The author describes the strategies for facing the long Swedish winter
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The following article is possibly the longest I have ever written, and rightly so. I am about to describe the most known and feared amongst the many faces of Northern Europe: the long, cold, dark and poetic Swedish winter. And in this post I will be describing how to best face it.
A bit of information on the Swedish winter
Officially three months long, its cold breath envelops the Scandinavian peninsula already beginning mid september. The ninth month of the year the mercury column already marks five degrees Celsius. In the following months, the chill goes side by side with the darkness. In December, concurrently with the winter solstice, the sun rises around 8.45 and disappears behind the horizon at 14.45. Six hours of faint light, oftentimes made even fainter by deep, gloomy clouds.
The hours of light in Stockholm, in brief:
Summer solstice (June 21st 2019): 18 hours, 37 minutes, 4 seconds (rises at 3:30, sets at 22:08)
Winter solstice (December 22nd 2019): 6 hours, 4 minutes, 53 seconds (rises at 8:42, sets at 14:47)
From November onwards, snow often falls abundantly, covering the landscape in a pure white mantle giving the Country a fairy and melancholic appearance, inspiration for many books, poetry and Scandinavian thrillers.
The white snowflakes fall even until March, sometimes paying a visit way after the beginning of April. The snow fills children with joy, makes the spaces brighter and carries a silence words can hardly describe.
The lack of natural light has some profound psychological effects, though, affecting the circadian cycle, the absorption of nutrients and the mood, in what is described as SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. It is hard to ignore how the city changes, and with it the people. All becomes more serious and melancholic.
Following several winters spent in Stockholm I have finally decided to gather some suggestions to face the feared dark season in the capital. Enjoy!
Wake up well, and practice “Light Therapy”
The sunset-sunrise cycle varies dramatically during the year. Consequently such variation affects the ability to wake up in winter, and to fall asleep in summer.
A solution to the bright summer light would be to install shades. In winter, though, the opposite is necessary and I can only recommend the purchase of a Wake-up-light.
Oftentimes known as “sunrise simulator”, it consists of an alarm clock with a powerful increasing light: after setting the alarm, the lamp will increase the brightness over a predetermined time interval (between 30 and 40 minutes). The process will begin 30 minutes before the set time, helping the body react in the same way it does with the sun, hence helping your body wake up naturally. No need for annoying alarms that keep you dizzy the whole day.
Plenty of models and brands are available, from the simple to the advanced. Some feature a radio, some a dock for your smartphone. We bought a Philips HF3520: with color temperature changing LEDs shifting from red to yellow. It comes with a “goodnight” feature whereby the light starts bright and fades out. Great for stimulating sleep while you are reading before going to bed. The effects are positive and we noticed big differences in how we woke up (much easier!).
The main features:
- Sunset and sunrise simulation with chromatic variation (red – orange – yellow and vice-versa)
- 5 different wake up sounds
- FM Radio
- 2 independent alarms
- 300 lux brightness
The little sister, HF3510, it’s a tad less expensive, sporting less features:
- No chromatic variation
- 3 different wake up sounds
- FM Radio
- 1 alarm
- 300 lux brightness
Other devices working on the light therapy concept are the high brightness lamps, with blue, white or yellow light. Place them on your desk, press a button and they will turn on for a few minutes, “recharging” you with a bright light. Philips makes them under the EnergyLight name.
(No, Philips is not paying me but I obtain a small commission if you buy this products on Amazon.
I am promoting this particular brand since they seem to manufacture many such products. I suppose it relates from their origin, as they have roots in the Netherlands, as well affected by short days of light in winter).
More related to lamps, a good solution would be visiting places with bright, specialised lights mimicking the sun. Some examples:
- The Centralbadet SPA cafè in Stockholm – not only is the cafè providing artificial sunlight by means of specialised high power lamps, it is also part of a magnificent SPA built at the beginning of the 1900 following the Art Nouveau style. Visiting the cafè does not require paying a ticket to the SPA. You can still take advantage in case you change your mind…
- The Edvard Andersons växthus in Frescati – A pretty greenhouse with divided in different climate zones. In addition to admiring the beautiful fauna and eating something at the bar, you may enjoy the benefit of the lamps. They help plants grow and help humans as well
- A Birka cruise – not the cheapest solution, but why not? Birka boats come with a terrace sporting a pool and solar lamps. 27 degrees Celsius temperature all year. Not bad.
Meditation and mindfulness
Cost-free, and needs no expensive accessories, meditation is attracting a lot of interest even in the scientific community thanks to its many benefits (a long article by healthline.com backed by scientific articles). Practice it daily and you will immediately feel the benefits: better sleep, relaxation, and more. You won’t be able to live without.
