Winter is rarely people’s favourite time of the year – I mean, the idea of frostbite and dressing up as the Michelin man is rather off-putting. Despite chunky layers taking away full use of your limbs and an endless supply of handkerchiefs up your sleeve to fix your runny nose, the cold can be magical. Especially when experienced in the northernmost edges of Europe – Lapland. If you’re a backpacker looking for the best things to do in Lapland, I’d recommend a trip to Rovaniemi, with the option of traveling onwards to the more remote town of Äkäslompolo.
Snuggling up indoors with a mug of hot chocolate when it’s frosty outside might feel like the best part of winter, but there are so many things to do in Lapland when it’s beyond freezing. This beautiful region within the Finnish Arctic Circle experiences a long period of 200 days every year when it’s heavily covered by glistening, shimmering expanses of snow. It truly is a magical winter experience that goes beyond the Christmas stereotypes! Here are 10 of the top things to do in Lapland.
Witness the magnificent Northern Lights
Think of Lapland and the first thought that comes to most people’s minds are the spectacular Aurora Borealis. This spellbinding show in the night sky is truly one of nature’s mystic miracles. The Northern Lights come out to play on the Arctic sky between October and April. Due to climate change and other calamities caused by us humans, it’s become harder to predict the occurrence of this incredible phenomena. But on clear winter nights, the show is often out in full force.
You can enjoy this experience free of charge wherever you fancy, but promise to keep your eyes peeled and put away your phone – the internet doesn’t need another photo of the lights! Some of the best places to see the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland include the Arktikum shore and Ounasvaara Fell in Rovaniemi.
Visit Santa Claus Village
No, I don’t think you’re gullible enough to fall for a tourist trap. But think about it, you cannot come to the birthplace of Father Christmas and not pay a visit to the dude himself! If it helps, you are not obliged to sit on his lap…
The best part about the experience is that you can explore Santa Claus’s Post Office, where you can write and send letters of your own. And if meeting Santa isn’t the highlight of your winter, you’ll be happy to know that the village also plays host to a wonderful variety of restaurants, souvenir shops and colourfully lit ice sculptures. No entrance fee is required to meet Santa, so what have you got to lose?
Koskipuisto Park ice swimming and sauna
The notion that Finns are an eccentric bunch is not helped by the fact that we also enjoy a spot of swimming in the freezing cold. You might think when the temperature drops well below zero, how on earth can you go swimming? Well us Finns simply drill a hole in a frozen lake and dive into the water that is probably more suitable for polar bears. But please don’t grab the tranquilliser gun, we aren’t dangerous, just peculiar – a bit like your grandpa who is adamant that climate change is a government conspiracy.
So for an authentic, soul-enriching and loin freezing experience, head to Koskipuisto Park in Rovaniemi and take a dip in the grand River Kemijoki. Locals swear that swimming in water well below zero is revitalising and healthy. For the full Finnish experience combine it with a sauna, followed by a shot of salmiakki liquor. It really can’t hurt after you’ve beaten the odds against hypothermia!
The price for a single dip is €3, with sauna admission an extra €3.
Cross-country ski through the magical forests
Every country has an official national sport, but not all of them do people truly love and engage in themselves. For Finns it’s cross-country skiing. Perhaps its popularity could be put down to the fact that it’s suitable for everybody – you can go at your own ability – and extremely good for the body and mind, with beautiful winter scenery serving as a breathtaking backdrop.
Renting skis for the day will set you back around €30.
Ice skating in Rovaniemi Central Square
Locals and tourists alike can enjoy ice skating on the famous rink that’s frozen in the centre of Rovaniemi during the winter months. Set at Lordi’s Square (yep, it’s named after our heavy metal Eurovision winners), it’s the perfect place to engage in the local city culture, have a stroll, take Instagram-worthy snaps with the giant Christmas tree that dominates the main square, go shopping and discover impressive Nordic architecture. This is one of the most quintessential wintery things to do in Lapland!
Ice skating costs €10 per person, which includes daily rental of ice skates as well as any useful equipment to help out first timers.
Visit the Arktikum Museum in Rovaniemi
One of Lapland’s most celebrated museums, the Arktikum Science Centre in Rovaniemi is a journey that all backpackers must make. The museum is devoted to teaching visitors all about the protected Arctic regions, as well as preserving local history, culture and nature.
