10 Reasons to Travel to Sweden in Winter

Sweden’s climate is by no means tropical, but winter in Sweden doesn’t have to be as bad as you think.

Swedish winters can be downright enjoyable and magical, granted you pack the appropriate winter clothing. Stockholm’s average winter temperature hovers right around freezing, but in Northern Sweden, you’ll see more extremes, ranging from freezing to -30 C!

Even with the cold weather, there are still so many things to do in Stockholm, so just pack warm and enjoy the beauty of the city without the summer crowds.  With preparation and the right mindset, Sweden in winter is absolutely lovely — read on to learn why!

The obvious — the Northern lights are the most amazing thing you’ll ever see

The Northern lights are only visible from September to the end of March. In Abisko, which is considered by many scientists to be the best place in the world to see the Northern lights, we saw the lights 3 out of 3 nights — a definite must-add to your Sweden winter itinerary.

Granted, 2 of the 3 nights were rather cloudy, so we saw a few green streaks of aurora that quickly got covered by the clouds. However, our final night we had a cloudless night, and the lights were even more vibrant, magical, and amazing than I could have imagined.

sweden in winter

Seeing the Northern lights in Abisko is completely free once you get there. Just walk as far away as you can from the light pollution and stare up at the sky.

Don’t think you have to spend hundreds of dollars at the Aurora Sky Station or on a photography tour. With the proper weather conditions, you should be able to see the lights as soon as you walk outside and let your eyes adjust to the darkness.

I do recommend using the Sky Station’s live camera and running outside as soon as you see a flash of green. I thought that February was the perfect time to go, as you’re not subject to the “Polar Night,” where the sun does not fully rise for 28 straight days, right around the winter solstice.

When I went in mid-February, the sun rose just before 8 and set a little before 4, almost a solid 8 hours of sunlight.

Pro Tip: I highly recommend staying somewhere in Abisko where you can easily get away from light pollution – STF Turiststation is where I stayed. Abisko Mountain Lodge also comes highly recommended, but I can’t speak for it personally.

It’s not as cold as you think

Stockholm’s average high in February is about 30F, or -1C. On average, it’s a bit colder than other popular winter destinations, like New York or Paris, but not quite as cold as Montreal or Vermont, some popular North American destinations. The cold is no reason not to visit Sweden in winter!

Hotels in Stockholm are super cozy and many even have their own saunas to warm you up in the winter. In fact, even some Stockholm hostels (like City Backpackers!) have their own private saunas!

Northern Sweden’s winter, however, can be a totally different story. We were lucky and it was about 25F (-4C) during the day, and as low as 9F (-13C) at night. However, it can easily get down to -22F (-30C) at some points during the winter.

Luckily, if you’re staying in Abisko, one of the best places to visit in Sweden in winter, many hostels and hotels offer warm clothing rentals. These are often free if you book an activity with them. When I did dogsledding, I borrowed a super warm waterproof jumpsuit from the tour company, but I was fine in my regular layers all other times, even at night. The key to staying warm?

Three words: FLEECE. LINED. LEGGINGS. Worn as a layer under jeans or a second pair of leggings, these are amazing. Fleece-lined leggings saved my California pansy-ass many a time in NYC and stood up well in winter in Sweden.

Also, don’t underestimate the power of some woolly socks and an ultra-thin down jacket for layering under your standard winter jacket – the second layer of down really helps. Also, make sure you have waterproof shoes or snow boots, as nothing will make you feel colder faster than wet feet.

As the Norwegians say — there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. For the record, I totally disagree, but I also do know that packing well can be the difference between being cold and being miserable.

I’ve included a recommended packing list at the end of the post (and I have a full dedicated Sweden in winter packing list here!) so if you’re wondering what to wear in Sweden in winter I’ve got you covered!

Flying to Sweden in winter is cheap. Really cheap.

Sweden winter vacations are actually surprisingly affordable. Flying from New York? On Norwegian, you can find cheap flights as low as $315 roundtrip to Stockholm, regular price – no error fares needed.

From Oakland or LA, as low as $342 – again, roundtrip! With flights that cheap, I didn’t even bother using my airline miles from travel hacking.

