Travel Guide to Kiruna Winter Wonderland
Travel Guide to Kiruna Winter Wonderland
Located in the Swedish Lapland, Kiruna is the northernmost city in Sweden and it is the perfect location to start exploring this region 300km above the Arctic Circle, famous by the Winter landscapes, snow activities and Northern Lights chasing.
I have a tradition for many years to travel and visit a new place for New Years and 2020 was no exception. Even though last year was extremely challenging travel-wise due to covid-19 situation, I decided to go to the northernmost remote part of Sweden where open nature and outdoor activities would allow to keep social distancing and safety measures.
In fact Kiruna was my first trip abroad since March and covid-19 pandemic started, so I couldn’t be happier to be able to travel again and to explore a true Winter Wonderland.
As much as I love Summer paradises, I’m passionate about extreme cold destinations and I’ve already had the opportunity to travel to remote destinations as the Finnish and Norwegian Lapland, Iceland or the Faroe Islands, but I never found so incredible snowy and winter landscapes as I did around Kiruna.
It’s quite easy to get to Kiruna. There are several flights a day from Stockholm, which is in my opinion the best option as it takes less than 2h. It is also possible to take a train from the Swedish capital which takes more than 16h or to drive there, but at this time of the year it might be more challenging and even risky due to the weather, especially if you are not used to drive in icy roads.
Around Kiruna there are many accommodation options from city hotels, to local accommodation or countryside camps. I stayed in Camp Ripan at the outskirts of the town which was a great option because I was literally in the forest and close enough to the city to walk there and be in the centre in less than 15m.
What is the best time to go to Kiruna? It’s quite difficult to answer and it depends on your travel objectives as this region has great experiences to offer all year round. Overall Kiruna is famous by its long Winters, when it’s possible to see the Northern Lights from September to March, and by midnight sun, a natural phenomenon occurring in Summer months at north of the Artic Circle when the sun remains visible all night long.
I decided to go at the end of December and I already knew that this time of the year is characterised by polar nights, lasting from mid-December to early January, when the sun doesn’t rise. Nevertheless, even in this period there is some daylight for a few hours, allowing to admire the nature views with a magical blue light so unique to this latitude.
In this blog post I will share what to do in Kiruna region and how the have the best Winter experience in this remote area of the world.
Kiruna is a relatively recent city. It was founded in the beginning of the 20th century and it hosts the world’s largest iron ore mine, which can also be visited.
In fact Kiruna is facing now an unprecedented challenge due to the mining activity. The city has to be moved a few miles east to prevent it being swallowed by the underground mine. This means that the most relevant buildings will be reconstructed stone by stone in the new locations, whilst the others will be constructed from scratch.
Beside of this singular characteristic, it is a really nice city to visit. Walk around Kirunas’ streets and be delighted by the pretty wooden houses in several pastel colours. In Winter they become absolutely magical covered in snow and decorated with Christmas ornaments. For several times while I was visiting Kiruna, I wish I had a Winter house there.
One of the highlights of Kiruna is its wooden church that was built in 1912 in the shape of a Sami tent. It was considered the most beautiful building in Sweden and I couldn’t agree more. Don’t miss it while in Kiruna.
In the city centre there are several options of shops, restaurants and coffees. You can also see from there Kebnekaise, the Swedish highest mountain.
Have you ever imagined sleeping at -5 degrees in a frozen room literally sculpted in ice? You can actually have this unique experience at the IceHotel located in Jukkasjarvi, 15m driving from Kiruna.
Even if you are not staying there, IceHotel is a must visit place while in Kiruna area. If you haven’t rented a car for your stay in Kiruna, you can get there by 501 bus (there are not many buses, so look at the schedule prior to your visit) or by taxi.
Since 1989, the hotel is reconstructed every year when Winter starts by artists using ice from the Torne river and transforming it in an impressive architecture and design frozen masterpiece. There are other Icehotels, but this is the probably the biggest and most impressive one.
I didn’t stay at the IceHotel, but I spent there one afternoon and was is an incredible experience. It is possible to visit the different rooms and each of them is a different and unique art piece. This ice complex also comprises an ice bar and an ice chapel which is the ultimate wedding location for many couples.
Beside of the frozen rooms, the hotel also offers wooden cabins which seems to be a great alternative for those who want to stay there but don’t dare sleeping in the icy part of the hotel.
Nutti Sami Siida
When in Jukkasjarvi, combine your visit to the IceHotel with Nutti Sami Siida, a typical village that is a great way to learn more about the Sami, the indigenous people of Northern Scandinavia that have lived in this area for thousands of years.
It’s possible to have a guided tour that will explain you a lot about reindeer farming and traditional Sami housing, or just walk around and enjoy the several available activities like visiting outdoor exhibitions and traditional art, feeding the reindeers or tasting traditional Sami food.
Near Nutti Sami Siida entrance don’t miss Jukkasjarvi Kyrka (Church), another beautiful Scandinavian church which is the oldest one in Swedish Lapland.
It seems to be taken from a children’s tale painted in red and white and naturally ornamented most part of the year with snow.
The most magical experience that I had in Swedish Lapland was to wander in the snowy forests and beautiful landscapes that were covered in fresh snow. It was snowing almost all the time that I’ve spent in Kiruna so I really had the opportunity to enjoy it.
