15 useful things you should know before visiting Swedish Lapland
There's more to the north of Sweden than icy tundras and snow. From foraging to fika: here are the things to know before visiting Swedish Lapland
We didn't know a whole lot about Swedish Lapland before we went there. In fact, other than flat pack furniture, meatballs, and pop supergroup ABBA, we'll admit that we basically knew nothing about Sweden more generally prior to arriving into Arvidsjaur on a chilly Autumn evening in early October.As it turns out, there is much to discover in the Arctic north of Sweden, and it doesn't all involve icy tundras and snow days. There's a rich culture, wild natural beauty, and a deep love of the outdoors unrivalled by any other destination we've ever visited.
Whether you’re thinking of visiting Swedish Lapland yourself (you should!), planning a trip, or simply looking for some travel inspiration, here’s our guide to the things you should know before you go!
15 IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE VISITING SWEDISH LAPLAND
THE SCENERY IS ABSOLUTELY STUNNING
Swedish Lapland is one of Europe’s true untouched wildernesses. Nature here is raw and powerful; think endless pine and birch forests, lichen-carpeted forest floors, roaring waterfalls that tumble for kilometres, and peaceful lakeside villages dotted throughout the landscape.
It’s a beauty that, uniquely, exists year-round too. In Autumn, leaves are licked with burning colours, clearer days bring soft sunshine highlights, and the elusive northern lights begin to dance across the skies again. Winter lays out a thick snow blanket on the rolling fjälls (mountains) and valleys, transforming the region into the sparkling wonderland of childhood stories. Spring and summer breathe new, green life as berries and wild mushrooms sprout from the ground, birds sing sweetly, and the skies glow pink with midnight sun.
READ UP ON SAMI CULTURE BEFORE YOU GO
The Sami people have existed in the Arctic region for thousands of years, and Lapland - called Sápmi in their own language - is their heartland. They belong to one of the oldest indigenous peoples on earth and have a language and a rich culture all of their own. The Sami way is to live off the land but never to exploit it; hunting, fishing, and gathering from nature is in their blood, but so is resourcefulness, and utilising every single part of nature’s gifts to survive.
Not every person who lives in Swedish Lapland has Sami heritage, but understanding this unique way of life and how it inspires every day Arctic life today is important. Read up before you go, and spend some time learning about their culture while you’re there (the Silver Museum in Arjeplog is a great place to start!).
REINDEER ARE AN INTEGRAL PART OF LIFE HERE
The Sami people have been reindeer-herders for thousands of years, and each year, those who still herd them migrate with their animals through Lapland and to the coast. The reindeer are still an extremely important source of income for the indigenous population.
For everyone living in the Arctic Circle today, Reindeer are a form of transport, their meat is basically a superfood, and their skins give life-saving warmth in the cold.
THERE ARE 8 SEASONS IN SWEDISH LAPLAND
“Most visitors to Swedish Lapland think in just the regular 4 seasons,” our Swedish host, Annika, smiles over dinner one night, “but actually, we really have 8”.
Here in Swedish Lapland, nature is more intrinsically linked with human life than in any other country we’ve encountered (except, perhaps, for those that live in the high mountain villages of Nepal). For centuries, the indigenous Sami population existed in complete harmony with nature to survive, their calendar finely attuned to their surrounding wilderness and its transitions. Today, that same sensitivity to the changes in weather and landscapes is still very much a part of the culture for locals.
Annika counts out the changes using her hands; four points for the regular seasons, and taps the webbing between her fingers to show the in-betweens:
True Autumn // Sami: tjaktja (September - October), full of vibrant colour and crisp air. This is the time for restocking food stores and the start of the real hunting season, mostly of elk and moose. The Northern Lights also begin to dance from now until the midnight sun takes over in early summer.
Autumn-Winter // Sami: tjaktjadálvve (November - December): this is the early winter season. Snow begins to dust the landscapes, the days get shorter, and the region begins its transformation into a magical winter playground for kids young and old.
True Winter // Sami: dálvve (December - March): the whole region draws up its thick blanket of white and settles in for the next few months. But while much of the flora and fauna slumber in hibernation, this is when humans enjoy a buzz of activity; skiing, snowshoeing, reindeer and dog sledding, and snowmobiling through the snow, while the frozen lakes become a playground for car enthusiasts who flock to drive race cars on the thick ice. Temperatures can reach -40c now, so it’s not for the faint-hearted (or cold-blooded)!