Whether you’re visiting for the permanent and rotating exhibitions or the stunning architecture of the museum, you won’t be disappointed. There’s even a glass ceiling over the main exhibition space that allows visitors to witness the Northern Lights from indoors – in the warm!
Entrance fee: €13 for adults.
Go mountain biking
Okay, this one might surprise you. It’s not for the faint-hearted, or people who would call sun-bathing and lying on a beach an adventure. But if it’s real adventure you’re after then the opportunity to mountain bike through Rovaniemi could be exactly what you need.
No car ride or bus tour will allow you to appreciate the Arctic beauty in the same raw way as biking will. In order to enjoy the epic scenery to its fullest, it’s important to pick the base of your trail wisely. I’d advise you to start from Rovaniemi, as it’s the hub for all kinds of outdoor activities. This one can be performed all year-round, so you can choose between blue skies or a wintry route.
The rental price of a traditional bike starts at around €25 for 3 hours.
Visit Lauri Handicraft Shop in Rovaniemi
Sámi people are the indigenous inhabitants of Lapland, and if you want to learn about their unique culture, the Lauri Handicraft Shop in Rovaniemi is a great place to start. Here you can see true Sámi artwork and craftmanship, with both traditional pieces and modern re-interpretations. They’re made from renewable natural materials to keep the values of Sámi ancestors in mind. You can also opt to create a unique piece of Sámi artwork by yourself, as masterclasses are taught at the shop by the local Sámi population!
Fees for classes are dependent on the kind of piece you choose to make. Prices start from €39 per person, including materials, for a class that lasts an hour. A fantastic price for a one-of-a-kind class with an authentic, local creator!
Play frisbee golf at Äkäslompolo or Ylläsjärvi
Another peculiar activity that you can take part in free of charge is frisbee golf. One of the top things to do in Lapland, it’s best enjoyed in Finnish summers when Lapland is luscious and full of greenery. It might sound completely random (because it is), but the sport involves using a frisbee and a metal basket with the same concept as golf. It’s completely free and a fun group activity. There are two frisbee golf courses in Finnish Lapland, and you won’t find many locations to lob a disk around that are as picturesque as this. Grab mates from your hostel for a bit of fun, then spend a couple of hours exploring the nature that surrounds the courses.
Hike and swim at Ylläs Fell in the Neverending Summer Light
Though an amazing winter spot, Lapland is a different kind of beautiful in the summer. In order to appreciate the epic nature and everlasting summer lights, stay at the beyond incredible 7 Fells Hostel near Ylläs Fell and Kesänkijärvi. The hostel rents its guests bikes free of charge during the summer months. But if biking isn’t your cup of tea, you can also opt to hike up the Ylläs Fell in the summer and catch the awe-inspiring views from the top. Just beware of mosquitoes, especially towards the evening!
The hike around Kesänkijärvi gives you the option to rest up, fill your lungs with unpolluted, fresh air and cook a meal for yourself at the Laavu rest stop. Then take a dip in the fresh river water – a perfect Lapland summer’s day. There are plenty of trail guides available online that give different route options if you’re keen on challenging those glutes.
Best places to stay in Lapland
If you’re basing your adventure in Rovaniemi, the Wherever Boutique Hostel offers a central location with modern interior design, intimate social spaces and rates ideal for a budget-conscious backpacker travelling through this expensive region. Check out more Rovaniemi hostel options here.
If you choose to further explore into the town of Äkäslompolo, stay at the 7 Fells Hostel or its recently opened, even more glamorous sister the 7 Fells Boutique Hostel. The cosy atmosphere and ecologically conscious living at these two lodgings will give you a true experience of the remote, forested areas of the north. Free bikes in the summer or sleds in the winter, plus proximity to epic skiing and hiking trails make them the ideal places to stay. If you’re flying into Rovaniemi, simply take a long distance bus into town.
📷 7 Fells Boutique Hostel
If you’re the cranky sort of person who doesn’t get excited by the idea of thick snow and even thicker parkas, then hopefully this list of the best things to do in Lapland might have changed your mind. You’ll surely fall in love with nature and the cold if you properly embrace the winter life. The Finns have cracked it – we know how to freeze our genitals in the frozen lakes and in long cross country skiing trips, but then we relish the thaw that the sauna provides! Clearly that must be the secret for the long, healthy lifespans in this part of the world 😉.
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About the author:
Karan Ahluwalia is a Finnish writer studying in London, about to embark on great adventures after her MA studies. She knows her way around five languages, food from all corners of the world, and misses the snow and seasons from back home.