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One of the most memorable places I’ve ever visited in my 60-something countries of travel was my trip to Abisko in the winter of 2016. It was before I was even blogging, but visiting Swedish Lapland in winter all covered in snow still remains one of the top travel highlights of the last decade or so I’ve been traveling.
While I’m sure Abisko, Sweden is a lovely place to visit at any time of year, it truly shines in winter. I visited in mid-February and found the weather to be perfect: the days were getting long enough to ensure plenty of sunshine hours (okay, like six or seven) but the nights were early and dark enough that I got to see the Northern lights dancing overhead literally every night.
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The Most Magical Things to Do in Abisko in Winter
Take advantage of the “Blue Hole” and go Northern lights spotting
The thing about seeing the Northern lights in Scandinavia is that often, the lights will be roaring overhead, but clouds will get in the way. The geomagnetic activity that creates the bands of the aurora is way above the cloud cover, and therefore, if there are clouds in the sky on the night you’re attempting to see the Northern lights you’re unlikely to have much success.
So while many people choose to go to Norway or Iceland in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights, the fact that most of the places you’d visit in these countries are coastal doesn’t do you any favors. Coastal climates are more temperamental with more frequent cloud cover in winter, decreasing your chances of seeing the Northern lights dramatically.
Abisko, on the other hand, has a microclimate that’s been blessed with clearer weather than other places in the Arctic, thanks to the so-called “Blue Hole” effect that the lake and surrounding mountains have. That’s why Northern lights spotting is one of the top things to do in Abisko in winter. The exact physics behind this meteorological phenomenon is a mystery to me, but all I can say is that the odds proved in my favor. The statistics say that if you stay in Abisko for three nights, you have an 80% chance of seeing the Northern lights. I stayed for three nights and saw them every night of my stay to some degree or another, the most spectacular show on my final night.
When planning a trip to Sweden for the Northern lights, keep a few things in mind. One: the aurora is generally not as vivid and green as you see in photos. That’s not photoshop but rather a trick of long exposure, as the camera is able to take in light for seconds at a time where your eye can only take in light at, well, the speed of light, creating a much different effect. While you’ll definitely notice bands and colors moving across the sky, expect paler colors with your naked eye and much more vividness on camera. Two: no matter what you do, you’re at the mercy of the weather, and no amount of planning or preparation can guarantee you seeing the lights.
I can only speak about my experience, which was that I saw some variation of the Northern lights in one way or another each night. My first night, I just saw a small band appear low on the horizon, one that I could barely tell was an aurora with my eye but appeared bright and green on the camera. My second night was similar, with some aurora activity that I glimpsed through some cloud cover. But my final night was truly incredible and I was able to see the whole aurora show through the famed “Blue Hole” effect.
Even with Abisko’s odds, I struggled a bit to find the Northern lights on my first two nights despite there being plenty of solar activity. Had I gone on a guided excursion for the Northern lights, I undoubtedly would have had a different experience those first two nights and gotten to see more. The great thing about doing a Northern lights tour is that your guides will do their best to find cloud-free skies and take you to places where you can get better compositions for your photos.
The company with the best reputation is Lights Over Lapland, which you can book online here. This tour is slightly more expensive than other options because it is a photography tour in which you are given a high-quality Nikon DSLR with an 18-50mm lens plus a sturdy tripod to use (all you have to bring camera-wise is your own memory card, which costs about $20). Of course, if you have your own photography gear, you can use that instead.
The tour also includes a snowmobile ride, and there’s a cozy wilderness camp to retreat to when the Arctic temperatures dip too low and you’re not seeing any aurora – plus a piping hot mug of lingonberry juice and snack to warm up while you wait for the lights to do their thing! The tours are restricted to 10 people per group (with two professional guides/photographers to assist you in setting up your shots), so you’ll want to save your spot in advance. Check for availability here.
However, since these tours come with a lot of inclusions and are the name with the highest profile, they do come at a steeper cost. If budget is a concern, I recommend this similar Northern lights chasing tour which lasts for 4 hours and takes you to various places where you can get stellar compositions for your photos. However, keep in mind that this does not include any photography equipment, so if you don’t have a DSLR or mirrorless camera plus tripod setup capable of setting up long exposure photos, it’s not the ideal tour for you.
Alternately, you can do what I did and just hope for luck with the lights – it worked for me one night out of three, and maybe it’ll work for you too, and it won’t cost you a cent.
