Abisko, Lapland, Sweden: Polar experience beyond the Arctic Circle
Do you sometimes get overwhelmed by the feeling that you have to spice up your recent life with something new and escape from the daily routine of quotidian life? Do you like traveling and discovering the unknown? Do you want to experience something unique, that you would be talking about to your friends while drinking beer, for a very long time? So why not to head to the rough, but addictively beautiful landscape of Swedish Lapland? It may not look like, but the Arctic experience is within your reach.
I had the opportunity to live and work in Abisko for one year, and now I would like to share some of my experience and tips with you.
Abisko lies 250 km beyond the Arctic Circle in the northernmost tip of Swedish Lapland, in the forgotten County of Norrbotten. Despite the remoteness, Abisko is well-connected with the outside world. It lies on the main road E10 and the railway corridor connecting Kiruna (94 km) and Norwegian Narvik (85 km).
Due to its latitude, the local climate is mainly harsh and inhospitable. In the immediate vicinity of the village, you can even discover permafrost, which, unfortunately, due to the effects of global warming is gradually diminishing.
You won't have a chance to enjoy real summer here, expect it. The flashes of warmer sunny weather occur after a long winter randomly at the end of April, early May. The average temperature in the summer months does not exceed 17 degrees (warmest is July), and it is quite raining throughout the summer. During the first summery moments, do not be fooled by the sudden temperature increase. Pure mountain weather reigns here. You can get unexpectedly sunburned in the sun these days, and you can get cold in the shade at the same time. Nature has a hard time to recover after a long, harsh winter. Lake Tornetrask (one of the largest lakes in Sweden) lying at the northern end of Abisko doesn't fully thaw until the end of May so that it could freeze again in December. At the beginning of January, you can safely walk on the frozen lake up to the island level. At the end of January, you can already do so in its entirety (including snowmobile rides).
Looking up from the lake towards the south, you can enjoy wonderful panoramas of the surrounding landscape, especially the picturesque Abisko lying at the foot of the mountains with the dominant natural formation Lapporten (Lappish Gate) bounding the village from the left side and Nuolja mountain (1164 MASL) from the right side. The popular Lapporten is a U-shaped valley defined by the peaks Nissunjarro (1,738 MASL) and Tjuonatjakka (1,554 MASL). To make it even more exciting, Čuonjájávri lake, set at 950 meters above sea level, is waiting for you in this valley.
Lappish Gate - Lapporten
During November, the first snow showers come and night temperatures drop to 10 degrees below zero. The length of the days is shortening at a dizzying pace at this moment. In mid-November, you will enjoy only 5 hours of, and in the first half of December, you are already experiencing polar nights. During the polar nights, the sun is so low that it does not have a chance to rise above the horizon during the daytime hours. Most of the day is reigned by complete darkness, except for an interval 9 AM - 2 PM, when the sky becomes slightly brighter. Twilight at this moment reminds of the classic nightfall phase after sunset.
November 12, 11:55 AM, the highest point the sun reaches during the day
January 9, 1:39 PM, twilight during the day
At the beginning of December, the main Aurora season starts. Through the end of March, there are optimal conditions for observing the Northern Lights. It is common that night temperatures fall to minus 30 degrees (Celsius), which significantly negatively affects the capacity of the battery in the camera. If you are going to shoot time-lapse videos, it's good to think about it.
On February 2 we first welcomed the first sun rays illuminating Abisko through the Lapporten Gate. After more than two months living in constant darkness, our feelings were indescribable!
From now on, the days extend at the same fast pace as they were shortening before. Every day you get an incredible 6 minutes of extra light. At the beginning of April, the sky only dims during the nights and the real polar days, a phenomenon during which the sun stays above the horizon at all times, you can experience from May 25 to July 19. In preparation for the summer is very practical purchasing black blinds for the windows.
November 25, 2:11 PM, sun rays still hidden behind the mountains
February 2, 11:33 AM, magic moment - after two months we see the sun
In the village and its surroundings throughout the year, you might encounter freely running moose and reindeer. Abisko, like the entire Lapland, is home to the native inhabitants of Lapland, the so-called Sami, who have their sovereign status, privileges, and rights. Some of them are still devoted to traditional reindeer husbandry, as it has been for generations. Individual Sami families have assigned vast territories in which they herd and count their herds of reindeer. The animals serve them as a source of livelihood. Sami sell reindeer meat further to the food chain buyers and handmade souvenirs made of antlers, bones and tanned skins to tourists. While in the Czech Republic you go to watch reindeer and moose in the Zoo, in Lappish restaurant you can order a juicy reindeer steak for lunch.
Moose in the bush behind our house
Activities in Abisko
Abisko and its surroundings offer a wide variety of engaging activities and experiences. It is up to you whether you choose to visit this region in summer or winter.
