Partly because it's the most northerly town in Sweden, and partly due to its proximity to the world-famous Icehotel in the nearby village of Jukkasjärvi, KIRUNA, 200km north of the Arctic Circle, has become the destination in Swedish Lapland, the place that everyone wants to visit. However, don’t come here expecting monumental architectural delights, tree-lined avenues and big-city sophistication – it has none of that, at least not for the time being. All that, however, could change when the town ups sticks and moves location for, indeed, that is what is set to happen over the next decade. Ahead of the move, the present town still retains a strangely likeable down-to-earth feel. Although there are a few sights, it’s mainly attractive as a base from which to visit this corner of northern Lapland, with rail connections northwest to the start of the Kungsleden trail and Riksgränsen, as well as bus connections into the Torne Valley. Sweden’s highest mountain, Kebnekaise (2102m), is also within easy reach of Kiruna. It’s accessed from the tiny village of Nikkaluokta, the departure point for ambitious ascents of the peak.
When Swedish pioneers first arrived in what is now Kiruna in the early 1600s, they found the Sámi already in place (the town's name comes from the Sámi word "Giron", meaning "ptarmigan"). Completely ignoring the indigenous population, the Swedes opened their first mine in 1647 at nearby Masugnsbyn (“Blast Furnace Village”), but it wasn’t until the beginning of the following century that the iron-ore deposits in Kiruna itself were finally discovered. Exploratory drilling began in the 1880s, which nicely coincided with the building of the Malmbanan, the iron-ore railway between Luleå and Narvik in Norway; the first train laden with iron ore trundled out from Malmberget in Gällivare in March 1888. In 1900, the settlers braved their first winter in Kiruna, a year which is now regarded as the town’s birthday. Built on a hill to try to keep the temperature up (warm air rises), Kiruna was planned to withstand the coldest snaps of winter – even the streets are curved as protection against the biting polar wind. Sadly, though, much of the wooden architecture of Kiruna’s early days, gloriously painted in reds, greens and yellows, was ripped down to make way for today’s unprepossessing concrete structures; the town even won an award in the 1960s for its out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new policy.
Kiruna was the hub of the battle for the control of the iron-ore supply during World War II; ore was transported north from here by train to the great harbour at Narvik, over the border in Norway. Much German firepower was expended in an attempt to interrupt the supply to the Allies and wrest control for the Axis. In the process, Narvik suffered grievously, whilst Kiruna – benefiting from supposed Swedish neutrality – made a packet selling to both sides.
An obvious destination for any tourist travelling around Kiruna in winter is the tiny village of JUKKASJÄRVI (known locally simply as “Jukkas”), 17km east of Kiruna and 200km north of the Arctic Circle, and the location for Swedish Lapland’s blockbuster attraction: Icehotel. What’s effectively the world’s largest igloo, Icehotel is built every year by the side of the Torneälven River in late October, from when it stands proudly until temperatures rise definitively above zero in May, when it finally melts away back into the river. A new venture, Icehotel 365 – three times smaller than the original structure, and made of regular building materials – opened on the same site in November 2016 and stays open year-round.
Although Icehotel totally dominates tiny Jukkasjärvi from its position at the entrance to the village, it’s worth taking a stroll down the main (and only) road, Marknadsvägen, passing a handful of simple dwellings owned by locals – not all of whom are in favour of the changes that the hotel has brought to their village.
The brains behind Icehotel belong to Yngve Bergqvist, a southern Swede who moved to Lapland in the 1980s. In 1989, he built an igloo – barely sixty square metres in size – as an art gallery to showcase local Sámi crafts and design. Visitors asked to sleep in the igloo, and the concept was born. Today, covering roughly 6000 square metres, Icehotel is constructed of thirty thousand tonnes of “snice”, as Icehotel calls it, a combination of snow and ice (cut from the Torne River); its exact shape and design changes from year to year, though there’s always a chapel, in which couples can marry. From the entrance hall there’s usually one main walkway filled with ice sculptures, from which smaller corridors lead off to the bedrooms and suites (all with electric lights, and beds made out of blocks of compact snow covered with reindeer hides) that make up the bulk of the hotel. Though many visitors stay the night, the hotel is also open for day visits.
Icehotel usually opens some time in November and remains open until late March/early April, though the weather decides the final date of opening.
