If you're looking to experience the magical winter wonderland that is Lapland, then Rovaniemi is a great jumping off spot for your Arctic adventures. Known as the official home of Santa Claus, Rovaniemi is centrally located in Finnish Lapland. In fact, it can trace its history back over 8,000 years. During its heyday in the 1700s and 1800s, Rovaniemi was a trading hub for hunters and merchants. It became known for its logging, fishing, and reindeer, thanks in large part to the culture and traditions of Lapland’s indigenous people – the Sami.
In a surprising chapter of history, Rovaniemi played host to German soldiers during WWII. They set up a base to attack the Soviet Union, but when the war turned against Germany, the Nazi soldiers systematically destroyed the town. 90% of Rovaniemi was burned down, and 25,000 local people were evacuated to Swedish Lapland. Nearly all of modern day Rovaniemi was built during the post-war period, so you’ll notice a fairly uniform (ie boring) architectural style.
Rovaniemi offers a plethora of winter activities and stunning natural beauty that you won't want to miss. However, traveling to Rovaniemi during the winter months requires some extra planning and preparation to make the most of your trip. That's why I've put together this complete guide for traveling to Rovaniemi in the winter. I’ll cover everything you need to know, from how to get there, to where to stay, and the top winter activities to experience. With my expert tips and recommendations, you'll be able to plan the perfect trip to Rovaniemi in the winter.
Ultimate Guide for Traveling to Rovaniemi in the Winter
Top Winter Activities in Rovaniemi
Hunt for Aurora
Also known as northern lights, the aurora borealis are a natural electrical phenomenon which occur when solar wind particles from the sun collide with Earth's atmosphere. The Earth's magnetic field deflects the electrically charged particles towards the poles, which is why you can only see them around the Arctic and Antarctic circles.
The particles interact with elements in Earth’s air, creating colorful streaks of purple, red or green waves of light, or aurora, in the sky. I first saw the Northern Lights in Iceland, and it was an incredible feeling. The displays I witnessed in Lapland were next level! There is something awe-inspiring about watching this natural phenomenon dance across the sky. I even cried a little bit – it is just so special!
Auroras happen all year round, but they can only be seen at night in the winter because of low light pollution levels. You can hire a professional guide or photographer who can both teach you about the aurora and take you to particularly good photography and viewing locations. On clear nights in the winter in Lapland, you can also simply walk outside and look up to spot the Northern Lights.
Husky Dog Sledding
My husky dog sled experience was the most magical of all the things I did in Rovaniemi, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone! Bearhill Husky is no-kill, no-abandon kennel which offers dog sledding tours of all different lengths. The kennel has won a number of animal welfare and sustainability accreditations, so you can feel comfortable going with this ethical outfit. Their dogs are very well-cared for. You can sense how connected the guides are to the dog teams, and they are incredibly knowledgeable.
A standard dog sled package includes a 2 hour ride through the wilderness on a 2 person dog sled. One person mushes while the other sits in the sled, and there will be an opportunity to switch off during the trail ride. While 2 hours felt long enough, I could definitely have stayed out for a few more hours because of how much I loved the experience. The sleds are comfortable, but they are entirely exposed to the winter climate. Most operators offer guests the option to wear a thick snowsuit, but you’ll want to pack appropriate warm layers to wear underneath the suit.
Cross the Arctic Circle
One of the main attractions at Santa Claus Village is crossing into the Arctic Circle. This imaginary latitudinal line runs through the village, and is commemorated with a large monument and sign to mark the spot. Visitors can stand with one foot in the Arctic and one outside the Arctic, marked by a red line on the ground. It is mostly a photo spot, but if you really want to celebrate the achievement, you can go into Santa’s office to receive a certificate marking the date you crossed the Arctic Circle.
Reindeer Sleigh Rides
Always dreamed of feeling like Santa Claus on a sleigh? Well now is your chance! Reindeer are an iconic part of the local culture in Lapland. The indigenous Sami people have traditionally worked as reindeer herders, and used the working animals for transportation. In fact, the reindeer population outnumbers the human population in Lapland.
Reindeer sleigh rides are a popular way to get close to the fabled animal. The ride typically lasts from half an hour to a few hours depending on the trail you choose. Speeds are moderate and safe for all ages.
Best Places to Visit in Rovaniemi
Santa Claus Village
Legend has it that Rovaniemi is the hometown of Santa Claus. Located on the Arctic Circle, visitors can experience the Christmas spirit all year round at Santa’s Village. Since moving to Germany, I have absolutely fallen in love with Christmas and Christmas Markets, so I was really excited to meet Santa in person during my trip to Rovaniemi. Visitors can meet Santa in person AT his office at Santa’s Village. As you can imagine, Santa is friendly and jolly. Visitors can have their photo taken with Santa and tell him their Christmas wishes. It was a lot more charming than I expected!
