Where you can experience Sami art and culture in Norway

Where you can experience Sami art and culture in Norway

Northern Norway is home to the original Sami, a people whose lives are centered around the spectacular and vast natural backdrop of the far north.

There are countless Sami-led travel companies in the region to learn more and experience some of their culture. In addition to a genuine eagerness to engage any visitor, you can expect to be offered delicious local Sami food served under a blanket of starry skies and northern lights.

Whether it is silence and solitude you are looking for or an itinerary with action-packed activities, we cover the best places to explore and appreciate Sami communities and culture in Norway.

Note: place names may vary in Sami and Norwegian. In this article, we use the Sami names with Norwegian in parentheses afterwards.

Who are the Sami?

The Sami are the indigenous people of Northern Europe. Their traditional regions extend across northern Sweden and Finland, the northwestern corner of Russia, the northern half of Norway and some of the southeast.

The Sámi have a stronger legal status in Norway than in the other countries, where Sámi is an official language alongside Norwegian, a Sámi parliament (with counterparts in Sweden and Finland) and laws to strengthen, protect and develop Sámi languages ​​( there are ten), plus Sami culture and society.

Left: A hut under a rainbow in autumn weather;  Right: A woman stands under a stand and dries fish.
Sami communities are found in parts of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia © Alexander Benjaminsen and Christine Baglo / Visit Norway

After 150 years of assimilation policy, which officially ended in the 1960s – but is perceived by many Sami as being effective – some areas have experienced a flourishing revitalization of Sami clothing, food, religion and philosophy. But at the same time, Sami areas are becoming increasingly attractive to mining and wind power companies. The result is the struggle and the demonstrations against the Norwegian government, which has given access to land used by the Sami for e.g. traditional reindeer husbandry.

The cultural revitalization we have seen in the last forty years has created a new pride in the Sami people and has made this fascinating culture more accessible to visitors. Community-led Sami experiences are offered in a large part of Norway, but the focus of the culture is in the north.

Roadtrip ancient Sami origin along the coast of Norway

Start your explorations of the origins of Sami culture in the northernmost county in Norway, Finnmark. Fly to Girkonjárga (Kirkenes in Norwegian), get a rental car, and take the scenic 90-minute drive to Vuonnabahta (Varangerbotn), which passes nature reserves, fjords and coastal scenes. The Sami coastal culture is the epitome of a combination of fishing and small farms.

Visit the Várjjat Sámi Museums for an interesting overview, with historical exhibitions, examples of traditional dwellings and the fish and animals that formed the basis of the Sami livelihood. The museum also has a nice shop with souvenirs and books if you are interested in learning about the different Sami cultures.

See the archeological site in Ceavccegeađge (Mortensnes)

The sacrificial stone in the Varangefjord, Norway, Norway, Mortensnes, Varangerfjord, Transstein, sacrificial stone, ritual stone, stele, tundra, history,
Offersten in Varangefjorden, Norway © Baesemann / Alamy

Twenty kilometers east of the museum is Ceavccegeađge (Mortensnes), where archaeological finds can trace human presence here 10,000 years back. A long time ago, it was not possible to determine specific ethnic features, but we know that features from Sámi culture from around 2000 years ago appear, and traces of burial sites and settlement continue all the way up to today’s Sámi population.

The area is covered with snow in winter, but from May to October you can follow the tracks and signs from the car park to see places with early settlements and a sacrificial stone in the middle of a maze made of small stones. The phallic stone was placed there a few hundred years ago, as a sacrificial site for fishing and hunting.

Hear traditional Sami song by Kjøllefjord

If you want to see more of the coastal side, head further north to Gilevuotna (Kjøllefjord), a fishing village close to the reindeer’s summer grazing. Davvi Sámi Siida offers various delicious dishes with seasonal reindeer meat, alongside storytelling with created (also called joik), the traditional Sami singing style.

The accommodation here is also traditional; maybe one night in one lava, the Sami’s traditional summer tent, temptations? In winter, comfortable cabins are a better choice. The area is also great for hiking, skiing and fishing in lakes or the ocean.

Reindeer graze in the snow Karasjok, Norway
Reindeer are an essential element of Sami life and are very friendly to visitors © Mona Dienhart / Getty Images

Sami contemporary art on the tundra

The highlands and tundra are the core of the North Sami reindeer lifestyle. On your way from the coast, stop at Sámi Dáiddaguovddáš (Sami Center for Contemporary Art) in Kárášjohka (Karasjok). They have changing and diverse exhibitions throughout the year by Sami visual artists, including installations, painting, video, photography, textiles and sculpture. While many Sami artists today are rooted in ancient traditions when it comes to techniques and materials, others are totally modern in their expression. In the center you can also find a good selection of Sami art books and music, both contemporary and traditional.

Take a free tour of the Sami Parliament

On the way out of Kárášjohka (Karasjok), towards the beautiful river valley village Máze (Masi), you pass the Sami Parliament building with its recognizable lava-shaped architecture. Hop on a free tour every Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday at 13:00, except during the weeks when Parliament meets (see calendar online for details).