It can be practiced at home, provided you are disciplined. In case you need some nudging you will find many temples in the Capital, especially buddhist.
I am currently practicing a technique becoming more popular by the day, “mindfulness”. Quoting www.mindful.org:
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
In addition to the aforementioned website, there is a book I suggest. Now a reference for mindfulness, it is great for the newcomers to this practice: Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. A manual, it will take you through a two months journey to achieve familiarity with the technique. It comes with links to guided audio meditations.
Practice sport activities
Practicing sport activities, especially anaerobic, presents several benefits and contributes to the production of endorphins. Running, cycling, gym, swimming are your keys to well being. Corsa, bicicletta, palestra e nuoto sono la chiave per il buonumore.
Big cities are full of gyms, oftentimes open 24-7. Martial arts clubs, dance schools and other sports are abundant.
For fans of outdoor sports, Scandinavia offers woods and lakes in great quantity. Snow makes it possible to practice cross-country skiing, and lakes are frozen most of the year. If you are brave enough, ice-skating is possible (always check with a local if the ice is thick enough).
Bycicles lanes are generally free from snow and with a pair of good snow tires and mud-guards you will happily travel around.
Ask your apartment building owners about gyms. Many come with a shared gym and sauna for a very reasonable yearly price (as in, 500 sek!).
Stockholm has many pools and a yearly subscription allows access to the full network of public pools for 2400 sek. More infos here https://www.stockholm.se/KulturFritid/Simma-och-trana/Simma/Simhallar.
Follow the right diet
A proper diet is paramount to wellbeing, it is known. It is the best ally to face mood swings and empower your immune response. An insurance for life. Here’s a documenti by NPR (the American National Public Radio) well written and providing sources.
Here’s another article highlighting instead a correlation between a vegetarian diet and better mood.
I am not advocating switching to a vegetarian diet (although I have been vegetarian myself for a few years), although it is worth considering the option as it has become much more doable compared to the past. Lacking ideas? Here’s the mighty Jamie Oliver 7 vegetarian meals for the week ahead article. Something more comprehensive? Here’s a 28 Day Vegetarian Meal Plan by the website A Couple Cook.
Need general inspiration? Be my guest with the whole vegetarian section on Allrecipes.com.
No matter your choice, unanimous is the opinion that fruit and vegetables of season, seeds and pulses provide great benefits to health and mood. At the same time, a diet full of processed foods and preservatives is no good for you. In summary: treat yourselves well, buy some cooking books and start! The wallet might feel the hit, as you will shift to high quality ingredients, but is it really worth sparing some pennies when your health is involved?
Read and learn something new
Pennac used to write:
“A well-chosen book saves you from everything, including yourself.”
In winter you might need it.
Jokes aside, making the most out of free time in company of a good book is the greatest gift to yourself.
Being an Italian in Sweden I find the access to Italian literature or articles in my language limited. A solution is to read them online on a screen, but it is not the same relaxing experience. Hence I bought an e-book reader: with their e-ink screens, these devices do not tire your eyes as normal screens do!
You can load documents on them, buy books in e-book format – even in other languages – or even convert webpages and send them “distilled” to your device thanks to the free service push-2-kindle.
I bought an Amazon Kindle a few years ago. The new models are way more advanced, with prices somehow still reasonable. It is by far the most revolutionary technological purchase I have ever done.
The cheaper model starts at circa 80 euros (89,99$), the priciest 250 euros (269,99$).
The already mentioned libraries provide a great source for books and study material, free and with a vast selection. In the center of Stockholm you will find the Internationella Biblioteket, with books, newspapers, magazines in several languages.
A modern solution to learning are the MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. These distance courses (e-learning), started providing training mainly for STEM disciplines, but have now expanded to unrelated subjects. Robotics, engineering, biology, mathematics, business, drawing, music production, self defense, and much more.
Some examples of MOOC resources:
A long list on Wikipedia.
The ability of accessing such a vast ocean of knowledge was unthinkable just a few years ago.
Travel in sunny places
Travelling from Scandinavia is relatively cheap, thanks to the abundance of direct flights to the main destinations. It is surprising how cheap flights to the warmest destinations are: the popular Thailand, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Malta and Italy are amongst the many. Breaking the winter is a practical solution, with guaranteed effects (personally tested).
I suggest www.momondo.com for flight search. Focus on November and Friday, personally the hardest months.
Note: this is NOT the solution for environmentally conscious travellers. Good news though, you could travel by train. Train travel is booming, thanks to the recent increase in environmental consciousness. I can recommend THE resource for planning your trip: www.seat61.com. The site is full of curated indications on how to travel from point A to B, no matter you travel within Europe or around the world.
