Welcome to Lapland

Lapland is located in the northernmost portion of Finland. Located above the Arctic Circle, this region is renowned for its outdoor activities. You can experience the midnight sun in the summer, and in the winter, you have the chance to experience the magical northern lights. We chose to go in March. The daylight hours are slightly longer during this month (10-12 hours) and northern lights activity may be higher around the time of the spring equinox. Pack your warmest winter coat, and get ready to learn how to experience Lapland! 

Most flights to Lapland, have a connection in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. From Helsinki, you can easily take a flight to one of several airports located to the north in Lapland. Alternatively, you could drive, though this would be a long haul, as you would need at least 10 hours to get to even the southernmost portions of Lapland. We went with a third option, taking the train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, The Santa Claus Express.  

Train Travel to Lapland

We have long wanted to try overnight train travel. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to take the leap. From Helsinki, the night train departs around 11 PM and you will have approximately 12 hours as it travels north to Rovaniemi, making stops along the way. You can purchase your own cabin for two which we found more affordable than flying. The cost for two passengers, plus the cabin seemed economical, considering we saved the cost of airfare and a hotel night as well. Our plane arrived in Helsinki in the late morning, and we were able to take a short train ride from Helsinki airport to the train station downtown. There, they have oversize luggage storage lockers where you can safely store your luggage while you travel around and explore Helsinki. Thus, we shoved all our belongings, except for our backpacks, into these lockers, and headed out for a whirlwind, one day tour of Helsinki.

What to do with a Half Day in Helsinki

Our self created walking tour involved a large loop where we started and ended at the train station. Here are a list of the things that we thought were worth a quick stop.

  1. Amos Rex – an art museum with a few very cool installations, located outside of its entrance
  2. Temppeliaukio Church (aka Rock Church) – a Lutheran church carved into solid rock
  3. Kampii Chapel (aka Church of Silence) – a uniquely shaped structure designed to be a place of quiet respite in the busy city
  4. Fazer Cafe – a notable cafe with half of the cafe dedicated to sandwiches and teas and the other half to decadent, gorgeously crafted chocolates
  5. Kauppatori Seaport Market – numerous vendors sell market foods and handicrafts. Who knew that baked potatoes in so many forms were such a popular street food in Finland? Take a few minutes and stroll along the waterfront admiring the views of the city and the giant ferris wheel 
  6. Senate Square – architecturally beautiful buildings in the oldest part of Helsinki (stop at Uspenski Cathedral for a photo en route)
  7. Aleksanterinkatu – the central east-west street which is a pedestrian street in the summer

It was a long day without a basecamp to regroup while we waited for the train departure. So, plan for a leisurely lunch and dinner to break up the walking and get out of the chilly air for a bit. A final tip…grab some snacks for the train and a bit of breakfast for the next morning while you wait. 

The Santa Claus Express Train

The double-decker night train, also known as the Santa Claus Express, runs from Helsinki to Rovaniemi. We booked an upstairs cabin, which is a private cabin for two people with its own toilet and shower. Cost can range from 150-180 euros for the cabin. If you didn’t want/need a cabin, you can get a very inexpensive ticket for around 50-60 euros. For a 12 hour train ride though, I would spend the extra money for the cabin! 

In the chilly night air at the train station, there was a bit of excitement waiting for the train to arrive. When the massive train finally arrived, there was a rush as eager passengers clamored to board. We dragged our large bags down the narrow corridors to our room. 

Our initial impression…the room was incredibly tiny! When you bring your luggage into the room, there is very little space to move about. Each cabin is equipped with a bunkbed containing a blanket, pillow and a bottle of water, as well as a sink and toilet with a movable door that closes off the toilet area and forms a shower. If you have a smaller suitcase, you can place it underneath the lower bunkbed to make a bit more room. Ideally, if you had just a backpack and a duffel, you would have much more space. The cabin also had a window so you could watch the landscape turn into a snowy winter wonderland as you progressed north. I suppose, if you were really lucky, you could even witness the northern lights from your train cabin.

It was a tight squeeze, though we found it quite an adventure to travel to Lapland this way. It was also great to have a bit of private space for the 12 hours as the train lumbered along. Once we organized some of our things, the space wasn’t too bad. The door opens into the hallway with just the train’s wall across from you so some passengers did leave the door open if they felt a bit cramped. Some have remarked about difficulty sleeping with the train stopping en route though we had no trouble. My husband was able to take a quick shower and it was nice to have the sink handy for brushing your teeth before bed. 

We arrived in Rovaniemi the next morning overall refreshed and ready to hit the road. Also note that you can rent a car in Rovaniemi directly from the station. It was very convenient, though fair warning, it was chaos in the small station building with exiting passengers trying to get into cabs or pick up their rental car. 

