The light of winter

Halfway through my first day in Stockholm, I realise I have no idea of the time. The darkness that envelops the city by 3pm makes you think it's much later than it is. In the depths of winter, Stockholm sees natural light between 10am and 2pm only.

But the brightness from electric lights is enchanting. Public displays for Christmas are nothing like the garish illuminations on Oxford Street in London. Delicate webs of bulbs adorn trees and lamp posts. Yuletide candles have been updated to electrically lit arches, which are placed in windows so that they can be seen from both inside and out. They feature in almost every house and shop, turning each apartment block into a box of lights. In Medborgarplatsen, in the fashionable Södermalm district, bars and cafés are enclosed by flimsy Perspex walls and heaters, creating further patterns of light from the candles inside, which are also visible from the street.

The other ever-present component is water. Stockholm is known as the Venice of the north, and its centre consists of 14 closely spaced islands connected by bridges, tunnels and ferry routes. The archipelago of 30,000 islands and islets that makes up the metropolis stretches from Lake Mälaren to the Baltic Sea and many city-dwellers own summer houses here. On a boat trip, you sail past holiday houses apparently free-standing in the water, perched on clumps of land big enough for only one building. I set off at 3pm and it was pitch black by the time I reached Vaxholm, one of the bigger islands in the archipelago. It is primarily a summer destination - evident from the many unlit windows of unoccupied flats.

The abundance of water and proximity to the Baltic make Stockholm particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, from rising water levels and from disruption to the eco­system. Carbon emissions have been slashed by 25 per cent per person since 1990, and an integrated environmental policy helped the city win the EU's first Green Capital Award in 2010. The rich, clear blue of the lake and sea is testament to their cleanliness. Though these are city waters, fish caught here are edible and the lake is safe to swim in - unthinkable to a Londoner used to the murky depths of the Thames.

Stockholm doesn't seem like a capital city: it lacks the pace, like a smaller, sleepier town. The municipal council regulates which colours people can paint their buildings, resulting in a co-ordinated patchwork of pastels, an effect that is particularly noticeable among the cobblestone streets of Gamla Stan, the Old Town.

You can't write about Scandinavia without mentioning money. The relatively high cost of living - and the strength of the Swedish krona (Sweden is one of those EU countries that, like Britain, is considering opting out of the eurozone deal) - can make eating out expensive, though no more so than in other European cities such as Paris. Yet the price of booze stings: a glass of beer will set you back roughly £5.50 in a bar and a small glass of wine about £7. This is the effect of high taxes that date back to the beginning of the 20th century, when an active temperance movement rose in response to health and social problems caused by alcohol.

Outside licensed bars and restaurants, drinks with an alcohol content above 3.5 per cent can be purchased only from Systembolaget, a state-owned chain of shops. Although Sweden has undertaken a programme of deregulation in recent years, its famed social-democratic model makes it still one of the most heavily taxed developed nations. Swedes generally do not complain about income tax, which can run as high as 60 per cent, because they are confident that their money will be well spent on public services. The alcohol tax, however, is one that people try to avoid; many Swedes stock up on supplies during trips to Estonia or Germany.

Sweden's political system mirrors the UK's - its monarchy holds little power, but royalty adorn the celebrity magazines and the Changing of the Royal Guard provides a daily diversion for tourists. The country appears to strike a better balance, though: Sweden ranked fourth in the Economist's 2010 democracy index while the UK trailed at 19th. Long winter darkness does not obscure this egalitarian paradise.

Flights provided by SAS. Heathrow toStockholm fares incl. taxes and charges start at £71 one way, or £118 return.

Accommodation with Hellstens Malmgård Hotel. Standard price double room including breakfast from 990 SEK/night

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.