Lapland is Finland‘s northernmost province, and at its heart, is the city of Rovaniemi. The official capital of the region is best known as the hometown of Santa Claus, but with beautiful wilderness and an extensive list of activities on offer, Rovaniemi is the ultimate bucket list spot.
Everything about this place, from the fairytale creatures to the comforting food, unique hotels, and Northern Lights that dance over the Santa Claus Villages, makes this a truly memorable holiday destination. Perfect for adrenaline junkies, active families, and loved-up couples looking for romance under the aurora borealis skies, if you’ve not considered Rovaniemi for your next winter getaway, you’re about to.
Our guide brings you seven reasons why Rovaniemi is definitely worth visiting, from the festive charm to unique cuisine and the unmissable cultural attractions. Packed with excitement all year round, Rovaniemi is just waiting. Let’s get into it.
One of the best things about traveling abroad is discovering new cultures. Finnish culture shines through the architecture in Rovaniemi. Although the city was almost entirely destroyed in World War II, the contemporary buildings hold Lapland’s traditional charm.
Post-war, Alvar Aalto, Finland’s greatest architect, was here to work his magic and rebuild the city. Aalto decided to honor the city’s status as the capital of Lapland by designing its new layout in the shape of a reindeer head. The Keskuskenttä sports stadium is its eye. The roads leading north, west, and south make up the antlers.
There are numerous characteristic buildings in Rovaniemi. Arktikum’s iconic glass tube represents the frozen finger pointing to the north. Buildings of the Forestry Commission, including Science Centre Pilke, are entirely made of wood. An old postal bus depot, one of the few war survivors, has been renovated in a traditional fashion and it now serves as the Korundi House of Culture.
Rovaniemi is home to a wealth of picturesque, aesthetically pleasing, once-in-a-lifetime accommodation options that will leave you spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing a place to stay. Watch the Northern lights dance across the sky in a cabin with a glass roof. Or, if you find yourself in the area between November and March, you can stay in an actual hotel of ice.
The Northern Lights
A once-in-a-lifetime experience for any traveler, and usually one that’s top of the list if you’re visiting northern Europe, the aurora borealis is a spectacular weather phenomenon. Deep in Arctic Finland, Rovaniemi is one of the best places in the world to see it. If the skies are clear and the conditions are right, you can even view them from the city.
There are tours available if you want to venture out into the wilderness for a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights, which is sometimes the best option if you are only in Rovaniemi for a few days and don’t want to miss out. Experiences guides will take you to the best spots, provide you with arctic suits, and build campfires for you to huddle around. Alternatively, you can rent a car or a camper van and head out of the city on your own.
Rovaniemi also offers some of the most unique ways of viewing the Auroras, like via Ice Floating. The practice of lying back in an ice pool cut out of a frozen river or lake, wearing a special thermal suit, and gazing up at the sky. Or perhaps a Northern Lights flight would be more your style? Take an hour-long tour in a small aircraft to see the dancing lights from a different perspective.
Connecting to nature is a central element of Lappish life in Rovaniemi. The city’s residents take every chance to enjoy the incredible outdoors, with fishing and foraging or more active activities like hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling all popular with visitors.
There is nothing more surreal than having vast stretches of wilderness on your doorstep. Only twenty minutes walk from the city lies the Ounasvaara Fell, which has walking trails and wild rivers. In 15 minutes, you can reach the stunning Arctic Circle Hiking Area via Vaattunkiköngäs and Vikaköngäs. Get in touch with nature in the city by visiting Arktikum Park and its landmark glass tunnel. During the changing seasons, its character evolves and serves as a popular spot for locals to catch the Midnight Sun, watch the Northern Lights, and observe the wildlife.
The wilderness is brimming with flora and fauna that have become some of the city’s main attractions. One return resident of Finland’s forests is reindeer; in fact, there are more reindeers than people in Rovaniemi. But it’s not unusual to see a moose, rabbit, red fox, birds like golden eagles and ravens, and even a Lynx or wolf if you’re lucky.
The brown bear is also Finland’s national animal. Head south to spot the cute but scary mammal snacking on berries, mushrooms, bugs, and other woodland creatures. They hunt at night and hibernate in winter. For a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, visit Ranua Wildlife Park to see Finland’s very own polar bears.
Like the landscapes from which it originates, Lappish cuisine is simple but astonishing. Filled with fresh seasonal ingredients that bring original flavors, the Lappish food in Rovaniemi tastes as equally delicious in restaurants as it does at campfires in the wilderness.
Not surprisingly, reindeer are an essential part of Rovaniemi cuisine. Try their meat sautéed, served with mashed potato and fresh lingonberries, a dish favored in the city. As a local and globally loved animal, you’ll be happy to know that no part of reindeer goes unused. Try it served as fillets, cold cuts, jerky, minced, or in a sausage. They take the delicacy of reindeers so seriously that there is a spring Reindeer Chef of the Year competition.
