Lapland in winter is magical – but only if you have an appetite for sub-zero temperatures, thick layers of clothing, immensely short days, and tough snow-laden terrains. But in return, you will experience unrivalled gorgeous landscapes, exciting adventure sports & unique wildlife. There isn’t a better time to visit the Finnish Lapland than the winter months of December & January, specifically around Christmas time when the winter wonderland and home of Santa Claus comes to life in its full glory. Think reindeer rides, snowmobile safaris, husky safaris, Northern lights, igloos, saunas, ice-fishing and other thrilling activities that can only be enjoyed in the Arctic.
Packing appropriately is necessary when you visit Lapland in winter – the weather can be quite adverse, and you wouldn’t want your trip to be ruined because of frost bite or not having thick enough clothes to be able to enjoy being outdoors in -20 degrees C. It sounds, and is, tough no doubt, especially if you grew up in tropical or warm countries like I did. Thermal inners, fleece lined pants, waterproof and snow-resistant boots, woollen socks, down jackets or parkas, beanies, warm winter/ ski gloves, neck warmers, mittens…it’s time to shop!
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you plan to take this trip to the magical winter wonderland for Christmas:
- While tourist season starts to pick up late November/ early December, some parts of Lapland still don’t have enough snow for winter activities to start. The best time to experience Lapland in winter to the fullest is between mid-December – mid-March
- Contrary to popular belief, while this is a good time to see the Northern Lights, it’s not the best. It’s highly probable that the skies are covered by clouds on most nights and your view is hindered
- The days are short – sun rises at around 11 am and sets around 2 pm. This gives you barely 3-4 hours of light in a day, so don’t load up on too many activities unless they can be done in the dark (night skiing is quite popular in the well-lit ski areas of Lapland)
- Most activities will provide you appropriate top layers to protect you from the immense, biting cold. However, it’s best to be prepared with your own layers
- I always find it helpful to buy a local sim card when visiting a foreign country as it allows you access to GPS and makes it easier to find your way around than constantly asking the people. The DNA unlimited prepaid sim card came cheap and with unlimited data as well as calling minutes within Finland
- Buy the 1 or 2-day HSL ticket when in Helsinki to allow you unlimited rides on the public transportation system (trains, buses). While Helsinki has good connectivity, once you’re out into Lapland, the infrastructure is not the same; you would either need to rent a car to drive around and choose your accommodation carefully to give you easy access to the places you need to visit or rely on the taxis.
Day 0: Helsinki
If you’re planning on visiting Lapland in winter, you’re likely to fly into Helsinki, the capital of Finland. While the city itself doesn’t have a lot to see, if you’re travelling around Christmas time, you will find a cheerful vibe with festive markets in the city center. When we visited at the beginning of December, we were lucky to catch the Christmas opening parade on Aleksanterinkatu Street (or Aleksi, as called with love by the locals). The Market Square in Old Town transformed with fairy lights and decorations, into a beautiful festive market on the harbour serving hot wine (or glögi, the traditional Finnish version of mulled wine embellished with almonds, raisins and sometimes vodka). While most years, there’s another popular festive market at Senate Square, we visited during the time when the pandemic was still at its peak, so most markets were cancelled. Nevertheless, the streets were lit up and one could still feel the magic in the air.
As days are short in winter, one must plan their time and activities carefully. If you have the entire day in Helsinki, you could visit the city center later in the evening and take a ferry from the Market Square to Suomenlinna Fort (15 min ride, book here) during the daylight hours. If you already have the HSL ticket, you can use this ferry for free. While the area itself is interesting to explore from a historical perspective (it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the highlight of this trip, especially if you visit after mid-December, is the ferry ride through the icy waters; the sight of the ferry boat breaking the ice during the journey is unique and stunning.
Recommended hotel to stay in the heart of Downtown Helsinki: Hotel Finn
Day 1: Helsinki & Train to Rovaniemi
If you’re visiting Lapland in winter, I would highly recommend choosing Rovaniemi as your destination, for several reasons. Firstly, it is known as Santa Claus’ home and has an entire Santa village which is Christmassy throughout the year but truly comes alive during the festive season. The city is magical – with igloos, ski slopes, reindeer and husky rides, gorgeous hikes through snowy landscapes and what not.
The best way to get to Rovaniemi from Helsinki is by train. One can choose to fly but the trains are cheaper and while they take longer (12 hours appox), the sleeper trains are extremely comfortable and convenient, and will also give you the opportunity to save the costs for staying at a hotel overnight. You can book your train here.
On this day, assuming you have already explored the city center in Helsinki and its festive markets the day prior, take the opportunity to visit Töölönlahti bay, where you will find the famous landmark of Helsinki – Kalevala Monument in the Sibelius Park. While you are here, visit the cosy and charming Café Regatta, an outdoor café in a small, red cottage by the sea in Töölö, with a vintage countryside interior and decoration. Do not miss the opportunity to try fresh cinnamon buns and hot chocolate with marshmallows, as you warm your hands on the bonfire in the outdoor seating area of the café. In the winter, the waters of the ocean would have started to freeze, and the bright red color of the café, set against the grey backdrop of the incessantly cloudy winter skies, make this place totally Insta-worthy.
