The Best Free Things to do in Kiruna Sweden
This post is about things to do in Kiruna. The northernmost city in Sweden that is famous for its long winters, tundra landscapes, Saami culture, Saami food, the largest iron ore mines in the world and space technology.
Kiruna is a popular destination for those who want to visit Swedish Lapland. I myself was inspired by its location far up north and by the Kiruna magnetometer. In the Netherlands there is hardly a chance to see the northern lights, but on the rare occasion that there is, it is predicted by the magnetometer at the Swedish Institute of Space physics in Kiruna.
Somehow I imagined Kiruna to be an arctic winter wonderland. In reality, Kiruna was quite different from my expectations. It is also a mining town in the process of being moved to allow the iron ore mines to expand.
As a result, Kiruna simply isn’t the most beautiful city in Sweden. In addition, almost all the things to do in Kiruna will cost you. Northern light tours, arctic wildlife safaris, snowmobiling and husky sledding will bring you spectacular sceneries. But you will easily spend more than a 100 Euros for a 2 hour tour.
That said, there are still plenty of things to do in Kiruna that make it worth a visit. Yes, Kiruna can be expensive, but you can make it as expensive as you like. The biggest draw in Kiruna is the natural beauty of the tundra landscapes that surround the city. Because of Allemansrätten, the right of public access to nature, it’s absolutely free to roam around in the arctic wilderness
In this post I will share with you all the free things to do in Kiruna to help you stay within your budget when you visit the far north of Sweden.
Free things to do in Kiruna
The Kiruna church is one of the largest wooden buildings in Sweden. It was built in 1912 by the LKAB mining company and is supposed to resemble a goahti, a traditional Saami tent. In 2001 it was voted to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the country.
In the future the church will have to be relocated, like most of the city center. Due to the mining industry the ground has become too unstable. The mining company that once paid for its construction will now rebuild the church, piece by piece, on a new location.
Hiking the midnight sun trail
If you want to have spectacular views over the tundra landscapes and the mines without leaving Kiruna I can recommend to hike the midnatsolstigen.
The midnatsolstigen, or the midnight sun trail is a 5 kilometer hike up Loussavaara mountain. As the name suggests it is a great hike to enjoy the midnight sun. However, even at other times during the year you will have a beautiful view over Kiruna. The hike starts at camp Ripan. From the center of Kiruna it is a 20 minute walk to the start of the hike.
The midnight sun trail brings you all the way up to Luossavaara mountain. Loussavaara mountain is actually an inactive iron ore mine. Nowadays it is also a ski slope in winter for the people of Kiruna. If you want to enjoy the beautiful view without the hike, you can drive the road up to Luossavaara as well.
Abisko National Park
Abisko National Park is one of the most popular national parks in Sweden and for good reason. In summer it is a hikers paradise. In winter it is one of the best places on earth to see the northern lights. Because of Allemansratten, there is no entrance fee and access to the park is completely free of charge.
Personally, it was one of my favourite national parks on my trip in Swedish Lapland. When you drive from Kiruna to Abisko the landscapes get more and more spectacular. The mountains, the views over Tornetrask lake and the Abisko canyon.
It makes for a great day trip from Kiruna or you can choose to stay there for a couple of days and try out the different hiking trails in the park. For me, Abisko Alone makes Kiruna worth the effort to get this far north in Sweden.
How to get there: The best way to reach Abisko from Kiruna is by train or your own car. The 1.5 hour drive is incredibly scenic with beautiful views over lake Tornetrask. There are two trains that run from Kiruna to Abisko every day. You can check the Swedish railway for the most recent timetable. There is also a daily bus from Lanstrafik norbotten that leaves in the afternoon.
Lake Torneträsk is the sixth biggest lake in Sweden. On your way to Abisko National Park you have spectacular views on the lake all the way. It is usually solid frozen during the long winter when it is possible to hike over the lake. In summer you can go for swimming and fishing.
Esrange space center
Kiruna and space have a long history together. The Swedish Institute of Space physics built its headquarters in Kiruna in 1957 and now includes a well established Kiruna Space campus for further education in space technology and space physics.
In 1964 the construction of the Esrange space center started to facilitate rocket launches, satellite tracking and further space research. The latest addition is the Kiruna Spaceport where in the future they plan to conduct commercial human space flights.
