Have you heard that Santa Claus is Finnish and lives in Lapland” The ‘Lapin taika,’ Finnish for ‘the Magic of Lapland,’ can be seen in the expansive natural beauty of the land, its cultural treasures, the legends of the Sámi people and not to mention Santa’s North Pole hideaway. Here is a guide to all the must-see, must-do, and must-eat things in Lapland for the most magical winter experience.
Rovaniemi, the capital city of the Finnish Lapland is the largest populated city near the Arctic Circle as well as the hometown of Santa Claus. However, there is much more to Lapland than Santa Claus’ North Pole hideaway. There are many beautiful resorts, cities as well as cultural treasures to visit. If you’re looking for a truly magical Christmas experience, this is the place to go.
Along the river and around the city of Rovaniemi, visitors can find 70 lean-to shelters that can be freely used to roast sausages or snacks over an open fire and enjoy the outdoors. Firewood is even state provided. Along Finland’s longest river, Ounasjoki, you can see beautiful views of the Jätkänkynttilä Bridge, especially when illuminated at night.
The Arctic Circle Post Office, located in Rovaniemi, receives more than half a million Christmas letters every year from all over the world. Each year, Santa Claus leaves the village in a reindeer-drawn sleigh to deliver presents to children, and his send-off is broadcast internationally on December 23rd. All letters received with a clearly legible address are answered by Santa and receive a special stamp leaving the post office. If you want to send in your wish list for this year, you can reach Santa at: Santa Claus, Santa Claus’s Main Post Office, 96930 Napapiiri, Finland.
At Hotel Kakslauttanen, you can stay in a modern glass temperature-controlled igloo admiring the Northern Lights and stars in the night sky from the comfort of your own bed. The special thermal glass prevents the windows from frosting over.
About 18 kilometers from Levi, Gallery Raekallio has a beautiful selection of art. In the gallery, there is an ongoing exhibition by Reijo Raekallio. The small and cozy cottage which they rent is right near the gallery, with about four different rooms from which you can choose.
Located in the Arctic Circle (you can see the Arctic line in the center of the village), Santa Claus Holiday Village is the ultimate Christmas experience in a village which contains restaurants, reindeer, dog sledding, shops and brand new cabins equipped with personal saunas. It’s also the perfect location to be near nature and the neighborhood of Santa Claus.
If you prefer the great outdoors rooted in local tradition and homely atmosphere, then St. Lapland Accommodations and Activities offers high-standard cabins along with a wide range of restaurants offering local delicacies and homemade meals.
This hotel is made entirely of snow, including the rooms where you can cozy up in beds covered in reindeer fur. There is also a wedding chapel plus a Honeymoon Suite for those wishing to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
You can either stay in a glass igloo or the unique subterranean Northern Lights house at Levi Igloos Golden Crown. Partly built into the ground, the luxurious house is a personal and stunning holiday villa with large windows that allow you to have a beautiful view of the Northern Lights.
Nili berries (lingonberries, cloudberries, bilberries) | Courtesy of Nili Restaurant
Restaurants To Try:
Lapland restaurants serve fresh local ingredients ranging from northern forest berries and wild game to fresh seafood. Local dishes will often include items such as bilberries, lingonberries, cloudberries, salmon soup, hare, and, most popularly, reindeer meat.
Located in downtown Rovaniemi, Nili Restaurant’s interior transports you into the wilderness, and its menu is full of tasty and very stylish Lappish and Finnish cuisine. All year long, you can try the local favorite, sautéed reindeer, and the ‘Rovaniemi Market’ is a must-try on the menu, which serves a selection of the best delicacies of Lapland. The interior décor is handcrafted from Lappish wood, reindeer horns and leather. The word ‘Nili’ is a Finnish word for an old small Lappish food storage building built high up on a tree stump to keep food out of reach of animals. Tip: This place gets pretty crowded so always be sure to make a reservation.
