In the far north of Sweden above the Arctic Circle is a small town named Kiruna. During the winters, Kiruna is a white wonderland. Winter comes early and stays late, yet that does not slow the city down. Over a Thanksgiving break, I spent five jam-packed days exploring Kiruna and Swedish Lapland. Here is my five-day itinerary for Kiruna.
Background on Kiruna
Kiruna is located 89 miles (144km) north of the Arctic Circle. It experiences periods of 24-hour sunlight (midnight sun) and times total darkness. Kiruna is home to about 20,000 people. It is the largest city in far north Sweden and Swedish Lapland. The population is due to the LKAB iron ore mine. It has the world’s largest underground and modern iron ore mine in the world. The mine directly employs about 2,000 people. The ore mine is why Kiruna exists as a large city but also the cause of the most significant threat to Kiruna. The town center and a substantial portion of the town is to be relocated due to the expansion of the underground mine.
Getting to Kiruna
There are daily flights from Stockholm. Seasonally, there is a small selection of flights from London, United Kingdom and Tokyo, Japan. The cheapest flights are to fly to Stockholm and then up to Kiruna. The flight from Stockholm to Kiruna takes an hour and forty minutes.
Night trains run from Stockholm to Kiruna. The trip takes about 16 hours and makes several stops along the way. If booked far in advance, this can be the most inexpensive option.
Unfortunately, there is no direct bus from Stockholm to Kiruna, but it is possible with several bus transfers. Most routes take 16 hours and involve getting to Luleå first. During winter, the bus can be more reliable than the trains.
From Stockholm, it is 14 hours of driving to reach Kiruna. Unless one is experienced at winter driving in significant amounts of snow, I would avoid going this route, but it is possible. During the summer, I would love to make a road trip out of it.
Where to stay in Kiruna
Kiruna and the surrounding area has a range of options from luxury lodges to hostels. In Kiruna, there are some hotel, hostels, and guesthouse at all price ranges. About 20 mins from Kiruna is the world-famous ICEHOTEL. Every winter, the ICEHOTEL builds a hotel made of ice, and recently they opened the ICEHOTEL 365 which offers ice rooms year around. Scattered throughout the area are numerous small lodges and cabins that provide a variety of services.
Personally, I enjoyed staying in the city of Kiruna at the SPiS hostel and hotel. This hotel is located in the center of town and is a short walking distance from bus station, local eateries and visitor services. I enjoyed not having to eat at my hotel every night. That being said, the food at SPiS is impressive. I loved my roasted lamb, and the deserts are uniquely Swedish and yummy. The atmosphere at SPiS is young and hip. It offers affordable luxury. The rooms are decent in size and the beds come with the warmest comforters (I was tempted to steal one of these and bring it back with me).
Getting around Kiruna
Personally, I did just fine without having a rental car, and frankly, after spinning a rental car out in Iceland, I was happier not to drive. Personally, I would not drive in Kiruna unless you have significant snow driving experience
It is about a 15 min walk from the city center to the outskirts of Kiruna. There are sidewalks and crossing signals around the city. A layer of snow builds up on the roads and pavement. Since the temperature does not get above freezing the snow will get packed down, but it does not usually form slick ice. The snowplows do an excellent job of plowing the roads, and the sidewalks are clear as well.
For travel outside of Kiruna, there is the Kiruna public transport system. Most of the tourist’s attractions such as ICEHOTEL and Nutti Sámi Siida are along the 501 bus route. The bus schedule is subject to change, but it can found here.
My Kiruna Winter Itinerary
- Reindeer farm and Sámi village
- LKAB mine tour
- Evening snowmobile tour
- Wildlife and nature phototour
- Aroura Spa
- Day snowmobile tour
- Evening Dog Sledding
Day 1 – Nutti Sámi Siida
Take the 501 bus from Kiruna to Nutti Sámi Siida– (if you cannot pronounce Nutti Sámi Siida, tell the bus driver you are going to the reindeer farm). It takes about a half hour to get from Kiruna. The village opens at 10:00 am. They offer guided tours twice a day at 10:00 am and 1:00 pm. The tours are led by a local Sámi and are a great way to learn about the culture. The Sámi are the indigenous people of the northern Scandinavia. Traditionally, the Sámi people practiced nomadic reindeer herding.
The guided tour takes about a 45 mins to an hour. The guide will go in depth about the reindeer herding lifestyle and explain the nuances of the culture. They value their culture, and their lives are a mix of traditional lifestyle as well as modern culture.
After (or before), explore the village. It showcases historically authentic tepees and food storage methods. Be sure to check out the shed with the traditional handy crafts of the Sámi. The highlight of the visit is entering the reindeer paddock. You can buy a bag of lichens to feed the reindeer at the cafe. Don’t be put off by the massive antlers. They do not mean any harm.