The Home of Santa Claus, Rovaniemi

Rovaniemi is known as the hometown of Santa Claus as well as the regional capital of Lapland. It is located immediately south of the Arctic Circle. We spent a day and a half here exploring the city itself, as well as traveling north to Santa’s Village.  The city itself is fairly small, making it walkable; however, you will still need a car to travel to Santas Village, as well as to some great winter hiking. Here we stayed in the Arctic City Hotel in a junior suite with our own personal sauna. A delicious breakfast was included, which was plentiful. We would definitely recommend a stay here. As a bonus, there is free adjacent parking, which is very convenient to leave your car as you stroll about town.

Our highlights:

1. Ounsavaara Winter Trail – this is a network of trails about 10 minutes outside of the city. You can hike for miles or if you are short on time, I would suggest a quick jaunt (around 30 minutes one way) up to the Ounsavaara Observation Tower. Here you’ll be able to gaze upon miles of snow covered trees with a view toward the city itself. In Finland, there is also a very great parks system, and on several hikes, we encountered small warming stations.These are small fire pits with surrounding benches and a woodshed stocked with wood so you can keep the fire going. Quite charming! 

2. Arktikum Museum – as a bonus, if you are trying to spot the northern lights while in the city, a great place to get away from the street lamps is the Arctic Garden about a 10 minute walk behind the museum. Here you have a great view of the northern sky, free of some of the city’s light pollution. I would recommend a flashlight as the path is dark and pretty icy in the winter.

3. Santa’s Village – truly, no visit to Rovaniemi would be complete without a trip to Santa’s hometown. Is this a huge tourist trap? Absolutely. Despite the commercialization, though, there is a little bit of that Christmas magic as you stroll about the village. It is free to enter, and you’ll find dozens of souvenir shops along with a few restaurants. Most of the other activities do have a cost. For example, you can take a photograph with Santa Claus, however, there is a fee and you are discouraged from illicitly snapping a photo without paying. There are also reindeer rides, which, if I’m being truthful, made me feel very badly for the sad reindeer making a loop with a sleigh of tourists. If you have children, there are a number of other activities they are specifically geared toward their amusement, including a visit to Snowman Village and the Santa Claus post office where you can write a letter to Santa and receive a letter back around Christmas time. Our favorite part, was that the Arctic Circle line literally crosses through Santa’s Village. So, you can leap from below to above the Arctic Circle right in the village. At this spot, there is also a WebCam where you can wave to loved ones back home.

4. Restaurants – Rovaniemi is known as the culinary capital of the North. While restaurants weren’t abundant, we did find a few that were delicious and full of character. We especially loved Cafe Bar 21 and the adjacent Yuca. Café bar is known for delicious waffles and an assortment of decadent pastries and fanciful hot beverages. The neighboring Yuca has traditional Mexican fare. And finally, very far from gourmet dining, if you’d like to visit the world’s northernmost McDonald’s, you can also do that in Rovaniemi.

 

From Rovaniemi, we journeyed two hours to the north along a tree lined highway to reach the town of Levi. Levi is one of Finland’s largest ski towns and is comprised of gorgeous snow covered fells. We chose to stay at the Hotel Levi Panorama and Suites. Here we also had a a  junior suite with a private sauna. Fun fact, there are over 3 million saunas for a population of around 5.5 million people. Finland adores saunas. While we didn’t ski or snowboard in Finland as we wanted to see more sites and less of the slopes, the hotel has a great gondola that runs directly to the ski village below. After the ski slopes closed for the day, the gondola was free for hotel guests to journey down to the village. This was definitely a fantastic way to head to dinner. The village has a lot of great restaurants and shops to explore. 

One thing that we highly recommend in the Levi area is to find ‘Santa’s Cabin.’ This cabin is from the movie, A Christmas Story and you can travel here via your skis if you are on the slopes for the day or you can buy a day pass to ride Gondola 2000 to slope W.3. If you were very ambitious, you could even hike from the base of the mountain to the cabin. Once you exit the gondola, it is a short hike (I’d recommend snowshoes or microspikes) of about 15 minutes to reach the cabin. There, you’ll find a very picturesque cabin set on a hill overlooking a stunning valley filled with the famous tykky trees. These trees are formed at high altitude and are trees covered by a mix of snow and rime ice (supercooled water under certain wind conditions). These create beautiful snow laden trees that morph into fantastical tree sculptures. After the hike, absolutely head to Panoramic Restaurant Tuikku which is a perfect sunset spot. We also headed back here later in the evening to try to capture the northern lights. Given that the mountains are often covered by clouds, we did have to travel a bit outside of Levi to see the northern lights and had even better luck when we headed north to Inari. 

Inari, Directly Under the Aurora Oval

Which elected to end our trip to Lapland in Inari. Inari is located directly under the aurora oval, which gave us great optimism for seeing the northern lights. Furthermore, there is an excellent roadway system surrounding Inari, so you do have the opportunity to travel a bit if the cloud cover isn’t in your favor. Here we stayed in an Airbnb located directly on Lake Inari which afforded us an opportunity to cook but more importantly, we could hop right outside our cabin to the wide open lake below for the northern lights. Most nights, we used the Airbnb’s private sauna (a true theme for this trip) to warm up after many trips outside to check for the northern lights. We stocked up with groceries for these few days at K-market right in Inari. Interestingly, enough, the local gas station had a restaurant called Scanburger. While we did not dine here, a local baker in Inari makes some pretty delicious desserts you can take home.

