Where there’s snow, there’s ice!

The evolution of the ice palace

Ice palaces

Image courtesy of Cynthia Elyce Rubin
A postcard painting by Herndom Davis depicts the winter magic of the Leadville, Colo. Ice Palace, 1896.

Travel Editor
The Norwegian American

The very first fanciful ice structure was built in 18th-century Russia when a cruel czarina, angry at one of her courtiers, made him get married and spend his wedding night in an ice palace built on the frozen Nerva River in 1740. The couple survived, but this was a beginning. 

The idea continued in Canada and the United States, usually as a complement to a winter carnival. Like a glistening fairy apparition, it would be a short leap to the idea of an ice hotel, complete with accommodations and even an ice bar.

Alt Norway ice bar

Photo: Oddbjørn Farkvam / VisitNorway
At the bar at Igloo Hotel Sorrisniva in Alta, Norway.

The building material was unusual. The Inuit people of the Arctic have always used ice as a premier building material, but for downtown Montreal, it was a first in 1883 with a simple ice castle as the centerpiece for a winter carnival. A costume ball took place, along with sports, such as snowshoeing, skiing, and curling, a game of Scottish origin in which stones slide toward a target. The weather was grand, helping to create a successful event. Canadians loved it, as did tourists. 

The opening of the ice palace was a highlight featured in The New York Times as front-page news. The Montreal Star reported “…spectators on foot, on horse, and in vehicles. There must have been 25-30 thousand persons present.”

St paul ice palace

Image courtesy of Cynthia Elyce Rubin
In 1886, the St. Paul, Minn., Ice Palace offered a variety of winter activities for its visitors.

Minnesota takes the lead

However, in 1886, a smallpox outbreak forced the cancellation of Montreal’s Winter Carnival. Enter St. Paul, Minn., a fast-growing city overlooking the Mississippi River, with business entrepreneurs wanting to celebrate “the magnificent climate of Minnesota.” One newspaper in New York had called St. Paul a “Siberia in winter,” so these citizens banded together to try something to show how Minnesotans spend the cold winter —sponsor a festival and an ice palace.

Image courtesy of Cynthia Elyce Rubin
St. Paul, Minn., Ice Palace

The organizers went to Montreal to enlist the aid of A.C. and J.H. Hutchinson to design and build the palace, in a form of a rising tower, 106 feet tall, defended by outworks. Within the grounds, there would be events and activities, including a baseball diamond, exhibit hall and rinks for skating and curling. Six toboggan slides were built and social activities were introduced that provided fun and enjoyable times. Good weather helped propel the success of this first venture that continues to this day. 

Other cities climbed on the bandwagon. Saranac Lake, N.Y., has a long history of building great structures as a highlight of its Winter Carnival festivities. Its first was built in 1898 and was referred to as “Ice Fortress.” It had fireworks and candles illuminating the Ice Fortress for both days of the carnival. This trend of North American ice palaces, which included St. Paul, Minn., and Leadville, Colo., (only one carnival in 1896) as well as Saranac Lake (ended in 1924 and then made a comeback in 1955) called for fantastic spectacles.

Icy nights

The next step in the evolution would be the concept of ice hotel. The first was the Icehotel, in the village of Jukkasjärvi in northern Sweden, about 11 miles from Kiruna and 124 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It began with Japanese ice artists visiting the area and creating an exhibition of ice art in 1989. In spring 1990, French artist Jannot Derid held an exhibition in an igloo in the same area.

Ice hotel Kirkenes

Photo: Michelle Raponi / Pixabay
The Snowhotel, 15 miles from Kirkenes, is one of four ice hotels in Norway. It offers wood cabins, restaurants, a reindeer farm, and 180 huskies to pull through the snowy landscape in a sleigh.

One night, there were no rooms available in town so some visitors asked permission to spend the night in the igloo at the exhibition hall. They slept in sleeping bags on top of reindeer skins and, in a sense, were the first guests of the “hotel.” And the rest is history. 

The entire structure is made of snow and ice blocks from the Torne River; even the glasses in the bar are made of ice. Each spring, Icehotel harvests tons of ice from the river and uses it to create ice sculpting classes, events, and product launches all over the world. When finished, the hotel features a bar, church, main hall, reception area, plus about 100 guest rooms. The hotel also contains an ice restaurant with furniture made of blocks of ice.

