I am completely naked, shivering and mildly terrified. The word “vulnerable” goes partway to describing my state as my toes curl over the edge of a slippery jetty, in pitch-darkness. Did I mention that I am completely naked? This is not a fever dream, but a midweek wellness pursuit on the island of Nacka, where Stockholm city and countryside meet. It’s 7 p.m. and the sun is long gone.

I inwardly curse a previous incarnation of myself, who booked this intrepid getaway while holed up in my warm apartment. The trip grew from my preoccupation with two...

I am completely naked, shivering and mildly terrified. The word “vulnerable” goes partway to describing my state as my toes curl over the edge of a slippery jetty, in pitch-darkness. Did I mention that I am completely naked? This is not a fever dream, but a midweek wellness pursuit on the island of Nacka, where Stockholm city and countryside meet. It’s 7 p.m. and the sun is long gone.

I inwardly curse a previous incarnation of myself, who booked this intrepid getaway while holed up in my warm apartment. The trip grew from my preoccupation with two Nordic lifestyle concepts currently in vogue: Swedish lagom (loosely translated as “balanced living”) and Danish hygge (retreating somewhere cozy, often with friends). Their benefits are expounded in chichi coffee-table books and home magazines. I thought that a few nights in Sweden and Denmark might help me understand our obsessions with such abstractions.

Part of the explanation lies in the many studies that show these to be some of the happiest nations. In an increasingly frenetic world, the Scandi work/life balance and reverence for nature have added appeal.

None of this, however, makes the inky depths of a freezing lake, which blends indiscernibly into endless sky, any more inviting. Every buttoned-up British bone in my body wants to flee from the indignity of it all.

My first foray into Scandi self-preservation has been a baptism of both fire and ice. Some higher power must be punishing me for not fully checking the website before signing up. It’s not the first time this hare-brained travel writer has made that mistake. (But I’m typically clothed and remember to bring a towel. Damn.)

“Try to stay under for at least twenty seconds. That’s when the endorphins kick in,” advises Hellasgården sauna guru Karin.

We’re fresh from the female-only session she has just led with what can only be described as a “towel dance,” where I was whipped with hot steam for fifteen minutes to the beat of reggaeton. Blindsided by the inexplicably festive vibe, I forgive Karin for making me remove my bikini for hygiene reasons. Veritable tea towels are provided to cover whatever modesty an unprepared journalist has left.

I drop the towel and exhale hard, managing twenty-three seconds up to my shoulders before racing back to the changing rooms. I’m ushered in by a stark naked, six-foot-tall blond man. Inside, it dawns on me that some female sauna pros join the men in their section. And that I have wandered into said men’s section. And that I’m not quite ready for this. I back out slowly, mortified, and scurry onto the bus back to the city. Nearing the Söderström river, I reread my email exchange with lagom expert Lola Akinmade Åkerström. She defines lagom as “living your best life” according to your own individual standard, focusing on enjoying “just enough” of everything. One can achieve this by “making optimal decisions within different contexts, to reduce stress within your control.” No comment.

I phone a friend and breathlessly recount my adventure. I feel alive, I say. I then fall through the doors of the upscale, design-led Villa Dagmar hotel, where Nordic high living is on display in a stylish concept store, impressive atrium and busy bar. Staff are on standby at all hours, assisting with any whim. There’s even a secret entrance to the historic Östermalms Saluhall, where my personal definition of lagom is promptly discovered: an akroppkaka (potato dumpling) for each hand.

The hotel’s location in the center of upmarket Östermalm lends itself to shopping and trying to get in at trendy restaurants. Neighborhood pizza joint Babette, authentic ramen spot Tengu and old-school stalwart Sturehof make it onto the list I share with friends. The latter is the city’s best place to eat meatballs — but they’re off-menu, so ask nicely. Say I sent you.

A candlelit, calorie-laden hotel breakfast fortifies hours of walking around leafy Djurgården, the museum district (balance, see). Tired legs are revived with (many) craft beer tastings at Stockholm Brewing Company, including one that’s 20 percent wine.

An optimal decision for serious drinkers would be checking in at NOFO in Södermalm. This boutique-y bolthole is built for ignoring lagom completely; it’s stumbling distance from the city’s best natural-wine bars and an instant classic for my list, lager temple Zum Franziskaner. I start with a quick one in NOFO’s dimly lit wine bar, then hit Bar Ninja, Bar Agrikultur and Cave Nizza until God knows when.

