Travel Destinations

Monday, April 20, 2015

What It’s Like to Stay in Sweden’s ICEHOTEL

ICEHOTEL Entrance Sweden
Welcome to Sweden's ICEHOTEL.
Almost everybody has heard of the famous ICEHOTEL.  For many, a night in Sweden’s ICEHOTEL is a once in a lifetime experiencethough there are a few who don’t understand the appeal of sleeping on a bed of ice in below freezing temperatures.  However, if you’ve never stayed in an ice hotel, you might not know very much about the realities of sleeping in a hotel entirely made of ice.

How the ICEHOTEL Began

ICEHOTEL 25th Anniversary Sweden
The ICEHOTEL celebrated its 25th anniversary during the 2014/15 season.
The ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi, a town within the Kiruna Municipality of Sweden, is the world’s original ice hotel and celebrated its 25th anniversary this past season.  Kiruna is a relatively new town, founded in 1900 to support its iron mine.  During our tour of the ICEHOTEL, we were told the story of the French artist Jannot Derid who wanted to create a reason for people to come visit this freezing destination.  He traveled to cold places around the world for inspiration and became intrigued with the art of ice sculpture in Japan.  In 1989, he constructed the first ICEHOTEL, erecting an ice building in which to display the ice art exhibition.  Every year since, the ICEHOTEL has been constructed along the shores of the Torne River. 

How the ICEHOTEL is Built

ICEHOTEL Lobby Sweden
The ICEHOTEL's lobby.
Sweden’s ICEHOTEL opens every year in December and closes in April.  The building materials, blocks of ice, are harvested from the Torne River every March before the river melts and stored in production halls.  The ICEHOTEL is brand new every year, as the previous year’s hotel melts back into the ground.  The only part that looks the same from year to year is the central pillar hall which is created using forms that are covered in snice, a mixture of snow and ice.  The forms are removed once construction is finished, so the ICEHOTEL is, in fact, a freestanding ice structure. 

ICEHOTEL Pillar Hall Sweden
The ICEHOTEL's Pillar Hall at night.
The ICEHOTEL usually has about 65 rooms of different kinds: deluxe suites, art suites, Northern Lights rooms, ice rooms, and snow rooms.  For the 25th anniversary, there were 16 art suites designed by 46 artists from 12 countries.  A contest is held every year so artists can submit their ideas for the art suites.  The winners are chosen and then the winners travel to Jukkasjärvi to turn their visions into reality.

Touring the ICEHOTEL

ICEHOTEL Prime Mate Art Suite Sweden
Prime Mate art suite.
The ICEHOTEL, including the individual cold rooms, are open to the public daily between 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., meaning guests do not keep their items in their rooms as the ICEHOTEL is more of a museum during the day.  Guests and visitors can walk through the rooms and take pictures throughout the day and can also join a guided tour that explains the history and process of making the ICEHOTEL.  Visitors who are not guests need to pay an entrance fee.


ICEHOTEL Cordoba Art Suite Sweden
Cordoba art suite.
What you may not know is that the ICEHOTEL has both cold rooms and warm rooms.  Most guests of the ICEHOTEL choose to stay only one night in a cold room and then spend the rest of their nights in a warm room.  A word to the wise, spend your first night in a cold room so you can be sure to get a good night’s rest the evening after.  We found that among most couples we talked to who had spent a night in a cold room, one had no problem sleeping (and kind of looked at the other one like they were a wuss), and the other half of the couple was slightly miserable.  I’ll let you guess who was who in our relationship.

ICEHOTEL Forest Fairy Art Suite Sweden
Forest Fairy art suite.
When you check-in to a cold room, you will check-in at the dressing room, which is used by cold room guests when they aren’t sleeping.  In the dressing room, guests get wall lockers to store their stuff, and if you’re staying in an art room, you get a dressing room.  Our Northern Lights room came with a wall locker, but we jumped the chance to upgrade to a dressing room so we’d have more room for our stuff and so we could charge all of our cameras, phones, and other equipment.  If you stick with the wall locker, you can also use the tiny electronics charging lockers.  The dressing room has a large seating area with a fireplace to hang out, plus his and hers bathrooms with toilets, showers, dressing areas, and saunas.

ICEHOTEL Polar Night Art Suite Sweden
Polar Night art suite.
When you check-in to either a warm or a cold room, you are also provided with mittens, boots, and warm coveralls which you can use for walking around outside and also for booked outdoor activities.  Speaking of activities, you can choose to book your own activities independently or you can book them through the ICEHOTEL, usually at the same cost.  Some of the activities offered are snowmobiling, dog sledding, reindeer sledding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice sculpting, and horseback riding.

ICEHOEL Spring Art Suite Sweden
Spring art suite.
No matter the temperature outside, the temperature inside the ICEHOTEL is a constant negative five degrees Celsius.  When you’re ready to turn in, you will be provided with super warm sleeping bags that are designed to withstand far below freezing temperatures.  If you’re a couple, you’ll be given the choice between a two-person sleeping bag or two individual sleeping bags.  Opt for the singles.  You’ll also get a tube sheet to slip into first.  

