How an Ice Hotel Works

By: Sarah Dowdey
Image Gallery: Strange Tourist Attractions Sweden's ICEHOTEL is built every year on the river Torne. See more pictures of strange tourist attractions.
Peter Grant/Getty Images

You open your eyes to the soft, diffused light of fiber optics and dawn. Ice surrounds you -- some of it carved into furniture and sculpture, some of it in massive blocks that make up the walls, the ceiling and even the floor. But despite the room's beauty, it's time to get moving. After all, your room is 17 to 23 degrees Fahrenheit (-5 to -8 degrees Celsius) and you've just spent the night in a mummy bag on a slab of ice. The beauty, the cold and the quick morning escape are all part of the typical ice hotel experience.

Ice hotels are oversized, extravagant igloos. Solid blocks of ice make up their formidable, barrel-shaped structures. But inside, ice hotels glitter with elaborate ice furniture, ice bars and even ice glasses. Colorful lighting makes the structures look more like magical snow castles than frigid arctic dwellings.


The hotels are built near rivers where workers can draw water, freeze it into ice and cut the ice into large blocks before trucking it into place. Extensive, large-capacity ice hotels take about five to six weeks to build. But when spring comes, all the hard work melts away, and the hotels must wait until winter to rebuild.

­Ice hotels are part of a growing trend in destination hotels. People no longer select lodgings simply because they're close to holiday spots. With normal vacations just not cutting it anymore, hotels have become destinations in their own right. Arctic resorts that once had to close shop for the winter can now attract tourists year round.

People describe the experience of waking up after a night in an ice hotel as one of sheer exhilaration. Some say it even feels like an accomplishment. In the next section, we'll learn about the original ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden.



Guests have a drink "in the rocks."
Peter Grant/Getty Images

On the River Torne, 124 miles north of the Arctic Circle, sits the ICEHOTEL, the original large-scale, frozen destination hotel. The company that now runs ICEHOTEL began with summer river tourism -- whitewater rafting and nature hikes. In 1990, they built an igloo, the 197-square-foot Arctic Hall, as a venue for an art show.

Arctic Hall attracted extra visitors to Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, and one night, foreign tourists with reindeer skins and sleeping bags decided to sleep in the igloo. The tourists raved about their thrilling night and ICEHOTEL decided to create a working lodge for the next season.


Now ICEHOTEL boasts unique rooms, a starkly beautiful church and the ABSOLUT ICEBAR, where the bar and the glasses are all made from ice. During the day, the hotel opens to visitors who tour the rooms without staying the night. But at 6 p.m., the ice museum closes and overnight guests take over. They leave their luggage with a porter, who takes it to a heated storage area. Bathrooms and changing rooms are also heated. By 9 p.m., most people retire to their rooms. Guests wear long underwear and sleep in mummy bags on ice blocks covered by mattresses and reindeer skins.

The ICEHOTEL's design changes annually.
Peter Grant/Getty Images

Hotel employees wake up guests with a cup of hot lingonberry juice -- that is, if the guests make it through the night. No, not like that; this isn't "Call of the Wild." Ice hotels avoid unfortunate incidents by creating nearby heated chalets and lodges for guests who can't get cozy and want a warm bed in the middle of the night.

The hotel actually encourages guests to combine warm and cold accommodations, passing their first night in the ICEHOTEL and relaxing in warmth for the rest of their stay. Plus, a room at the ICEHOTEL doesn't come cheap. Simple rooms start at about $169 with current exchange rates and go up to $800 for a package that also includes an ice sculpting class and airport transfer.

ICEHOTEL distinguishes itself with thrillingly transitory art -- all made from ice, of course. Every season, the hotel invites artists and designers to create the entryway, suites and public spaces. An Art and Design Jury reviews applicants' resumes and renderings and selects a group. Their designs have ranged from starkly modern crystalline halls to Seuss-like four-poster beds. The artistic directors and ICEHOTEL architect supervise technical issues and, because the hotel rebuilds annually, the designs are never the same.


Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada

Ice hotels have their roots in igloo design.
Andrew Buckin/

Ice hotels are the elaborate, commercial descendants of igloos. Canadian and Greenland Inuit made the simple dwellings as temporary winter homes on hunting grounds. An experienced Inuit can build an igloo in only about one or two hours.

A person constructing an igloo cuts blocks of compact snow from deep drifts with a snow knife made from bone or metal. The blocks are large -- about 2 feet by 4 feet and 8 inches thick. The builder lays out the first row of blocks in a circle then shaves the top surface to form a sloping spiral. The layers gradually taper in until they form a dome with a small hole left for ventilation.


Igloos have a few other simple architectural details. A narrow passageway leads into the igloo and stores supplies, a sealskin flap keeps out drafts, and a window made from a sheet of ice or seal intestine lets in light. Igloos also have pans for burning seal blubber and snow beds covered in twigs and furs.

­Ice construction became less practical and more fantastical in 1955 when the Ice Palace made its debut at Quebec's Bonhomme, or Winter Carnival. The pre-Lent festival is the third-largest in the world after Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. It boasts an enormous castle made from snow and ice and its design ranges in style from Disney-like turrets to illuminated onion domes worthy of St. Basil's Cathedral.

With its snowy history, it's natural that Quebec would also have an impressive ice hotel. In 1996, the ice-structure enthusiast Jacques Debois found out about the Swedish ICEHOTEL. He had already built igloos and ice buildings for festivals around Canada but had not considered an ice lodging. He soon opened the Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada in Sainte-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier about 30 minutes outside of Quebec City.

The hotel operates on the grounds of the Station Touristique Duchesnay, a resort for ice skating. The hotel grows nearly every year -- it has 36 rooms and themed suites, an ice chapel, galleries and a bar. Like its Swedish counterpart, Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada also gives public tours during the day.


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More Great Links


  • Absolut Icebar.
  • Baldwin, Letitia. "Cold Comfort." The Boston Globe. January 30th, 2005.
  • Bernstein, Fred A. "Ste.- Catherine- de- la- Jacques- Cartier, Quebec Ice Hotel Quebec." The New York Times. December 17, 2006.">
  • "Carnaval de Quebec."
  • Conlin, Jennifer. "Being Cold is the Hot Trend this Winter." The New York Times. December 17, 2006.
  • "Eco dilemma: Is it OK to stay in an ice hotel?" The Guardian. March 17, 2007.
  • Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada.
  • "Igloo." (2007). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved September 21, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:
  • O'Brien, Harriet. "Ice Hotels: Cold Comforts." The Independent. January 19, 2007.
  • Ohman, Susanna Porter. Personal correspondence. [September 26, 2007].