A Dreamy One Day in Girona Itinerary

Catalonia (or Catalunya) is a beautiful varied region with many beautiful sites. I recently spent six days in Catalonia, splitting my time between Girona and Barcelona. And if I’m honest? If I could do it again, I would have spent the entire time in Girona — and then some.

It’s not that I didn’t like Barcelona. It’s just that, fresh off my divorce with New York after almost a decade of common law marriage, it felt too city-like, too Brooklyn, in a way that just didn’t jive with me. Meanwhile, Girona had its own heart and soul – something both so new and so old.

Plus, I’m a rabid Game of Thrones fangirl, and the idea of walking through what is basically a living GoT setpiece was pretty wonderful.

If you’re a language geek like me, you’ll love hearing, reading, and deciphering Catalan. It’s a Romance language, so it has clear French and Spanish influences. With my background in French, Spanish, and Italian, I can read 90% of it, but I can barely speak a word. 

But don’t fret – Spanish is also spoken by everyone, and English by almost everyone as well, so you won’t have any trouble getting around.

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Want to travel to Girona, Spain? This Game of Thrones filming location is also a wonderful city break in Spain and an easy day trip from Barcelona. With tips for Girona restaurants, museums, photography spots, and the best things to do in Girona in one day, this guide will help you plan the perfect Girona city break.
Want to travel to Girona, Spain? This Game of Thrones filming location is also a wonderful city break in Spain and an easy day trip from Barcelona. With tips for Girona restaurants, museums, photography spots, and the best things to do in Girona in one day, this guide will help you plan the perfect Girona city break.

One Day in Girona: Itinerary

This itinerary is structured assuming you’ve spent the night in Girona and are waking up there.

If you’re planning to Girona mid-day and stay until the next afternoon, you can adjust this Girona itinerary accordingly.

Have breakfast at Palmira Bakery

When we visited Girona, we met some lovely Syrian refugees who opened an outstanding bakery in the Old Town called Palmira. They sold delicious goodies, from baklava to honey-drenched flaky and crunchy desserts I can’t even begin to pronounce.

The owners of the bakery were incredibly friendly, pressing free samples upon us as we drank our morning espressos. We went back every day we were in Girona — I’m jonesing for their delicious pistachio-filled baklava as I write this!!

Discover the city with a walking tour

A walking tour is a fantastic way to discover a city, and if you only have one day in Girona, you’ve got to make it count. Luckily, there are some great walking tours on offer throughout the city, focusing on either the city’s historical and cultural significance or its more recent revival as a pop culture hotspot for Game of Thrones fans.

If you want a well-rounded tour that covers the basic must-sees in Girona, check out this small group walking tour that encompasses Girona’s Cathedral, the Jewish Quarter, its bright houses on the Onyar river, and its famous bridge created by none other than the man who designed the Eiffel Tower!

While it doesn’t focus on Game of Thrones specifically, they do mention filming locations, so it’s a good way to blend both in a well-organized, 3-hour overview of Girona. To book, check out reviews, prices, and availability here.

Alternately, if you’re an avowed GoT fangirl like myself, you can go on a dedicated Game of Thrones walking tour. Many great scenes of this HBO epic series were shot right here in the Old Town of Girona. The Cathedral steps? Where Jaime Lannister’s badass horse charges up to challenge the High Sparrow. The cobblestone stairs and alleyways? Where Arya darts as she’s hunted in Braavos.

For a big Game of Thrones nerd like me – who doesn’t want to deal with the tourist crush of Dubrovnik in the summer (or its prices — seriously guys, Girona is a bargain compared to Dubrovnik!) – this is a huge plus.

While you can certainly walk around with a map and try to spot the famous spots independently, I recommend doing a Game of Thrones walking tour where you can visit the filming locations (and learn about their real-world significance) in an organized, context-driven fashion. This GoT walking tour is highly rated – check out prices, reviews, and availability here – and lasts 2.5 hours. If that’s a little long for your attention span, there’s a 90-minute tour here.