The fire-roasted salmon from the fast-running rivers is also heavenly and like no other fillet you would have tasted before in terms of freshness. From early July, you can spot locals foraging for berries and fruit for the summer menus and jams that are enjoyed all year round. No visit to Rovaniemi is complete without trying the local dessert, leipäjuusto, or bread cheese, a squeaky soft cheese that is fried and served with fresh cloudberries or cloudberry jam.
The Official Home of Santa
It is said that Santa Claus’ original home lies in the mysterious Korvatunturi in Finnish Lapland. Rovaniemi became Santa’s Home town after a cabin was hastily constructed in 1950 to commemorate Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit. In 1985, the city established a Santa Claus Post Office, and in 2010 it became the Official Hometown of Santa Claus.
You can visit Santa every day of the year at the Santa Claus Village. A day will typically include plenty of festive-themed shopping, eating, rides on huskies, reindeer sleds, and snowmobiles. Not to mention a one-on-one with the big man himself – perfect for families.
The Santa Clause Post Office is an experience in itself. You can write to Santa and see all the presents and letters sent to Santa from children all over the world. Santa Claus Village is one of the top activities in Rovaniemi, and although open all year round, it is best experienced in the holiday season than meeting Santa. You’ll likely have to wait in line, but visiting Santa is free in Lapland, and the festive decor and scenes of elves making toys will keep excited kids occupied. You can even peruse pictures of all the famous faces who have made the trek to visit Santa in Rovaniemi, such as members of the British pop group, the Spice Girls.
The Outdoor Activities
There is an endless list of outdoor activities to enjoy in Rovaniemi. The locals, despite the weather, spend most of their time outdoors in the fresh air. You may never feel climatized to the harsh temperatures, but with appropriate clothing, you can enjoy the fresh outdoors just like a local.
Keeping in the Christmas spirit, reindeer sleighing is a huge thing here. Ride Santa’s sleigh through snowy landscapes and find out for yourself if it really does fly. In addition to reindeer, huskies are another indispensable part of Lapland culture. Locals actually use huskies to get around in really remote parts of the country, such as the Sami people in the far north, and the fast-speed sledding is a thrilling outdoor activity for tourists.
If you’re looking for an experience that’s just as stimulating but perhaps a tad more slow-paced, then The Lampivaara Amethyst Mine, about an hour and a half outside Rovaniemi, is a must-see. You can learn more about gemstones at an active mine and even mine your own. Your find can be made into a piece of jewelry that you can wear daily as a reminder of your trip.
As mentioned before, one activity that must be experienced is the Norther lights Wilderness tour. Though much focus is on seeing the Northern Lights, it also includes key wilderness elements where you are taught about Finnish nature and how the locals survived for hundreds of years using only what nature provides.
The Arctic Circle
By now, we’re sure you’re convinced that Rovaniemi is a must-see city, but how about venturing further into the region where few travelers have had the pleasure of visiting? Santa Claus Village is located right on the line that delineates the Arctic circle, and you can cross it.
In the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t completely set for two whole months and doesn’t rise in the dead of winter. The Arctic Circle sits at a latitude of 66° 33′ N, which if you weren’t very skilled at geography in school, means you’re on a springboard to the top of the world.
There are Arctic Circle markers at various points along the line across Finland. But Rovaniemi is the most accessible. There’s no need to trespass on a farm or stop in the middle of the road to get a great shot of your northern adventure. You’ll cross the Arctic Circle in just a minute and continue to Santa Claus Village next door. You’ll need to venture further into the region to experience some of the crazy weather phenomena mentioned above, but simply being able to say you’ve crossed into the region is a bucket-list-worthy event.
When is the best time to visit Rovaniemi?
The best time to experience festive joy and the best snowfall in Rovaniemi is From December to March when temperatures dip below freezing and the landscape is covered in a thick blanket of snow. Skiing, snowmobiling, husky-sledding, and Northern Lights chasing are all best enjoyed at this time of year, but is it also the most popular and expensive time to visit the Lappish capital.
The snow melts in April and nature awakens by May, but Rovaniemi is still magical in summer. The city basks in the Midnight Sun in June and July and the woodland is lush and perfect for foraging. Better yet, summer is the cheapest and quietest time in the city and you can even go and see Santa Claus.
How many days do you need in Rovaniemi?
Rovaniemi is a gateway to the Arctic Circle and Finnish Lapland and the best base of explore this region of Finland. Three to four days is the perfect time to spend in the actual city, trying your hand at some winter activities, visiting Santa Claus village, picking up some souvenirs from the wide range of shops, and enjoying the fine local restaurants. However, we recommend a few extra days if you want to venture further into Lapland. Levi is a prime skiing location, two hours from Rovaniemi, that definitely deserves a visit. The longer you have in Lapland, the better chance you have of seeing the Northern Lights too.
When can you see the Northern Lights in Rovaniemi?
The Northern Lights are unpredictable, but the season lasts from late August to mid-April in Rovaniemi, giving you a good chance of seeing them if you visit in winter. Rovaniemi offers really strong auroras that you can even see with interference from artificial light in the center, but you’re best off booking a tour into the wilderness for unspoiled views.