A closer look at a gourmet reindeer steak served with spicy sauce and potatoes
Gourmet reindeer steak – the meat is grown in a sustainable way by the Sami community © Morten Falch Sortland / Getty Images

River safari and resistance to hydropower in Masi

With an almost exclusive Sami population, many living a lifestyle like reindeer, Máze itself is a quiet place between the town of Áltá (Alta) and the town of Guovdageaidnu (Kautokeino). It is also home to reindeer herder Johan P. Eira and his Sautso Safari. During the summer, he welcomes groups on a guided river safari to a giant hydroelectric dam, where he tells the story of the fifty-year-old struggle to save the river and how it submerged almost the entire village.

Afterwards, he lights a cozy bonfire lava and tells stories about Sami culture and serves reindeer meat. Can you imagine snow whipping in your face while you are put up in a large fur coat on a sleigh pulled by four racing reindeer? Well, your dream can come true as Sautso Safari gives the bolder visitor an action-packed winter experience with reindeer sledding on the frozen river.

Modern lávvu-shaped Sami architecture

The Sami reindeer culture is also central to the family-run Sámi Siida business a few kilometers from the center of Áltá. At their restaurant, the combination of a modern lava-shaped building with traditional Sami dishes in gourmet style is a winner. Tasty smoked reindeer meat and sweet cloudberry desserts are just some of the dishes on the menu. Getting within the cuddling distance to the reindeer, right outside, will win adults and children over. Don’t worry, reindeer never use their antlers on humans, only other reindeer when fighting during the mating season.

Davvi Siida talks to a group during a Sami Experience tour.  He has a large coat on and is standing next to an open fire.
Davvi Siida talks to a group during a Sami Experience tour © Christian Roth Christensen / Visit Norway

Festivals, fishing and alpine pleasures

Every year, Olmmáivággi (Manndalen), between Áltá and Romsa (Tromsø), hosts the international Riddu Riđđu Festivála. The festival name means ‘little storm on the coast’ in Northern Sami, but has a down-to-earth, relaxed atmosphere. Both Sami and other indigenous artists from around the world will perform at the festival in mid-July, in addition to art exhibitions, plays, dance shows, craft workshops, local food and workshops. More emphasis is placed on family activities and there is a quiet family camp. But for party-goers, there are plenty of beers and a regular campsite for the late night residents.

The rest of the year you can go deep sea fishing at Manndalen Sjøbuer. Rent a luxurious cabin and a fishing boat, and you are ready for a coastal Sami experience. The lucky fisherman (or woman) can bring home large cod or halibut. Why not combine your fishing trip with a bird experience? Have your camera ready to try to see sea eagles. Alpine pleasures in the nearby Lyngen Mountains include both off-piste skiing and randonée (cross-country skiing).

The Northern Lights over Tromsø
There are plenty of opportunities to see the northern lights with local Sami guides © Martin Ruegner / Getty Images

Chasing the northern lights near Tromsø and Lofoten

Going further south to the largest city in the region, Romsa (Tromsø), will offer you a more metropolitan experience. Visit Tromsø Arctic Reindeer to take on reindeer sledding under the northern lights, followed by relaxation in goahti (a cone-shaped building) with a three-course dinner. The large herd stays outside in the area, so you should have the opportunity to also photograph and feed the reindeer.

If you want a faster and more modern adventure, you can book short or long trips on snowmobiles from Romsa, Áltá or Guovdageaidnu or various smaller villages. Chasing the Northern Lights in the middle of the night will get your heart rate up. With a local guide who always follows the trails, you will feel completely safe. Ask in the hotel lobby where you live and they will be happy to arrange events for you.

If you are on your way to Lofoten in Nordland to see the northern lights, make a stop at Inga Sámi Siida near Suorttá (Sortland). They have a variety of accommodations, from glamping tents to traditional lava tent, parts of their reindeer herds close by, and also serves traditional Sami food.

South Sámi communities in Nordland and Trøndelag

Let us not forget the South Sami communities in the southern parts of Nordland and Trøndelag. Saemien Sijte is a South Sami museum and cultural center in Snåase (Snåsa), a three-hour drive north of the city of Tråante (Trondheim).

At the end of August 2022, you can experience Tjaktjen Tjåanghkoe, a festival that celebrates South Sámi culture and language with food, markets and music. It alternates every other year with the second South Sami festival, Raasten Rastah in Plassje (Røros), a two-hour drive south of Tråante (Trondheim).

A Sami woman picks cloudberries
Cloudberries make their way into several delicious Sami dishes © Christian Roth Christensen / Visit Norway

If you do not happen to be in a South Sami area during the festivals, try a dish with reindeer or fish in the local restaurants that are guaranteed to come from the area. Just like in the north, the basis of the South Sami cuisine is reindeer meat, a number of fish from rivers, lakes and seas as well as sweet cloudberries or sour cranberries.

The nature in Norway has only a little pollution, and because the reindeer graze all year round in mountains, forests or islands, they rarely eat concentrates. The Sami reindeer families take great pride in having fat, healthy reindeer that make tasty, tender meat, an organic and sustainable resource valued by the Sami people themselves, Norwegians and visitors.

Norway is on our 2022 Best of Travel list. For more stories from some of the world’s most exciting destinations click here.

Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for updated guidance before traveling under Covid-19.

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