Plus, since winter is the off-season in Stockholm, you’ll find that accommodations will be a tad cheaper (with the exception of right around Christmas-time).

Pro tip for Abisko: While Sweden is not as popular in winter as it is in summer, Abisko still books up quickly, so be sure to book well in advance. Be sure to book all Abisko lodgings well in advance – use a booking service with free cancellation like Booking.com to ensure your holiday runs smoothly, as places tend to book up literally months prior.

a lovely winter day in Sweden

Sweden really knows how to do winter activities

Dog-sledding through Abisko is one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. Although it was a bit pricy (my two-hour tour through abisko.net was 1200 SEK, about $144 USD, and included snowsuit, snowshoes, and cross-country ski rental for 3 days), I highly recommend it if you can make room in your budget for it —it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Even if you don’t do a dog-sledding tour, you can rent snowshoes and cross-country skis from most hotels and hostels for a very reasonable fee.

For the more adventurous, there are also numerous ski resorts — Björkliden is another famous one, just a few kilometers away from Abisko — where you can ski or snowboard. You can even ski just outside of Stockholm at Hammarbybacken! If you’re up North, ice-climbing and snowmobiling are two other popular winter sports, but you’re going to have to pony up quite a bit of cash to partake.

dogsledding in sweden in winter
Dogsledding is a Swedish winter activity that simply shouldn’t be missed. Photo credit Hassan at Abisko.net

A traditional Swedish sauna is an amazing reward for a day braving the cold

Many hotels and hostels in Northern Sweden, and even some in Stockholm, have free sauna access included — Winterday Hostel has a sauna and STF Turiststation does as well.

It’s especially fun to run from the sauna into the cold night air — splash a bit of snow on yourself or dive in if you’re brave. Even more amazing? When you run from the sauna into the snow and look up to see the Northern lights undulating above you.

Stockholm, Sweden in the winter is beautiful – even to this winter-hating New Yorker

In Stockholm, they don’t salt the living hell out of their sidewalks the way we do in the overly litigious United States. New Yorkers will rejoice to know that there are no giant slush puddles lurking at every corner! The snow is packed down well, so it isn’t really that difficult to walk on, but do be careful as it can get a bit icy from time to time. Snow shoes with decent grip will help.

There’s so much to do in Stockholm in the winter, it’s hard to get bored – from excellent museums to cozy coffee shops and tempting food halls, it’s a fantastic winter city.

Pro Tip: Stockholm has a well-deserved reputation for being an expensive city, but making some smart moves like buying a Stockholm Pass for museums and transit can save you a ton of money.

stockholm sweden in winter with frozen canals
You don’t get views like this in summer

Snowy days in Abisko National Park are magical

With snow-covered mountains everywhere, the landscape almost looks like a black and white photograph.

Black trees jut up from the snow — and that’s pretty much it, except for a wink of blue sky from time to time. The Kingsleden is a beautiful hike in the summer, but we loved walking to the frozen waterfall about 2 kilometers away from STF Abisko Turiststation.

frozen waterfalls in Abisko National Park
Frozen waterfalls in Abisko National Park – must be seen to be believed

Fika is amazing, but it’s even better when it’s cold outside

Fika is the Swedish institution of dropping everything to sit with a friend and socialize for an afternoon coffee and pastry. There was nothing more satisfying than warming up our cold bodies in a coffee shop with a delicious espresso drink and a kanelbullar (Swedish cinnamon bun), chokladboll (cocoa pastry ball coated in coconut) or prinsesstårta (Swedish “princess cake” composed of marzipan, sponge cake, pastry cream, and jam).

If you go between New Years and Easter, you’ll find semla, which are soft spiced buns filled with marzipan and whipped cream. Delicious!

You’ll miss the crowds if you travel to Sweden in winter

Stockholm was so quiet during our time there that it was hard to believe almost 2 million people live in and around the city. It wasn’t uncommon for us to walk for miles without encountering a crowd, even on the weekends.

As a bonus, hotel prices are much lower (with the exception of the period right around Christmas), meaning you can get some insanely good deals if you book ahead.

Gamla Stan in winter
Even the touristy heart of Gamla Stan is quiet in the winter!