This is a fine-dining restaurant located at one of the highest places in Rovaniemi, Ounasvaara mountain. Along with an incredible meal, you will enjoy beautiful views of the landscape. The food, though on the pricey side, is modern Finnish and Scandinavian made from the best local ingredients.
Located in the Arctic Circle, Santamus is festive in all holiday spirit. If you’re looking for a unique experience and a special atmosphere, this place is for you. The restaurant serves Lappish dishes and is known for its extremely friendly staff and hospitality.
Located in Rovaniemi in the Arctic Light Hotel, this restaurant’s menu is filled with game from the northern forests as well as fish and seafood. Favorites on the menu include the winter hare, Finnish moose, Arctic char, Norwegian crab, and mushroom soup. The atmosphere is sleek and modern with beautifully executed dishes and very friendly service — this restaurant is certainly worth a visit.
Located in the Santa Claus Village in Napapiiri, this hut-style restaurant is perfect if you love salmon. The staff prepares the salmon in a traditional way right in front of you, over an open fire. After about 20 minutes, they present it on a wooden plate with potato salad and bread — it is very simple food, prepared to perfection to honor the freshness of the ingredient. There are also desserts and drinks available in this small and cozy restaurant.
The restaurant gets its name from kota, which is the Finnish name for a Lappish hut. This is another restaurant located in the Santa Claus Village in Napapiiri with excellent food and divine desserts. The dishes are beautifully presented on plates, bowls and cutlery made all of birch wood. The interior is cozy with a large central fireplace to enjoy the Lappish delicacies around.
Reindeer sleigh rides — these can last from ten minutes up to a few hours depending on the trail. Most accommodations will have places they will recommend. After the sleigh ride, you can pet and feed the reindeer.
Hiking in Lapland, especially during the spring and autumn months, is the best way to see all that nature has to offer in this scenic country. It can also be done during the winter with the aid of snowshoes.
Ice-swimming, which literally means hopping into a man-made hole in a frozen lake or river, is preferably done right after the sauna, and when you emerge from the ice cold water, you will feel a surge of adrenaline and blood pumping in your veins. Locals swear by its healing powers of curing aches and pains. If you are not near a lake, you can also try the alternative of jumping into the snow right after the sauna.
Go skiing in one of the 75 ski resorts located in Finland. Many of the famous and largest resorts lie in Lapland and are known as the ‘Big Four’ — Levi (the most popular), Ylläs (the most fabled/oldest), Pyhä-Luosto (the most picturesque) and Ruka. They rise roughly 500 to more than 700 meters above sea level and have lengths of up to three kilometers. The season starts in October and runs until early May.
Go skiing on a frozen lake.
Go ice fishing, but be sure to remember your own equipment.
Dog sledding — these can last from ten minutes to several days if you go on a dog sledding trek in the northern most regions of Lapland. Sometimes there is a trained musher while you sit and relax for the ride. Others choose to go on a longer journey where they can command their own team of Siberian Huskies. The dogs are trained, and most people only need to learn how to stop and go on the sled.
Have a snowball fight. This isn’t like your regular snowball fight; here, you build fortresses, work in teams and try to get behind enemy lines. The fun is not limited to children.
At the end of January and beginning of February, you can celebrate the end of the polar night by going to the Skábmagovat, the Indigenous Peoples’ Film and TV Production Festival in Inari or join the Sámi for their National Day celebrations on February 6th.
Fresh Salmon Going Into The Fire | Image Courtesy of Santa's Salmon Place
In the summer, in July, you can take part in the Teno river salmon fishing championship in Utsjoki.
The Music Festival of Indigenous Peoples, Ijahis idja (Nightless Night) and the Triphon procession of the Russian-Orthodox Skolt-Sámi through four villages both take place in August.