ICEHOTEL Time Piece Art Suite Sweden
Time Piece art suite.
Guests staying in a cold room should be sure to join the how to survive the night in negative five degrees tour.  You might be surprised to learn that less is actually more.  It’s best to wear good thermals (we love our his and hers Under Armour ColdGear), warm wool socks (Wigwams are the best), and a hat (Under Armour again).  Don’t wear additional pajamas.  The heat from your body warms up the air within the sleeping bag, and additional clothing just slows down the process.  

Related: Winter Travel Packing List: What to Pack for Outdoor Activities

ICEHOTEL 7.5 °Rø Art Suite Sweden
7.5 °Rø art suite.
The beds in the cold rooms are platforms of ice with foam sleeping pads and reindeer pelts lying on top.  You actually get warm pretty fast and the only time you really feel any cold through the night is if you decide to turn over.

ICEHOTEL Northern Lights Room Sweden
Our Northern Lights art room.
After you’ve accomplished the grand feat of spending the night in a cold room, you’ll receive a diploma with the date, the indoor temperature, the outdoor temperature (ours was -10 degrees Celsius), and the statement that you survived a night at the ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.  It is then time to move into a warm room.


ICEHOTEL Warm Rooms Sweden
The ICEHOTEL's warm rooms.
The ICEHOTEL has three kinds of warm rooms: arctic chalets, kaamos rooms, and Nordic chalets.  These rooms have all the comforts of a regular hotel room, including private bathrooms.  At every turn our room had reminders that we were staying at the ICEHOTEL: an icicle shaped lamp, an icicle shaped light in the headboard, and even an icicle shaped cutout in the shower drain.  Someone had even built a snowman right outside our window.

Eating at the ICEHOTEL

ICEHOTEL Restaurant Sweden
Icehotel Restaurant.
When you’re in Jukkasjärvi, you’re pretty much there for the ICEHOTEL and the activities.  There are only two restaurants in town, and one of them is the Icehotel Restaurant.  The other is the Homestead restaurant, a 15-minute walk down the street.  

ICEHOTEL Restaurant Bleak Roe Sweden
Bleak roe, onions, and sour cream served on an ice block.
At the Icehotel Restaurant, I had the set menu, with some of the courses served on a block of ice.  The first course was bleak roe, onions, and sour cream served with a potato rosti, a very traditional Swedish dish we saw on many menus.  Next was cured and lightly smoked arctic char with a fennel puree, arctic char mousse, and sea buckthorn.  My favorite course was the fillet of reindeer with Jägermeister sauce, potato, vegetables, reindeer moss, and cloudberry jelly.  Reindeer meat is some of the leanest and most tender I have ever had.  Dessert was caramel tuile, nougat ganache with truffles and arctic bramble sorbet.

ICEHOTEL Cafe and Lounge Sweden
Café and lounge behind the ICEHOTEL's main reception.
There is also a café behind the main reception area where sandwiches and drinks can be purchased throughout the day.

Drinking at the ICEHOTEL

After dinner at the restaurant, be sure to stop in for a drink at the ICEBAR BY ICEHOTEL, the original ice bar.  Cocktails and champagne are served in glasses made entirely of ice.  Cocktails are inspired by the year’s art suite themes and feature Nordic ingredients.

The Ice Church

ICEHOTEL Ice Church In The Glade Sweden
Ice Church: In the Glade.
Also on the property is an Ice Church that is built every year along with the ICEHOTEL.  More than 100 (very short) wedding ceremonies are held in the Ice Church every year.

The Northern Lights at the ICEHOTEL

ICEHOTEL Northern Lights Sweden
Northern Lights spotted above the ICEHOTEL.
In addition to the once in a lifetime experience of staying in an ice hotel, you’re probably also visiting because you’re hoping to see the Northern Lights.  Jukkasjärvi is such a tiny town there is very little light pollution.  If the Northern Lights start dancing overhead, the best place to see them from the hotel is right on the frozen Torne River just yards behind the hotel.

Related: Northern Lights: Where to See, How to Photograph

Entering the ICEHOTEL Sweden

I have to admit I had mixed feelings while staying at the ICEHOTEL.  For the months leading up to our stay, I was incredibly excited.  I thought it was fun to stay in a cold room for one night (and one night only).  But partway into our stay I began to feel like maybe it was gimmicky and wondered if it was really worth the cost.  I partly attribute these feelings to the lack of sleep the first night, as we stayed up late hoping to see the Northern Lights then went to our cold bed disappointed we hadn’t seen them, sure that night had been our best chance.   However, this feeling only lasted for a short time.  As I sat eating breakfast in the Icehotel Restaurant on our last morning I felt sad we were leaving and realized I had developed a great fondness for the ICEHOTEL and all its little touches like the icicle logo etched into the glasses and the diaphanous curtains hanging from the ceiling to mimic the Northern Lights.  I went into our stay at the ICEHOTEL thinking it was a once in a lifetime experience we were lucky to be able to enjoy, and I left feeling the exact same way. 

Thank you to the ICEHOTEL for hosting our stay and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.  

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Travel the World: What it's like to stay in Sweden's ICEHOTEL including sleeping in a cold room.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.