There are two reception areas: one for cold accommodation (Icehotel itself) and another for warm accommodation (double rooms and cabins) – simply follow the direction signs. Staff in the cold reception will dish out warm clothing and general information about how to survive a night in sub-zero temperatures. When it’s time to go to bed, you should leave your valuables and most of your clothes in lockers provided close to reception (where there are also heated bathrooms with showers and a sauna) and then make a run for it from here to your room (wearing as little as possible; see p.000) and dive into your sleeping bag as quickly as you can – the temperature inside the hotel is –5ºC, while outside it’s generally around –20 or –30ºC. Guests are provided with specially made, tried-and-tested sleeping bags of a type used by the Swedish army, who have used the hotel for Arctic survival training; the bags are supposed to keep you warm in temperatures down to -35°C. However, as they enclose your entire body and head (bar a small area for your eyes and nose) they are rather claustrophobic. You should take off all the clothes you’re still wearing and sleep naked to prevent sweating; stuff your clothes into the bottom of the sleeping bag to keep them warm and place your shoes on the bed with you to stop them freezing. Don’t expect to sleep – you won’t – it’s simply too cold and uncomfortable. In the morning, you can refresh yourself with a sauna and have a hearty breakfast at the restaurant across the road, though you’ll soon notice from people’s faces that nobody else has slept a wink either.
Ever the entrepreneurs, Icehotel have now hit on a new idea to satisfy the seemingly bottomless market of visitors who flock to Swedish Lapland every year to experience an Arctic winter: Icehotel 365, which offers the chance to sleep in sub-zero temperatures at any time of year – even in the height of summer. Smaller than the original Icehotel, Icehotel 365 is made of regular building materials, though it does also contain snow and ice. Innovative new technology has made it possible to store energy captured by a new generation of solar panels which can then be used to cool the structure through the summer months, ensuring a year-round temperature inside of -5C, just like the original. In many ways, Icehotel 365 is similar to its predecessor – it’s designed with the same arched corridors, it contains ice rooms and suites and even a bar. Icehotel says it gives visitors a chance to combine a night in sub-zero temperatures with summer activities like kayaking and hiking. Critics say it’s just another attempt to turn Lapland into a theme park and squeeze yet more kronor out of hapless tourists.
A traditional sight awaits at the end of the dead-end Marknadsvägen: an old wooden Sámi church, parts of which date from 1608, making it the oldest surviving church in Lapland. Check out the richly decorated altarpiece by Uppsala artist Bror Hjorth, depicting the revivalist preacher, Lars Levi Laestadius, alongside the woman who inspired him to rid Lapland of alcohol, Maria of Åsele. The triptych was given to the church in 1958 by the mining company, LKAB, then celebrating its 350th anniversary.
Under the floor are the mummified remains of villagers who died here in the eighteenth century (not on display). The sandy ground and frost are thought to have been responsible for keeping the bodies, including that of a woman dressed in a white wedding dress and high-heeled shoes, so remarkably well preserved. The organ above the door is made from reindeer horn and birch wood; the artwork in the centre of the organ, suspended over the pipes, symbolizes the sun rising over the Lapporten, the two U-shaped mountain-tops near Abisko which are one of Lapland’s most enduring images.
Across the road from the church, the wooden houses of the rather pedestrian Nutti Sámi Siida contain the usual suspects: a stuffed reindeer, an old sleigh, a rickety spinning wheel and other equally dull paraphernalia.
There are seemingly countless organized activities from the Icehotel and the range varies from year to year; full details are online at w icehotel.com. Generally, though, they include a dog-sledding trip through the neighbouring forests with a short stop for coffee and cake (90min; 1495kr); an accompanied daytime drive on snow scooters down the Torne River and into the wintry forests (3hr; 1195kr); and a night-time snowmobile spin to see the northern lights (4hr; 1950kr including dinner). In summer there are generally organized fishing and hunting tours as well as canoeing.
The mines, ugly brooding reminders of Kiruna’s prosperity, still dominate the town, much more depressingly so than in Gällivare; despite its newer central buildings and open parks, Kiruna retains a grubby industrial feel. The tourist office arranges guided tours around the mines, on which visitors are bussed down into the InfoMine, a closed-off section of the rabbit warren of tunnels comprising a working mine. Inside you’ll see facilities such as petrol stations and a workers’ canteen, and mining paraphernalia, including trains for transporting ore and equipment, and mills for crushing the ore-bearing rock.
Due to severe subsidence caused by the mines over 1km below the town, Kiruna is sinking. After years of deliberation, in 2012 a location was finally decided for the construction of a new city – close to the airport at Tuolluvaara. In 2013 the train station was closed and a new temporary station 1.5km outside town is now in operation. Over the next few years expect disruption as the old town is torn down and the E10 highway rerouted. The Stadshus and the church will be moved to the new Kiruna whilst all other buildings will be demolished. Oddly, local people seem unperturbed by the enormity of the task ahead, perhaps because they are painfully aware that without the iron-ore mines on which Kiruna is dependent, the place would cease to exist. The whole operation is expected to take several decades to complete.