The first thing that most people know about Lapland is that it’s the home of Santa Claus, and nothing could make a child’s Christmas more magical than a trip to where that very magic happens. For older people there’s magic of a different kind: The ghostly Northern Lights, the heart-melting beauty of Nordic woodland in autumn, or the endless days during the midnight sun in summer. In the long winters you’ll also be able to dabble in those Arctic activities you’ll know from movies, going ice-fishing, cross-country skiing or on a reindeer ride.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Lapland:
1. Aurora Borealis
For about 200 nights a year from the end of August to April you have the chance to see one of the great natural spectacles.
Unless you live close to the Arctic Circle this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The Northern Lights appear on clear nights, so you might need a bit of luck with the weather.
How you see them is up to you. In winter you could get intrepid and speed out into the icy wilds on a snowmobile or trudge to a vantage point with snowshoes.
If this sounds like entirely too much effort there are a wealth of luxury suites and glass igloos that let you gaze up at the Aurora Borealis from the comfort of your accommodation.
For a two-week in mid-September Lapland’s forests are at their most beautiful.
This is period, known as Ruska, is when locals and visitors set out for some “leaf-peeping”.
Forests in Lapland are most coniferous, but these pines and firs and interspersed by hardwood trees.
In autumn this creates a beautiful jumble of soft tones, as oranges, reds and light browns contrast with a canvas of deep greens.
Around a month before the snows settle and long after the mid-summer mosquitoes, autumn is a fine time for walks in Lapland.
If you’re in search of gargantuan slops, Lapland might not be for you.
Rather, the region is a cross-country skier’s El Dorado and is under a deep blanket of snow from October right through to April.
Cross-country skiing is a national pastime, and throughout the year it’s just the easiest way to get out and about.
In Lapland’s rounded fells are where most of the region’s “big four” ski resorts can be found.
On these smooth hills are Levi, Pyhä-Luosto, Ruka and Ylläs.
If you’d like big resort facilities then Levi is definitely the place to go, with 43 slopes, nearly half of which are floodlit.
4. Meet Santa Claus
Lapland’s main town, Rovaniemi is officially the hometown of Santa Claus.
For kids it would be unheard of to visit Lapland and not bring them to meet Santa.
There are three big Santa-themed attractions around Rovaniemi: Santa Claus Village is where you can see his office and the post office where children’s letters from around the world end up.
Santa Park is more of a Christmas theme park with rides and shows for little ones.
Jolukka meanwhile is a rural attraction, where kids can hang out with Santa’s elves at any time of year, going fishing, looking after reindeer and picking berries.
The northernmost point of Lapland (and the EU!) is a region that is also the sparsest-populated in Finland.
There are plenty of excuses to venture so far north: The scenery is unspoiled, with glistening rivers and low fell ranges that roll through a sea of coniferous woodland.
Culturally, you can discover the indigenous Sámi people who inhabit the uppermost parts of the Nordic countries and Russia’s Kola Peninsula.
In the village of Inari is Siida, a museum that will tell you all about Sámi belief systems, history and way of life.
6. Ranua Zoo
In the town of Ranua you’ll have the pleasure of visiting the northernmost zoo on the planet.
This isn’t a place to see exotic species; rather Ranua Zoo brings the wildlife of Finland’s polar region into one place.
You can check out 50 different arctic species, including top predators like brown bears, polar bears, lynxes and wolves.
There are also more benign herds of moose and deer.
The zoo is open every day of the year, and a visit in mid-summer couldn’t be a more distinct experience from the depths of winter when snow abounds at the attraction.
You can book tickets (including transfer) right here.
7. Levi Ice Gallery
Around six kilometres along a cross-country trail from the Levi ski resort is this “cool” attraction containing structures carved completely from ice.
It’s possible to book a room here, but most people will stop by to stare in awe at the sculptures over a meal or beer.
If you’re only staying for a drink you can take part in what will be the strangest venue for a karaoke sing-song ever!
The gallery’s facilities can be booked for events, so you might be one of the lucky ones to attend a wedding in a real ice palace.