Another unmissable activity in Lapland in winter is visiting a sauna. Two saunas stand out in terms of popularity when it comes to Helsinki and I would recommend checking this activity off your to-do list while in the city, before you move to Lapland, as it’s easier to find here. The two most popular ones are – Allas Sea Pool, an outdoor hot pool overlooking the ocean; and Löyly Sauna, an indoor sauna with allows you the opportunity to take a dip in the icy waters of the ocean, should you choose to up your adventure quotient and go for an adrenaline-rush activity.
We chose the Löyly Sauna. One word of caution – the Finnish people like their saunas to be immensely hot (they kept adding wood to the steamer until it became almost 50 degrees C!!) and if you’re not used to this, you’re unlikely to be able to spend more than 10-15 minutes at a time. You could, in that case, choose to sit in the outdoor lounge, where you can buy some drinks to enjoy relaxation time. There’s also a restaurant attached to the sauna, in case you want to grab a bite. To be honest, I had not thought that I’d be able to take a dip in the icy ocean while it was -11 degrees C outside but when I was there and saw so many people attempt it, and spending 15 minutes inside the scorching, steamy sauna, along with my FOMO kicking in, I suddenly felt that I needed to do it! I did it, in fact twice, and I highly recommend not missing it.
In the evening, board your train to the heart of Lapland – Rovaniemi. Interestingly, the train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi is called The Santa Claus express. We took the train at 7.30 pm and reached Rovaniemi, after a wonderful cosy sleep, at 7.30 am the next day.
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Day 2 & 3: Santa Claus Village and other activities in Rovaniemi
You’ll arrive in Rovaniemi early in the day if you choose to take the overnight train journey. While in Rovaniemi, I highly recommend spending one night in an igloo hotel. These are expensive, no doubt (they are likely to be upwards of 400 $ a night), but the experience is extraordinary and unique, and absolutely worth it!
Igloo hotels are usually 2 types: the ones which are only shaped like an igloo but not made with snow. These are warm inside and have a glass façade that allows you to view the Northern Lights at night, should you be lucky enough; or the traditional, proper snow igloos. The glass igloos are open throughout the year whereas the ones made of snow only begin to pop up once the snow is thick and hard enough to build them, around mid or end of December. We stayed in Santa’s Igloo Arctic Circle; these are glass igloo located a short 5 min walk from Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi.
If you wish to enjoy a more authentic experience of staying in a traditional Snow Igloo, Arctic SnowHotel and Glass Igloos are a fantastic option. Although they’re situated about 30 min away from Rovaniemi in a city called Sinettä, these are the closest snow igloos in this area.
However, if you find it too expensive to stay in an igloo, you may choose to stay in Rovaniemi City Centre, which is only 15 minutes away from the Santa Claus Village, and can be easily reached by bus no. 8. We spent 1 night at the igloo resort and the remaining 3 nights at Hostel Cafe Koti, a very reasonably priced, excellent hostel in the city center. The hostel has great facilities, and is located not too far from the bus station that will bring you to the Santa Claus Village.
Santa Claus Village & Santa Park
You can spend the entire day (don’t forget, days are short!) in Santa Claus Village either exploring the area or doing some activities.
Reindeer Sleigh Ride:
You have an option to take a short or a longer reindeer sleigh ride at Santa’s Village. We did the 3-km long safari into the deep forest. Remember to bring warm clothes because it can get cold on this ride. Unfortunately, we did it a bit later in the day and the reindeers seemed tired and out of it, which meant they were moving slow, the opposite of what I had expected from the ride. I ended up feeling sorry for their plight!
You can book online here or just buy the tickets on the spot. A long ride costs about €70 (did I forget to mention that Finland is expensive?).
Husky Farm Visit and Short Ride:
The husky park is also at Santa Claus Village and because we had done the long reindeer sleigh ride, we decided to keep the Husky Ride shorter. However, I would recommend the opposite as I enjoyed the husky ride way more! The ticket includes visit to the husky park, where you can also pet the animals.
Book it online here or buy on the spot (but remember that sometimes the tickets sell out for the day so buy them earlier to be able to get a spot at a preferable hour). The short ride cost me €40.
Visit the ‘original’ Santa Claus and send a postcard back home
Visit Santa Claus’ office (free entrance but he charges for a picture!), watch the elves at work and send a postcard or a special letter from Mr Claus as a Christmas present to someone. Cards, letters, and parcels sent from Santa Claus’ Main Post Office are stamped with a genuine and popular Arctic Circle postmark, a perfect Lapland/ Finnish souvenir!
We were there early December, when the snow igloos of Snowman World were being built right next to the Santa Claus Village and were expected to open by mid-month. If you’re travelling to Lapland in winter, especially late December until February, Snowman World is an excellent place to enjoy activities such as snow and ice slides, snow tube, ice-skating, and even has a Snow Restaurant and Ice Bar. Tickets cost €28 and are valid all day.
