TO VISIT ARCTIC EUROPE is to stand on the edge of a towering cliff at the northernmost point on mainland Europe, watching the Northern Lights flash across the Norwegian sky. It’s the sensation of absolute silence as you set off on a hike in Sweden’s Abisko National Park at dawn. It’s learning about the eight seasons of the indigenous Sámi in Finland.
To visit Arctic Europe is to experience all these things and more. Here are just 12 of the one-and-only experiences you can have in this unique place.
1. Go on a midnight-sun whale safari.
Head to the northwest coast of Norway in summer and you have, oh, at least a 95% chance of spotting a whale. In fact, the outfitters at Whalesafari Andenes are so confident you’ll see one that they’ll give you your money back if you don’t. Stand close to the railing and listen to the sounds of some of the largest animals on Earth — sperm and killer whales, pilot whales, humpbacks, and fin whales — as they surface to breathe.
Tip: This far north, it’s still beautifully light at midnight. Still, you’ll want to wear a windproof jacket and a pullover, as it can get chilly. And don’t be too proud for the seasickness tablet. Grab some water and chuck one down!
2. Learn about thousands of years of Sámi culture.
The Sámi are the indigenous people of the Arctic’s Sápmi region (the far northern reaches of modern-day Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula). Their concept of time is closely linked to their relationship with nature, and they divide the year into eight seasons: spring-winter, spring, pre-summer, summer, pre-autumn, autumn, pre-winter, and winter. You’ll feel the subtle differences in if you visit at the right times.
In summer, head to Siida Cultural Center, not far from Finland’s Lemmenjoki National Park, or Kevo Strict Nature Reserve, and you’ll find an open-air museum to complement the year-round indoor exhibitions that explore Sámi traditions. Spots abound all across Arctic Europe — Kautokeino is a Sámi hub in northern Norway, and in Sweden, the largest village is Sirkas, in Jokkmokk.
3. Enjoy Arctic hikes + sauna + skinny dipping.
Make sure you wear your best hiking books for Sweden’s Abisko National Park — thick soles and waterproof gear are key, as you’ll be walking through bogs and crossing streams. Start your hike at 7am from Abiskojaure, and head towards a small mountain hut called Unna Allakas. You’ll wander through birch woods and pass the Sámi summer village of Rovvidievvá. As you make your way between the mountains, look around and you might see a reindeer or two.
At the other end of the trail spectrum is Sweden’s Kings Trail, nearly 275 miles long, snaking its way from Abisko to Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain. Hike it (or, more practically, a section or two), and you’ll go from cabin to cabin, passing between blueberry-covered tundra and glacial-carved valleys, to birch forests and back again.
Wherever you hike, once you arrive at your mountain hut for the night, register, pick a bunk bed, and ask the stugvärd (mountain hut guardian) to light the sauna. Once it’s ready, kick off your boots and clothes and take a plunge in the lake — all the better when you know there’s that steaming hot sauna waiting for you.
4. Feel like you’re at the edge of the world on North Cape in Norway.
Breathe in the Arctic wind as you stand on a cliff 1,007 feet above the sea at North Cape, where the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans meet. Situated on the island of Magerøya, this is the northernmost point in mainland Europe. Visit around the summer solstice to watch the sun (never) go down.
Tip: For a good night’s sleep in midsummer, look for accommodation with thick blinds and put on your blindfold before going to bed. Better yet: Just stay up all night!
5. At the height of summer, sleep in a room made entirely of ice.
Bring your warmest long underwear, lie down on the reindeer hide, and zip up the sleeping bag… Spending the night in a room at Icehotel 365 (the world’s first hotel made of ice and snow, where the temperature’s always 17-23°F) means you’ll be falling asleep while watching the steam of your own breath.
This solar-run hotel is situated in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, about 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Best of all, you don’t have to wait till the middle of winter to feel like Elsa — the hotel’s open throughout the year.
Best part? This isn’t your only frozen accommodation option in Arctic Europe. Check out Norway’s Kirkenes Snowhotel (in Bjørnevatn) or Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel in Alta, or the Arctic SnowHotel in Rovaniemi, Finland.