Visiting museums and living the city
Getting bored in the capital is hard, as long as you live it: seventy places of interest amongst museums, churches, parks, gardens, oftentimes with free access. These museums host permanent and temporary exhibitions, so options are aplenty.
Visitstockholm is the promotional website of the city and provides several ideas.
Tripadvisor is yet another resource in need of no introduction.
Some activities worth checking out:
- Vasa Museet – a unique museum, dedicated to one of the biggest engineering fails of history: the launch (unsuccessful) of the majestic royal ship Vasa, preserved for centuries in the depths of lake Mälaren thanks to its peculiar water conditions. A museum whose existence is possible thanks to the efforts of the people involved in the recovery and restoration of such find, lasted more than thirty years. Must see.
- Nordiska Museet – The Nordic Museum, dedicated to ethnography and to the cultural history of Northern Europe from 1500 onwards.
- Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet – The Museum of Natural Sciences, with animals reproductions, including dinosaurs, and exhibitions. An IMAX movie theatre is also present in the building, showing great documentaries.
- Historiska Museet – The Museum of Swedish history. Similar to Nordiska but more focused on Sweden itself.
- Fotografiska – The Museum of Photography, with permanent and temporary exhibitions of famous photographers. Although not a museum for real (no research is done there, and it is a private, for profit entity).
- Tekniska Museet – The Museum of Science and Technology, a paradise for aspiring scientists and engineers: experiments, displays, exhibitions and many fun games to play. The kid in you will be able to pilot an excavator and admire a full scale working reproduction of a steam engine. Yes, clearly my favorite.
- Tekniska Museet – Il Museo della Scienza e della Tecnica, paradiso degli aspiranti scienziati ed ingegneri: esperimenti, mostre e tanti giochi divertenti. È possibile guidare una ruspa in miniatura e ospita una riproduzione in scala reale di una macchina a vapore! Sì, è tra i miei preferiti.
- Stockholm Spelmuseum – The Museum of videogames. This used to be a temporary exhibition but such was the success it has now been made into a permanent museum. You will be taken through a journey across the evolution of videogames, from Pong to the modern consoles. Playing most of these games will obviously be possible.
- Fjärilshuset / Haga Ocean – A wonderful butterfly park with an aquarium. Not only a warm place, but also a good occasion to try the thrill of being blinded by albatross-sized real butterflies flying in your face.
- Skansen – An immense ethnographic park, including a zoo. It deserves more than a visit but I would advise against going in winter, not only since is brutally cold, but also since most animals will be hibernating. At least, Christmas Market will be done there in December: taste waffles with jam and burn a whole salary in lovely gifts!
Tackling solitude by socialising is yet another valid strategy. Options abound, despite what some might think, and one of my favorites is www.meetup.com. Join for free and you will be given access to several groups divided by interest, each organising events: groups for sport activities, meditation, cooking, and so on. Meetup is international and widely used in Stockholm.
Similar to meetup but a tad more “upscale” is Internations. Unlike meetup, this service tends to organise sponsored official events costing 100 Sek on average, unless you pay the Albatross membership (in case you partecipate often, the cost is worth it).
Social Networks such as Facebook are now a mainstay as well in the events discovery world. Depending on your opinion of them, they will come useful.
Let’s not forget the libraries and the cultural centres (kulturhus), they abound. Although it might not be the right setting to socialise, never say never! I started more than a conversation revolving around books.
Obtain Vitamin D
This vitamin is fundamental to the health of your body, being deficient in such element will cause all kind of unpleasant consequences such as increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment in older adults, severe asthma in children, cancer, depression, bone pain, muscle weakness. It is produced by the body in response to sun. No sun, little vitamin D, hence we need to rely on a diet rich in such vitamin (fish rich in fat, fish liver oils, dairy, eggs, green leafy vegetables) or vitamin supplements.
Opinions are somewhat in contrast. Some say supplements cause issues, such as this articole on Medical News Today. Some say they are needed. The scandinavian governments often correct the estimates of the necessary daily intake and they have recently incremented them (Announce on VitaminD Council).
In short: confusion. I take them and feel better. The only way is to keep your values under control by taking blood samples a few times over the year.
With this article I wanted to share my experiences and some strategies to face the feared long season. I admit it, even if all these tricks help, going through the winter is still no walk in the park. I am firmly convinced a good genetic predisposition is what helps facing the darkness the easiest. Still, we can do something about it!
Willing to share some feedback? Drop a comment, I would be grateful.