More “golden hour” for beautiful pictures

Skilled photographers eagerly seek out the golden hours — the hours right before sunset and right after sunrise — when the sun low on the horizon casts a beautiful, magical glow on your pictures.

In Sweden during winter, the sun never rises that high in the sky for long, meaning that you have even more time during the day to capture the magic of golden hour. Also, it’s easy to catch the sunrise without having to wake up at the asscrack of dawn — something that my lazy self enjoys.

Kiruna Church Sweden
The beautiful Kiruna Church illuminated by the golden hour
kiruna church in sweden
Golden hour in Kiruna

Finally — Don’t forget travel insurance! Be sure you’re insured when traveling in Sweden in winter, especially if you’re doing any outdoor sports. I use and recommend World Nomads – they’ll cover you if you get unexpectedly sick, slip on ice, hurt yourself during a wintry activity, or have winter weather interfere with your travel plans. Get a free quote here.

What to Pack for Sweden in Winter

Even though Sweden in winter is not nearly as cold as you likely think, you should still pack smartly and bring all the necessary cold-weather clothes from home, as buying them in Sweden will be outlandishly expensive. Below, I’ve listed my top essentials and my recommended products. If you want a complete packing list, refer to the winter section of my two weeks in Europe packing list which will cover all your other packing needs.

  • Waterproof boots. I just brought my waterproof leather Blondo boots that I have legit owned for 8 years (I did get them re-soled once). If you’re looking for a proper snow boot, Sorel and Keen are the two brands I hear recommended most often. I’m planning on buying a proper pair of snow boots this year now that I live in Bulgaria so I’ll update this with my recommendation once I’ve invested in a proper pair of boots. But what matters most of all is that the boots are waterproof; unfortunately, using a mere waterproofing spray on other shoes isn’t enough.
  • A knit hat. Honestly, any beanie will do as long as the knit is fairly tight, but a fleece-lined knit hat will give you a bit of extra warmth (and the pompom will look cute on Instagram).
  • Thermal base layers. I personally can’t tolerate wool as it makes me feel like my skin is on fire, but if you know you can wear wool without issues, merino wool base layers are the standard recommendation for cold weather. However, fleece-lined layers work great for me. I have these 90 Degree by Reflex fleece-lined leggings for my bottom base layer and I wear a UNIQLO 32 Degrees thermal layer for my top base layer. I bought my 32 Degrees thermal top at Costco, by the way, and it was even cheaper than on Amazon. If you can tolerate wool, merino wool leggings from SmartWool are the gold standard.
  • Wool socks. Despite my previous screed against woolen clothing, I actually can tolerate wool if it’s just on my feet. I bought two pairs of SmartWool socks for this trip and was quite pleased with them! I recommend bringing three pairs though because it’s nice to have socks to rotate out during the day, as they often get wet from snow.
  • Waterproof snow pants (if you go to the Arctic Circle or go skiing/snowboarding) I didn’t have these, but I was really jealous of my friend who brought her snowboarding pants. These snow pants are well-reviewed but I haven’t personally tried them. I was okay with the combo of thermals and jeans but would have been way drier with some snow pants. Get a size larger than you think so that you can wear jeans and leggings underneath for maximum warmth. You don’t need these if you just go to Stockholm or stay in the south of Sweden, though.
  • Waterproof gloves. Gore-Tex waterproof gloves the gold standard and got me through many a winter bike rides in NYC. I also have a cheap thin pair of gloves I used during the daytime that could work with my smartphone. I got mine from Target but this pair is similar.
  • An ultrawarm parka and also a thin ultra-light down jacket. Yes, I’m a total baby when it comes to the cold (it happens when you grow up in California). I live in my North Face parka every winter and consider it an excellent investment. There are cheaper down jackets you can buy for sure; just make it goes down to at least mid-thigh, trust me. I also layer my Uniqlo ultra-light down jacket underneath. You can buy yours at Uniqlo but this jacket is really similar and cheaper on Amazon. They roll up really small so it’s not a pain to bring two jackets. Just wear your heavier one on the plane.
  • Camera + tripod for capturing the Northern lights: I use and swear by my Sony A6000, which is an excellent and affordable option if you’re looking for professional-quality photos. If you’re going to try to photograph the Northern lights or take lots of sunset and sunrise photos, I recommend bringing a tripod as you’ll need it to stabilize your camera for long-exposures. Tripods can be very expensive but I just used a cheap-o Amazon tripod and it suited my purposes for this trip.