The season is defined by the period from mid-June to mid-September. During the summer season, Abisko is especially popular among lovers of mountain hiking. Two and a half kilometers beyond the Abisko gates starts Abisko National Park (Abisko Turistation train stop, map). The world's famous King's Trail trek (Kungsleden, map) gets the most tourist attention for sure. Its route begins in Abisko and after 440 km ends south in Hemavan. Along the length of the trek, you can use chalets to spend the night. All the routes are well-maintained and clearly labeled. Even transport boats are available in the river sections with no footbridge.
Those who don't feel like marching 400 km can go on a one-day or several-day trip and explore the surroundings of Abisko. Explore lakes, peat bogs, rivers and birch groves in the Abisko National Park. Observe Midnight Sun at the Aurora Sky Station, built 900 MASL at the top of Nuolja Mountain. The station is accessible on foot. Whoever does not want to climb a steep hill, can use the comfortable chairlift (https://www.auroraskystation.com/en/summer/, starting June 15, price from 150 SEK one way during the day, from SEK 180 return, Midnight Sun from 195/240 SEK). Do not miss the informative stroll along the canyon of the wild river Abiskojokk lined with viewing platforms several hundred meters behind STF Abisko Turiststation. At STF you can rent a kayak and have a ride on the lake (pay attention to the strong water currents).
Worth visiting is a relaxing 360 ° panoramic view on top of Stor Nabben (map). If you continue further on the same but less marked route, you will reach the majestic Lapporten. For navigating through the trails, I can definitely recommend Offline Galileo Maps.
King's Trail start
360 Panorama on Stor Nabben
Wild river Abiskojokk
View of Abisko and Lake Tornetrask on the hill Stor Nabben
This season begins in mid-November and ends in mid-May. The best conditions to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) usually occur in the period December-March. Abisko is generally one of the world's best destinations for observing the Northern Lights. Abisko lies in the rain (precipitation) shadow, there is not so much snowfall as in neighboring areas (Kiruna, Riksgransen) and the visibility of the Aurora is in most cases optimal. If I compare the Saariselka region in Finnish Lapland (see "Aurora chasing in Finland"), which lies at the same latitude, the visibility, and frequency of the Aurora are a thousand times better in Abisko. Visit the Aurora Sky Station observatory for the best Aurora viewing experience (starting November 29, 715 SEK, inclusive of an exclusive dinner 1890 SEK, https://www.auroraskystation.com/en/night-visit/).
I recommend all low-cost travelers to observe the Aurora from the frozen surface of Lake Tornetrask. At the Godisfabriken supermarket, take the road down the hill (Traskvagen), walk under the bridge (E10) and after 500 meters you reach the lake. In most cases, the Aurora is observable on the sky above the Nuolja Mountain (NW) or behind the lake (direction NE).
Anyways, see the Northern Lights for yourselves on the following live camera link (https://lightsoverlapland.com/aurora-webcam/). To verify the Aurora observability index, download My Aurora Forecast application on your phone.
Local travel agency Lights over Lapland organizes all sorts of activities for tourists, and some are definitely worth a try:
Nightly Aurora Photo Tour, 999 SEK / person, night, aurora photo tour
Wilderness Photo Adventure, 1,695 SEK / person, day and night, photo tour into the wild
Private Aurora Tours, 16,950 SEK / person, day and night, private aurora tour
Landscape Photography Course, 1,895 SEK / person, day, landscape photography course
Icehotel Tour, 1,395 SEK / person, day, trip to the Ice Hotel featuring Ice Bar near Kiruna
The Sami & Reindeer Experience, 2,295 SEK / person, day, trip following the Sami culture
Dog Sledding, 1,595 SEK / person, day, dog sledding tour
Two Hour Snowmobile Adventure, 1,410 SEK / person, day, snowmobile trip, 2 hours
Four Hour Snowmobile Adventure, 1,935 SEK / person, day, snowmobile trip, 4 hours
Snowshoe Hike, 600 SEK / person, day, snowshoe trip
Ice Fishing, 795 SEK / person, day, fishing on the frozen lake
You can book your activities directly through the agency (web) or at the reception of any hotel in Abisko. They will be happy to help with the selection. Winter clothes (gloves, overalls, hats), winter boots, and mostly some refreshments ("fika" break in a traditional teepee - Swedish strong black coffee and cinnamon bun) are included in the price.
If you have some time left, you can explore the Sami village near the Abisko Tourist station (free, map).