In addition to meeting Santa, there are a number of other activities to try at Santa’s Village including reindeer sleigh rides, gift shopping, and meeting Mrs. Claus. You can also find Santa Claus's Post Office in Santa’s Village, where you can send letters with a special seal. It is also the place where letters arrive addressed to Santa. To best plan your visit to Santa's Village, it's advised to book your activities in advance, especially during the peak season from November to January. The line to meet Santa can get really long around that time of year.
Ounasvaara Ski Resort
Ounasvaara Ski Resort is located on the outskirts of town, offering panoramic views of Rovaniemi and the Kemijoki River. Whether you're an experienced skier or a first-time snowboarder, you're sure to have a memorable and fun-filled day at this beautiful and enchanting resort. The resort offers a variety of winter activities, including skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and sledding.
The ski runs are suitable for all levels, from beginner to advanced, and you can rent all the necessary equipment at the resort. The resort is family-friendly and offers a variety of amenities, including ski school, and a restaurant serving warm and delicious Finnish food. There are also cozy cabins and chalets available for rent, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the winter wonderland experience.
If you’re looking for a fascinating indoor activity in Rovaniemi, the Arktikum Museum is a great choice. This science center and cultural museum features a range of interactive exhibits, displays, and multimedia installations that explore the Arctic's unique wildlife, indigenous peoples, and stunning natural landscapes. One of the most popular exhibits at Arktikum is the Northern Lights exhibit, which explores the science behind this natural phenomenon and showcases stunning images and videos of the Aurora Borealis.
Arktikum opened to the public on 6 December 1992, the 75th anniversary of Finland's independence. The building itself is a work of art. Designed by famed Danish architects Claus Bonderup and Janne Lehtipalo, the crescent-shaped glass corridor is 172 meters long and is said to be the “Gateway to the North”. The exhibition space is sheltered below the ground, mimicking the way animals in the North take cover from the harsh, cold winter by burrowing under the snow.
How to Get to Rovaniemi and Around
Arrival into Rovaniemi is pretty simple, with daily flight connections from Helsinki on Finnair. From Helsinki, the flight is only about 1 - 1.5 hours. Rental car services are available at the airport, but having a car is not super essential. Most of the activities and tour operators include transportation in their packages, and many of the hotels have shuttle pick up from the airport.
Where to Eat in Rovaniemi
If you're a foodie, you'll be surprised by the number of tasty restaurants in this tiny town. I’ve got to admit, my culinary expectations weren’t high prior to my first trip. But turns out, there are a number of tasty eateries! Sample traditional Lappish cuisine, such as reindeer meat, wild berries, and fresh fish caught from the nearby rivers. I summarize all my favorite Rovaniemi restaurants in a separate blog post. And don't forget to warm up with a cup of hot cocoa or mulled wine!
What to Expect in Rovaniemi
Given its proximity to the Arctic Circle, you can probably imagine the harsh winter weather conditions that are possible in Rovaniemi. Snow is present most of the year, with bitterly cold temperatures in December, January and February. It can also be quite icy. Packing the correct layers and clothing is really important. During the winter, daylight hours are very short (4-6 hours) and there is even polar night, when the sun never emerges.
The main language spoken by locals in Rovaniemi is Finnish although you might also hear other dialects including indigenous Sami languages. Tourism is the primary industry in Rovaniemi, so you will find that most tour operators and restaurant employees speak excellent English (and maybe other European languages too).
In general, Lapland is a pretty expensive destination. You can expect most meals and accommodation to be on the pricier side. Finland uses the Euro, and you will find lots of ATMs in the center of Rovaniemi. Nowadays, credit cards are widely accepted and you might only use cash for tipping.
Where to Stay in Rovaniemi
When it comes to choosing where to stay in Rovaniemi, there are a variety of options to suit different preferences and budgets. If you’re looking for something in the city center, Scandic City is the perfect choice. The hotel features modern and stylish rooms, and there is a large breakfast buffet each morning in the glass atrium in the center of the hotel. Plus, there is a small sauna on the top floor of the hotel for relaxing. Aren't familiar with Finnish sauna traditions? Read my first timer’s guide to a sauna experience in Finland!
For a more upscale and boutique experience, check out the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel. Unique and luxurious treehouse-style cabins are nestled into the forest with a large window for viewing the natural surroundings and northern lights. If you want a truly unforgettable hotel experience, consider a glass igloo hotel! I stayed at the Arctic Snow Hotel and Glass Igloos outside of Rovaniemi. You can sleep under the stars and Aurora in a glass igloo. It is such a romantic experience, perfect for couples.
Have questions about visiting Rovaniemi? Comment below!
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