Västerbotten, also known in English as West Bothnia or Westrobothnia, is a province (landskap) in the north of Sweden, bordering Ångermanland, Lapland, North Bothnia, and the Gulf of Bothnia. It is known for the cheese named after the province.
One of the reasons I chose to come to Umeå during the winter is that they run Saami Week every year in early March. I had expected something showy, touristy and perhaps artificial. What I found is exactly what I should have known. In my first year in Sweden, I went along to part of the weeklong Pride Festival in Gothenburg and was surprised. The pageantry was minimal; instead, it was made up of workshops, stalls and information.
Saami week was the same, whilst there was a yurt in the centre of town, which had music and information, most of the events were run by the museum, the cultural centre and the Opera. Sweden takes the important things seriously, which means giving people a legitimate chance to experience them and learn. Fun is part of it, but so is respect. England has an embarrassed acknowledgement of our folk traditions, often regarded as silly; there is little chance we’d host an upmarket event at the Opera House for Morris Dancing.
This is not a tourist occasion to show off the Saami; it is a chance for people interested and for the Saami to share their culture, art, and lifestyles.
Umeå is a university town. As such, it has a good number of decent bars and restaurants for its size. Overall it is a small town of about 120,000 people. Most shops can be found within a few blocks of each other, but there are several large shopping malls in that space, no doubt because of the heavy snow that falls for half of the year, making indoor shopping a preference.
Unlike some cities, Umeå has several older Scandinavian buildings in its city centre with plenty of space around them. It gives the city a quainter feel than it perhaps deserves and gives it more character. That's not to say it is not modernising, the new civic centre on the river and the university buildings are all modern impressive architecture. Umeå’s found a good balance here.
Towards the South-East end of the city centre is the City Church. The spire was visible from much of the city. Whilst nothing compared to the Churches of Stockholm, or even Gothenburg, it is still a strong visual symbol, facing a small park.
Near to the central station, there is the Opera house, a major auditorium for larger events, and the Black Box, a small, intimate venue for other opportunities. It was hosting Jubileumskonsert, as part of Saami week, an orchestra and some Saami musicians putting on a Joik.
I know little and less about describing music, but none the less I will try. The sound of the Joik thunders through you. It is the sounds of deep woods and dark tall stone. It is music made when in a cold valley with high fire. The women's voices are sharp and clear as glass, and they soar up to a moonless night. The sounds are traditional and modern, blended in the orchestra. The singers make words that are the sounds like the wind, the wolf, a guttering fire.
One thing you can see is there is such joy in their singing. There are smiles and the movement of happiness from the performers in a way that you rarely see.
The Sami cultural centre is open all year round as a cafe, art centre and cultural touchpoint. A Yurt is outside to see and use, though it is rarely sat in winter, and inside, you can get food, drinks and crafts.
Out by the Västerbotten Museum is the small, wooden Helena Elisabeth Church, over two hundred years old, and only with heating for the last fifty, it is a pleasant sight on the way to the museum.
In the centre of town, in the city square, was the Sami Yurt, featuring music, food, drinks and information sessions throughout the week. Like much of the Sami week, this was focused on giving the Sami a voice and a venue rather than spectacle and tourism. The venue was open and licensed surprisingly late, still serving beers at 1 am when many other bars had already closed.
To the north of the city centre, next to the Saami cultural centre, and easily reachable by bus is the Västerbotten Museum, giving information on a range of subjects. Divided up into approximately seven halls, the Museum covers famous local photographers, military history, ancient rock carvings and even a museum of skis, holding the oldest pair of skis in the world.
The small women's history museum is set in the library in the new civic building, shared with a hotel. Consisting of only two rooms, one of which was being refurbished, the Kvinnohistoriskt museum tells European women's story through examples. It offers a wall for visiting women to weave into a narrative of words they feel define them.
The jewel in the crown of Umeå’s museums, the newly built Bildmuseet, is part of the famous museum. Set over six floors with high profile exhibitions, the museum is well worth a visit. The top two floors were an exhibit created in partnership with CERN about space.
Further down, an African mosaic and a sound driven experience with a mechanical ‘heart’ in the centre and projections all around exploring the passage of time. The first floor was a creative space, where people could paint their own mural inspired by the professional one above.
The basement is the cafe and event space, and during my visit was home to the Saami quiz and lecture and spoken word poetry.
Expansive, well-curated and original, the Bildmuseet is worth visiting.
This was closed for refurbishment during my visit but is generally referenced as a key attraction to visit in Umeå and well worth attending.
A small park with private buildings near to the university.
About twenty minutes by public transport outside of the city is the Skulptureparken. Many sculptures scattered around the grounds of an office park. The snow-covered ground can hide many of them, so it is better viewed during the spring and summer months.
On top of a chimney stack, a lone horse watches everything.
Set in the city hall, Rex has a relaxed, upmarket vibe. Sunday brunch was excellent. Three courses, with smoothie and juice, shot included. It was a huge pile of food, but good value, with great service.
Out of the city centre, Zillers is set in one of the old gaol buildings and run by an energetic Austrian. Service is high-speed, and the food is wonderful. Heavy Germanic dishes. The decor is rustic, alpine, and a nice change of pace from Swedish minimalism.
Underneath Rex is the cellar bar. With a wide range of beers on tap, it is a big space, with lots of alcoves. A favourite of the more mature students, its a good place for a strong beer.
Opposite the central station, along the crescent with other restaurants and shops, is Köksbaren. Upmarket and pricey, they have a long communal table, as well as private ones. I had the reindeer carpaccio followed by a 60-day dry-aged steak. The meal was fantastic; the decor is pale woods and vaguely nautical.