Want more winter travel inspiration?

How to See the Northern Lights in Abisko on a Tight Budget

northern-lights-budget

I’ve always traveled on a tight budget, and Sweden is rightfully notorious for being an expensive travel destination.

Even a dorm bed will easily cost 250 SEK, or $30 USD, per night. But even a girl on a budget’s gotta dream, and I was dreaming big: I wanted to see the Northern lights in Abisko, Sweden.

In true type-A fashion, I laboriously researched the best place to see the Northern lights in Sweden, and Abisko kept coming up as the best place.

Statistically speaking, scientists agreed that the Abisko Northern lights are among the most reliable in the world. Supposedly, there’s an 80% success rate of seeing the lights if you stay in Abisko for three nights.

Many people who had previously been to Iceland or other Nordic countries had failed to see the Northern lights; Abisko National Park seemed to have the highest success rate.

Personally, when I compare my times chasing the Northern lights in Abisko and Tromso, I found I saw way better lights in Abisko way easier, for a fraction of the cost of Tromso (though I did love Tromso in winter for many other reasons).

How to Save Money in Stockholm

With only six full days in Sweden, I decided that I wanted to spend three in the capital enjoying Stockholm in winter and three in Abisko, Northern lights spotting. It’s extremely rare to see the Northern lights in Stockholm, so I recommend heading up north to the Kiruna and Abisko area if you have your heart set on seeing the Northern lights in Sweden.

Stockholm is not a super budget-friendly place, and I visited Stockholm when I was working on saving up money to quit my job. So to save money in Stockholm, my two friends and I split an Airbnb three ways.

Since it was so expensive for a simple dorm bed in a hostel in Stockholm, an Airbnb made more sense.

If you do want to stay in a hostel, though, I’ve created a comprehensive guide to the most affordable and comfortable hostels in Stockholm by neighborhood, which you can read here.

In a private Airbnb, we each paid $30 a night to stay in the lovely neighborhood of Hornstull on the island of Södermalm – the same cost as a hostel but with a lot more privacy.

To keep costs down, we mostly bought groceries, ate out for lunch rather than dinner when we could take advantage of deals, and walked everywhere (I mean everywhere — we didn’t even take any public transit except for the bus to the airport!)

Stockholm is beautiful in winter, and it's a great starting spot to see the Northern lights on a budget
A beautiful place, but you can rarely see the Northern lights in Stockholm

Budget Breakdown: Cost of Seeing the Northern Lights in Sweden

Flight from Stockholm to Kiruna: $61.65 on SAS
Flight from Kiruna to Stockholm: $59.19 on Norwegian Airlines
My share of food and a six-pack of beer from Coop Grocery Store: $24
My share of a double room at Abisko Hostel: $35 per person (dorms available for around $30)*
Taxi to Kiruna train station from airport: $20 per person (split two ways)
Buffet lunch at Spis in Kiruna: $10
Train from Kiruna to Abisko: $11
Return shuttle bus direct to airport: $45

Total for 3 days in Abisko for Northern lights spotting: $315.84 USD plus additional $140 for dog-sledding (optional)

* Note: I paid to stay at Abisko Hostel & Huskies – however, at the last minute they had an issue with their property and re-booked me into STF Abisko Turiststation instead at the same price.

So I can’t give any personal insight into Abisko Hostel’s property, but I did love my dog-sledding trip that I did with them and just generally the staff was really fantastic at accommodating us given the mix-up with their property, giving us rides between STF Abisko Turiststation & the Abisko Hostel as needed and just generally being awesome.

STF was excellent as well, and so I highly recommend either option for Abisko. I’d say that Abisko Hostel is better for solo travelers or extreme budget travelers, whereas STF is better for families, couples, and groups of friends.

Why not try spotting the Northern lights in Abisko?
A view of Abisko’s famous Northern lights

Getting to Abisko from Stockholm

Contrary to what you might think, flying is actually usually the best way to start a cheap Northern lights holiday.

