Luleå is the capital of Norrbotten, chartered in 1621, though it didn’t become a boom town until the late 19th century when the Malmbanan railway was built to transport iron ore from the Bothnian coast to Narvik (Norway). The town centre moved to its present location from Gammelstad, 9km to the northwest, in 1649 because of the falling sea level (8mm per year), due to postglacial uplift of the land.
A laid-back university town and an important high-tech centre, Luleå claims more than its fair share of top-notch restaurants for a town its size, as well as an enticing archipelago of islands off its coast and a sparkling bay with a marina.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Luleå.
The Unesco World Heritage–listed Gammelstad, Sweden's largest church town, was the medieval centre of northern Sweden. The 1492-built stone Nederluleå church has a reredos worthy of a cathedral and a wonderfully opulent pulpit. It has 420 wooden houses (where the pioneers stayed during weekend pilgrimages) and six church stables remaining. Guided tours (80kr) leave from the Gammelstad tourist office at 11am, 1pm and 3pm (mid-June to mid-August). Bus 9 runs hourly from Luleå; disembark at the Kyrkbyn stop.
This extensive offshore archipelago contains over 1700 large and small islands, most of them uninhabited and therefore perfect for skinny-dipping, berry picking, and camping. The larger islands, decorated with classic red-and-white Swedish summer cottages, are accessible by boat from Luleå. Facilities are limited, so most visitors come as picnicking daytrippers.
Besides the extensive displays on the history of Norrbotten, Norrbottens Museum is worth a visit for the Sami section alone, with its engrossing collection of photos, tools, and dioramas depicting traditional reindeer-herding Sami life, as well as a nomad tent for kids. The little ones will love the recreated 19th-century playrooms.
Curious minds of all ages will love the gigantic educational playground that is Teknikens Hus, within the university campus 4km north of town. The museum has hands-on exhibitions about everything from hot-air balloons and rocket launching to the aurora borealis. Take bus 4 or 5 to Universitetsentrén.