Go dog sledding and cuddle some husky pups
While seeing the Northern lights was incredible, it wasn’t my favorite of all the things to do in Abisko. That honor belongs to the incredible dog-sledding trip (and subsequent puppy-cuddling) I took with Abisko Fjällturer.
Dog-sledding is so much more interesting and involved (and difficult!) than you’d imagine.
I think I pictured a leisurely ride through the snow, but I opted for the drive-your-own-dogsled option where you had to man your sled, steer, brake, and help your dogs up hills in the snow.
It was one hell of a workout and an incredibly thrilling day out. Working as a team with your dogs, looking out on the vast Arctic landscape, was truly a life-changing experience and the best money I spent on my Sweden trip. Especially since it came with a side of husky pup cuddles (obviously there won’t always be puppies, but we got lucky when we visited!)
While I’m generally quite wary of animal activities in tourism, this is one I can make an exception for, as huskies have been domesticated for exactly this kind of life for thousands of years: it’s literally what they were born to do. The dogs live in great conditions and are given tons of love and rest time, as there’s only one two-hour run per day.
Their individual personalities are known and respected; for example, the staff knows exactly which dogs to pair up based on their personalities, and they also know what order to place the dogsled teams in, as some teams prefer to be leaders and some have their own rivalries!
As for the huskies, they truly seem to love what they do. They actually get so excited as they’re being harnessed up that they start howling in anticipation!
Keep in mind that driving your own dogsled is way more difficult than it looks and requires a good deal of physical strength. Because of that, it’s not really suitable for kids – on this tour, you have to be 16 or older to drive your own sled – or people with limited mobility or injuries. But if you can handle it, this is my #1 thing to do in Abisko, so I recommend booking it online in advance because as far as I know, they’re the only husky sledding tour operator in Abisko.
If you’re traveling with kids or people with limited mobility, a better option is to sit back and enjoy dog-sledding on a sled, getting driven through the snow by a team of huskies. Personally, I think getting to drive your own sled is a lot more fun (though a lot more work), but this isn’t a half-bad option if you can’t man your own sled. Check out more info and book online here.
Chase (frozen) waterfalls in Abisko National Park
Abisko National Park was one of the first national parks in all of Europe – and when you visit for yourself, you’ll see why. It’s a truly breathtaking place and in winter Abisko National Park becomes utterly magical under a dusting of snow. But what’s most impressive are the impressive waterfalls you’ll find just a short but snowy hike from STF Abisko Turiststation (the front desk staff there can help draw you a map).
It took us about 15-minutes trudging through Abisko’s winter wonderland to come across these beautiful waterfalls, and boy was it worth the cold!
If you’re feeling exceptionally brave, we saw people ice climbing up the waterfalls, using a harness-pulley set-up with pickaxes and crampons. If this is up your alley, you can book at the front desk of STF Turiststation or get more information online here.
Learn about the indigenous Sámi culture
One thing I’ve been trying to do more as part of being a responsible traveler is to educate myself about the indigenous people of the lands I’m visiting.
The Sámi people are the indigenous people of the Sápmi region which encompasses northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola peninsula in Russia. The Sámi have stewarded the land in these regions for over 5,000 years. They’ve preserved their traditions, language, and culture despite the harsh Arctic climates, attempts to force assimilation through political and “educational” means, and the division of their ancestral lands into four distinct modern-day nations.
Reindeer have historically held an important role in Sámi life and industry. Historically, the Sámi would hunt reindeer, but since the 1500s the Sámi began herding reindeer and domesticating them in a manner similar to cattle. While this is still part of the Sámi economy, the focus of reindeer herding has shifted in recent years towards tourism rather than animal agriculture. Visits to Sámi villages often include visiting reindeer farms and getting a chance to feed reindeer or go reindeer sledding.
To be honest, having not experienced a reindeer camp firsthand, I’m not sure of how I feel about reindeer sledding. While it doesn’t seem like animal abuse, as it’s pretty similar to a horse pulling a cart, it also doesn’t seem innately enjoyable for them the way that dog-sledding is for its enthusiastic team of huskies. Vanessa of Nordic Wanders does a great job at breaking down the ethics of animal tourism in the Arctic here, so read up on it so you can make an informed decision for yourself.
Personally, I think it’s also important to consider how to balance the benefit of uplifting local indigenous communities with the need to make informed decisions around animal tourism. Tourism is an important facet of the modern-day Sámi economy, and so long as the animals are well-fed and taken care of, I think you can ethically visit a reindeer farm if it’s in line with other animal activities you would do, such as riding a horse or a camel.
