings he wanted to communicate through his architecture,” he says.

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