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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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How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

If you're visiting Italy from outside the EU you risk running up a huge phone bill in roaming charges - but there are ways to keep your internet access while avoiding being hit by extra charges.

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

Travelling without access to the internet is almost impossible these days. We use our phones for mapping applications, contacting the Airbnb, even scanning the QR code for the restaurant menu.

If you’re lucky enough to have a phone registered in an EU country then you don’t need to worry, thanks to the EU’s cap on charges for people travelling, but people visiting from non-EU countries – which of course now includes the UK – need to be careful with their phone use abroad.

First things first, if you are looking to avoid roaming charges, be sure to go into your settings and turn off “data roaming.” Do it right before your plane lands or your train arrives – you don’t want to risk the phone company in your home country starting the clock on ‘one day of roaming fees’ without knowing it.

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

But these days travelling without internet access can be difficult and annoying, especially as a growing number of tourist attractions require booking in advance online, while restaurants often display their menus on a QR code.

So here are some techniques to keep the bills low.

Check your phone company’s roaming plan

Before leaving home, check to see what your phone plan offers for pre-paid roaming deals.

For Brits, if you have a phone plan with Three for example, you can ask about their “Go Roam” plan for add-on allowance. You can choose to pay monthly or as you go. Vodafone offers eight day and 15 day passes that are available for £1 a day.

For Americans, T-Mobile offers you to add an “international pass” which will charge you $5 per day. Verizon and AT&T’s roaming plans will charge you $10 per day. For AT&T, you are automatically opted into this as soon as your phone tries to access data abroad.

READ ALSO: Seven things to do in Italy in summer 2022

These all allow you to retain your normal phone number and plan.

Beware that these prices are only available if you sign up in advance, otherwise you will likely be facing a much bigger bill for using mobile data in Italy. 

Buy a pre-paid SIM card

However, if you are travelling for a longer period of time it might work out cheaper to turn off your phone data and buy a pre-paid SIM card in Italy.

In order to get a pre-paid SIM card, you will need your passport or proof of identity (drivers’ licences do not count).

READ ALSO: TRAVEL: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains

Keep in mind that you will not be able to use your normal phone number with the new SIM card in, but will be able to access your internet enabled messaging services, like WhatsApp, Facebook and iMessage. Your phone will need to be ‘unlocked’ (ask your carrier about whether yours is) in order to put a new SIM card in.

Here are some of the plans you can choose from:

WindTre

WindTre, the result of a 2020 merger between the Italian company Wind and the UK network provider Three, currently offers a “Tourist Pass” SIM card for foreign nationals. For €24.99 (it’s sneakily marketed as €14.99, but read the small print and you’ll see you need to fork out an additional €10), you’ll have access to 20GB of data for up to 30 days.

The offer includes 100 minutes of calls within Italy plus an additional 100 minutes to 55 foreign countries listed on the WindTre website. Up to 13.7GB can be used for roaming within the EU. The card is automatically deactivated after 30 days, so there’s no need to worry about surprise charges after you return from your holiday. To get this SIM card, you can go into any WindTre store and request it.

A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.
A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Vodafone

Vodafone has had better deals in the past, but lately appears to have downgraded its plan for tourists, now called “Vodafone Holiday” (formerly “Dolce Vita”), to a paltry 2GB for €30. You get a total of 300 minutes of calls and 300 texts to Italian numbers or to your home country; EU roaming costs €3 per day.

Existing Vodafone customers can access the offer by paying €19 – the charge will be made to your Vodafone SIM within 72 hours of activating the deal. 

READ ALSO: MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

The Vodafone Holiday offer automatically renews every four weeks for €29 – in order to cancel you’ll need to call a toll-free number. The Vodafone website says that the €30 includes the first renewal, suggesting the payment will cover the first four weeks plus an additional four after that, but you’ll want to double check before buying. You’ll need to go to a store in person to get the card.

TIM

TIM is one of Italy’s longest-standing and most well-established network providers, having been founded in 1994 following a merger between several state-owned companies.

The “Tim Tourist” SIM card costs €20 for 15GB of data and 200 minutes of calls within Italy and to 58 foreign countries, and promises “no surprises” when it comes to charges.

You can use the full 15GB when roaming within the EU at no extra charge, and in the EU can use your minutes to call Italian numbers. The deal is non-renewable, so at the end of the 30 days you won’t be charged any additional fees.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

To access the offer, you can either buy it directly from a TIM store in Italy, or pre-order using an online form and pay with your bank card. Once you’ve done this, you’ll receive a PIN which you should be able to present at any TIM store on arrival in Italy (along with your ID) to collect your pre-paid card. The card won’t be activated until you pick it up.

Iliad

Iliad is the newest and one of the most competitive of the four major phone companies operating in Italy, and currently has an offer of 120GBP of €9.99 a month. For this reason, some travel blogs recommend Iliad as the best choice for foreigners – but unfortunately all of their plans appear to require an Italian tax ID, which rules it out as an option for tourists.

Contract

Though buying a pre-paid SIM card is a very useful option for visitors spending a decent amount of time in Italy, as mentioned above, there’s a significant different difference between buying a one-time pre-paid SIM versus a monthly plan that auto-renews.

Make sure you know which one you’re signing up for, and that if you choose a plan that will continue charging you after your vacation has ended, you remember to cancel it.

UK contracts

If you have a UK-registered mobile phone, check your plan carefully before travelling. Before Brexit, Brits benefited from the EU cap on roaming charges, but this no longer applies.

Some phone companies have announced the return of roaming charges, while others have not, or only apply roaming charges only on certain contracts.

In short, check before you set off and don’t assume that because you have never been charged extra before, you won’t be this time.

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