Rovaniemi – Gateway to Finnish Lapland

Revontulia. Kuva: Tsuguliev / Shutterstock

Rovaniemi, located in the Arctic Circle, is the gateway to Lapland. This is where the journey to the north of the Arctic Circle begins, but Rovaniemi is a fascinating destination in itself. The city is a special blend of commercialized Lapland exotics and authentic northern atmosphere.

With a population of 63,000, Rovaniemi is quite a lively city, especially in winter. Reasons for this are Lapland’s only university and excellent transport connections: you can travel to Rovaniemi by plane or train, and the journey to the rest of Lapland continues easily by bus.

What makes Rovaniemi such an attractive holiday destination is that thanks to the compact size of the city you can see and experience (almost) all Lapland’s highlights in just a few days. In Rovaniemi you can go downhill skiing, take part in a snowmobile safari, ride a dog sled, visit a reindeer farm and watch the northern lights. Best of all, local operators can pick you up for excursions directly from the hotel, so there is no need to rent a car.

Rovaniemi also offers some experiences that you can’t find anywhere else. Rovaniemi is Santa’s official hometown, where you can meet Santa Claus all year round. Another speciality is crossing the Arctic Circle, just as exotic an experience as crossing the Equator. 

Rovaniemi with kids – meet Santa Claus at the Arctic Circle

In Santa Claus Village you can meet Santa Claus in his chamber all year round (10 am – 4 pm). There is no entrance fee and chatting with Santa is free, but taking a picture will cost 40 euros.

Santa Claus Village is right on the Arctic Circle, which is marked on the ground (in winter with a beam of light). The Arctic Circle is the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for twenty-four hours. In summer this means the midnight sun, and in winter the polar night. The Arctic region officially begins at the Arctic Circle.

Santa Claus Village is located right next to Rovaniemi International Airport, about 10 km from the city center. The largest concentration of tourist services in Rovaniemi can be found here. In addition to Santa Claus and the Arctic Circle, all the most important winter activities are available: snowmobile safaris, dog sledding and northern lights. There is also a reindeer farm and outlet stores that sell Finnish design items such as Marttiini knives and Iittala tableware.

Santa Claus Village also has Rovaniemi’s most praised restaurant, Santa’s Salmon Place. It’s a simple Lapland-style hut that serves only salmon grilled over an open fire and for dessert Finnish squeaky cheese with cloudberry jam.

In addition to the cottages and hotel rooms at Santa Claus Holiday Village, you can stay in the Arctic Circle at the stunning glass igloos at Santa’s Igloos Arctic Circle or Glass Resort. The finest hotel in the area is Nova Skyland.

Another place to meet Santa Claus is Santa Park Arctic World. This underground theme park is built in a cave and is open only during the busiest holiday seasons: from late November to early January (and sometimes in June-August). Santa Park is an indoor space where you can stay without outdoor clothes in any weather. 

Santa Park is the only place in the world where you can cross the Arctic Circle underground. In addition to meeting Santa Claus in the park, you can attend the Elf School, marvel at the elves’ performances, join a baking workshop, admire the sculptures in the Ice Gallery and travel aboard the Magic Train through the Christmas scenery. There are no wild rides so this amusement park is suitable for smaller children.

Next to Santa Park is the fanciest hotel in Rovaniemi area, Arctic TreeHouse Hotel, that has been featured in international design magazines. The rooms have huge glass windows, perfect for watching the northern lights.

Rovaniemi winter activities

The best time to visit Rovaniemi is winter (December-March). In northern Lapland, the polar night lasts up to two months, but because Rovaniemi is “only” at the Arctic Circle, there is enough daylight even in the middle of winter. 