Eat lunch in the most beautiful setting possible at Le Bistrot

Nestled about halfway up the staircase of the lovely Pujada de Sant Domènec, you can’t miss having a meal at one of my favorite restaurants in Girona, Le Bistrot. This chic, romantic restaurant has Catalan food served with a French twist – at about 10 to 15 euros per head. The star of the show was the pagès, the Catalan twist on pizza, which are basically hunks of bread slathered with delicious and inventive toppings.

Alongside our meal, we drank a delicious 10 euro bottle of wine while marveling at the lovely views leading up to the church. The atmosphere was amazing, and when we got the bill, we were all shocked at how cheap the meal was for the quality of food.

Dinner can be quite busy, so I recommend going at lunch when you can see your surroundings better, anyway. It’s open from 1 PM to 4 PM for lunch daily and reopens at 7:30 for dinner.

Learn about Girona’s rich Jewish history

Before I went to Girona, I had no idea that it was called “The Mother City to Israel” and was once a very significant part of the Jewish diaspora. The best way to understand Girona’s Jewish heritage is by visiting the excellent Jewish Museum. It is located right in the Jewish call, the former Jewish neighborhood… before the Inquisition and other unpleasantness pushed the Jews out of Girona and into exile once again.

While the majority of Girona’s Jews have left the city that was once a refuge for them, the city’s Jewish history is quietly remembered throughout its architecture. From preserved mikvehs (ritual baths) to minute architectural details — our Airbnb had Star of David tessellated window panes — keep an eye out and you’ll notice all sorts of interesting details that tell a story of Girona’s history.

Refuel with the world’s best ice cream

Rocambolesc gelato Girona

The Spanish eat quite late in the evening, with most restaurants not even beginning service until 8 PM. This threw me off quite a bit during my five weeks of traveling Spain, as I was fresh off working five years as a teacher and eating dinner every night around 6 PM!

Not too many places are open during siesta… but Rocambolesc is open from 11 AM to 11 PM, making it the perfect “oh please God rescue me I’m about to kill someone out of hanger” treat.

Plus, it is literally the best gelato shop I’ve eaten at in my life. I mean, how many ice cream parlors can say that they are run by the owner of the best restaurant in the world, El Cellar de Can Roca?

If you want to feel like you died and went to Willy Wonka’s ice cream heaven, Rocambolesc is your place. Whatever you do, make sure you try the violet and coconut sorbet if they have it – it’s heavenly!

Indulge in some excellent shopping

Girona knows how to shop. There are so many amazing little stores tucked into the Old Town, where you can buy everything from adorable dresses, breezy tanks, home goods, and my favorite – espadrilles.

You can get gorgeous espadrilles from Tony Pons for a quarter of the price as back home – not even kidding! I’m kicking myself for not buying a pair, as they were absolutely gorgeous, but I really had no space in my backpack. But I just tell myself that’s another reason to return!

Have an incredible pintxos dinner

pinchos Girona Zanpanzar

Everyone who has even a five-minute conversation with me knows that I am obsessed with food. And good god, does Girona deliver.

In our short time there, I ate some of the most amazing pinchos (alternately spelled pintxos if you’re in Basque country) and tapas. One of my favorite places, Zanpanzar, was so good we actually had to go there twice! If you only have one day in Girona, make your dinner meal here.

So, what exactly are pinchos? Basically, they are delicious tapas made of whatever is local and in season, served atop toasted bread.

Some highlights (OK, they were all highlights if I’m honest): truffled goat cheese with candied apricot and walnuts; pate, quail egg and ham; white asparagus, roasted red peppers, and eggplant; goat cheese, ham, and fruit compote; mushroom, ham, and crunchy bits of garlic.

Have it with a strong, dry cider like the Basque do!

Take a nighttime stroll on the city walls for epic views

The iconic Girona Cathedral is located high up in the city, atop steps made famous by Game of Thrones. This makes it a prime spot for sunset views. But if you want to really feel the magic, get even higher on one of the city’s semi-hidden walkways.

Girona is a city meant to be viewed from above. If you start wandering around behind the cathedral area, you’ll find an entry to the city walls, where there are some great vistas to be had. There are lit pathways that lead you up and up, until you have nothing but amazing city views. All this in walking distance from the Old Town!

What to Do with More Days in Girona: Itinerary Inspiration

You can visit Girona on a day trip if you’re traveling to Barcelona, but it can be quicker and more direct to do day trips via Girona (and sometimes cheaper, too!)

