Lapland, in the north of Finland, is not just the birthplace of Santa Claus. It's a magical, fascinating region that offers a whole range of winter activities.
Sleeping under the Northern Lights, exploring the Christmas markets, reading beside a roaring fire with views of the snowy mountains, practising snow sports, sledging and visiting Santa's village are just some of things you can do in Lapland in winter. Finland's northernmost region awaits you with open arms and a packed programme of activities that invite you to revisit your childhood, if only for a few days.
Getting from Helsinki to Lapland
The first part of the journey is travelling to Finland. The easiest thing to do is fly to Helsinki, only 3 hours and 45 minutes away from Barcelona. Once you land, you have several options for travelling to Rovaniemi (or any other northern city you want to visit). The best way is to take the 12-hour night train (with a sleeper cabin), but if you want to get there faster you can take another flight and arrive in Lapland one hour and 20 minutes later.
Things to do in Lapland in winter
1. Winter sports to suit all tastes
There is no snow more beautiful or better for practising winter sports than the snow you'll find in the mountains of Lapland. The region boasts the best ski slopes in Finland and the choice is mind-blowing. The highest peaks are the Ylläs, Pallas, Levi, Pyhä and Suomu. The best resorts for children are Ylläs, Levi, Paljakka, Iso-Syöte, Ruka and Pyhä. For nightlife and the après ski scene, Ruka and Levi are the best options. And if you want somewhere quieter, away from the crowds, head to Salla, Iso-Syöte, Suomu, Saariselkä, Olos or Paljakka. Kaunispää, near Saariselkä, offers the longest sledging slope in Europe – 1,200 metres – as well as a panoramic restaurant that's well worth the visit.
If you're not particularly sporty but don't want to miss out on the pleasures of sliding across arctic snow, there's nothing better than snowmobiling or a reindeer safari that will take you deep into the wilderness of this breathtaking icy landscape.
2. Christmas markets
Christmas markets are magical in their own right, but even more so if they happen to take place in Lapland, that icy cold but charming part of the world where Christmas is lived in true style. Every year Rovaniemi, the capital, puts on a gorgeous display of handicrafts, Christmas decorations, clothes and gadgets, as well as typical food and drink and a fantastic programme of activities for children and concerts for all ages.
3. Santa Claus Village
And of course legend has it that Rovaniemi is where Santa Claus was born, so there are numerous activities that revolve around him. In fact, just 7 km away from Rovaniemi you'll find Santa Claus Village. Old Santa will be waiting for you everywhere you turn, and you'll even be able to chat with the elves that open all the letters received from children to make sure that the gifts reach every corner of the world. What more can you ask for?
4. The magic of the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights are visible in Lapland for around 200 nights in the year (especially from late August until April), and there are several ways to see them. You can go looking for them with snowshoes, skis, snowmobiles or sledges, or even enjoy the breathtaking sight from inside. A good way to do this is to stay overnight at one of the "glass huts" and gaze at the sky from a warm bed.
There's something to suit all tastes: from the tree houses at the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel in Rovaniemi to the Seaside Glass Villas in Kemi or the cosy Aurora Bubbles at the Wilderness Hotel Nellim with their unique views of the Finnish sky. You can't go wrong either with the glass huts at Santa’s Hotel or the Levi Igloos: 12 luxurious huts with glass ceilings built on Utsuvaara fell, 10 kilometres from Finland's most popular ski resort, Levi in Kittilä.
5. Life on an icebreaker
Another must-do activity if you travel to Lapland is a visit to the Sampo arctic icebreaker that used to open shipping routes in Finland's seas and is now a tourist attraction in Kemi. The thundering noise of more than 3,500 tonnes breaking the ice in the Gulf of Bothnia and the perfectly preserved nooks and crannies will take your breath away. And if you're feeling really brave, you can take a dip in the icy sea (don't worry, it's not compulsory).
6. Snow hotels
If you're curious about sleeping somewhere completely different, try spending a night at a "snow hotel". You'll find them at the Lapland Hotels Snow Village, near Ylläs and Levi, and at the Kemi SnowCastle Resort that opened in the mid-1990s.
7. Village road trip
Taking a road trip to discover all the towns and villages in Lapland (starting with the lively capital Rovaniemi with a population of 62,000) is an absolute delight. You'll drive down scenic roads, occasionally spotting the odd reindeer, through a wilderness of endless arctic landscapes that will give you a fascinating glimpse of life in this icy part of the world. And if you stay in Inari, you'll be able to visit the Lemmenjoki National Park, the largest in the country, with well-signposted trails for excursions. Lake Inari, Finland's second largest lake and Europe's six largest, offers a breathtaking natural spectacle as well as a whole range of activities.
In Saariselka, an hour from Inari (there's a good public transport network), you'll be able to practise every kind of snow sport imaginable. Salla, with just 3,400 inhabitants and located on the Russian border, has 160 kilometres of special slopes for professional skiers and beginners. At Ranua Wildlife Park you'll be able to see the animals that live in the Arctic, from polar bears in all their glory to brown bears, lynxes, foxes and other species in their own habitat.