Ice hotel kirkenes

Photo: Adam Kerfoot-Roberts / Flickr
Entering the Snowhotel near Kirkenes, Norway, is like walking into a mysterious winter wonderland.

The Icehotel is known to be the largest hotel of its kind in the world, covering nearly 65,000 square feet. Each suite is unique and the architecture is changed each year. And in 2016 at the same location, the Icehotel 365 became the world’s first permanent ice and snow hotel, open all year round. Its legendary status still holds the title of the largest ice hotel on the planet. 

There are four ice hotels in Norway, including the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel in Alta. The first hotel was built in 1999, making it the second of its kind in the world. Everything here is constructed of ice and snow from the beds to the glasses.

“The special thing about Sorrisniva is that all our artists are locals,” says Jan Roger Eriksen, head of sales and marketing. “When they’re not sculpting and decorating the hotel, they work ordinary, everyday jobs here in Alta. One is a hairdresser, another drives a postal truck, a third works as a chef.”

Then there is the Snowhotel in Kirkenes, open year-round. Perched on the edge of a fjord, it is a 15-minute drive from Kirkenes. Here there are wood cabins, restaurants, and a reindeer farm. There are 180 huskies that carry guests on sleighs through the landscape. You can see the northern lights on clear nights and fish for king crab in the Norwegian Sea, before you eat it at the hotel restaurant in the evening. 

Kåre Tandvik, owner and founder, prepares each year’s construction. The name, he explains, was chosen to reflect the actual building materials. Solely of ice, “It would be like staying in a glasshouse. You have to use insulating now in the construction to seal the warmth in. No matter how cold it is outside, it will be comfortable inside.”


Photos: Esben Haakenstad / VisitLillehammer
The Hunderfossen Snow Hotel near Lillehammer, Norway, has a fairy-tale-like feeling.

The Tromsø Ice Domes in Troms in northern Norway lie in the tall surrounding mountains around the Tamokdalen Valley. Here, general manager, Eirik Tannvik, tells how the staff teach about the local animals, Sami culture, and the Norwegian polar explorers. There is lots of colored lighting and beautiful ice sculptures. You spend the night on warm reindeer skins and the days in dog sleds, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and northern lights chasing.

The Hunderfossen Snow Hotel in the Lillehammer region of eastern Norway is the world’s most southern example and is rebuilt every winter. The hotel is part of Hunderfossen Winter Park, a popular theme park based on traditional Norwegian fairy tales. In addition to the wonderful atmosphere, this hotel stands out for its diverse offering of live entertainment.

“From fairy-tale shows in the Troll Forest and castle gardens to snow rafting and amazing firework displays in the winter evenings, it’s always a magic and unique experience for the whole family,” says Thor Willy Christiansen, head of marketing.

In North America, the Hôtel de Glace near Quebec City, Canada, is the first and only ice hotel in North America. Opened in 2001 and moved several times until today, it is located on the slopes of the Laurentian mountains in the Charlesbourg borough at the Valcartier Vacation Village, a family resort in Saint-Gabriel-de-Valcartier that also has a large indoor water park and an outdoor water park in the summer. The hotel has a three-month lifespan.


Photos: Esben Haakenstad / VisitLillehammer
The Hunderfossen Snow Hotel

Some like it cool

And now there is Florida! In Orlando, there’s the ultimate cooldown for the grownup in all of us, the ICEBAR. When it’s hot in the summer, you can cool down here at it the largest permanent ice bar in the world. According to its advertising, the food and drink spot on International Drive holds more than 70 tons of hand-carved ice.


Photo courtesy of ICEBAR
While some like it hot in Orlando, Fla., others prefer to stay cool at the ICEBAR, the ultimate cool-down for the grown-up in us all. The ICEBAR reports to hold no less than 70 tons of hand-carved ice.

Inside its icy chambers, drinks are served in custom-carved ice glasses, as you are surrounded by ever-changing ice sculptures to admire. It’s a perfect atmosphere for those who are selfie happy. Upon arrival, you receive a thermal coat and pair of gloves. Faux fur coats are available to rent. There’s another lounge, where DJs spin and VIP bottle service is available. It’s the coolest night spot in the land of Disney and another step in the evolution of the ice palace.

Ice Domes

Photo: David Jansson / VisitNorway
The Tromsø Ice Domes in Troms in northern Norway is filled with dramatic colored lighting and beautiful ice sculptures. The staff teaches about the local animals, Sami culture, and Norwegian polar explorers.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 18, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history. She collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.