Sámi, the only indigenous people of the European Union, live in the Northern parts of Finland, Norway, and Sweden as well as in parts of North-Eastern Russia. The preservation of their endangered language and culture is governed by an autonomous parliament of Inari, Finland. A visit to the village of Inari, the heart of the Sámi homeland, and to Siida, the museum of the Finnish Sámi, is an absolute must. At Siida, an indoor and outdoor museum, you can see changing exhibitions on culture, art and nature throughout the year.
Korundi, The Rovaniemi Art Museum, the northernmost regional art museum in Europe, has artist Heli Ryhänen’s Slow Motion sculpture on display inside one of its nine exhibit spaces. The focal point of its permanent collection is a series of works donated by Jenny and Antti Wihuri. The museum features Finnish modern art from the 1940s to today and collaborates with institutions such as the Finnish National Gallery.
Arktikum’s trademark glass tunnel (which stretches for 172 meters) leads from Ounasjoki River to the science center and the museum’s exhibition spaces. The museum offers visitors an overview of the intricacies of arctic nature. Between December and April, its windows offer a spectacular view of long-distance skaters and skiers gliding across the frozen river. The river is especially crowded on bright late winter days.
Next to Arktikum is one of the city’s newest draws — Pilke Science Center. A forest sector-run project, the interactive exhibition gives visitors the opportunity to get to know what forests mean to Finnish people. Interactive exhibitions give visitors the opportunity to, for example, perform karaoke songs about the woods and hunt virtual moose while learning about sustainable use of the forests.
At the shores of the Ivalojoki River lies Kultala, ‘The Golden Village,’ which in 1870 was the headquarters of officials governing gold prospecting. Now it is an open-air museum with several trails leading to it through the Hammastunturi wilderness, among them the 7.6-kilometer-long ‘Golden Trail.’ The trail runs along old gold mines and you can get more insights into the gold mining history of the area.
Every year there are international gold panning championships held in this village, which lies near the Urho Kekkonen National Park Saariselkä, a popular tourist destination. Today, Tankavaara is the only authentic European gold mining village and even looks like a 19th-century gold mining town. You can learn about gold prospecting all year-round and any found gold is yours to keep! You can also visit The Gold Museum, which traces the past and present history of the Finnish and international gold prospecting.
The autumn season paints the trees a beautiful ‘ruska‘ color.
The Saana fell, overlooking the village of Kilpisjärvi is holy to the native Sámi people (population of about 9,000 members) and sacrificial fires to the supreme god Ukkonen were burned at the top of it.
Dead trees or ‘kelo’ in Finnish are characteristic of Lapland’s nature.
‘Kaamos,’ or the two-month long Polar Night, begins in November when the sun no longer rises above the horizon. The darkness then takes on a blue and violet color.
The reindeer is an icon of Lapland and outnumber the people in the province.
The Midnight Sun lasts for as long as two months during the summer when the sun is able to be seen 24 hours per day.
Michaelmas begins on September 29th and occurs when winter’s gate creaks open and the wait for snow begins. Up north the first snow falls in October, and the region has permanent cover by November.
In Northern Finland, winter lasts around six months.
Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis, predict a snow storm.
Northern Lights shine every other clear night between September and March, and the further north you go the better. The lights might unexpectedly appear and just as quickly disappear just after sunset, so stay outside.
Elves, the guardians of the homes and hearths, are a real thing, and people show appreciation to them during the Christmas and winter months. Food and ale were/are left on the table in the darkest corner of the barn for them to eat and drink, and warm water was/is left in the saunas for them to be able to bathe. You will also find miniatures of elves in various places around homes and places in the region.
If you’re spending New Year in Lapland, there are a few legends. If you light the fireplace on the first try on New Year’s, you will be lucky in love. Huge drifts of snow on the yard predict wealth. If the New Year’s night is windy, it means the winter will be a harsh one.
January is the harshest month of the year. The Finnish named it ‘tammikuu’ or ‘oak month’ after the hardest trees in Finland.
When the new sun comes out in the spring, the first to see it receive the strength of its beams. Children also celebrate the new season by banging plates, ringing cow bells, and jingle bells.