The Coolest Hotel on the Edge of the World: Kirkenes’ Snow Hotel

The Coolest Hotel on the Edge of the World: Kirkenes’ Snow Hotel

Kirkenes, a little Norwegian town just four miles east of the Russian border, is about as far north as you can go in mainland Europe. Positioned squarely within the Arctic Circle, the town experiences continuous daylight from May to September, and polar night from late November through January.

In the depths of winter, daytime temperatures hover around a constant 11 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sun sits on or below the horizon, just high enough to muster a faint blue glow visible at midday.

Outside the Snow Hotel in Kirkenes, Norway Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

Outside the Snow Hotel in Kirkenes, Norway
Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

You might think that the cold and darkness would send people running, but travelers searching for uncommon experiences have discovered that winter is when Kirkenes really comes alive.

You can take an exhilarating snowmobile ride, race teams of sled dogs, fish for king crab and, given the town’s near-perfect northern location and dry subarctic climate, catch a glimpse of the beautiful phenomenon known as the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis. And for unusual experiences like this, you need an equally unusual hotel to top everything off.

Viewing the Northern Lights on a visit to the Snow Hotel. Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

Magical Northern Lights on a visit to the Snow Hotel
Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

That’s where the world’s coolest hotel comes in: the Snow Hotel.

How Did it All Get Started?Kaare Tannvik, the owner of the Snow Hotel, was born and raised in Kirkenes. During the 1980s, he was involved in making documentary films about the indigenous Sami people that inhabit Norway’s far northern reaches and, particularly, his hometown.

Like many others, he grew up seeing that Kirkenes had a lot of potential as a tourist destination, but it wasn’t enough to pique anyone’s interest. It wasn’t until he made a trip to Finland in the winter of 2004 that things changed.

While he was there, he had the unique opportunity to stay in a hotel made entirely out of snow and realized that he could take the same idea back to Kirkenes, where the winters are cold enough to keep the snow from melting. He started the Snow Hotel in 2006, and since then, it’s grown and attracted more guests every year.

Outside the Snow Hotel in Kirkenes, Norway Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

Northern Lights over the Snow Hotel
Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

How Do They Make It?The Snow Hotel needs to be rebuilt every winter, since it’s left to melt once the warm spring season hits. Construction generally has to wait until December, when the temperature has normally stabilized below 32 degrees F.

Starting with the central point of the hotel, the rooms are made by inflating a giant balloon and blowing about six feet of snow over it. The snow is left to set for a few hours, then the balloon is deflated and the process repeated throughout the rest of the hotel.

Ice and snow sculptures inside each room of the Snow Hotel. Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

Ice and snow sculptures inside each room of the Snow Hotel
Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

As a finishing touch, all of the rooms are decorated with beautiful ice sculptures and finely detailed designs carved right into the snow walls. These sculptures are made every year by some of the world’s best snow and ice sculptors. They use more than 70 tons of ice for their creations each year, and decorations are always different from season to season.

Ice and snow sculptures inside each room of the Snow Hotel. Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

Ice and snow sculptures inside each room of the Snow Hotel
Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

What’s It Like Inside?The hotel’s interior is naturally on the chilly side; however, the densely snow-packed walls are enough to keep it insulated to a constant 23 degrees F, about 15-20 degrees warmer than outside. Most guests say it’s plenty to keep them sheltered from the bitter cold temperatures common at this time of year, as long as you bring hats, mittens, thermal underwear and a good coat.

You won’t find many manmade materials inside the hotel; even the beds are made of ice in each of the 20 guest rooms. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be sleeping on a frozen solid block. Guests are given air mattresses, heavy-duty sleeping bags made for temperatures up to -30 degrees F, and warm sheets and pillows, so it’s actually quite toasty once you slip under the covers. For less adventurous guests, the Snow Hotel has the option to stay in heated cabins modeled after the traditional dwellings of the Sami people, with modern furnishings, panoramic windows and heated floors.

Guests can choose to stay in heated cabins modeled after the traditional dwellings of the Sami people, with modern furnishings, panoramic windows and heated floors. Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

Guests can choose to stay in heated cabins modeled after the traditional dwellings of the Sami people
Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

A Toast at the Ice BarThe Ice Bar is easily the highlight of the hotel. Every year, the bar is made with the help of world-famous craftsmen from China’s Harbin Ice Festival. This is where some of the most beautiful ice sculptures are housed, each lit up with multicolored lights for a show-stopping display. Every year, about 15 tons of ice are used in the construction of the Ice Bar alone. It’s a great place to admire the work of these ice artisans, as well as warm up with a shot of chilled vodka, served in a shot glass made of ice, of course.

Ice sculptures inside the Snow Hotel. Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

Ice sculptures inside the Snow Hotel
Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

What Can I Do While I’m Here?No wintertime trip would be complete without a thrilling ride behind a team of sled dogs. Two passengers and a dog musher ride each sled out onto the frozen lakes and across the northern tundra, with rest stops to admire the lovely scenery surrounding Kirkenes. You’ll also have a chance to tour the hotel’s resident husky dog farm, where more than 80 dogs are raised and trained to pull sleds across the frozen landscape.


The big draw to this area is the celestial wonder of the Northern Lights. The hotel is located about 6.5 miles outside of town, far away from any light pollution, and the dry winters and abundance of clear nights make this the perfect destination for sky-gazers looking to catch a glimpse of the unearthly phenomenon.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights toward the end of the Norwegian winter

When guests start to feel the chill, they can relax in the hotel’s heated service building, which houses showers, a sauna and a handsome timbered restaurant serving locally-sourced fare.

One of the Snow Hotel's buildings, a timbered restaurant. Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

One of the Snow Hotel’s buildings, a timbered restaurant
Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

Travel to Uncommon Europe with MIRExperience this cool hotel for yourself on MIR’s luxury rail journey by private train: Arctic Explorer by Private Train: Quest for the Northern Lights. This winter adventure takes you on a fabulous tour of the Snow Hotel with the option to stay for a night at an additional expense. Embark on an exciting dogsled ride, feed the hotel’s resident reindeer and make an evening foray with an expert guest astronomer to search for the Northern Lights.

The tour also explores Western Russia and includes visits to the ice-free Arctic port of Murmansk, the Golden Ring towns of Vladimir and Suzdal, and magnificent Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Robb Report, a leading luxury lifestyle publication, recently highlighted this tour in their Luxury Newswire section.

You can also design your own winter adventure with the help of MIR’s custom, private journey specialists. MIR has 30 years of award-winning experience handcrafting custom journeys and fulfilling personal travel dreams to this slice of the globe.

Top photo: Outside the Snow Hotel in Kirkenes, Norway. Photo credit: Kirkenes Snow Hotel / Nevra Pictures

PUBLISHED: December 17, 2015

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