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Day 4: Ounasvaara Ski Resort
Maybe you’re a ski enthusiast or maybe not, but you can’t be in Lapland in winter and not give skiing a shot! Ounasvaara is hardly a 10-minute drive from Rovaniemi City Center. Unfortunately, there is no bus that goes there so your only options are to drive to take a taxi. Taking a ski lesson is not too expensive (39 €/person for 2 or more people) which includes the lift pass; however, if that’s not up your alley, you could enjoy other activities such as tobogganing, or visit the Rendi Snow World for tubing. When we visit at the beginning December, there was not enough snow for tobogganing and tubing, but we did manage to take a ski lesson, a first for us!
You may skip Ounasvaara altogether if it doesn’t interest you and indulge in some other winter activities instead, such as:
- Snowmobile Safari: Absolutely recommended! We did a 2-hour safari through the Arctic snow forest, and it was an excellent experience. Click here for prices and booking.
- Snowshoeing in the wilderness: This one is for the adventurous souls! You may choose to do this during the daytime or even at night, to catch the Aurora Borealis! Click here for prices and booking.
- Aurora Borealis Ice Floating: Once again, this is not everyone’s cup of tea but if you are a daredevil (this was a bit too much for me too, honestly) then why not give this a shot? This is an amazing opportunity to catch some unparalleled, Instagram worthy photos! Click here for prices and booking.
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Day 5: Korouoma Canyon Frozen Waterfalls
This was, undoubtedly, one of the best experiences of our trip to Lapland in winter. We were given appropriate clothing and shoes to experience this 5-km hike through some of the most beautiful landscapes of the Arctic snow forest and a spectacular frozen waterfall. We booked it through a company that does only small group tours, and the trip is of about 7 hours, which includes the 2-hour drive to the Korouoma Canyon (and back), a tour guide for the hike, hot chocolate and a typical Finnish barbecue at the end of the hike. The scenery is breath-taking, as you walk through deep snow, crossing rapids, cliffs, and waterfalls. If you visit late in December or between Jan – Feb, you may even choose to do the ice-climbing on the waterfall (although, it’s really pricey but once-in-a-lifetime experience!).
Click here to book the hiking experience, and here for the ice-climbing experience.
Day 6: Visit Arctic SnowHotel
While you may choose to stay at the Arctic SnowHotel in an igloo, if that’s not something you end up doing, spending a day as a visitor is not a bad idea either.
While it maybe a bit pricey (hey, Lapland is not cheap!), Arctic SnowHotel has several packages for those wishing to experience their snow sauna or open-air jacuzzi and dine at the Ice Restaurant. Another activity that is only available during late December until March, Arctic SnowHotel is about 30 minutes’ drive from Rovaniemi’s city center (and 20 min from Santa Claus Village). Not only are the ice and snow sculptures quite riveting, the outdoor jacuzzi is a fascinating experience, while you watch the white blanket of snow around you, from the comfort of hot waters. If you’re lucky, you might catch the Northern Lights too! You also have the option to experience the traditional Finnish sauna and complete the experience with dinner at the Ice Restaurant, where all the tables and benches are made of ice. Too much ice and snow? I hope not! After all, isn’t that why you planned your trip to Lapland in winter
Click here to view their packages and visitors options.
Day 7 & 8: Kemi (optional)
Visiting Kemi only makes sense if you’re in Lapland in winter but after mid-December until end of March, as there isn’t enough snow before this time to operate the 2 key attractions of this city. A short journey by train from Rovaniemi (1 hr, 20 min), Kemi is known for its Sampo icebreaker cruises which are stunning and a unique experience. The cruise lasts for 3.5 hours on the frozen sea, where the views of its breaking through the ice are unimaginably spectacular. For the adventurous, there’s an option to try the ice floating experience, whereas the others could simply enjoy a hot drink in the Icebreaker bar.
Experience365, the website to book your Sampo Icebreaker Kemi cruise, also provides pick and drop from Rovaniemi at an additional cost, so you may choose that option if its more convenient for you.
Another advantage of booking your cruise through them is the complementary pass to enter the Kemi SnowCastle Resort. The snow castle is built every year from snow and ice made of sea water. Within the snowy walls, shining white pathways lead you to fairytale-like sceneries with gorgeous snow sculptures. There’s also a sauna in the snow castle and a restaurant to enjoy your lunch.
If you chose to stay back at Kemi for another day, you could explore the town, or head back to Rovaniemi, or even onwards to Helsinki by train (overnight journey, 11 hours) or flight.
You may wish to skip Kemi altogether and extend your stay at Rovaniemi.
Day 9: Return to Helsinki and Fly out
While there are direct flights from both Rovaniemi and Kemi, they’re quite pricey. Unless you’re in a hurry and want to save on the journey time, why not take a train back? I personally love long train journeys, be it overnight (which also saves your cost of staying in a hotel) or a daytime journey where you can savour the beautiful landscapes at a comfortable and enjoyable pace.
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