Last year we came for a quick weekend trip thanks to cheap flights and the promise of Christmas markets… which were amazing! I loved the atmosphere of Stockholm and couldn’t wait to return to Sweden to see a bit more of the country and also what a real winter looks like. This past February we got our chance.
Our decision to base ourselves for 3 nights in Abisko, Sweden, was based on research. As the park is surrounded by mountains and sees a nearly constant easterly wind coming from Norway, Abisko National Park has a micro-climate which allows for abnormally clear skies for the region during the darkest of the winter months. This was perfect, in our opinion, as our main goal was to see some auroras.
We arrived in Stockholm on Saturday afternoon and headed straight to the central train station to board an overnight train to the very north of the country, nearly 1000km away from Stockholm. We’ve done a few overnight trains before and have never found the shared berth aspect of them to be comfortable (you inevitably get someone with a baby or elderly people who need the bottom bunk), so we booked out a 3-bed berth for just the 2 of us… “first class.” Honestly, I don’t even know how 3 people could have stood together in this space, as the two of us barely could. There was a small sink, which was nice, and I slept really well once that time came, but I just couldn’t believe how tiny it was!
Above: Our 3-person sleeper berth. The lowest bed flips up into a seating area as shown. The middle bed (red and white) folds down, and the highest bed is right above that.
Because we lowered the window shade to sleep, I also didn’t know what we would see outside once we opened it up in the morning. The first glance literally took my breath away. I have never seen snow like what we saw looking out of that window! There were evergreen trees all over and they were just covered with piles of white, fluffy snow! It was like a postcard and I spent the next 5 hours of our ride just staring out that window, not concerning myself with the lack of space… until it was time to get dressed to go out into said snow!
Above: The scenery we woke up to outside of Kiruna, Sweden.
As the train pulled out of the Kiruna station, one stop away from Abisko where we were headed, it was snowing pretty hard and it was gray and completely overcast. I was a bit bummed out leaving Kiruna thinking that all the gray clouds couldn’t possibly clear up within the next 45 minutes or so of our journey into Abisko National Park. About 10 minute outside of Kiruna the sky suddenly turned blue! The heaps of fluffy snow gave way to less deep snow that was shimmering with ice crystals in the bright sunshine. It was like winter had just frosted the landscape white and sprinkled some diamond dust on top. This is how it stayed until we stepped off the train at Abisko Ostra station (in temps around -20C) for the 5 minute walk to our hostel.
Some tips on booking Abisko on the semi-cheap. First off, there are very few accommodations to be found. We stayed in Hostel Haverskog because we read that it was the nicer of the two hostels serviced by the tourist website Abisko.net. It's the kind of hostel room that I personally like, having a private bathroom and only 2 beds (even though it was a bunk). Unfortunately, the showers were communal and towels were not provided in the linen package we purchased at extra cost. Still, our room gave us a gorgeous view out over the town and the frozen lake. If you book with Abisko.net they give you an option to add a package for extra activities at a lower price than booking separately. This is how we ended up adding a night tour for aurora viewing and also a dog sledding adventure!
Abisko is probably the smallest small town I’ve ever been to in my life. Especially when a town considers itself to be a tourist hotspot like this one does. I’ve read that the locals don’t want it to become a Disneyland (can you blame them?) so they have limited the number of accommodations being built. You really don’t see anybody around, tourists included, unless you are on an organized tour or at the local “supermarket” which is not very super.
Above: Abisko is an adorable town but is very, very tiny.
Night 1: Aurora Spotting
We couldn’t wait to go out and try to see the aurora borealis as soon as the sun set! Unfortunately, these northern latitudes allow sunset to linger for hours before total darkness sets in, so even though sunset time was 4:40pm it was nearly 7:30pm before the sky was completely dark. At 6:30pm we could wait no longer and found the road that leads to the bottom of the town and onto the frozen lake. This at least puts the light pollution behind you as you face north and look for the lights.
Rex was the first to see it. At first he thought it was just clouds reflecting the town lights, but it didn’t make sense as the sky was completely clear. So we decided it must be the auroras! We took a few photos and stayed for a bit and then decided to drop our groceries off at home (we’d just been shopping) and come back once the show heated up a bit more.