The only place to get lunch is the Sámi café. It offers reindeer and Arctic char. The meals are cooked over an open fire. Be sure to have a pastry. I highly recommend the chocolate with lingonberry.
If you are feeling adventurous, you can extend your Sami experience by adding in reindeer sleigh ride as well.
Day 2 – Kiruna and the Mine
Spend the morning exploring Kiruna. Kiruna is a city undergoing enormous change. The town is between a rock, and a hard place or better said as a mine and a collapse. The city was built to provide homes for the workers of the LKAB iron ore mine. Now that mine has expanded to such a depth, the land under part of the town will collapse.
Much of the town is being relocated 3 km east; it is going to be a long process that has seen a new town hall is being built. The old Kiruna city hall is still open to the public and is worth a visit. The city has a vast art collection that is displayed around city hall along with a model of the town. The model shows how much of the city much be move along with an exhibit on the moving process.
In the afternoon, take a tour of the LKAB mine. This guided tour in English leaves at 2:00 pm from the Kiruna visitor center and takes guests 540 m (1,771 ft) down into the mine. This level was the primary mining level in the 1980s. Around the level are a small mineral museum and displays about the mine as well as retired equipment from the mine. The actual mining takes place at 1365 m (4478 ft).
In the evening take an evening snowmobile tour with Kiruna Guideatur. Depending on the weather, you might get lucky and see the northern lights. It is an exciting experience to be driving a snowmobile thru the Swedish wilderness at night. We drove over lakes and river and thru the woods to a small cabin where we had a lovely snack of moose and reindeer sausage.
Get an early start with Scandinavian Photoadventures and head off into the surrounding artic wilderness. The wildlife and nature phototour gets out of inhabited areas and into the actual wilderness. The tour takes the roads that lead to the small northern villages in the mountains. If the weather is not snowy, the mountains and landscapes are spectacular.
During the winter, the wildlife such as moose is in the valleys searching for food. The goal is to find some tracks and follow them to the moose. Reindeer in Sweden are only semi-wild. The Sami own all of the reindeer in Sweden; they are just free to wander around. Scandinavian Photoadventures has set-up a small bird feeding station to bring in small songbirds.
At the end of the tour, a small snack of traditional sweets and coffee and tea are provided at a riverside cabin. My group opted to snack outside and enjoy the weather and watch the water flow.
In the evening, walk over the Camp Ripian and the Aroura Spa. Get the spa bucket to enjoy a traditional Swedish spa ritual with an outdoor hot tub and two different saunas and getting a bucket of cold water dumped on you.
Head about out on the frozen lakes and river outside of Kiruna with Kiruna Guidetur for a day snowmobile tour. Feel the power of a snowmobile while exploring the fantastic scenery of Swedish Lapland. During winter, there are numerous snowmobile trails on the lakes and in the woods. Depending on the group skill and size, the tour will take advantage of fresh powder and fantastic scenery. I paid for a solo trip, and it was early season, so we got to do some trail breaking to get to a few overlooks and explore into the woods. The tour stops for lunch on one of the lake’s islands where there is a small selection of cabins.
When you get back from snowmobiling, take a quick hour long nap then head back over to Kiruna Guidetur for an evening sled dog tour. Just like with the evening snowmobile tour, it is possible to see the northern lights while out with the sled dogs. Dinner is served in a traditional Sami teepee.
Catch the 501 bus over to Jukkasjärvi to visit the famed ICEHOTEL. The ICEHOTEL is constructed of ice and snow. It is a work of art that is created every winter from water and ice from the Torne River. Every year artists from around the world submit designs for the hotel bedrooms and a handful are chosen to bring their plans to life.
The hotel usually opens on December 14, but if you visit between November and December 14, it is possible to take a tour of the ICEHOTEL as it is being built. It takes you behind the scenes in construction, and the ice is carved.
Once the ICEHOTEL opens between 10 am and 6 pm it is possible to take a tour of the ICEHOTEL and see the art suites without having to spend the night. Tours of the ICEHOTEL 365 which features year around ice rooms is open the same hours.
Before you head back to Kiruna, be sure to have a drink at the ICEBAR. You never know what you might find out (like they had a cancellation and there is an ice room available that night).
If you want to see the northern lights, then book a tour with Scandinavian Photoadventures. They will do their best to chase the lights even if it means driving 1 ½ hours outside of Kiruna to find them. The tour provides cameras and tripods and a guide who can help teach you how to take northern light photos. They do not really have a tour time limit. They focus on making sure the guests get to see the lights and get a few images worthy of being framed on the mantel.