We took a quick day trip to Besalú, which was a beautiful way to spend half a day. The old bridge, which was built about a thousand years ago, is just picture perfect. We went around 3 PM when everything was closed, which added some charm to its sleepy medieval vibe. But if you want to make more of a day of it and have lunch or dinner there I recommend going either earlier or later in the day.

besalu girona
Less than an hour bus ride away from Girona, Besalú must be seen to be believed

There are also quick and easy day trips to Figueres, where the Dalí museum is located, and to Cadaqués, a small beach town where Dalí painted many of his works. There are also many tiny beach towns along the Costa Brava, like Tossa del Mar and Lloret del Mar, which are — again — closer to Girona than Barcelona! Check out this guide for ideas!

Where to Stay in Girona

If you only have one night in Girona, make it count! I’ve picked my top three choices for where to stay in this beautiful city.

VALUE WITH A VIEW

In my opinion, the best value-to-price ratio is the surprisingly affordable boutique hotel Gran Ultonia, located in Barri Vell district (the Old Town) just a 5-minute walk to the heart of the city and 500 meters from the Cathedral.

The rooms are clean, spacious, and modern, offering basically everything you’d expect of a four-star hotel… But best of all, it has a stunning rooftop terrace and bar area with gorgeous views overlooking Girona’s cathedral. (And they even have a yoga class there in the morning!)

Check out prices, reviews, and availability here.

AFFORDABLE LUXURY AND A POOL

For a touch more glamor that still won’t break the bank, check out the sleek Hotel Nord 1901 Superior, a stunning boutique hotel just a 5-minute walk from the Girona Cathedral.

With an outdoor pool in the courtyard (amazing during hot Spanish summers, trust me) and sun loungers, a delicious breakfast spread, air conditioning, and massive rooms, it’s definitely where I’d pick to stay in Girona for a special occasion.

Check out prices, reviews, and availability here.

CHEAP AND CHEERFUL

For a budget-conscious traveler, don’t worry, Girona still has some great options for you! Can Cocollona B&B is a hostel with rave reviews. Rooms are simple but clean and modern, and there’s a wonderful outdoor area with hammocks where you can relax. The hostel is social without being too rowdy.

One thing to note: it’s a bit outside of the Old Town, about a 15-minute walk away. But that’s what keeps the prices low!

Check out prices, reviews, and availability here.

2 Days in Edinburgh: A Budget-Friendly Edinburgh Itinerary

The U.K., on the whole, is not a budget destination. But with one of my best friends in the world living in London, how could I resist the opportunity to visit her? I spent a week with her in London and we went to Edinburgh for 2 days for a quick weekend getaway.

Edinburgh’s center is very walkable and compact. This makes 2 days in Edinburgh a good amount of time to get a feel for the city’s vibe – or if you’re rushed, you can even do quite a lot with just 24 hours in Edinburgh. Of course, though, if you wanted, you could spend a ton more time exploring every nook and cranny of this extremely lovable city.

 While some of the things to do in Edinburgh are expensive (like the pricy-but-worth-it Edinburgh Castle, which cost me nearly $27 for a ticket plus audio guide), there are still many amazing cheap and even free things to do in Edinburgh.

This 2 day Edinburgh itinerary works as part of a larger Scotland itinerary or as a standalone weekend trip. It balances out some of the pricier Edinburgh attractions with plenty of wonderful free things so that you can tackle Edinburgh on a budget.

free things to do in Scotland
The Edinburgh castle doesn’t come cheap, but it’s well worth it!

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How To Get From Stockholm to Abisko Without the Hassle

Kiruna in winter

If you’re planning to go from Stockholm to Abisko, let this be your guide as I completely and utterly failed doing it with information I patched together off the internet.

This tale of embarrassment and woe culminated in me dashing for the last train to Abisko, soaking wet in sub-freezing temperatures having just trudged my way through a giant snow drift, and just barely making the last train and avoiding a $200 taxi.

Read and learn from my (hilarious) mistakes below or skip ahead to quickly learn how to actually get from Stockholm to Abisko without nearly losing your sanity and your toes to frostbite.