An app we downloaded alerted us around 8pm to get our butts outside within the next 30 minutes. Predictions had shown that the show would peak at midnight, so we were kind of slow at getting dressed and heading out, but once we got just beyond the lights of our hostel… WOW! You could see them everywhere in the sky! Above us there were at least three large arcs spanning the sky and there was more activity towards the lake. So that’s where we headed. Unfortunately the best part of the show seemed to have been taking place during the 15 minutes it took us to walk to the lake, but we still got a few nice pictures. That sight of the arcs as we walked down our driveway that night is the one that will forever stay in my memory, though. My first real sighting and what an incredible one!
Probably our biggest shocks about seeing the lights were 1) They move verrrrry slowly. Yes, they are constantly changing, but in a very slow fashion. It is almost like when you take a timelapse of the sky and you can see the clouds forming from condensation and then dissipating more slowly than you can judge, yet it’s obviously happening. As go the aurora borealis. 2) We couldn’t see the vibrant green color of the lights by looking with our eyes. Perhaps it was due to the lingering light pollution behind us, but it just looked like the sky was glowing a little. When we took the photos, though, it was very clearly green! This is probably the first time in my life that a photo makes the landscape look better than it does to the naked eye. Unfortunately we messed around with our settings and were just getting them in order when the show died down.
We found out the next day that the show was at its peak around midnight, but at that time I was already fast asleep and Rex didn’t wake me when he got the notification. In hindsight, that would have been some incredible activity to witness and it’s too bad we assumed we’d have more opportunities to see them over the next few days. The activity got up to solar storm levels that night and we never left to go look.
Day 2: Exploring Abisko
There are so many activities we could have opted to partake in while in Abisko, but on our first full day we chose to spend the daylight hours just walking around and seeing the scenery on our own. The day started with a walk up a gradually ascending snowy path through spindly trees covered in rime (crystals of frozen fog). The entire walk could have easily been done in about 20 minutes but I think it took us about 45 due to the number of times I stopped to just stare at the scenery. The contrast of the white, sparkling snow against the blue sky is something I will never forget. The temperature highs while in Abisko were about -17C (about 1F) and this must keep the snow so completely crystalized when it lands that the crunching sound your feet make when walking is so loud… and satisfying! The views from the top were gorgeous, as you looked down the white hillside towards the town with the white lake in the background. Just behind the hill was a smaller lake and we made our way down the trail to check it out. I’m sure that at some point in my life I have been on a frozen lake, but this was the first time that I was able to look through the ice at the layers of trapped bubbles, and even the cracks that formed and fused as the ice solidified. I’m not sure exactly how deep the ice was, but it was probably over a meter thick! Still, we stayed near the edges because it’s just one of those times when all the “what-ifs” keep swirling around your head.
After a food and warm beverage break, we walked towards the national park to see the canyon with a frozen waterfall. I’ve always wanted to see a frozen waterfall and here it was! There were several small waterfalls and a larger one and they were just suspended in time and space, full of shades of blue. Our aurora spotting tour was scheduled for this evening so we headed back for a rest and to get ready. Clouds in Abisko are rare, but unfortunately this day was one that had them. Our guides were hopeful that they would clear, but as we made our way to the isolated site on a sled pulled by a snowmobile and then waited inside a warm tent it soon became clear that we were out of luck for the night. We did get some warm glogg (a hot, spiced cider-like drink) out of it along with some more “professional” information on what mattered to spot good auroras.
So what is necessary to see the best aurora show? First off, it’s best to get away from city lights. Even the moon can add too much light to the sky to allow for the necessary contrasts, and we were lucky that the moon was just a sliver in the sky on our first night, although it was waxing. Obviously you also need a clear sky, or at least very few clouds. On this night we did not have luck. In addition, you can check aurora tracking sites for stats on what is known as the KP, the BZ, the solar wind speed, and the solar density. The KP tells you at which latitude you should be able to spot the phenomenon if it’s there. In northern Sweden we were around a KP of 1.5, and as you go south the KP increases pretty quickly. Stockholm in southern Sweden is already a KP of about 6. From what we saw, the KP frequently goes to about 2 each night but rarely above 5. This is why you must head north if you want to see the auroras. The BZ seemed to be the next most important factor. I don’t completely understand how this one works, but I know that in the north you need to have a BZ in the negative to be able to spot auroras. If the BZ is positive then it’s like all the activity heads to the south pole instead of the north. While we were in viewing territory, the BZ hovered pretty near 0 the entire time, occasionally dipping down to about -2, which was good enough to at least see something. The solar wind speed is best at higher speeds, and we had high speeds on our entire visit. The density determines if you get beautiful colors other than just the typical green, but ours stayed quite low during our time up north. Of course the night we got back down to Stockholm we checked the stats and the density had sky rocketed up to about 12!
