This article is Part 1 of our 4 part series on planning the ultimate trip to Lapland, Finland
Read Part 2 The Ultimate Guide to Packing for Finnish Lapland (opens in a new tab)
Read Part 3 The Ultimate Guide to Lapland Safaris (opens in a new tab)
Read Part 4 Staring at the Northern Lights in Saariselka (opens in a new tab)
Most people (us included!) wouldn’t blink an eyelid before planning a trip halfway around the world just for a single once-in-a-lifetime experience. Be it jumping off a bridge in South Africa, watching the sun rise at Angkor Wat (Cambodia), participating in the Tomatina Festival in Bunol (Spain), or staying in a villa suspended over water in Bora Bora – we’re all guilty of booking an air ticket just to tick one item off our bucket list.
But what if a trip promises not one or two but over a dozen once-in-a-lifetime experiences at one go? You’d jump right into it, wouldn’t you? Well that’s what we did. We slept in an igloo, rode on reindeer sleighs, played with husky dogs, tobogganed down ice slides, walked on a frozen ocean, marvelled at the elusive Northern Lights, and even floated in water with icebergs for company. Phew!!
Finnish Lapland is a truly phenomenal corner of the world. We’ve been to over 45 countries and have experienced some crazy things but very rarely have we seen beauty that left us dumbstruck. Literally! I’ll let you into a secret – I carry a travel journal with me wherever I go. I’m perpetually scribbling notes in it. It’s somewhat of a ritual. But for one whole week in Finnish Lapland, I penned nothing in my journal. Yep, nothing, nada, zilch!!
That’s how long it took me to accustom myself to the surreal beauty of Finnish Lapland. This corner of the world, located at the Northernmost tip of Continental Europe is so special that I don’t know where to start. The air is clear (no pollution here!), water is sugary sweet, the sky sparkles with thousands of stars, and the snow-laden landscape seduces people into thinking this is paradise. It could well be!
If you want to explore this area for yourself, look no further. Here’s the ultimate itinerary for exploring Finnish Lapland.
Now for the fun stuff. Get ready, ladies and gentlemen, for the virtual ride of a lifetime. Don’t blame us if you’re tempted to book a flight to Lapland as soon as you finish looking at these photos. Here’s a summary of our experiences and our suggestions for planning an itinerary for Lapland 🙂
Day 1 – Fly into Oulu
Oulu is just over an hour away from Helsinki. The two cities are well connected through multiple flights a day. You will find a white landscape, laden with snow, when you land in Oulu. Once you’re in Oulu, you could stay there for the night or take the train to Kemi, a small Finnish city close to a deep harbour.
- Take bus no. 9 from Oulu Airport to the city centre/train station.
- You can book your train tickets to Kemi in advance on this website : www.vr.fi/cs/vr/en/
Days 2 and 3- Float with Icebergs in Kemi
This is when the fun begins in real ernest. On this day, you will witness a castle made entirely out of ice and hop aboard an ice-breaker cruise ship. Ice-breaker sampos are used to transport goods from one port to the other in this part of the world but Kemi’s ice-breaker sampo is one of the very few that allow tourists on board.
A free shuttle bus ferries passengers from Kemi’s train station to the Ice Breaker Sampo. A short drive later, you will see a ship looming large in the distance. Chunky boulders of ice surround it. This is the Gulf of Bothnia, Europe’s largest mass of frozen ice. You might have been on many a cruise but nothing like this one. A loud horn heralds the start of an unforgettable journey – the ship leaves the harbour, cutting through the frozen Baltic Sea.