How Not to Get from Stockholm to Abisko

When planning my Sweden winter trip, the plan was: land in Kiruna around 10 in the morning, take a taxi to the the train station to drop off our luggage (as my lovely friend Kristine may have overpacked just a bit), take a bus or a taxi 2 kilometers back to town to while away four or five hours before taking the 3:30 train to Abisko to see the Northern lights. It was nicely written out with bullet points — bullet points!!! — times, and costs. What could possibly go wrong?

Spoiler: Only everything. When we got to the Abisko train station, we arrived to a completely empty train station with not a single human to be found, which our taxi driver failed to warn us about.

It was utterly eerie, like a scene from Steven King’s The Langoliers, where the survivors of a Twilight Zone-esque time rip wander a deserted airport.

While we didn’t manage to find a living soul, we did find the promised luggage lockers. The problem: they only took 10 kronor coins and there was no one around to help us combine smaller coins or make change.

Luckily, Kristine managed to find one 10 kronor coin, and we were able to store her *cough* enormous *cough* suitcase, but there was no room for my heavy backpack or Kristine’s other bags. (She clearly hadn’t read my guide on how to pack for Sweden in winter!)

Abisko train station
For perspective.

Still, we could at least traverse the town at this point, so we gave up and brought the rest of our belongings with us. Then, we had to decide how to get back to town.

There was no one to ask about the bus schedule, and online information was scarce. There was also no taxi stand, nor anyone to ask to call a taxi, and neither of us wanted to rack up roaming charges.

So we decided to walk towards town on the icy highway and stick out our thumbs to any passing cars. About five or ten minutes into our walk, an official looking vehicle pulled over for us. My heart jumped to my throat for a second as I imagined the worst: hitchhiking is illegal and I just solicited a cop.

Lucky for us, our Good Samaritan ended up being a really really ridiculously good-looking fire ranger who drove us the 5 minutes to town and dropped us off at his favorite lunch place, Spis Mat & Dryck. We warmed up and enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch for about 90 SEK, a little under $11 USD. Highly recommended!

SPiS
Kristine enjoying some well-deserved coffee at SPiS

Kiruna is absolutely stunning in mid-February. The fact that the sun never gets that high in the sky means that basically every hour of the day is golden hour, when the sun begins its descent towards the horizon and casts a beautiful glow on the world.

We walked to the church and marveled at its interiors, visited a cute little design shop, and decided to fika at Cafe Safari. We asked them to call us a taxi to the train station, but they told us there was no need, that a free bus went from the town center to the train station every 20 minutes before the train.

Kiruna in winter
Kiruna around 2 PM in the winter

We found the bus station, only to find a friendly bus driver who told us that the one bus that was scheduled to take us to the train had already left a few minutes ago. OK, a taxi it is. We had 30 minutes to go 2 kilometers, which initially seemed like ample time.

Only when Good Samaritan #2 kindly called for us, every single taxi the town had was in use. Shit. We began to panic. We decided to walk towards the road and hitchhike again – it had worked the first time…. right? Right? The bus driver called us over again, telling us he had an idea. He pointed to a bus on the street and told us to get on that bus, and ask them to let us off “near the train station.”

He said it wouldn’t bring us all the way there, but it would be close. We boarded and explained to the driver that we had missed our bus to the train station. Good Samaritan #3 didn’t even ask us to pay, which would have been yet another kink in our terrible transit plan, as we lacked small bills and coins of all kinds.

With about 7 minutes to spare, my trusty blue dot on Google Maps indicated we were incredibly close to the train station, and I looked at the bus driver and asked if this was it.

By way of answering, he stopped the bus to let us off and pointed to the train station, about 500 feet in the distance. We started trudging as fast we could through the knee-deep snow in what only could have been someone’s backyard (another thing to be grateful for: Swedes lack the American trespass-and-I’ll-shoot mentality).

Kiruna church
Kiruna church in winter. Worth the subsequent snow drift maneuvering.

It was all going well, until the knee-deep snow suddenly became waist-deep snow. We had reached the end of the packed snow and entered a drift of completely loose powder. Each step in any direction just got us mired deeper and deeper in snow. A sort of animal energy crept into my blood, adrenaline pumping from the cold.