Spring-Winter // Sami: gidádálvve (March - April): Ask locals what their favourite time of year in Swedish Lapland is, and watch as their faces light up talking about March and April. The snow still lies thick and heavy but the sun has returned to ice-blue skies to spread warmth across the plains again. Longer days and rising temperatures mean getting outside for winter activities is even more enjoyable - and it’s warm enough sometimes to stretch a reindeer skin out on the snow and sunbathe!
True Spring // Sami: gidá (April - May): Winter retreats during these months, melting away into the rivers and lakes. Green returns to the hills and valleys and the blossoms of wildflowers start to appear again. The reindeer-calving season also means cute little reindeer calves with wobbly-knees are a common sight.
Spring-Summer // Sami: gidágiesse (May - June): Lapland explodes with green life again. The trees unfurl fresh leaves, the forest floor is thick with ferns and moss, and it’s time to trade the snowmobiles for hiking boots and bikes, and take off for mountain adventures
True-Summer // Sami: giesse (June - July): Summer arrives in all her glory now, and it’s time to reheat your bones after the colder months. The sun barely dips below the horizon for a few months now, lingering in the skies all night. Locals shrug off their winter coats to bathe in the lakes, enjoy barbeques outside, and lap up the warm summer air.
Summer-Autumn // Sami: tjaktjagiesse (August - September): the first signs of cooler months start to appear, as berries and wild mushrooms ripen in the forests. Gold and red begin to inch across leaves, and animals (and humans) start to gather food to restock their larders for the cooler months.
COFFEE IS MORE THAN JUST COFFEE IN SWEDEN
Before leaving for Swedish Lapland, we’d heard about a coffee there called fika. Naively, we’d believed it to be a particular type of coffee. Perhaps a special roast, or a unique take on the humble cup of joe, à la Vietnamese style with condensed milk?
What we discovered during our time there, is that fika is actually not a type of coffee at all, but a wonderful social construct: the art of enjoying a proper coffee break. It’s always accompanied by a delicious baked good (like our host Annika’s homemade Rhubarb muffins!), and it’s all about slowing down, savouring the moment, and appreciate the good things in life.
“Functioning as both a verb and a noun, the concept of fika is simple. It is the moment that you take a break, often with a cup of coffee, but alternatively with tea, and find a baked good to pair with it. You can do it alone, you can do it with friends. You can do it at home, in a park or at work. But the essential thing is that you do it, that you make time to take a break: that's what fika is all about."
- Anna Bromes and Johanna Kindvall, Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break
SWEDISH LAPLAND IS REALLY REMOTE
In the UK, where we currently live, it’s unlikely you could drive for more than 30 minutes without entering the fringes of a new town. In Swedish Lapland, this is much closer to two hours. It’s the feeling of travelling through such a remote, unexplored corner of the earth that gives Lapland so much of its beauty and charm.
The region sprawls over a massive 109,702km2, and that’s not even factoring in the parts claimed by Finland, Norway, and Russia. What’s more, the total population of Swedish Lapland is only 326,000. To put this into some kind of perspective for you: the community of Arjeplog is roughly the size of Montenegro and is only inhabited by 3,000 people. It’s also home to three rivers and 8,727 lakes (including Sweden’s deepest), which means there are more than two lakes for every person living in the area.
STOCK UP ON SNACKS BEFORE YOU GET IN THE CAR
If you’re a chronic snacker (like Mim!), be sure to stock the car with some drive-time snacks and water for longer drives. The lack of dense population sprawl means that when travelling between communities you won’t find much other than forest berries or wild mushrooms to snack on. You can take your chances on these, but as the locals say - some wild mushrooms you can eat many times, and others just the once!
IT'S BASICALLY A BIG PLAYGROUND, FOR KIDS YOUNG AND OLD
Mention Swedish Lapland and most people have a vague idea of dog sled rides, skiing, and the chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Heck, before arriving in Swedish Lapland ourselves, that was basically all we knew too. Well, it turns out that the region is far more than just dogsleds and skiing (though these do feature heavily). Basically, if it involves getting outside and into nature, those canny Swedes have come up with a fun way to do it.
From racing expensive cars on frozen lakes to snowmobiling your way into nature, kayaking rivers to hiking the rolling hills, and slow cooking classes to cultural museums - there’s something for everybody here, in every season.
FREEDOM TO ROAM: REDISCOVERING NATURE IN SWEDISH LAPLAND
RUG UP, REGARDLESS OF SEASON
Swedish Lapland is wild, unpredictable, and even the locals will tell you that nature leads the way in this part of the world. When it comes to preparing yourself against the elements, the best advice we can give is to always have gear to rug up in - no matter the season.