Everywhere around Kiruna is possible to experience the boreal forests blanketed in white snow. Just outside my cabin I had a really winter wonderland, with snowed covered trees as I’ve never seen anywhere else.
If you do some outdoor activities, you will have plenty of opportunities to admire the white Swedish Lapland scenery.
There are many outdoor activities to explore the wilderness in Kiruna, from snowshoeing to dogsledding, skiing, Arctic wildlife safaris or snowmobiling. All of them are amazing but they are quite expensive, so it’s important to plan what you really want to do and to book it in advance as some of them get fully booked very quickly.
I had done most of those activities in the past, but I’ve decided to do snowmobiling again in the first day of 2021 as my first experience was in Levi, Finnish Lapland, in a March sunny day. So the weather conditions were quite different, as well as the landscapes. And I couldn’t be happier about my decision.
The guide picked the participants in Kiruna and took us to Mattarahkka Northern Lights Lodge, which is also an old Sami handcraft centre and the starting point for a great snowmobile adventure. The lodge is located in an elevated position overlooking Abisko mountains and its surroundings are beautiful.
After being equipped with proper winter clothes (special snow jackets, trousers, boots and thick gloves), the small group started the snowmobile ride in the boreal forests and I can easily say that is was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. Snowmobiling in a white and foggy landscape, icy lakes and boreal forests is absolutely unique. For several times we had to lower our heads to avoid the snow covered tree branches in tight rails in the middle of the woods. There are no words to describe how special it was.
After a 2h ride, we finally went back to the lodge where we had a warm and comfort typical meal, a delicious Sami soup with lingonberry juice. What a great way to start the year!
Abisko National Park
Located around 1h30 drive away from Kiruna near the Norwegian border, Abisko National Park is a must do day tour (or in alternative it can also be a good place to stay while in the Swedish Lapland).
The National Park was established in the beginning of the 19th century to preserve the northern Nordic nature. It is home to a rich wildlife – including mooses, elks, reindeers, lynxes, wolverines and bears – and it also offers some of the most beautiful natural landscapes of this region with lakes, mountains and frozen waterfalls.
One of the main attractions of Abisko is the fact that it is considered as one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights due to its microclimate characterised by clearer skies than other parts of the Arctic thanks to the surrounding mountains causing a “Blue Hole” effect. This is why so many aurora chasers head to Abisko hoping to see the Norther Lights. I’ve read that visitors staying there 3 or more nights in the auroras period (from September to March) have 80% of chances of being them.
I went to Abisko for a day tour (to be more accurate, a night tour) also expecting to see the Northern Lights. But in that night, and during my whole stay in Kiruna, the weather was quite cloudy and snowy so the odds were against me. Still I decided to try and I booked a guided tour as the local guides are extremely experts in finding the best places to see the auroras.
After a tasty typical meal in Abisko Mountain Lodge, we started our tour in Abisko National Park area near STF Abisko Turiststation. There are many beautiful paths and trails leading to a magnificent canyon with a frozen waterfall where we stopped for a while admiring the views and chasing the auroras. Unsuccessfully, but the National Park is so beautiful that it was totally worth the visit.
In our tour we stopped in a few other places like an off-beat lake beach outside Abisko that we would had never discovered without a guide, where the chances of seeing the Northern Lights is usually very good.
Unfortunately there were no auroras at all in the sky in that night and it began to snow quite heavily, but I really enjoyed my trip to Abisko and I would recommend to stay there for a few nights as it has beautiful natural surroundings and great places to see the Northern Lights.
In Abisko is also located the famous Aurora Sky Station. You can take an open air chairlift into the night sky taking you to a station at the top with a small restaurant and an observation tower.
Northern Lights are probably the most amazing natural spectacle I’ve ever seen in my whole life and I’m completely fascinated about them. I’ve already had the opportunity to see amazing auroras in previous trips to Levi in the Finnish Lapland and Tromso at the North of Norway. But still it is at the top of my bucket list and I will always pursue my chase to see them again and even stronger than before (have a look at my Tromso blog post to know more about my auroras’ chasing).
But even though it’s possible to see Northen Lights from September to March, it only happens if skies are clear and there is solar activity. Unfortunately in my trip to Kiruna the skies were always cloudy and the solar activity was quite weak, so after the tour to Abisko I had almost given up to see them.
But sometimes nature surprises us with unexpected events and in my last day in Kiruna, literally one hour before taking a taxi to the airport, I decided to have a walk in the forest located in the surroundings of the hotel as a last attempt to see the Northern Lights. I couldn’t believe when I saw a band almost not perceptible in the horizon in a very pale green. The camera brought it to life bright and green in my last picture in Kiruna, one that I will never forget.
I was lucky to have in my hotel an award winning spa which was ideal for a relaxation evening after all the adrenaline rush of the intense Winter activities outdoor.
Aurora Spa is worth a visit even if you are not staying in Camp Ripan. Book it in advance as it gets easily fully booked, especially now that the number of people is limited due to all the safety measures with covid-19.
Take your time and enjoy the different spa areas available in and out: aroma sauna with pine oil, mineral sauna, indoor pool from where you can see the snowy landscape through the panorama windows, and the outdoor pool surrounded by the snow and the polar cold winter.
Aurora Spa is also a great spot to see the Northern Lights if you are lucky enough to have an aurora natural show while you are relaxing there.