Exploring Swedish Lapland Through the Eyes of the Indigenous Community

Experiencing northern Sweden as some of Europe's first inhabitants intended.

Sami lavvu (traditional lodging) under northern lights
Photo: Lennart Pittja/©sapminature/Courtesy of Sápmi Nature

The northernmost stretches of Sweden are part of a greater nordic region known as Lapland. Tourism here is a relatively recent phenomenon, owing much of its genesis back to 1989 when theworld's first ice hotel opened in the remote village of Jukkasjärvi (population 548). In the years since, a handful of novelty lodges have sprung up appealing to a growing subset of travelers who long for luxury-lined adventure — and aurora borealis sightings, of course. You can now stay in artfully rendered treehouse suites in the towering pine forests of Harads, or make your way to the surprisingly cosmopolitan borough of Skellefteå for an overnight in the world's tallest all-wooden structure.

The northern lights in the Swedish Lapland
Courtesy of Laura Grier

Though its existence as a vacation getaway for U.S. travelers is new, primed by the Instagram era, Lapland's cultural history predates social media by several thousand years. In fact, the Sámi — a semi-nomadic people native to the region — are among the oldest known inhabitants in all of Europe. Connecting with these Indigenous stewards is essential to any proper visit to this part of the world, particularly for those compelled by ecotourism. And opportunities for such experiences are becoming more accessible as the Sámi take on a more active and central role in welcoming tourism to their homeland.

"I wanted to bring people into our land to enjoy our world and learn about our way of life," Lennart Pittja, who founded Sápmi Nature Camp in 2016, explains. The nature camp is set among the rugged and mountainous terrain of the Laponia World Heritage Site, a 90-minute drive from Pittja's hometown of Gällivare. "I have a little glamping place where we stay in traditional lavvu tents — but they are nicely fitted with heaters and beds and everything. From there we experience nature and the Sámi culture, which is best explored in the natural environment."

Interior of a Sami lavvu (traditional lodging)
Anna Öhlund Photography/©sapminature/Courtesy of Sápmi Nature
Sami lavvu (traditional lodging) around a fire
Lennart Pittja/©sapminature/Courtesy of Sápmi Nature

In the summer months, this entails observing wildlife such as moose and golden eagles along the Stuor Julevädno river. In the winter it means lacing up snowshoes or strapping into traditional wooden skies and spying uninterrupted glimpses of the Northern Lights. And no matter what time of year you arrive, it will always involve reindeer.

"I grew up in a reindeer-herding family, so there are a lot of stories to tell about our life with them," Pittja says. "Much the same as in other Indigenous cultures in the world, we have not been able to write in Sámi for that long — just a few decades. Before that all of the knowledge was passed on from one generation to the next by storytelling. So that's in our genes. And that's one of the reasons people appreciate coming here: because we are good storytellers."

Herding reindeer in Swedish Lapland
Lennart Pittja/©sapminature/Courtesy of Sápmi Nature

They're also great cooks, as Helena Länta is eager to demonstrate. In the Sámi hub of Jokkmokk, the reindeer herder and specialty meat purveyor works closely with Eva Gunnare, a local forager and cultural guide to bring guests on an epicurean journey. It's a physical one, too, as the dining experience typically involves spending time in the wilderness, scouting for traditional ingredients. Essence Of Lapland, as it is billed, is hosted in Gunnare's home and consists of a menu comprising "approximately 25 different taste sensations" and meant to showcase any of the eight distinct seasons observed by the Sámi. The four-hour immersive tasting will set you back $295 per person.

If you're arriving during the summer months, you can book an outdoor Sámi dining experience with Huuva Hideaway in Liehittäjä. The €125 rustic picnic is set amidst a reindeer corral and even includes a mixology class where local ingredients — including spruce shoots and cloudberries — are worked into wholly unique adult beverages.

Traditional Sami food outside of their lavvu (traditional lodging)
Lennart Pittja/©sapminature/Courtesy of Sápmi Nature

But you don't have to dine in the middle of the forest to fully savor the Sámi flavor. Their culinary influence has worked its way into many of the high-end kitchens of the region. At the stunning, nest-like Arctic Bath hotel, chef David Staf arranges inspired fare from a restaurant floating atop the Lule River. His kitchen sources produce — everything from dairy and honey to beef, lamb, mustard, and fish — out of neighboring towns, much of it from Sámi purveyors.

"Finding the local voices is essential for getting the most authentic experience," says Alex Minnis, COO at Off The Map Travel, which is why his UK-based luxury tourism has been consistently working with Pittja for years. "You have to be careful about the ways in which tourism impacts locals, and Lennart isn't just an incredibly fascinating person, he's also completely devoted to education."

Indeed, virtually all the Sámi entering the tourism space these days are keen to share their culture with outsiders. And as Pittja points out, there's an unmatchable sort of perspective that comes from 7,000 years of familial ties to a particular region. It's one you most certainly will miss out on if you come craving little else other than modern luxury and meteorological phenomena to post to your social media feeds. There's something profoundly more valuable to 'like' here.

"For me, this isn't just about [hospitality], it's about protecting life," Pittja adds. "Ecotourism is the way to create value in keeping nature intact. For big corporations, nature is just a resource or a commodity. But without the land, there will be no reindeer to graze. And without the reindeer we will not be here. From a global perspective, it's similar to what many other Indigenous peoples are facing. Nature is life. If you don't have clean water, it doesn't matter how many cars you have in the driveway."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles