Lapland casts a powerful spell: there's something lonely and intangible here that fills it with Arctic magic. The midnight sun, the Sámi peoples, the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) and roaming reindeer are all components of this – as is Santa Claus himself, who ‘officially’ resides here – along with the awesome latitudes: at Nuorgam, the northernmost point, you have passed Iceland and nearly all of Canada and Alaska.
Spanning 30% of Finland’s land area, Lapland is home to just 3% of its population. Its vast wilderness is ripe for exploring on foot, skis or sled. The sense of space, pure air and big skies are what's most memorable here, more so than the towns.
Lapland’s far north is known as Sápmi, home of the Sámi, whose main communities are around Inari, Utsjoki and Hetta. Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle, is the most popular gateway to the north.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Lapland.
Some of Finland's most breathtaking scenery is within the 712-sq-km Kevo Strict Nature Reserve along the splendid 40km gorge of the Kevojoki (off-limits from April to mid-June). The main trail is 63km long (four days one way) and runs through the canyon, from the Sulaoja parking area 11km east of Karigasniemi on the road westbound from Kaamanen, to Kenesjärvi, on the Kaamanen–Utsjoki road. Be aware that hikers cannot hunt, fish or collect plants or berries, and must stay on marked trails.
One of Finland's most absorbing museums, state-of-the-art Siida offers a comprehensive overview of the Sámi and their environment. The main exhibition hall consists of a fabulous nature exhibition around the edge, detailing northern Lapland’s ecology by season, with wonderful photos and information panels. The centre of the room has detailed information on the Sámi, from their former seminomadic existence to modern times.
The highlight of this protected old-growth forest, 80km southeast of Rovaniemi off Rd 81, is the 16m-high Auttiköngäs waterfall. It's reached by a 3.5km nature trail, which winds from the car park and traverses a suspension bridge above the Auttijoki. Bird life here includes black woodpeckers, redstarts and crossbills, and, if you're lucky, grey wagtails and golden eagles. Next to the car park, a small hut has displays on log floating and the timber industry and a summer-opening cafe.
With its beautifully designed glass tunnel stretching out to the Ounasjoki, this is one of Finland’s finest museums. One half deals with Lapland, with information on Sámi culture and the history of Rovaniemi; the other offers a wide-ranging display on the Arctic, with superb static and interactive displays focusing on flora and fauna, as well as on the peoples of Arctic Europe, Asia and North America. Downstairs an audiovisual – basically a pretty slide show – plays on a constant loop.
Downstairs in the Metsähallitus (Finnish Forest and Park Service) building next to the Arktikum, this is a highly entertaining exhibition on Finnish forestry with a sustainability focus. It has dozens of interactive displays that are great for kids of all ages, who can clamber up into a bird house, build a timber-framed dwelling, get behind the wheel of a forest harvester or play games about forest management. Multilingual touch screens provide interesting background information.
Few things conjure fairy-tale romance like a snow castle. First built in 1996 as a Unicef project, this is a Lapland winter highlight and a favoured destination for weddings, honeymoons, and general marvelling at the ethereal light and sumptuously decorated interior. The design changes every year but always includes a chapel, a snow hotel, an ice bar and a restaurant (lunch menus €26, dinner menus €51 to €58; by reservation 11am to 2pm and 7pm to 9.30pm).
At the edge of Myössäjärvi, 16km south of Inari, look out for the Karhunpesäkivi rest stop. From here, a 300m timber boardwalk (mainly comprising steps) leads through the forest to Finland's largest tafone (cave-like formation found in granular rock), the only one in the world known to have shifted from its original base during the last ice age. You can enter the hollow boulder; although you have to crawl to enter, the honeycomb-like structure is high enough to stand upright.
Attached to the Levi Panorama hotel at the top of the main ski lift, this museum is a Unesco project. The illuminating exhibition gives plenty of good multilingual information on the Sámi, including details about their traditional beliefs and reindeer herding, accompanied by past and present photographs. Outdoors on the hillside is a collection of traditional kota huts and storage platforms.
In 1868 the remote area of Tankavaara on the Ivalojoki, 32km south of Saariselkä, experienced a gold rush, with a community of up to 500 panners seeking their fortune. The story is related in this museum, which also covers gold production around the world. A cubic metre of sand is on display, along with the sobering 2g of gold it normally contains here. In summer try your luck and pan for gold. There's an original smoke sauna and octagonal hut.