It might be cold outside but it’s hard to tear yourself away from the surreal sight of a frozen sea stretching out in front of your eyes. Our favourite part? A short pit-stop in the middle of the journey where passengers are given the opportunity to don bright floatation suits and plunge in ice-cold waters with a few other fellow crazies for company. My heart was in my mouth for the first ten seconds of the plunge but I really really enjoyed the rest of it 🙂
The free shuttle bus is waiting for passengers when the cruise ship gets back. It drops tourists at the snow castle of Kemi, which is straight out of the fairytales. You could wander around and walk back to the train station (a pleasant 20 minute walk) or spend the night at one of their unique ice-rooms. Did you ever think you would be sleeping on a bed of ice? Now is the chance to make that dream come true
- This should be one of the first things you book because cruise tickets get sold out months in advance. The cruise can be booked here :- www.visitkemi.fi. You could also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Sampo Icebreaker Cruise costs €270 per person. This cost includes food, polar plunge experience, and the return journey on the cruise ship
- There is a free shuttle bus that ferries tourists from Kemi train station to the Ice Breaker Sampo and the Snow Castle
- Entry to the Snow Castle costs €15. If you want to spend a night in the ice hotel, prices start at €155. More information on their website www.visitkemi.fi/en/snowcastle
Day 4 – Settle into Rovaniemi
A short train ride will get you to Rovaniemi, the bustling capital of Lapland situated on the Arctic Circle. Rovaniemi is also famous for being the home of Santa Claus. Did we not say Lapland is straight out of our childhood fantasies? 🙂
Rovaniemi is the perfect base for exploring Lapland and all it has to offer. No wonder it features heavily on most itineraries of Lapland. We stayed at Santa’s Hotel Santa Claus and loved it. The hotel’s location is perfect – it’s less than a five minute walk away from most of Rovaniemi’s supermarkets, restaurants, and excursion providers.
Our spacious suite was on the sixth floor, overlooking the river. The room was modern, kitted out with a private Finnish sauna (where Vid spent most of his time 😉 ). Breakfast was plentiful with a wide variety of vegetables, salmon, eggs, meat, fruits, cookies, and cheese on offer.
- Stay in a centrally-located hotel in Rovaniemi. We stayed at Santa’s hotel Santa Claus and will happily recommend it. You can find the best rates here
- Make sure you spend time in the Finnish sauna – it’s unique and rejuvenating
Days 5 and 6 – Experience the best of Lapland’s safaris
Once you’ve settled into Rovaniemi, it’s time for the adventures to begin. There are photo opportunities galore. You can spend your days snowmobiling on frozen rivers, driving through stunning Arctic forests, visiting husky dog farms and playing with furry creatures, or hunting for the mysterious Northern Lights. Northern Lights’ excursions in Rovaniemi involve driving out of town, spending hours listening to Sami folk tales and BBQing sausages in a tent in the Arctic Wilderness – SO good 🙂
- Lapland Safaris offer husky-dog safaris, snowmobiling, visits to reindeer farms, and Northern Lights excursions. Safaris start at €100/person.
- We recommend pre-booking all your safaris with Lapland Safaris. That way you can keep their Arctic overalls, ski gloves, even snow boots for the length of your stay in Rovaniemi for free. You’ll keep warm and you won’t need to pay a penny. You can thank us later 😉 More information on their website www.laplandsafaris.com/en/
Day 7 – Meet Santa Claus on a day trip
Did you know that Finnish folklore has it that the ‘real’ Santa Claus resides in Rovaniemi’s Santa Claus Village with Mrs. Claus and an army of elves. No wonder it’s Christmas 365 days an year in Lapland 🙂
Santa Claus Village is a short bus ride away from the centre of Rovaniemi. You will hear Christmas carols and festive music as soon as you enter the hallowed gates of this dreamy village. Of course, there’s no better way to arrive at Mr. Claus’ house than on a reindeer sleigh. Now let me tell you something. This might not be your first skirmish with Arctic Safaris but one thing is for sure – it’ll be your favourite one. It belongs in a fairytale, nowhere else.
Once you’ve exhausted yourself by playing in the snow, giggled at the little elves in the village, and hugged snow-men, head to Kotahovi Restaurant in Santa Claus Village for a warm meal. The restaurant is housed in a traditional Lappish wooden hut. The roaring fire at the centre of the restaurant is comforting and made us feel cosy almost immediately. We devoured the creamy salmon soup with rye bread (€14) and the sautéed reindeer with mashed potatoes, lingonberries, and pickled cucumbers (€26) and spent hours looking at the snow falling outside the window.
- Bus number 8 takes you from the Rovaniemi city centre to Santa Claus Village. Bus tickets cost €2.20/per person.
- Entry to Santa Claus Village is free. You can meet the ‘real’ Santa Claus for free too.
