A tourism boomtown, the ‘official’ terrestrial residence of Santa Claus is the capital of Finnish Lapland and a more-or-less obligatory northern stop. Its wonderful Arktikum museum is the perfect introduction to the mysteries of these latitudes, and Rovaniemi is a good place to organise activities from. It’s also Lapland's transport hub.
The tiny village of Inari (Sámi: Anár) is Finland's most significant Sámi centre and is the place to begin to learn something of their culture. It boasts the wonderful Siida museum and Sajos, cultural centre and seat of the Finnish Sámi parliament, as well as excellent handicrafts shops.
The bustling, touristy village of Saariselkä (Sámi: Suolocielgi), 250km north of the Arctic Circle, makes a great spot to get active from. It’s a major winter destination for Christmassy experiences, sled safaris and skiing, and in summer serves as the main base for trekkers heading into the awesome Saariselkä Wilderness.
Right on the impressive Tornionjoki, northern Europe's longest free-flowing river, Tornio is joined to its Swedish counterpart Haparanda by short bridges. Cross-border shopping has boomed here in recent years, with new malls popping up like mushrooms. Don’t forget that Finland is an hour ahead of Sweden.
The area between the fells of Luosto (514m) and Pyhä (540m) forms a popular winter sports centre. Most forms part of Pyhä-Luosto National Park, excellent for trekking. Pyhä and Luosto both have ski slopes and are fully serviced resort ‘villages’. They make value-packed, if quiet, places to stay in summer with bargain modern apartments and log cottages available.
The remote village of Kilpisjärvi, the northernmost settlement in the ‘arm’ of Finland, has a memorable setting among lakes and snowy mountains on the doorstep of both Norway and Sweden. At 480m, this small border post, wedged between the lake of Kilpisjärvi and the magnificent surrounding fells, is also the highest village in Finland.
Likeable Sodankylä is the main service centre for one of Europe’s least populated areas, with a density of just 0.8 people per sq km. It’s at the junction of the main two highways and makes a decent staging post between Rovaniemi and the north; even if you’re just passing through, stop to see the wooden church – humble but achingly beautiful.
The village of Hetta, usually signposted as Enontekiö (the name of the municipal district) is an important Sámi town and a good place to start trekking and exploring the area. Though a bit spread out, it makes a good stop for a night or two. It’s also the northern end of the popular Hetta–Pallastunturi Trek.
The last significant stop on Rd 21 before Kilpisjärvi and Norway, Muonio sits on the scenic Muonionjoki that forms the border between Finland and Sweden. It's a fine base for summer and winter activities, including low-key skiing at nearby Olos. Most of the town was razed during WWII, but the 1817 wooden church escaped that fate.
Thirty-five kilometres northeast of Kolari, Ylläs is Finland’s highest skiable fell and Lapland's second-biggest ski resort. On either side of the mountain are the villages Äkäslompolo, prettily set by a lake, and smaller Ylläsjärvi. Both are typical ski-resort towns with top-end hotels, holiday cottages, charter flights and winter activities.