Motivated by the horror of a $200 taxi ride, I threw myself forward on my belly, scrabbling with hands (ungloved, mind you, because if the last thousand words haven’t convinced you, I can be a bit of a fool) and knees towards the highway. It was like the inverse of an oasis, seeking the one waterless spot in a sea of snow. Kristine wasn’t far behind me, Ironman that she is.

Hands tingling with cold, we threw ourselves over the final snow bank, bags first, then slid down on our backsides like penguins onto the highway. I never felt happier to be on solid ground. We skidded across the icy two-lane highway into the train station, collected Kristine’s giant suitcase, and boarded the train, laughing deliriously in our soaked clothing and blowing on our needling fingers to warm them up.

How to Get from Stockholm to Abisko by Train

If you’d like to visit Abisko with less hysterics and hypothermia, the easiest idea and the one I am kicking myself for not doing is by train.

While on paper, taking the train from Stockholm to Abisko seems rather expensive (around $100 USD for a compartment with a bed, depending on the exact exchange rate at the time and how far in advance you book) and time-consuming, there are a few things to keep in mind.

For one, you are traveling overnight, which means that you save on a night’s accommodation, which is no small impact on your Sweden budget. Another is that you don’t have to pay to get to the airport or to make the annoying connection between Kiruna Airport and Abisko, as the train will just drop you off straight in Abisko, making it the easiest option.

Swedish trains are quite comfortable, so it’s easy to do an overnight train and get a good night’s sleep and start your first day in Abisko off on the right foot.

The direct train leaves Stockholm at 6:11 PM and will reach Abisko the following day just before 11 AM. There are two stops in Abisko, Abisko Ostra (where most hotels and guesthouses are) and Abisko Turiststation (where the STF hostel and national park is).

Abisko Ostra
Abisko Ostra station

There are also non-direct trains with a transfer in Boden which leave at 9:12 PM, but they take longer and don’t get you into Abisko until nearly 4 PM the next day, meaning you won’t get any daylight that day if you are traveling in the winter, so I’d recommend taking the direct train instead.

How to Get from Stockholm to Abisko by Plane

On paper, flying may look like the cheapest way to get from Stockholm to Abisko. However, keep in mind that it can be a huge pain in the butt to get between Kiruna Airport and Abisko, so you may not actually save any money by flying.

While you will save time, it may not be much “active” time, as you’d likely just be sleeping a lot of the time that you’d be on the train anyway. So keep all those factors in mind when picking between the train and the plane for your Stockholm to Abisko journey.

There are two airlines which serve the Stockholm to Abisko route: Norwegian and SAS. I flew on each, one way on Norwegian and the other on SAS. Keep in mind baggage requirements, as this also may impact the cost of your journey and could be another point in favor of the train!

train to Abisko
Arctic circle views on the train from Kiruna to Abisko

Once you arrive at Kiruna airport, here are your choices for then getting to Abisko in winter.

1) Take a taxi from the airport straight to Abisko. This will cost you about $200 USD for up to 4 people. If you are in a party of four or can get four people together, this actually isn’t a terrible option.


2) Book a shuttle on abisko.net for about $45 USD per person. This is your best option if you are traveling solo and have no desire to see Kiruna. We took this on the way home from Abisko and it was super comfortable and convenient…. no snow drift navigation required.

3) Travel via Kiruna. Book a ticket online for the train (about $8 USD per person, more expensive if you buy on board) and take a bus ($13 USD per person) or take a taxi (about $35 USD for up to 4 people) to downtown Kiruna. We opted for a taxi because we were going to the train station first.

From there, you can stay overnight and catch a train in the morning, getting the chance to enjoy Kiruna and spend the night in the largest city in Swedish Lapland.

Or, you can just spend a few hours there if your timing allows, but be sure to give yourself lots of extra time to get back to the train station. It’s only 2 km away, but it takes about 40 minutes to walk because it’s basically a sheet of ice on a highway, so not the best place for speed-walking. You will want to figure out the bus to the train station or call a cab well in advance… unlike us.

dogsledding in Abisko
At least the next day would begin with puppies.

Have you been to Abisko? How did you get there?

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, with 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.

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 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. 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.