The stunning ship that lets you see two cities for the price of one | Travel

YYou don’t necessarily expect a ferry ride to be fun, but the trip from Stockholm to Helsinki was the most enjoyable I can remember. It was only an overnight crossing, but the 17-hour trip was packed with a week’s worth of fun. The Silja Symphony is more like a cruise ship than a ferry, with a theatre, karaoke bar, pizzeria, shopping arcade and a sushi restaurant that’s been described as the “best on the Baltic Sea” – not that there’s much competition. My room could have been in a London boutique hotel if it wasn’t for the Avanti style door that opened onto the rough water. It’s a miracle I thought about disembarking.

After a gush from the superior power shower, I sank into one of the three hot tubs on the ‘oasis’ on the upper deck and watched the sparkling Stockholm archipelago as we weaved our way between the islands. Afterwards, as snow drifted onto the observation deck outside, I felt slightly dizzy as I trudged through the corridors in my bathrobe and ski socks, dodging holiday-crazed kids. By the time I’d showered again and done three rounds of the evening buffet—buckets of caviar, eight kinds of salmon, a sundae bar, and a bottomless fountain of wine—I felt like racing down the corridors, too. As befits an adult, I stormed into the Abba tribute show instead.

Britons are a rare species at the 60th parallel north. That is perfectly understandable; We have our own cold climate to navigate. The difference, it seems, is not in latitude but in attitude. Nordic cultures look forward to winter. Then they pull out all the stops. The ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki is known locally as a liquor cruise, but in winter the fun really takes off.

It had started two days earlier in central Stockholm. The road to Gamla Stan, the old town, was draped in illuminated banners. Candles flickered in all the windows. Shoppers seemed electrified, not intimidated, by the fresh air. Maybe, like me, they had the foresight to pull in their thermals. Four o’clock in the afternoon seemed a perfectly reasonable time for a cup of warm liquor from the kiosk at Norrbro or North Bridge.

In mid-December, the Swedes triple the Christmas hype. I happened to be visiting during Nobel Week, a festival of illuminated arts that precedes the annual awards ceremony. At Kungstradgarden, children rode a series of neon see-saws. In the foyer of the royal palace, a huge sphere shone and slowly rotated. Beyond the holiday mood, the passion for light (and alcohol) borders on obsession – a matter of survival.

After finishing my warm Glogg hug, I met my friend Johanna and we sat down to a banquet in the 17th-century Café Grillska Huset ( While tearing at S-shaped saffron buns, we discussed the virtues of winter, which for Swedes last well beyond Christmas – the decorations stay on for two weeks, but the candles never go out, then the snow comes.

On board the ferry

“The snow on the ground makes everything brighter,” said Johanna. “Maybe we’ll go shopping and get into our sport – cross-country skiing at the harbour, skating on the Norrstrom River.” Unlike Britain, in Sweden the darkness means it’s time to get out and exercise.

Later, in my cozy corner seat at Tyge & Sessil’s acclaimed Vincafé, I met the gaze of a Samson-haired sommelier as he rattled off a list of hearty reds (mains from £10; I settled on Hungarian Balaton, devoured a platter of sardines and still had time to visit Fotografiska, a photo gallery that’s expanding globally and closes at 11pm (from £14;

Ice skating in the port

Ice skating in the port


In the morning I got up at the crack of dawn (which is around 9am here at this time of year), ready to take in as much sunlight as possible. The glass art museum Moderna Museet on the island of Skeppsholmen was a short walk away, set around a harbor full of sailboats (£12; Around noon, surrounded by Hilma af Klint’s vibrant watercolors, I peered out into the sun – two fingers above the horizon, staring straight into my eyes.

The moment it sank away, I coughed it up to Centralbadet, an elegantly tiled 1904 bathhouse that once had separate pools for rich and poor and a no-bathing rule. “Saunas have been out of fashion for a while,” said the concierge, handing me a stack of towels. “But they’ve come back in a big way.” Everyone else was with friends, chatting across the cold circulating basin like the Brits would over a pint. To keep up with the times, Badehaus has introduced infrared and “crystal” saunas, whirlpools, and a dress code — at least in the spectacular Art Nouveau swimming pool, where I warmed up with a dozen laps before retreating to a nap in one double hammock (from £35;

Fast forward 250 miles and I was thinking of stepping out of the Silja Symphony in Helsinki despite the superior power shower. After a ridiculous amount of cereal at the breakfast buffet, I trudged down the gangway into a downtown bathed in true winter—snow flurries had been falling for days. Taxis rolled silently into the rank, but it was a ten-minute walk to my hotel, past Art Nouveau mansions, a hilly sculpture park, and boutiques selling stained glass—a little snowglobe of a streetscape.

Finns certainly know how to merchandize – I almost made a detour to buy a pair of high-fashion ski pants at a boutique on Korkeavuorenkatu, but the crowd outside the Design Museum was just too mesmerizing. Inside, striped, spotted fashions in Quality Street colors by Antti and Vuokko Nurmesniemi made for the hit my morning coffee didn’t have and set me up for the day (£13;

Exhibits in the Design Museum

Exhibits in the Design Museum


Snow was still falling when I checked into the Hotel Torni, with its quirky, ornate decor, huge windows and even bigger bed – this was just the sort of winter retreat I could get used to (double room overnight stays only from £187 ; ).

While Stockholm was just a grand gesture, Helsinki was a more humble, friendly offering. Detouring through a plethora of second-hand shops, I perused thick Finnish glassware available for a fraction of what you would pay at Skandium in London. At the port, I was shocked to find the seaside market operating, the fishmongers in overalls and smiling fish happily frying whitebait as if they were in Miami Beach. I bought a venison sausage from a chef in an orange tent, then hiked up to the neoclassical palace overlooking Senate Square.

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ALAMYKappeli, one of the many excellent restaurants in town


By 5 p.m., people had begun to settle down in bistros along the Esplanade, elegantly forking arctic char in the candlelight despite the early hour. I laughed about that later with the Albanian bartender at BasBas, who told me the streets are empty around 9:30pm. He finds it downright surreal in summer, although winter has its own dreamlike appeal.

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After two glasses of Austrian pannobile, I boarded a warm No. 6 tram and rode back to my hotel, high above the snowdrifts—the streetlights reflected everything as bright as day. Just like Johanna said.

Ellen Himelfarb has been a guest on Visit Finland (, Visit Sweden (, Visit Stockholm ( and Tallink Silja, which offers overnight-only cabins from £73 each way ( ) . Three nights B&B with one night in each town and one on the ferry from £755pp including flight and ferry (

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