While most of these institutes are not open to visitors, the Esrange space center, 45 kilometers north east of Kiruna has a small visitors centre that is free. You can even get a free cup of coffee or tea. It’s very small, but very informative.
How to get there: there is no public transport so unfortunately this is only an option if you have your own car. Follow the E10 to Jukkasjärvi and then turn left on the Paksuniemi road. You will find the visitors centre at the end of this road.
Jukkasjärvi became famous overnight because of the beautiful Ice hotel that is built every year out of snow and ice from the nearby Torne river. At an average of 800 – 1000 Euros a night you can sleep in a beautifully designed ice world. Looking at these prices, The ice hotel probably isn’t on your mind when you are looking for free things to do in Kiruna. However, there is much more to Jukkasjärvi than the ice hotel alone.
Jukkasjärvi makes for a nice day trip from Kiruna. The small town has a scenic location on the Torne river and is dotted with the typical swedish wooden homes. It is also a great place to learn about Saami culture, because it has its origins as a Saami marketplace. The word Jukkasjärvi comes from the Saami word Čohkkirasjávri that means lake of assembly.
One of the most historic free attractions in Jukkasjärvi is the wooden church from 1607. It is the oldest church in Swedish Lapland and, although small, it is definitely worth a visit inside.
The colourful paintings in front of the church depict both Christian and Saami traditions. On the left panel we see not only Saami people in their traditional clothes, but also Lars Levi Laestadius, a 19th century priest who worked hard to spread christianity among the Saami in northern Sweden. Nevertheless, the church is full of symbols of ancient Saami mythology if one pays attention.
How to get there: There are between 5 to 6 buses per day between Kiruna and Jukkasjärvi. It’s a short 30 minute journey. You can check Lanstrafik Norbotten for the most recent timetable.
There are lots of expensive northern lights tours out there, but this natural phenomenon is completely free of charge. All you need is a dark and clear sky and a bit of luck that there is enough sun activity. That said, the further away you get from the light pollution of the city, the more spectacular the show will be and this is exactly what the northern lights tours do. They bring you to a place away from the lights of Kiruna.
Now, if you have your own car you could do this yourself as well or you could choose to stay a night somewhere out of the city. The reindeer lodge in Jukkasjärvi or any of the hotels in Abisko could be great choices for this.
Abisko is considered to be one of the best places in Scandinavia to see the northern lights. Because it is in the rain shadow of the Skanderna mountain range, Abisko has more clear nights than anywhere else in Sweden. Good chances are that when it is cloudy in Kiruna, it is not in Abisko. You could go to the expensive Aurora Sky station in Abisko, but all you really need is a dark spot away from street lights.
As you need dark skies, the northern lights season runs from September till April. Contrary to what you might think, the complete dark months of December and January aren’t the best time to see the northern lights. You have a bigger chance around the equinoxes in September and March. This is when the earth’s magnetic field lets more solar particles interact with the atmosphere.
Kiruna is high above the arctic circle and the midnight sun shows itself from the 27th of May till the 14th of July. That doesn’t mean that the sun is high up in the sky 24 hours a day. Instead there will be a sort of prolonged sunset and sunrise, including all the different colours in the sky that come along, in which the sun never really slides below the horizon.
This is best viewed from some kind of viewpoint such as Luossavaara mountain that you can reach by car or hiking the midnight sun trail.
Budget things to do in Kiruna
The following things to do in Kiruna are not exactly free, but are reasonably priced compared to the expensive outdoor activities such as dog sledding and snowmobiling.
A visit to the LKAB mines
Kiruna has the largest iron ore mines in the world and they play a big role in the development of Kiruna. So much so, that the whole city is now being replaced as the ground has become unstable. All paid for by the LKAB mining company.
They also offer underground tours to explain the mining process and the production of iron. There is also a visitors centre with a museum. The tours are very informative and good value for money.
Sleeping a night in the famous Ice hotel is probably not within the average travellers budget. However, It’s more than just a hotel. During the day it is also a museum.
In winter you can visit the ice hotel winter and ice art exhibition. Every year this part of the hotel is built from the snow and ice from the nearby Torne river and every year the design is different. It is only open from December till April when the structures melt back into the river.
It is now also possible to sleep on ice year round in the permanent ice hotel that includes also an ice art exhibition as well as an ice bar.