The train from Stockholm to Kiruna is closer to $100 USD each way and takes 17 hours, and time was a luxury we did not have, and most people on short weekend breaks will not either.

However, since the overnight train will save you on paying for one night’s accommodation, if you prefer to travel by train it may be worth it. It’s up to you.

Kiruna is worth a few days exploring, as it’s a super cute and unique town if you have the time. But I was on a strict schedule, so I headed straight to Abisko immediately after having lunch in town and a wander through the shops.

From Kiruna, you have a few choices to get to Abisko, where you can view the Northern lights a lot easier: either an obscenely expensive taxi (I believe it would have been about $200 USD), taking the bus/taxi to Kiruna and then taking the train to Abisko (about $11), or a direct shuttle bus.

There is also a once-daily public bus (line 91) that goes directly from the airport to Abisko, but it is generally really hard to line up your flight arrival time with the bus departure. It’s worth looking into, but don’t get your hopes up. It didn’t work out for us when we visited in 2016.

Abisko Northern lights spotting is the best!
Be sure to use a tripod and a long exposure to shoot the Northern lights in Abisko

There are certainly ways that you could see Abisko’s Northern lights for cheaper, such as by buying inexpensive groceries and forgoing the beer, hitchhiking, or trying to find Couchsurfing hosts (which are pretty rare that far North, as Kiruna – the nearest “city” – has a population of only 20,000).

However, here I tried to represent the most typical paid costs that most travelers would incur when trying to see the Northern lights on a budget. It’s definitely not cheap, and well over my typical budget…. but for a natural phenomenon this majestic, it’s hard to be mad about it.

Kiruna Church Sweden - the jumping off place to see Abisko Northern lights
A scene from Kiruna, where most Northern lights adventures begin in Sweden

We booked to stay at Abisko Hostel & Huskies; however, due to a last minute problem with the hostel, they had to cancel our reservation and rebooked us for no extra cost at STF Turiststation, a more expensive (but incredibly nice!) hostel.

We loved our stay at STF so much that if your budget allows I’d really recommend staying there, because you truly can’t beat having all of Abisko National Park to yourself.

STF has multiple saunas, snowshoe and cross-country ski rentals, TWO of the nicest hostel kitchens I’ve ever seen, a fireplace and lounge room, and it’s walking distance to frozen waterfalls and the frozen lake in Abisko National Park. If you don’t stay there, it’s a great place to go for lunch – they have a daily buffet for about $10 USD, which is a fantastic deal for pricy Sweden.

Must see Northern lights in Abisko
A green sky in Abisko

The people at Abisko Hostel & Huskies were so lovely, and really helped us out with everything related to our stay… but I can’t speak to how the dorms were as we ended up being unable to stay there. The dogsledding tour we took with them, however, was excellent!

As a traveler who is hesitant to support animal tourism, I was able to see that the staff really value the dogs’ safety and wellbeing. They had an awareness of each dog’s personality and knew how to pair the dogs with other dogs they’d get along with.

Sled dogs aren’t like your average dog – while obviously domesticated, there’s still a touch of the wild in them. There’s a very clear hierarchy amongst sled dogs, and certain dogs need to be at the front of the line or else they get really upset.

I appreciated how the staff knew about this, anticipated it, and kept the dogs happy — they were literally howling with happiness, ready to run before we left.

At approximately $140 USD, a two-hour sled ride with the dogs is certainly an expensive treat, but it was well worth it to me.

I didn’t include the cost of the tour in the budget breakdown as it’s not integral to seeing the Northern Lights in Abisko if you’re on a tight budget.

However, for me, the realization of a childhood dream was worth the added cost.

When not seeing the Northern lights, dogsledding is a fun way to pass the time
#lifegoals, 10/10

What to Pack for a Trip to Abisko’s Northern Lights

Despite being located north of the Arctic Circle, Abisko isn’t always as cold as you might think. Temperatures of -20°C / -4°F are common, and on rare occasions, the weather will reach as low as -40°C / -40°F.

However, when I visited in mid-February, the weather really wasn’t that bad. In fact, Abisko was warmer than the weather in NYC that I had left behind! We usually had temperatures of around -1°C/30°F during the day, and as low as -9°C / 15°F at night.