Polar cinema on the frozen lake Tornetrask, credit: Niklas Hjort
Romping on the ice
Sami village near STF Touriststation
Dog sledding trip
At the beginning of March, with increasing sunlight, ski season takes place in Abisko. You can choose from several options: skiing in the nearby Bjorkliden (web), skiing in Norwegian Narvik (web) or much more expensive but adrenaline Heli-Ski skiing (helicopter will take you to otherwise inaccessible slopes, book at Abisko Mountain Lodge, web).
Accommodation in Abisko
Accommodation capacity in Abisko is quite limited. The quality of accommodation is rather below average, but prices are at the level of Swiss 5 star hotels.
The cheapest room you get at Abisko.net hostel, starting at 31 USD /night/bed in a 6-bed dorm, starting at 73 USD/night you get a basic double room with shared bathroom.
Popular Abisko Guest House, from 85 USD/night for a basic double room without a window.
Abisko Hostel, from 102 USD/night for a double room with a shared bathroom.
Abisko Mountain Lodge, 173 USD/night for a basic twin room, buffet breakfast included. Here I had the opportunity to work during the last year, and of course, I can recommend. Unfortunately, the price absolutely does not correspond to the standard provided.
Higher quality Hotel Abisko STF Touriststation, from 155 USD per night for a quadruple room with shared bathroom, from 178 USD/night for a standard double room. STF is divided into a hotel and hostel section.
Abisko Mountain Lodge, main entrance
Abisko Mountain Lodge, Superior rooms and Lapporten in the background
Food and Dining in Abisko
As far as food is concerned, the options are quite limited too. You can get a perfect breakfast buffet at Abisko Mountain Lodge (125 SEK per person). The choice is limited to two types of cheese, four kinds of salami, pickled herring, cereals and muesli, eggs, sausages and meatballs, oatmeal, yogurt, vegetables, fruits, marmalade, home-made bread, juice, and coffee or tea.
For a three-course gourmet dinner at Abisko Mountain Lodge, you will pay about 500-600 SEK per person. It is necessary to book your table in advance, and you can select the set menu as per your taste. You may choose one out of 1-3 options for each course (starter 120-150 SEK, main course 200-250 SEK, dessert 120-150 SEK). The prices are quite steep, but the chefs cook delicious authentic Lappish cuisine from local fresh produce. Here you get the chance to taste reindeer and moose meat, or Arctic Char fish from the Tornetrask lake.
For lunch, I recommend visiting the daily lunch buffet at Abisko STF Touriststation (menu on FB), which is available every day from 11.30 AM to 2.00 PM. For a salad bar, soup, bread, and basic drinks you will pay 95 SEK per person. If you add the main meals option (usually two dishes), you pay 125 SEK per person. The quality of the food depends on how well the cook had been sleeping the previous night. However, the overall price/quantity ratio of the buffet is the best in whole Abisko. A dinner at STF will cost you as much as at Mountain Lodge, yet, the quality and the presentation of the food is noticeably worse.
If you travel on a limited budget, you can do some grocery shopping at Godisfabriken (local shop), which is surprisingly very well stocked. You can get here goods of general consumption, drugstore products, ready-made meals, canned foods, pastries, beverages and beer, frozen foods, souvenirs, fishing supplies, and confectionery. We have been pretty much dependent on this store for the whole year, and surprisingly, we haven't missed much.
In front of the Godisfabriken building parks year long a fast food caravan. You can get here classic burgers in the range of 60-150 SEK (they have reindeer burger too).
Thinly sliced moose meat, potato puree, roasted parsnip, and onion elements
Classic reindeer meatballs, potato puree, onion rings, pickled cucumber
Mussels broth foam, sliced crab meat, caviar
How to get to Abisko
Even though everything is overpriced in Abisko, at least the transport costs (Czech Republic - Abisko), won't necessarily break the bank. Swedish Airlines SAS and Norwegian Air offer flights from Prague to nearby Kiruna with a transfer in Stockholm and/or Copenhagen starting at an incredible 98 USD per person (excluding luggage).
For transport from Kiruna to Abisko, you can use the Lanstrafiken Norrbotten bus service (1,5h, 154 SEK online, 138 SEK in the phone app, bus drivers do not accept cash payments! web). Bus lines are over the summer significantly strengthened as opposed to the winter.
Another option would be taking the train (1-1.5h, 55-75 SEK, web).
In case the two previous options do not suit you, you can arrange the Lights over Lapland organized private transport for 450 SEK per person (web).
If you like to travel by train, take the Arctic Circle Train (Night Train 94) across the entire Sweden (Arlanda - Abisko, 17 h, 685 SEK).
Arctic Circle Train n. 94 across Sweden (Copenhagen - Narvik)
Swedish train standards
Cost-wise, the trip to the polar Abisko is definitely not cheap. However, I'm confident, that you won't forget your newly gained experience of visiting the arctic tundra of Lapland until the end of your life. That is priceless!