On our aurora tour night the stats were pretty favorable… all except for that most important factor of cloud cover. Bummer.
Above: Frozen waterfalls in the national park and a nice glowing tent pic on our failed aurora spotting tour.
Day 3: Dogsledding
Before we set out on our holiday, I asked Rex what he was most looking forward to. He said the dogs. I’m pretty sure he meant the dogsledding, but he kept saying that he wanted to pet dogs. On day 3 he got his chance as we walked next door to an enormous kennel where we got to help them bring the dogs to their spots in line for the sleds that they would pull. There were 3 groups of us from our hostel, totaling about 11 people. We were paired up with a Spanish/French couple and our driver was the guy who owned the entire operation, named Tomas. The dogs were a mix of breeds, and Tomas told us that none are purebred because it’s common knowledge that purebred means inbred and mixed breeds live longer. The dogs get SO excited when they know they are about to run! They start yapping and jumping around and as soon as the driver gives the signal they are focused and quiet. I absolutely loved the entire experience!
The dogs took us on a trail through the forest for about 30 minutes one way before they got a break. The sound of the sled blades on the ice sounded smooth and clean and the snow was sparkling again in the now cloud-free skies. Occasionally a dog would nosedive into the snow and grab a mouthful. I thought this was so funny, but I assume they just got thirsty and needed a quick refreshment! Also, as dogs do, they would sometimes pass a bush that was irresistible and hike a leg. On our way back we had some extra excitement when the sled was pulled over a rather large stick in the path and flipped us out. Everyone was fine… we did land in a pillow of snow, after all… except that I got a knee to my forehead as we all flew through the air. Yes, I was okay, but our driver seemed very shaken by this, stating that in his almost 20 years of driving the dogsleds he has only flipped 3 times. Lucky us, I guess. Still, it was one for the books and something I will never forget. We even got to feed and play with the dogs at the end, just like Rex wanted!
Abisko is not known for its food options. In fact, we had all of two options for eating out… the really pricey and fancy hotel restaurant behind our hostel, or a food trailer selling hot dogs and hamburgers. We opted twice for the hamburgers, and tried both reindeer and moose burgers on separate occasions. Very tasty, I might add! It’s just the issue of receiving your food from a food trailer and then not having anywhere to go to eat it when it’s -20C outside. Luckily, though, our hostel had a kitchen and a refrigerator where we could store cold stuff. We took full advantage of this with cold cuts for sandwiches and on this particular night we purchased some tortellini and pesto and made a tasty pasta meal in the kitchen. Then we were off to the lake for some more waiting in hopes of seeing more auroras. Thankfully it was a clear sky night so we had high hopes.
Our hostel provided snowsuits and boots to those staying with them, and tonight we pulled these on over everything else that we would normally wear to go out in… including our own winter jackets. Looking like marshmallow men, we waited patiently on the lake for about an hour before we decided to to back to our place to warm up and take a break. On our way up the hill coming from the lake (it was about a 20 minute walk uphill) we turned around to see that familiar glow of “clouds” in the sky… except it was a clear night, so it wasn’t clouds at all! At this point we were right next to the highway with all the streetlights so our photos didn’t look amazing, but we took a few more. There was another spot we’d been told to try out just up the mountain from our hostel, so we proceeded to walk up to the helipad viewing area. Definitely a better view, but the auroras were just not very active on this particular night. There was a faint arc in the sky and only a thin line, so we didn’t stay for long. Back to the warmth of our room for a good night’s sleep!
Above: Not a picture we took in Abisko, but we've kept you waiting long enough for the auroras so here's a teaser.
Day 4: Onward to the IceHotel
After a final food trailer burger, we caught the train for just a one hour ride to Kiruna, a bigger town just a bit south of Abisko and famous for being the original site of the IceHotel. We’d booked one night at the IceHotel but planned to stay in a warm room. Yes, it sounded neat to stay in an ice bed, but we weighed the pros and cons and decided that the warm room was for us. I think it was the best decision as we got a great deal on a suite with a kitchenette and could access our room at any time after check in, which people staying in ice rooms could not.