Deathly hungover, I manage to make it onto the high-speed, supercivilized SJ train for the five-hour ride to Copenhagen, where I’ll be meeting an old friend.

I’m almost pleased the forecast is rainy and cold: prime conditions for hygge-hunting and a spot of fika, the Scandi art of cozy snacking. We’ll start by poking our heads in at the Tivoli Gardens, its mix of gourmet junk food and ornate rides a longstanding source of curiosity. Is it just for kids? It doesn’t really matter, since the journey we’ll make to see it requires approximately thirty steps. Our palatial hotel, the Nimb, overlooks the entire thing.

Copenhagen Central Station sits across the road. Never has a journey been more convenient, almost preposterously easy. Looking at Nimb’s Moorish marble facade, washing down possibly the world’s best organic sausage from John’s Hotdog Deli with a Mikkeller beer, I reckon this feeling is hygge. I’m seconds from my new home, well fed, and dazzled by the rainbow of lights dotting the building. The tallest rides in Tivoli’s amusement park tower above the main street, to the tune of kids’ delighted screams and faint music. I’m feeling… jolly?

We dump our bags in our spectacular digs, admiring every well-thought-out detail. Growing up in a family of cockneys, I believe the appropriate way to describe this hotel is “the nuts.” Only our wraparound balcony distracts us from the embarrassment of riches: it looks directly onto the garden’s famous Plænen, an open-air stage.

I note that true hygge would probably call for staying in this evening, watching other sad souls brave the now-torrential rain. The concept dates back to around 1800, linked to an Old Norse word. Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, defines it as “a feeling of safety in a turbulent world” when I email him to ask. I consider cracking open a bottle of red and sinking into the huge bed or running the wonderfully deep bath. The hotel’s dark bar and gargantuan fireplace call to me. I know my forefathers would approve. But no, my friend insists we pull on our raincoats and get out there. Just one rollercoaster before sashimi at Copenhagen’s native Sticks ’n’ Sushi, right next door. In the thick of the stalls, lights and decorations, everything feels magical. It’s obvious where Walt Disney got his ideas.

Our makeup is ruined, but by then, we don’t care, marching on for drinks underneath the Lego-like buildings lining Nyhavn harbor. We pass Conditori La Glace, Denmark’s oldest patisserie and fika institution, where my personal quest to find hygge will continue the next day.

At 8 a.m. sharp, bleary-eyed, I meet the team already pumping out sportskage, an expert splat of nougat and choux pastry created for the theater production Sports Man in 1891 at the Folketeatret, Nørregade. A huge slice and a cup of tea just about restore the lagom I fear I dropped and left on the floor of a dive bar last night. And hygge? Yep, it’s still pouring outside. This is pretty much perfect.

My final call is rooftop farm, garden and restaurant ØsterGro, a conservatory-cum-dining room surrounded by gardens and warmed by festooned lighting. A communal dining experience had seemed perfectly hygge and in my infinite wisdom, I’d booked ahead. Then, disaster strikes. Not one but both of my comrades cancel last-minute.

Knowing the restaurant’s commitment to zero waste, I panic over letting them down, and finally do what any self-respecting millennial would: I download a dating app and start swiping. Soon enough, two friendly-looking Brits pop up. Ingeniously, they’ve created a joint profile for their weekend jaunt, to “meet people and find a party.” After some back and forth, they miraculously agree to join.

The pair of course beats me to the venue, after my bike breaks down en route, and I fail to find the spiral staircase leading up to it. In fact, everyone beats me, and I receive a round of applause upon entry. I’ve been seated at the head of the table, a man I found on the internet on either side of me. Between the server’s guidance on the menu, I manage to ask their names (mysteriously listed as “PJ” on their profile).

“I’m Patrick,” says Pat 1.“And I’m Patrick,” says Pat 2.

Turns out they’re best friends from school, and grew up an hour or so’s drive from me. As the wine flows, we settle into our roles as the slightly-too-loud British people at the end of the table, who go out for too many cigarettes.

I lose my composure after Pat 1 informs me the Danish word for “tit” is “pat,” about which the two of them have already received an appropriate amount of stick. Having blown away the cobwebs, we aim Bolt bikes (Pats 1 and 2 precariously sharing) in the direction of an achingly cool margarita bar. It’s chaos. We’re instantly friends.

Lagom and hygge: accomplished in one sitting. A Pat to my right, a Pat to my left, and just enough cocktails. My pal rocks up, following a phenomenally well-timed recovery.

“Who are your friends?”

“Just a couple of tits from back home.”

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2023 World edition.