In Inari, we spent our days on a few gorgeous winter hikes, and did a few day trips from Inari to the neighboring Saariselka. For winter hiking, it is wise to have a pair of microspikes on hand for some icy stretches. We can personally recommend the following hikes, Juuatua Nature Trail which you can access right from the town itself, the Bear’s Den Hike en route to Saariselka on route E75, and finally walking out onto frozen Lake Inari and exploring the many shores and small islands. There were an incredible number of animal tracks on the frozen lake. We often spied reindeer from afar, but never were able to get close for some photographs. We did, however find an antler frozen into the ice.

Saariselka and the World's Longest Toboggan Run

From Inari, we took two day trips approximately one hour south to another ski town, Saariselka. 

On day one, we packed two very unique Finnish activities into our day. At the Saariselka Ski Resort, we braved the world’s longest toboggan run. At the resort, you can rent a plastic sled and a helmet from the rental shop and purchase a two hour pass to ride the chairlift up and take some toboggan runs down. I’d say the run was the equivalent to a blue ski trail here in the United States. Pretty steep for a sled! Your only “brakes” are your mittened hands or your ski boots. I would advise using your hands as much as possible as using your boots kicks up a shower of snow, spraying into your face at a high velocity. During the two hours we managed about four runs. It is definite must do! At the base of the lodge, we also had lunch at Liegga which was pretty good mountain food. 

We capped off our day at Kiilopaa, a traditional Finnish smoke sauna. You can make a reservation one week in advance and the cost is approximately €15 for a 2 hour visit. Kiilopaa is listed as one of the top five sauna experiences in Finland. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from a smoke sauna, but it is as described. You enter a dark smoky room where the heat is generated from a large fire in the corner of the room. My husband truly enjoyed the sauna, but for me, I felt slightly smothered in the hot smoky room! I need to get more Finnish sauna practice. After a round in the sauna, you could take a plunge into an icy river. I have to admit that I didn’t make too many cycles of sauna to swimming and sat adjacent to the icy river serving as the photographer for other plungers! My husband used every last minute of the 2 hours, cycling between sauna and increasingly long plunges into the frigid waters. One tip…bring a towel! 

Our second day trip to Saariselka was for an experience with Husky & Co. For a cost of about €200, you had a two hour experience on a husky sled traveling about 10 km. There was a stop at the midway point to change drivers, and the trip concluded with a hot beverage and snack in a traditional Finnish hut. They provide you with a one-piece thermal coverall to wear to wear to shield you against the cutting wind.

The Magical Northern Lights in Lapland

Finally, one of the main goals of our trip was seeing the northern lights. We have written previously about how to experience this incredible natural phenomenon. You can click here to read more of our tips on how to experience these. We did struggle with some cloud cover during our time in Inari, but we were very happy with our choice to stay on the shores of Lake Inari which offered a wide open space where we could witness this mesmerizing spectacle. As we’ve mentioned before, aurora activity tends to be highest around the time of the equinoxes, thus, we would recommend doing this trip in March. 

From Inari, we journeyed in one longer trip back to Rovaniemi where we again caught the Santa Claus express train back down to Helsinki. Lapland, Finland was an incredible winter trip so get your warmest winter gear, get a rental car, and get up there to see the magic. 

Minor Indulgence

Given that saunas are such a large part of Finnish culture, we did select several slightly more expensive accommodations to have our own private saunas in. In the Arctic City Hotel, Hotel Levi Panorama and Suites and in our Inari Airbnb, we were spoiled by having a sauna all to ourselves. 

Major Buzz

We can think of no more exciting way to get to Lapland than by overnight train. The fact that it is called the Santa Claus Express? Perfect! 

Open Rhode Insider Tips

  1. Rent a car. You absolutely need one to experience Finnish Lapland. Pro tip you can rent one right at the Rovaniemi train station.
  2. It’s a long day in Helsinki waiting for the overnight train if you arrive early in the day. Utilize the storage lockers at the train station and build in some time for a leisurely lunch and/or dinner to pass some time and get out of the cold air. 
  3. Bring microspikes as many hiking trails are icy.
  4. As always, the aurora borealis is fickle. Maximize your changes by being ready to drive a bit and use some basic aurora apps to help determine cloud cover. 
  5. Do the toboggan run! Wear some clothing that you don’t mind getting wet or potentially roughened up. Ski goggles or glasses for eye protection are also very helpful. 
  6. In Nordic countries, dining out is often one of the largest expenses. If you have a place to cook a few meals, you will save a bit. 
  7. Don’t be afraid of the cold weather! Ski pants, warm boots and good hats and mittens make all of these activities bearable. 

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