Lappland is Europe’s last true wilderness. With a grand mountain range, endless forest and countless pristine lakes as your playground, it’s your chance to be a true explorer. Its great swathes of virgin land are dotted with reindeer – this is Sami country still, and your chance to delve into the reindeer herders’ centuries-old way of life.
Travelling in the far north of Sweden can draw you into an unusual rhythm. The long, lonely stretches between towns are often completely deserted apart from the ever-present reindeer, often found wandering down the roads. Extreme natural phenomena are at their strongest here – in summer you’ll be travelling under the perpetual light of the midnight sun; in winter, under the haunting wraiths that are the northern lights. During the colder months, Lappland is a different country: a white wilderness traversed by huskies and snowmobiles, and punctuated with colourful Sami winter markets.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Lappland.
This illuminating museum is Sweden’s most thorough introduction to Sami culture. Follow the ‘spokes’ radiating from the central chamber, each dealing with a different theme – from traditional costume, silverware, creatures from Sami folk tales and 400-year-old painted shamans’ drums, to replicas of sacrificial sites and a diagram explaining the uses and significance of various reindeer entrails. The beautifully showcased collection of traditional silver jewellery features heavy collars, now making a comeback among Sami women after a long absence.
Housed in what used to be a nomad school, the tour de force at Arjeplog's Silvermuseet is the vast collection of Sami silver objects – the most extensive of its kind – including belt buckles, ornate spoons and goblets, and collars that would traditionally have been passed down from mother to daughter. You may also spot a dássko, a special bag for a silver spoon, used by the Southern Sami; shaman drums; and 2000-year-old skis worn by Sami hunters.
The largest national park in Sweden, 1984-sq-km Padjelanta gets its name from the Sami name Badjelánnda, meaning ‘higher land’, and appropriately consists of a vast plateau, largely above the treeline, surrounding three huge lakes: Vastenjávvre, Virihávvre and Sáluhávrre. It is the westernmost part of the World Heritage Area, bordering Norway. The park sees plenty of visitors as the 139-km Padjelanta Trail runs through it, accessed from Ritsem in the north and Kvikkjokk in the south.
To experience the life of the forest Sami, visit Båtsuoj, where Tom and Lotta Svensson practise their traditional livelihood full time. You can watch the reindeer get lassoed, stay overnight on reindeer skins inside a kåta (typical forest Sami log hut), learn about Sami shamanic practices, eat grilled reindeer and sip coffee cooked over a wood fire. Book visits in advance.
The World Heritage Area includes four national parks and two nature reserves within the districts of Jokkmokk and Gällivare. The magnificent Naturum Laponia, on Viedásnjárgga Headland in Stora Sjöfallet National Park, 92km off the E45, is the main visitor centre – though it's a long drive to get there. Laponia Visitor Centre Gällivare is at the train station and its equivalent in Jokkmokk is the Ájtte Museum. There are also visitor centres in Porjus and Kvikkjokk.
The largest natural reserve in Sweden and one of the largest protected areas in Europe, covering 5628 sq km, the Vindelfjällen Nature Reserve is named after the Vindelån, a hotspot for outdoors enthusiasts. Activities include hiking, horseback riding, dogsledding, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling , hunting, fishing and more. The main entry points for visiting the reserve are Ammarnäs, 88km northwest of Sorsele, and Hemavan, 148km northwest of Storuman. You'll find a Naturum (visitors centre) in both these towns.
Built in 1885, with seating for 2000 over two floors, Stensele Church is Sweden's biggest wooden church. A seat was provided for every man, woman and child in the parish. Enter this massive structure, push the right buttons, and an English explanation will boom over speakers loud enough to keep even the most sleepy sermon-listener awake. Located 5km east of Storuman.
The main attraction of Vilhelmina is its colourful restored church town. Its 30-plus cottages were built when the church was consecrated in 1792 and parishioners from distant villages were required to attend services from afar. These days you'll find Kyrkstaden buildings being used for a Sami handicraft shop, an old-style general store, an art gallery and a hostel.
Next to Jukkasjärvi Kyrka, Nutti Sámi Siida is a reindeer yard that you can tour with a Sami guide to learn about reindeer farming and traditional Sami housing. You can pick up excellent Sami duodji (handicrafts), chow down on Sami food and coffee at Café Sápmi, and arrange a stay at the nearby Reindeer Lodge. It's well worth a visit.