6. Rest for a moment at the Lapponian Gate.
If your Instagram has a bucket list, make sure it includes the most iconic image out of Sweden’s Abisko National Park, or perhaps the entire country. It’s called Lapporten, or the Lapponian Gate, and it looks like someone took a hefty bite out of the landscape (actually, it was a glacier that did it). The mountains on either side hang out at above 5,000 feet, and at the bottom is Lake Cuonjajavri.
Bring a thermos of coffee, a camera, and nothing else. There are no marked trails nearby, but it’s easy enough to walk — and with the “freedom to roam,” you’re invited to get as close as you like.
7. Feel the heat in the world’s only sauna gondola.
Do it like the Finnish and get into your birthday suit, pour water on the heated stones, and prove your stamina for steam as it rises above your head. If you’re hardcore, bring a vihta — a bunch of leafy silver birch to hit yourself with (it’s good for the muscles).
It’s estimated that Finland has more than 3 million saunas (there’s even one at the Finnish parliament), but the world’s only Sauna Gondola is at Ylläs. The 20-minute sauna ride starts at the top of a ski slope, 2,359 feet above sea level. As your skin turns red and the sweat drops from your forehead, you’ll be watching the most incredible mountains and ski slopes pass by.
8. Stay in a fisherman’s cabin in Tind on the Lofoten Islands, Norway.
Rorbu — traditional red cabins built on pillars in the sea — are a kind of seasonal house that have long been used by Norwegian fishermen. You’ll find them dotted about Lofoten, a stunning archipelago off the northern coast of Norway that’s filled with mossy mountains, white-sand beaches, pretty fishing villages, and fjords. Check into a rorbu for the ultimate traditional stay in the Arctic.
PS: People love to fish in Lofoten, so during the cod-drying season from February to July, you might not escape its scent. But hey, just think of it as part of what makes your Norway experience authentic.
9. See the Northern Lights — wherever you are.
Check into a cabin with a sauna, and make it your mission to see the Northern Lights dance over your head. Northern Finland’s Utsjoki, home to just 0.4 people per square mile, is a good spot, though nearly anywhere in Arctic Europe will get the job done (Alta in Norway and Abisko in Swedish Lapland both come to mind).
If you do decide to hang out under the northern aurora belt near Utsjoki, visit Deatnu, a locally sourced restaurant by the river that serves international dishes with a Lappish twist. Try the sautéed reindeer with lingonberry sauce and pickled cucumber, and save some room for Finnish squeaky cheese with bright orange cloudberries for dessert.
Tip: It gets cold here at night, so wearing plenty of layers, with room in your boots for some thick woolly socks, is key as you wait for the Northern Lights to appear. If you have a goose-down jacket, bring it.
10. Arrange for an airport pickup — via dogsled.
In Arctic Europe, you have the option to arrive in style — via dogsled. One second you’ll be walking through the airport in jeans and a t-shirt, and the next you’re loading up in a parka, reins between your fingertips, taking a 45-minute ride through the countryside.
Or, feel free to wait until you’re settled in. Check out the Husky farm near Luleå, Sweden, for a three-hour tour through the Arctic forest, or captain your own team of dogs and navigate over Sweden’s frozen lakes and snow-capped hillsides.
11. Personally hand in your wish list to Santa Claus in Rovaniemi, Finland.
Where better to get into the Christmas spirit? Five miles north of the Lapland capital of Rovaniemi, you’ll find the official home of Father Christmas at Santa Claus Village. Come to this spot on the Arctic Circle in winter to hear the snow crack under your feet and feel the cold air bite your cheeks. When fresh snow has fallen, wake up before everyone else (or stay awake until everyone has gone to bed!), put on your boots, and listen to the perfect silence of newly fallen snow.
12. Camp on Bunes Beach in Lofoten, Norway.
With its clear water and sandy bay, Bunes Beach has the same ingredients as a tropical island…minus the palm trees and sticky heat. Bring your tent and sleeping bag and set up camp at the back of the beach where the dunes are flat and grassy. As evening hits, the daytime visitors disappear and you’ll be pretty much by yourself.
Tip: The beach can only be reached by a local ferry from Reine and there’s nowhere to get supplies, so make sure to bring enough food and gear for the night.