Up until around 8pm they allow you free reign to walk through the ice rooms and appreciate the ice art. It was pretty incredible, to say the least! They have two sections to the ice part of the ice hotel, one ice building that is seasonal and changes each winter and another that is open all year and I assume doesn’t change. There were all sorts of themes for rooms, including a “space” room, Alice and Wonderland, mermaids, creepy clowns (who wants that room?), King Kong, and my favorite was Queen of the North with a white walker theme from Game of Thrones! There were probably about 50 ice rooms we looked at, but these were the ones that stood out. In addition there was an ice chapel where people actually hold weddings (they were preparing for one on this night, in fact). Then there was the IceBar, which serves you a cocktail or shot in an ice glass or ice chalice. We had two of the cocktails of the day and lounged a bit on the furs that they lay out on the ice benches so your tush doesn’t freeze. Considering it was -20C outside, it was balmy in the IceBar at a mere -5C.
The majority of the IceHotel is built from ice cut from the river running just outside the hotel. In the spring when the melts begin, they cut giant pillars from the river and keep them frozen until the next winter. It takes them about 6 weeks to completely build the seasonal hotel, and of course the start of winter is always a factor to consider. Then they bring in sculptors, who apparently have not all worked with ice before! They have a crash course lesson in ice sculpting and off they go to create an ice room.
Above: Some of our favorite ice art from the IceHotel, plus drinks from the IceBar.
In the evening we tried our luck once again with auroras. There was still quite a bit of light pollution out on the river, but it was good enough to see the show, and it was a good one! I only wish that it hadn’t been so cold and we could have enjoyed it longer. At one point we messed up our camera settings accidentally and it was right as the show got extremely vivid! Rex was frantically re-adjusting the settings and I think we missed the most beautiful part of the show, but still came away with some lovely pictures. I’m honestly glad that our camera held out with it being so cold. Extreme cold like that does weird things to electronics. And blood circulation.
We wanted a couple of days in Stockholm so we only stayed one night at the IceHotel and then flew back to the capital city. I was sad to leave the beautiful auroras behind us in the north and continued to refresh the aurora apps and live webcams for several days after. Seriously, what a memorable experience! I read that the sun is winding down from a very active period which occurs about every 11 years. Maybe in 11 years we’ll try this again!
Above: Auroras as seen from the IceHotel.
Two Days in Stockholm
Stockholm is a beautiful city on the water, threaded with canals (possibly more like rivers and lakes) that connect it to the Baltic Sea. The colors, the architecture, the blue skies, and the ease of life are all instantly apparent as you walk the streets of Gamla Stan or stroll along the sidewalks crowning the coast. We wanted to hit upon a few highlights that we’d missed the last time we came to Stockholm for the Christmas markets, so we started our first full day with a trip to the fascinating Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a ship that was beautifully, albeit poorly built in the 17th century. At that time, Sweden was not a strong kingdom, but the king at the time, Gustavus Adolphus, had just initiated a war with Poland-Lithuania, and understood that ships were the best platforms for housing guns and mounting an attack. He wanted only the best. Of course this ship was lavishly decorated… seriously insanely carved, painted, and accessorized, because it had to exude power and wealth. Unfortunately, after a morning of festivities, church services, and preparations, the ship made it only 1300 meters from the port before a gust of wind capsized it. Crazy, right? The ship sank mostly intact into a harbor near Stockholm but was not able to be recovered until its rediscovery in the 1950s. Now it sits in a museum in Stockholm in nearly all of its initial glory. You can still see the elaborate carvings all around the ship, the decorative bronze, and most of what you see is the original materials. The only thing missing is the paint, which chemical residue tests have shown to have been very bright and elaborate as well.
One unique experience requires another, so off we went to a nearby traditional Swedish restaurant, called Oaxen Slip, with a proclaimed Michelin star. We were convinced to try a starter of herring which turned out to be delicious, and the salmon was to die for. It was also one of those places where the chef offers complimentary hors d’oeuvres, and the pork belly we got was tasty as well.
Other than the food experience, we walked around the old Gamla Stan area and enjoyed the ability to spend time outdoors without the required snowsuit. It was still below zero, but it felt almost warm after being in the Arctic circle!
Above: Around Stockholm's old center, Gamla Stan. The bottom three show the cute Michelin Starred restaurant and some of the Swedish food we ate at Oaxen Slip.