Every year, Santa is the main attraction in Finnish Lapland. But there’s so much more to discover in this winter wonderland.
In this series, Lonely Planet’s team of writers and editors answers your travel problems and provides tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. A question about Lapland? Who better to answer than Kerry Walker, who has a whole sackful of happy memories of auroras, ice fishing and Sámi reindeer encounters.
Question: We are planning a trip for our kids to Lapland to see Santa Claus in December. Is there anything else to see or do there?
Kerry Walker: Sitting on Santa’s lap in a grotto and whispering what you want for Christmas is the reason most people travel all the way to Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland, in December. But let’s face it: it’s a heck of a journey for a stocking-filler present. Admittedly, you’re going to love it if you’re a kid: gingerbread-decorating elves, magic train rides, Rudolf and his flying friends…the whole spangly, jangly lot. It’s Christmas put through a Disney-like mill and turned up to max.
But far more enchanting is the vast, untouched white wonderland that unfurls north of the Arctic Circle – the ringing silence of frozen fells, the snow-daubed taiga forests and the remote Sámi lavvu tents. There, campfires are lit, stories are told in the light of flickering flames, joik (rhythmic poems) remembering long-lost ancestors are sung, with hot berry juice in hand, and reindeer dash through the deep, crisp, even snow.
Lapland beyond Santa
First tip: unless you’re coming to see Santa, don’t book in December. Prices spike in the build-up to Christmas, and flights and accommodations are at a premium. Generally speaking, the flakes fall in Lapland from late October to April. Peak season for northern lights is September to April, but you’ll up your chances if you come during the dark days of the Polar Night (late November to mid-January) when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon.
Most people have heard of Santa’s HQ in Rovaniemi, which is pretty easy to reach on a direct 3.5-hour flight from the UK – but the rest of the region is a mystery waiting to be unwrapped. So where to go?
If you want the high fell and rime-frosted forest drama of Lapland with a pinch of life, try the chilled-out, crowd-free ski resorts of Levi and Ylläs (fly to Kittilä). Here you’ll find Finland’s finest powder for cross-country, downhill and off-piste skiing – and, in Ylläs, the world’s only sauna gondola.
Quieter, you say? Try Saariselkä (fly to Ivalo), 250km (155 miles) north of the Arctic Circle, where you can sled down Lapland’s longest toboggan run and dive into the wondrously white Urho Kekkonen National Park, rolling east to the Russian border. Here you can swish through old-growth pine, spruce and birch on cross-country skis in blissful solitude and snatch a glimpse of fells of myth, including 486m (1595ft) Korvatunturi, Santa’s spiritual home. The scenery is the stuff of snow globes.
Into the Sámi wilds
Other sensationally lovely spots include Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park (fly to Kittilä) in the Lapland’s western wilds, but a snowball throw from the Swedish border. Straddling seven fells and sprinkled with traditional Lappish villages, the park is perfect for holing up in a log cabin and playing in the snow, with dogsledding, reindeer sleigh rides, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, ice fishing…the whole shebang. You’ll get a health kick here, too, breathing what is scientifically proven to be the world’s cleanest air. Nudging the Norwegian border in Finland’s far north, Utsjoki and Nuorgam (fly to Ivalo or Kirkenes) are remote bases for an authentic taste of the Arctic and a brush with Sámi culture.
Speaking of Sámi, their heart beats strongest around lakefront Inari, with big wilderness on the doorstep. The Sámi have 200 words to describe snow and 1000 words to describe reindeer – giving an insight into their nature-bound, season-driven way of life. Find out more about it by snowmobiling out to Petri Mattus’ reindeer farm or catching the grand finale of reindeer-racing season at the King’s Cup in early April.
Let there be light
Watching the aurora borealis flash, swoop and sway in night skies is, of course, the icing on the cake of any winter trip to Finnish Lapland. The longer you stay, the better the odds. But the good news is that much of the region lies within the aurora oval, meaning that – provided skies are clear and activity is good – your chances of seeing them are sky high. Finns call the lights revontulet (“fox fires”), referring to the myth that they were created by an Arctic fox who sent sparks flying into the sky as he ran through the snow.
The beauty of the northern lights is their unpredictability. But if you want to observe them from the comfort of bed, seek out one of Lapland’s aurora domes or igloos, such as the laser-heated, glass-roofed cabins at Wilderness Hotel Inari or the aurora bubbles at Wilderness Hotel Nellim.