However, the weather is unpredictable, so you will most certainly want to pack accordingly. Here’s what I recommend you bring (for a more complete list, check out my winter in Sweden packing list)

Waterproof boots. I just brought my waterproof leather Blondo boots that I have legit owned for 10 years (I did get them re-soled once).

If you’re looking for a proper snow boot, Sorel and Keen are the two brands I hear recommended most often. I’m planning on buying a proper pair of snow boots this year now that I live in Bulgaria so I’ll update this with my recommendation once I’ve invested in a proper pair of boots. But what matters most of all is that the boots are waterproof; unfortunately, using a mere waterproofing spray on other shoes isn’t enough.

A knit hat. Honestly, any beanie will do as long as the knit is fairly tight, but a fleece-lined knit hat will give you a bit of extra warmth (and the pompom will look cute on Instagram).

Thermal base layers. I personally can’t tolerate wool as it makes me feel like my skin is on fire, but if you know you can wear wool without issues, merino wool base layers are the standard recommendation for cold weather. However, fleece-lined layers work great for me. I have these 90 Degree by Reflex fleece-lined leggings for my bottom base layer and I wear a UNIQLO 32 Degrees thermal layer for my top base layer. I bought my 32 Degrees thermal top at Costco, by the way, and it was even cheaper than on Amazon. If you can tolerate wool, merino wool leggings from SmartWool are the gold standard.

Wool socks. Despite my previous screed against woolen clothing, I actually can tolerate wool if it’s just on my feet. I bought two pairs of SmartWool socks for this trip and was quite pleased with them! I recommend bringing three pairs though because it’s nice to have socks to rotate out during the day, as they often get wet from snow.

Waterproof snow pants. I didn’t have these, but I was really jealous of my friend who brought her snowboarding pants. These snow pants are well-reviewed but I haven’t personally tried them. I was okay with the combo of thermals and jeans but would have been way drier with some snow pants. Get a size larger than you think so that you can wear jeans and leggings underneath for maximum warmth.

Waterproof gloves. Gore-Tex waterproof gloves the gold standard and got me through many a winter bike rides in NYC. I also have a cheap thin pair of gloves I used during the daytime that could work with my smartphone. I got mine from Target but this pair is similar.

An ultrawarm parka and also a thin ultra-light down jacket. Yes, I’m a total baby when it comes to the cold (it happens when you grow up in California). I live in my North Face parka every winter and consider it an excellent investment. There are cheaper down jackets you can buy for sure; just make it goes down to at least mid-thigh, trust me. I also layer my Uniqlo ultra-light down jacket underneath. You can buy yours at Uniqlo but this jacket is really similar and cheaper on Amazon. They roll up really small so it’s not a pain to bring two jackets. Just wear your heavier one on the plane.

Camera + tripod for capturing the Northern lights: I use and swear by my Sony A6000, which is an excellent and affordable option if you’re looking for professional-quality photos. If you’re going to try to photograph the Northern lights or take lots of sunset and sunrise photos, I recommend bringing a tripod as you’ll need it to stabilize your camera for long-exposures. Tripods can be very expensive but I just used a cheap-o Amazon tripod and it suited my purposes for this trip.

Northern lights in Abisko are stunning
Abisko’s Northern lights are some of the best in the world

Other aurora trips & inspiration:

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Want to see the Northern lights in Sweden but traveling on a budget? Abisko is one of the best places to see the beautiful aurora borealis. Tick this off your bucket list for under $350 USD including flights from Stockholm!

Recommended Companies: Abisko.net for dogsledding
Recommended Accommodations: I stayed at STF Turiststation and can highly recommend it.   Abisko Guesthouse also comes well-recommended, though the reviews aren’t quite as high as STF’s and I can’t personally vouch for it. If you’re on a tight budget, Abisko.net has the only true hostel in town (the rooms at STF are quadruples and have bunk beds, but you need to book the entire room; I’m not sure why) but they fill up very quickly.
Further Reading: Lonely Planet Sweden
Useful tips: Be sure to have travel insurance when traveling to Sweden. You’re a long way away from a hospital when you’re in Abisko, and that would be a very expensive accident to have! I use and recommend World Nomads for their affordable prices and flexible policies.