The first thing you encounter, the Fritidscenter is a caravan park at the ski slopes' base. In the winter months, it also sells ski passes.
Partnering with STF, the Wärdhus is a hiker's hostel offering good sized clean rooms, shared private showers and delicious food.
Perhaps the most 'high end' place to stay in Ammarnäs. The Fjällhotell offers a swimming pool as a particular perk.
Not quite as large as Jäkkvik ICA, the Ammarnäs Livs is still a good-sized place for resupplying. It also has a more outdoor focus on its items than you find in the ICA, a more traditional supermarket with a few extra hiking options. Ammarnäs Livs has a range of dried foods, staples, and some cheap outdoor gear like fire-starters, sporks, pots, pans, and clothes. It also has a range of souvenir clothing. Additionally, Ammarnäs Livs is one of the King's Trail locations where you can send a post to yourself for collection. The staff are super helpful with storing it for you but do get in contact ahead of time to confirm the best delivery services to use any cost for storage or any policy changes.
Ammarnäs Livs also operates as a post centre, meaning you can send things back to yourself, and unlike Jäkkvik ICA, it does not require pre-preparation of printed shipping labels. 3/4 of the way along may seem late to be sending back items. Still, it was helpful to clear out some of the item's I realised I didn't need some old and dirty clothes (having had a resupply of new underwear and t-shirts in Jäkkvik) and ensuring my full memory card was safe.
A triple-threat in Ammarnäs, The Guidecentre is a hostel with a few rooms and a small store offering dried and fresh hiking food, some supplies and fishing equipment, and an excellent cafe/restaurant.
Closed the day I was in Ammarnäs, the Sami shop sells locally made. Sami handicrafts. A small selection of them can also be found in Ammarnäs Wärdshus. Worth a look, and many are small and light, making ideal additions to your pack at this late stage.
Built on an ice age hill, the potato field slopes are steep but have been worked continuously since 1827 by the community. Originally started by the first farmer in the area, Nils Johansson, it was voted as Sweden's Eighth Wonder in 2010. At the top, a firepit and benches offer a resting spot with lovely views across the town and the delta.
The wooden structure was built in 1910-12 by Karl August Eriksson, replacing the older chapel from the mid-nineteenth century.
Next to the church is a very well preserved Sami Church town, known as Lapplatsen. Originally windowless, over time, windows were added to the structures and they were used by the Sami when they came into town on errands or for church events.
In better days, a small nature museum, at the time of writing, the various Naturum's on the King's Trail was closed for visitors and offered outdoor meeting times to find out about safer activities that could be booked.
Many side trips can be arranged through the various guides at any of the accommodation centres.
The Naturum is also a good place to find out about options in the area.
Not really a town so much as a shopping mall with a collection of accommodation and ski options, Hemavan sits on Bluvågen and acts as either the start or end of the trail.
Transport: Buses into Umea twice a day. Daily flights to Stockholm from Hemavan Tanby Airport. Also on offer Helicopter trips to Ammarnäs.
Resupply: There are many options here from ICA Supermarket, the Fjällstation shop, and the shopping mall's activewear store.
Trolltunet is a cute 'alpine' village, set up just off the main road with a series of faux log cabins, which are done up in a modern style on the inside, and they're comfortable spacious. Due to corona, the the breakfast buffet was cancelled, but instead, breakfast was provided in the room's fridge of meats, cheese, cereals, juice and coffee, so it was not a hardship.
The largest place to stay in Hemavan is offering accommodation, an excellent restaurant, and a shop catering to hiking and fishing. The the shop is a good size, and the hiking clothes are reasonably priced, but all high-end brands, so if you are looking for a cheaper change of clothes, try the Mall. I picked up a Patagonia mid-layer on a special offer.
The restaurant is excellent and features a wood carving, almost certainly by the same artist who crafted the miner that marks the front of Adolfstrom's Mining camp. The Reindeer steak was fantastic, as was the strawberry sorbet, fresh strawberries and vanilla ice cream.
The Hiker's hostel, complete with a climbing wall on the outside. It doesn't appear to have a shop, nor does it sell the STF patches. (Naturum offers a small selection of hiking specific ones)
The hostel is a good size and a bit further back from the main town.
A typical supermarket cafe on the upper floor of the shopping mall has plenty of seating and a good view.
A fast-food joint near Trollstunet that sells great burgers and fries for a good price.
A small shopping mall contains a good-sized ICA supermarket, a Godis for snacks, a System for anyone needing a few beers or a bottle of wine. There is also a fun-land for kids, and upmarket boutique and a decent sized activewear store called Sportringen Outlet focused on camping equipment.
West of Trollstunet, and just before the shopping mall, the ironmonger shares space with a petrol station.
A proper hotel at the top of the hill near Naturum was closed during my visit, catering more to the ski crowd.
At the top of the hill, near to the end/start of Kungsleden. Much like Ammarnäs and Abisko, it was closed for visitors due to Corona but did have a small table outside with information and the chance to buy some small souvenirs.
If you take the lift in the Naturum to the golden dome or walk around the outside, you can find the Botanical Garden, with Sami Ketan, and a large selection of native plants, all with detailed labels to learn more about the natural world you pass on the trail.
It is a lovely spot to walk around in nice weather and a nice break for a casual stroll after a month of heavy hiking.
A lovely church from the '70s in Falu Red, worth a visit. As a a tourist town, the services in the summer are lead by priests from different areas of the country who come to visit.
Hemavan is the start of Kungsleden but also offers a range of other trail options. Check with one of the accommodation providers or direct with Naturum for options.