- Don’t leave Santa Claus Village without hopping on a reindeer sleigh. It will take you through magical snow-laden trains and Arctic forests. It was one of our favourite experiences on our entire trip of Lapland. The owner at Santa Claus Reindeer, Janne, is a great photographer. Make sure you ask him for a frame-worthy photograph once you’re in the sleigh 🙂
- Reindeer Sleigh rides start at €22/per person. We opted for the 3 km ride and loved it. You can book it here :- www.santaclausreindeer.fi
- More information about Kotahovi Restaurant here :- www.santaclausreindeer.fi
Day 8 – Devour a traditional Lappish meal and say bye to Rovaniemi
Sampling local food is the easiest way to acquaint oneself with a new culture. If you’re a regular reader of Bruised Passports, you’d know we never leave a new place without trying out all the local delicacies we can get our paws on. We had a fair few Finnish meals in Lapland but Restaurant Nili came out triumphant by a mile (and a half).
The evening we spent at Restaurant Nili made us so happy that we just had to go to the kitchen to give the chef a hug. The unassuming exterior makes it seem like a small neighbourhood eatery but locals swear by Nili’s exquisitely-crafted Finnish food. We loved the fact that the food was modern without being excessively experimental.
We opted for the sensational set menu called The Rovaniemi Menu. The meal kicked off with a delectable Lappish blini, perfectly complimented by whipped sour cream and grainy fish roe. Main course was reindeer rack on a bed of fluffy parsnip purée, braised root vegetables, and a creamy sauce. We opted for a full-bodied Merlot with the reindeer meat and the two were a match made in heaven. A refreshing scoop of Nili’s black currant sorbet followed – the perfect palate cleaner to prepare our taste buds for the Cheese Plate. We wound up the feast with a glorious panna cotta (the creamiest I’ve ever had!) garnished with apples and wild raspberries. But we didn’t stop there – a couple of shots of Finnish Tar liqueur followed. We could fly back to Rovaniemi just to have a meal at Nili all over again 🙂
Take a bow Chef Marko, you did good 🙂
- Don’t leave Rovaniemi without trying delectable Finnish food at restaurant Nili.
- Reserve in advance because Restaurant Nili can get really busy in the evenings.
- We loved their sensational set menu called The Rovaniemi Menu (€58/per person) but you can go the à la carte route too. More information on their website www.nili.fi
Day 9 – Sleep on a bed of ice at The Arctic Snow Hotel
After you’ve explored Rovaniemi to your heart’s content, it’s time to go to a snow haven 30 kms outside Rovaniemi. Arctic Snow Hotel is built from scratch in November every year. It’s nestled in Lappish wilderness and provides a fairytale experience.
The reception area, communal toilets, and breakfast rooms are heated. However the fun begins when you enter the main building made of ice. The corridors are full of ice-carvings and sculptures and bright LED lights lead visitors to the Ice Bar and Restaurant. Here drinks are served in glasses made of ice and food is served on intricately carved ice plates. Finnish specialities such as creamy soups and elk are on the menu. Stools and benches might be carved out of chunky blocks of ice but they’re covered with Finnish fur rugs that keep guests warm.
Each ice suite has a different theme – we loved the playful Angry Bird themed room. Stunning beds are carved out of ice. Artic-style sleeping bags are provided to guests so they keep warm as they doze off. But doze off you mustn’t. For there is a lot of fun to be had.
Don’t miss the outdoor jacuzzi for the world – there is nothing quite like sitting in a hot tub in the middle of an Arctic forest and feeling warm when it’s -20°C out. You can count stars and if you’re lucky, you can spot the mysterious Northern Lights. Bucket list or not, an open-air hot tub is one experience that NEEDS to feature on your itinerary of Lapland.
- Arctic Snow Hotel is open to visitors from November to April
- It is possible to visit only for a meal but we suggest sleeping in an ice room for 1 night for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Prices for overnight stays start at €125. You can compare and book here.
Days 10, 11, and 12 – Immerse yourself in Arctic Wilderness in Saariselka and spot the Northern Lights
It’s time to head north to delve deeper into the Arctic wilderness. Frozen slanting trees, ice-laden hills, and fields covered with untarnished snow – the scenery at the northern tip of Lapland is beyond your wildest imagination .