Long segue aside (hope I haven’t lost you!) this Sámi tour is the one I would recommend as it is also run by Lights over Lapland, which enjoys a great reputation in the region.
The 7-hour tour consists of a visit to a reindeer farm in Rávttas, a small Sámi village 45 minutes away from Abisko, and includes roundtrip transportation, meeting and feeding the reindeer, learning about Sámi culture from an English-speaking Sámi tour guide, a short reindeer sled ride, and lunch in a traditional Arctic teepee (word of warning: your lunch may include reindeer – get in touch with them if you have dietary restrictions). It’s a popular option for things to do in Abisko during the day, so book this tour in advance if meeting reindeer is a must on your Sweden bucket list.
Visit the incredible ICEHOTEL
One of the most famous places in Sweden, a visit to the famous ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi is likely one of the top things to do on your Abisko itinerary.
Getting there from Abisko can be a bit of a pain, as it’s closer to Kiruna than Abisko. There is no direct public transportation to the ICEHOTEL from Abisko, so you would have to transit via Kiruna, and I’m not even sure how you’d do that. It’s far easier to go on a guided day trip like this one and not much more expensive. Visiting the hotel for the day independently will cost you 325 SEK (~$35 USD) plus all your transportation costs from Abisko to Kiruna by train, then to Jukkasjärvi by bus, then back to Kiruna and then taking the train to Abisko again – easily another $35 USD.
That’s not without counting the significant headache of the limited public transportation up north, as I found out from my disastrous experience trying to navigate Kiruna’s public transportation which ended up with me dragging myself and my backpack through a snowdrift running to the train station… but I digress. Just book yourself the day trip and save yourself the stress.
The ICEHOTEL is an incredible feat of engineering, which mashes up a hotel with an art exhibition — all of this 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. The original ICEHOTEL was created in 1989 and the ice structure is completely redone each year (hence the serious price tag on the cold rooms).
Incredibly, in 2016 they created a whole new hotel: a permanent structure with ice rooms that you can even visit (and stay in!) in the summer month, called ICEHOTEL 365. Before you go worrying about the carbon footprint of such an undertaking — it’s completely cooled by solar panels so it’s eco-friendly! While temperature is not a concern if you’re visiting Abisko in winter, it’s pretty amazing to think that this structure still exists in the summer when temperatures can reach 17 °C/63 °F.
Keep in mind that the winter ICEHOTEL is constructed at the start of winter each year, so if you visit before the middle of December, it’s not likely to be finished. It takes a team of 40 artists each year several weeks – not to mention months of planning – to create the ICEHOTEL completely from scratch each year, which is truly incredible. If the seasonal ICEHOTEL not yet open, however, you can check out the ICEHOTEL 365 which is open all year round.
This structure has luxury suites you can stay in, and if no one is in the rooms you can take a peek inside. Even better, it also has an ice bar serving up chilled champagne (what else?) to curious visitors and day-trippers, and there’s also an ice gallery you can visit no matter the time of year.
The day tour consists of a guided tour of the art suites, ice bar, and ice church – yes, you can actually get married here! – plus leisure time to explore the hotel, take photos, or even dine or drink there (not included)
Explore the cute, curious town of Kiruna
Kiruna is an easy day trip from Abisko, or if you fly into Kiruna in the morning you can explore the city before your afternoon train to Abisko.
Kiruna is a mining town, and herein lies the curiosity of this city: it’s actually in the process of being moved two miles away from its current center. There is a giant crack in the earth progressing towards Kiruna at a slow but steady rate, at which point, at some time in the future, will swallow up Kiruna as it currently exists. Check out this fascinating article which explains the situation far better than I ever could.
The town is in the process of slowly being moved bit by bit – annoyingly, the first bit to move was the train station, which is why it’s so inconveniently far out of town. Taking a taxi or hitching a ride into town is recommended in winter, as the path into town is basically a highway and is extremely icy – we were lucky that when we tried to walk it, a local picked us up and gave us a ride in.
There’s actually quite a lot to see in this charming Arctic city, so let me break down a few of my favorite sights.
First, you can’t miss the wooden church of Kiruna – one of the largest wooden structures in all of Sweden! The church is unique for having a Gothic Revival style with an Art Nouveau interior and is more than 100 years old. (It, too, will eventually be deconstructed and moved two miles away).
The town center is quite cute, and there’s lots of great shopping to be had for a town of its size. I really loved popping into the local design shop, Kvadrat, which had great mugs, textiles, text art, and other unique souvenirs.