In Winter, Lapland gets cold. Really cold. We’re talking -42c kind of cold. It probably goes without saying that the average tourist is pretty unprepared for conditions like these. Do your research and pack accordingly. In Summer, temperatures can (and do) get up to 28/30c, but the average is still only between 14-17c, and when we travelled in early Autumn the temperature was already starting to drop well below 10c. Warm gear is still an essential packing item, so at the very least make sure you have a pair of thermals, a thick jacket (or down jacket for the cooler Spring and Autumn months), and wind/waterproof gear.
And on the topic of weather….
ALWAYS PACK WET WEATHER GEAR IN YOUR DAYPACK
After a few days of generally gloomy and very wet Autumn weather, it was a welcome surprise when we peeked out our hotel window to see clear skies and golden rays of sunshine dancing on the roaring Storforsen waterfall below.
Swinging my backpack over my shoulder, I spotted my gore-tex jacket hanging by the door and, ever the over-cautious one, made a last minute decision to stuff it into my pack before we headed out. When the heavens opened and the rain started pouring again as we sat around a campfire later that day, it turned out my decision had been a perfect one. The lesson? Like the temperature, the weather can be unpredictable here no matter the season - pack your wet weather gear in your day pack and you’re always prepared.
CLEAN DRINKING WATER IS LITERALLY EVERYWHERE
Swedish Lapland is home to thousands of lakes (not to mention plenty of snow and rain!), which means that clean drinking water is accessible just about everywhere you go. Bring a reusable drink bottle and fill it full of clean, fresh, natural water wherever you are. Just make sure that the water is flowing to protect against any illness!
THE LOCALS ARE EXTREMELY FRIENDLY
When you travel to a new place, it’s really easy to come home and exclaim to your friends that the “people there were the nicest people, everrrr”. It’s kind of a strange thing to say when you think about it, considering that the majority of humans the world over really are nice, normal people.
The thing is though, the locals who call Swedish Lapland home really are some of the most wonderfully friendly, welcoming, and generous people we’ve encountered on our travels. We were welcomed into their homes, greeted everywhere with warm and genuine smiles, taught about the flora and fauna, taken on incredible hikes, kept nourished with coffee, cake, and delicious meals, and treated like friends every single day.
Perhaps it’s because the whole region has the feel of a small rural town - the kind where people actually smile at each other in passing and stop for a chat - or because being so close to nature every day has mellowed them out completely. All we know is that every interaction with the locals left us feeling warm and fuzzy inside, and that’s a pretty special thing.
DON'T JUST GO FOR THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Of course, one of the greatest attractions for travellers to the arctic circle is the elusive Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). For good reason too, the light show is one of mother nature’s greatest spectacles.
But planning your trip solely around the potential of seeing this nocturnal rainbow in a region whose weather is as unpredictable as the lights themselves… well, it’s just kind of silly and setting yourself up for disappointment.
To see the lights, you need a perfect storm of clear skies, solar flares or winds, no light pollution, and a sprinkling of luck. We had none of these during our time there, thanks to constant low-hanging cloud, despite our Aurora forecast app telling us activity was at it’s strongest. Thankfully, because our days were so jam-packed with fun activities, we really barely noticed. Go for the destination and everything it offers and let the lights, if they happen for you, be a magical bonus.
SWEDISH LAPLAND IS ACTUALLY REALLY EASY TO GET TO
It’s hard to imagine that a world like Swedish Lapland actually exists just a mere few hours from the bustle and chaos of London’s doorstep. But it does, and we were pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s certainly not an arduous travel journey.
The main airports are Lulea, Skellefteå Airport, and Kiruna, with SAS and Norwegian Airlines servicing them. We actually flew from Heathrow into Arvidsjaur (via Stockholm), and out of Lulea (via Stockholm) back to Heathrow, and found the entire trip to be a breeze. If you’re looking to fly direct, flights operate between Heathrow and Kiruna with Discover the World, or from Birmingham to Kiruna via FlyCar.
Now you have no excuse not to go! In fact, why not check out flights on Skyscanner now?
WINTER IS PEAK TOURIST SEASON - BUT IT'S NOT THE ONLY TIME TO VISIT
Winter in Swedish Lapland is enchanting, there's no doubt. Even the locals we spoke to harboured a soft spot for the powder months and the activities they bring. But skipping out on travel there during the warmer months is, frankly doing the area (and yourself!) a disservice. In fact, visiting in Spring or Autumn, when the winter travellers have drifted home and the weather is warmer can be an equally magical time. Mountains bursting with colour, beautiful hiking and cycle trails, lake fishing, gorgeous towns, and stunning nature (ripe for berry and mushroom picking!) await travellers during these months.
Want to go to Swedish Lapland yourself? Or have you been and think we've missed something? Share your stories and tips in the comments below!