A 3 hour bus ride from Rovaniemi will get you to Saariselka. There is a variety of accommodation on offer in Saariselka – log cabins are a popular choice. But we are partial to the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, where you can sleep in a heated igloo under the Northern Lights. The bus will drop you at the gate of Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort. To say we had the time of our lives here would be the understatement of the decade. We spotted the Northern Lights ever so often while we were there. We were so taken in by the surreal beauty of this hotel that we decided to extend our stay by 2 days.
We spent our days trying to absorb the immense beauty of Finnish Lapland. Reindeer safaris provide a glimpse into the life of Sami people (indigenous people living at the very northern tip of Europe) and will convince you that you’re in a fairytale. Just when you’re drifting into your dream world, the reindeer will stop in the tracks to pee or grace the ground with perfectly-shaped reindeer droppings 😉
- The bus journey from Rovaniemi to Saariselka is gorgeous. The bus has wifi and is extremely punctual. Bus tickets can be bought in person or booked online on this website :- https://www.matkahuolto.info/lippu/en/
- Read our detailed review of Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort with photos, tips, and more before you flesh the itinerary for your trip to Lapland.
- We suggest staying in the glass igloos at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort for 1-2 nights and their rustic log cabins for 2-4 nights depending on how much time you have. You can compare prices and book here.
Day 12 Take the flight back from Ivalo
Ivalo airport is close to Saariselka and Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort offers regular transfers to the airport. Take the flight back to Helsinki – we promise you’ll spend the flight thinking about all the surreal panoramas you saw on your trip to Lapland and counting the crazy experiences you had. One thing is for sure – it’ll be hard to pick favourites. After all, how often does one get to pick between petting a reindeer and sleeping in an igloo 🙂
Planning your trip to Finland – The Essentials
When To Go
If you’re there for winter sports and the Northern Lights, then visit Lapland between December and March. If you want to drive around, then summer is a good time since Finnish Lapland boasts of sunlight 24*7. Winter Wonderland transforms to the Land of the Midnight Sun during the months of June, July, and August.
Length of the trip
We suggest setting aside at least 10-12 days for a trip of your lifetime to Finnish Lapland. A rough breakdown is as follows (scroll down for the detailed itinerary 🙂 ) :-
- Fly into Rovaniemi/Oulu from Helsinki
- Kemi: 2 nights
- Rovaniemi and surrounding areas: 4-5 nights
- Saariselka: 3-4 nights
- Fly back from Ivalo to Helsinki
Finnish Lapland is not the place for backpackers. Scandinavia is infamous for being notoriously expensive and Finnish Lapland is no exception. Moreover it’s an extremely remote corner of the world. Consequently transport, hotels, food, and excursions can get pricey here. Try to set aside approximately €200 per person/day when budgeting for your trip. This includes the hotel rooms, excursions, food, and transportation within Lapland but excludes flights from your hometown.
Don’t come back without trying these typical Finnish things
- Finnish Sauna (Finnish people are obsessed with it and with good reason!). We love Visit Finland’s introduction to the Finnish Sauna
- Reindeer meat – a local delicacy, Finns sure know how to dish up the perfect reindeer steak. Ok you can skip this and opt for creamy salmon soup if you’re a bit squeamish about devouring Rudolph’s li’l red nose 🙂
- Spending a lazy evening in a Sami lavu/teepee making pancakes, BBQing sausages or just acquainting yourself with Sami Folklore.
- Sipping on dozens of glasses of warm lingonberry juice – this local speciality the perfect antidote for Lapland’s Arctic winter.
- Spending an evening in an outdoor hot tub while it’s -20°C outside. It’s a surreal experience to watch your drink freeze as you lounge comfortably in warm water and stare at Lappish sky, coloured green by the Northern Lights. Words can’t do justice to such an experience, can they?!
That’s it – our itinerary and favourite things to do in Finnish Lapland. You need to put this corner of the world on your travel bucket list – it will leave you spellbound and you will come back, wanting more.
Leave us a comment below if you enjoyed reading about our journey or if you have any questions about planning a trip to Lapland – we’ll make sure we get back to you as soon as possible 🙂
Want to include some more offbeat places in your winter trip to Lapland? Check out this article on 10 Must Dos In Lapland for pointers