Don’t miss a buffet lunch at SPiS Mat & Dryck, which offers a fantastic spread for an affordable price. There’s a wide variety of salads, soups, and cold and hot dishes, plus all you can drink coffee!
Unfortunately, it can be hard to DIY a day trip to Kiruna from Abisko, since the first train of the day leaves Abisko Östra at 12:30 PM and arrives in Kiruna at 1:30 PM. That would be fine… if the final train didn’t leave at 2:49 PM! Since the station isn’t that close to the center you would barely have any time in the city.
Therefore, it’s best to visit either on your way in or out of Kiruna airport (we did it after arriving on a morning flight and taking the 2:49 PM train to Abisko). Alternately, as a day trip, you can book a shared shuttle that stops in Kiruna’s town center from Abisko on the way in and then take the train back to Abisko at the end of your day trip.
Take a day trip to Norway
This is not as ambitious of an undertaking as it sounds, as Narvik, Norway is just two hours away by train.
It’s quite possible to do this trip independently, but you will have limited time in Narvik if you do.
The trains aren’t exactly set up for day-trippers, so the first train leaves at 11 AM and arrives just before 1 PM, but you’d have to leave on the last train of the day at 3:15 PM, which gives you just about two hours to explore (double check timetables here, as they may change in the future). Still, you can do a day trip independently for less than $16 USD roundtrip for two hours of exploring Narvik, which may be worth it.
When I went to Abisko in winter 2016, while I was itching to scratch Norway off my map, ultimately I felt like it wasn’t worth it to spend 4 hours in transit to spend 2 hours in Narvik, just to say I’ve been to Norway.
In the end, I didn’t do the trip – but I didn’t know that there was a guided day tour option that gave you more time in Narvik. It’s definitely pricier (check current rates and discounts here), but you get a lot more time to explore the beautiful fjord city of Narvik as a result.
On this comfortable shuttle tour, you’ll get to see a wide variety of Arctic landscapes, including the second deepest lake in Sweden at Lake Torneträsk, frozen waterfalls, stunning Norwegian mountains like Björnfell, and the fjord beaches of Narvik.
It also includes lunch (not a minimal expense when we’re talking Norway prices) and a visit to the Narvik War Museum, which explores battles the Norwegian Army faced during WWII.
Where to Stay in Abisko
Abisko is a rustic village of 85 people, and therefore, there’s not a ton in the way of guesthouse and hotel options. Most of the places to stay veer towards the budget end of the spectrum, with a number of hostels and affordable guesthouses, as well as one traditional mountain lodge. You can spend anywhere from around $35 USD for a bunk in a dorm to around $250 for a cabin sleeping 4-6 people.
Budget: The owners of the dog sledding tour included above, Abisko Hostel & Huskies is a fantastic place to stay in Abisko if you are traveling on a budget. This is actually where I had booked to stay in Abisko in 2016; unfortunately, the hostel ended up having an unforeseen issue and wasn’t able to host me, so it rebooked me at STF Turiststation (below), a more expensive place, in a better room at no extra cost to me. That sort of above and beyond mentality was really encouraging, and while I didn’t get to see their facilities firsthand, I loved the dog-sledding tour I did with them. With seriously affordable dorms and doubles and perks like a free sauna and shared kitchen, I can definitely recommend this hostel to budget and/or solo travelers in Sweden! Check out photos, reviews, and prices here.
Mid-Range: I personally stayed at STF Turiststation and can highly recommend it – it was literally the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at, hands down, with not one but two incredible kitchens, a free sauna, and an incredible restaurant. The breakfast and lunch buffets offer a great value in pricy Sweden, and while the dinner is definitely more expensive, it’s also incredibly delicious and well worth shelling out for on a special occasion. Plus, you’re literally in Abisko National Park, just a 10-minute walk from the lake or frozen waterfalls: how much better can a location get? Check out photos, reviews, and prices here.
Luxury: I’d recommend Abisko Mountain Lodge for a low-key but luxe stay in Abisko. There aren’t a ton of luxury offerings in Abisko, so this is the closest option I could find. While STF Turiststation is great, it is more a traditional hostel in that it’s mostly bunk bed rooms, with limited twin room options. Abisko Mountain Lodge, on the other hand, is definitely more of a traditional hotel. They have a variety of rooms from singles to doubles and even full cottages that sleep four. There’s a sauna, restaurant, lounge area, and breakfast is included with most rooms! Check out photos, reviews, and prices here.