8. Lappish cuisine
Well, here’s your chance to try sautéed reindeer (poronkäristys), and if you’re a meat-eater you’ll probably love it.
This dish starts with frying thin strips of meat in reindeer fat or butter.
After that beer or cream is added and the broth is cooked down until the meat is completely tender.
It’s then served on a bed of mashed potatoes with preserves and pickled cucumber.
At festivals in summer you’ll see Suovaskebabs, which is a real north-meets-south combination: Smoked reindeer meat in a pita bread with salad and garlic sauce!
9. Midnight Sun
Of course, the upside to perpetual darkness in winter is the Midnight Sun in summer.
In the northern reaches of Lapland the sun is above the horizon for 70 days.
Further south the sun will dip down but the sky will still be illuminated.
To see the Midnight Sun like a Finn you should escape to a remote cottage and use the extra hours of the day walking, fishing or even teeing off at one of the golf courses that extend their playing hours in summer.
If you’re near a fell, there’s nothing quite like cresting a hill and looking down on vast woodland glowing in the soft sunlight.
Lapland has a web of walking trails that are perhaps best tackled in August.
This is when there’s still loads of light and the days are mild.
What surprised many people about Lapland is how flat the terrain can be.
It’s easy-going when nosquito season is long gone, so you can stride off into some of the remotest country you’ll ever know.
In National Parks are trail-side log cabins to give you the shelter you need, as well as occasional information boards to tell you more about the ecology of a given area.
Naturally, the remoteness poses certain risks, but detailed guides are available for download online.
11. Reindeer experiences
Reindeer are so central to Lappish life that there are almost as many as humans here!
Any town or resort in Lapland will have a company offering reindeer rides, and of course, as well as being able to see these graceful creatures working in tandem, you’ll see the landscapes that give Lapland its “winter wonderland” tag.
In northern Lapland all of the reindeer are rounded up two times a year to do a headcount.
Reindeer are semi-domesticated and people take a lot of pride in them in Lapland.
This goes especially for the Sámi culture, to whom reindeer husbandry is second nature.
12. Ice Fishing
Could there be a more fitting pastime for such a reserved and meditative nation as Finland?
Because, truth is that when you come ice fishing you’ve got to be ready for nothing to happen for hours on end.
It will be you and your companions alone in the beautiful nature at the centre of a frozen lake ringed by deep green forest.
You’ll get a lot of thinking done, that’s for sure.
In the winter months all of Lapland’s lakes will have the five centimetres of ice needed for this activity.
You just need to spend a few minutes etching a hole, bait your hook and then cast off.
After that you sit back and wait…
Finland is a sauna-crazy country!
There’s more than one sauna for every three people here, and in Lapland you’ll really appreciate the benefits of sitting in a hot room and whacking yourself with birch bouquets for a few minutes.
In the bitter winters it’s the ultimate escape from the cold. And if you’ve been out trekking in the summer it’s a great remedy for aching feet and backs.
The general rule is to try to be quiet and relax when you’re in a sauna.
You’ll probably only be able to stand a few minutes at a time, so you can cool off and then come back for a bit more punishment.
14. Husky Safaris
Another semi-domesticated animal that Lapland couldn’t do without is the husky.
A dog-sledding safari is another of those classic Lappish experiences and is a available at the major ski resorts like Luosto, Levi and Suomo, as well as the town of Rovaniemi.
After a bit of training you can become a “musher” controlling your own pack of dogs and gliding through Nordic woodland and over frozen lakes at high speed.
15. Luosto Amethyst Mine
Open daily for tours in summer, this mine exploits a seam of amethyst south of the town of Luosto that formed 2,000 million years ago.
The entrance to the mine is at the top of the Lampivaara Hill, with fine views of the northern side of the Pyhä-Luosto National Park.
You can spend a few minutes mining for your own amethyst, which you’ll be able to take home with you, and the guide will bring you up to speed on the history and culture around these precious stones.
Further reading: Places to visit in Finland