Day tickets allow you to see the unique and impressive ice art exhibitions without paying the exorbitant prices for a sleepover.
Sami culture at Nutti Sami Siida
If you want to learn more about Saami culture in Kiruna I can truly recommend the outdoor Saami museum of Nutti Sami Siida in Jukkasjärvi. Here you can interact with reindeers and try Sami cuisine at the reasonably priced cafe Sapmi. I had reindeer burgers here and was able to try the local cloudberries with vanilla ice cream. Both were absolutely delicious.
They also run the reindeer lodge outside of Jukkasjarvi with several cabins in the woods. Here you will be in the midst of nature and in winter its a great way to see the northern lights without a tour.
If you are really interested in Saami culture I can also recommend a visit to the small town of Jokkmokk, 215 kilometers south of Kirunsa.
Try Sami Cuisine
Finding a reasonably priced restaurant in Kiruna that was not fast food or not thai was a bit of a challenge. However, it is still possible to try Sami delicacies without breaking the bank in Kiruna.
I already mentioned the Cafe Sapmi at Nutti Sami Siida in Jukkasjarvi that I highly recommend. A personal favourite in Kiruna itself was Spis mat och dryck for its extensive menu full of local specialities such as elk meat, reindeer and arctic char. Also in the budget category is Landstrom Kok en bar. I didn’t think it was as good as the food I had at Spis mat och dryck, but the reindeer stew I had wasn’t too bad either.
Kiruna Travel tips
Where to stay on a budget
Kiruna was definitely one of the more expensive places for accommodation on my Swedish Lapland roadtrip. I ended up staying at Camp Alta that was by far the cheapest option, but it is a bit outside of Kiruna so you will need your own transport. They have some nice and clean self catering cabins in the woods with a scenic location at lake Alta.
When to visit Kiruna
You can visit Kiruna all year round, but the seasons have a big influence on the things to do in Kiruna. Being high above the arctic circle, Kiruna has long and dark winters with a thich blanket of snow from December till April. Therefore winter is all about winter activities such as snow mobiling, dog sledding and watching the northern lights.
Summer as well as early autumn and late spring is a great time to go hiking. In Summer, the Kungsleden that starts in Abisko is very popular. In autumn it will get colder and days will become shorter. However, the autumn colours make this actually one of the most beautiful times to visit Abisko.
Personally I visited Kiruna in autumn. Read here about my experiences visiting Lapland in October.
How to visit Kiruna
The train is one of the best and most sustainable ways to travel to Lapland. From Stockholm there are daily night trains that run to Kiruna and Abisko. I took the night train from Stockholm to Lulea and it was a very comfortable experience.
Sustainable Travel in Kiruna
Like many Arctic regions, Kiruna is affected by climate change that has a huge impact on the local Sami people. The Sami, an indigenous community in Lapland, have faced historical discrimination and challenges related to their land rights and cultural preservation. Climate change is now another challenge to their unique way of life.
Furthermore, Kiruna is a mining town, and the mining industry raises further questions about environmental sustainability, resource depletion, and the impact on local ecosystems and the Sami communities that live in and around Kiruna.
Before traveling to Kiruna it is good to learn more about the culture of the Sami people. Traveling sustainably in Swedish Lapland, involves conscious choices that minimize your environmental impact and support the local community.
Support the local community: You can support the community by purchasing goods and services from local vendors, artisans, and restaurants. To support the Sami there are excellent artisanal handicrafts that you can buy.
Stay in small scale sustainable hotels: It is also better to stay in locally-owned bed and breakfasts to support the local economy directly. These accommodations often have a more positive impact on the environment compared to large hotels. You can try to look for guesthouses or hotels that prioritizes sustainable practices.
Use public transportation: Most people fly into Swedish Lapland, but taking the comfortable night train from Stockholm to Kiruna and Abisko is a more sustainable option. Once in Swedish Lapland there are public buses between most cities.
Leave no Trace principle: Swedish Lapland has lots of natural beauty and mountains. When hiking, stick to designated trails when they are there, avoid disturbing wildlife or picking plants, and leave no trace of your presence. Ensure you take all your trash back with you and dispose of it responsibly.
To avoid single-use plastics, invest in reusable items. For example, you can bring your own water bottle with a filter that you can refill at your accomodation. At last, use biodegradable and eco-friendly personal care products to minimize pollution of water sources.
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