Darkness has benefits, too, because during the polar night it’s easier to see northern lights. In Rovaniemi area, aurora borealis can be seen from October to February. The most romantic way to admire the northern lights is, of course, to spend the night in a glass igloo. Northern lights can be spotted dancing along the night sky even by accident, but you should definitely consider participating in a guided northern lights trip. Some local travel operators specialize in watching northern lights and organize trips to locations that have the best chance of seeing them based on weather conditions and northern lights forecasts. Excursions last a few hours and are made in the evening, as northern lights are usually at their best before midnight.

Rovaniemi has a lot of snow in winter, so it’s possible to try the most exotic winter activities: snowmobile safaris and dog sledding. These excursions include a transfer from the hotel, very warm clothes and footwear, and a lunch or coffee break by the campfire. On some snowmobile safaris, it’s possible to try ice fishing, where fish are caught through a hole drilled in the ice of the lake.

You can try cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing on your own. The best place for these activities is the Ounasvaara hill on the other side of the river Kemijoki. Ounasvaara has a ski resort with lifts and equipment rental. There is also a 25-kilometer-long winter bike trail, which can be cycled with an electric fatbike!

Rovaniemi’s most special winter experiences include the Arctic Snow Hotel. In addition to the snow hotel, glass igloos and restaurant, this freezing cool place also has the most special sauna in all of Lapland, which is a combination of hot humid steam and icy snow walls. Of course, there is also a traditional log sauna and outdoor hot tubs.

Read more: Lapland in Winter – Best Winter Activities

Rovaniemi summer activities

Lapland’s summer is bright in Rovaniemi, too: from June to August, the nights last only a few minutes. Sometimes the temperature rises above 25 Celcius, and the warm weather drives herds of reindeer to cool off at Rovaniemi Beach.

In summer, Rovaniemi is mainly a transit point, a gateway to remote nature attractions waiting further afield in Lapland. But of course there is plenty to do in Rovaniemi for a few summer days.

Santa Claus Village is open all year round. In summer you can meet Santa, feed the reindeer and even visit the husky farm to meet the dogs. It is not possible to go sledding in summer. 

You can experience the midnight sun by staying in a glass igloo or hiking to the top of Ounasvaara hill at night. During the summer, you can go downhill biking or take a thrilling ride on the summer bobsleigh track, which is suitable for the whole family.

Summer activities include mountain biking, horse riding and water sports. Although Rovaniemi is far from the Baltic coast, Ounasjoki and Kemijoki rivers join in the city. River boat cruises, SUP boards, kayaking and fishing trips are available.

In the forests surrounding Rovaniemi you can hike and pick berries and mushrooms. The most amazing outdoor destination is the Arctic Circle Hiking Area, where you will find campfire sites with firewood as well as accessible trails and good fishing spots.

In summer, of course, you have to visit a sauna. In Rovaniemi it’s easy – and costs nothing! Situated on the banks of the Kemijoki River, Kesärafla is one of Lapland’s only public saunas, and admission is free if you bring your own towel. Kesärafla has also a restaurant with a terrace, a perfect place to enjoy a beer and a reindeer burger grilled on charcoal.

Rovaniemi culture pass

If you are interested in culture, you should buy the Rovaniemi Culture Pass (adult 20€, family ticket 50€), which gives you access to Rovaniemi’s most interesting museums and cultural sites.

The best cultural sight  in Rovaniemi is the excellent Arktikum, which houses the Arctic Center and the Provincial Museum of Lapland. The main attraction is the Northern Lights Theater, whose ceiling features a three-dimensional animation of the Northern Lights.

The Provincial Museum of Lapland presents the culture and history of Lapland. The Arctic Center presents the Arctic more broadly, including Greenland and Siberia. You should also visit the Arktikum museum shop, which is a great place for gift shopping.

Next to Arktikum is the wooden Science Center Pilke, which showcases northern forests and forest management.

Only a few old buildings have survived in Rovaniemi, as German troops retreating from Finnish Lapland burned the city to the ground in October 1944. One of the remaining buildings is the old post office station, where the Korundi Culture House is located. The building houses both the Rovaniemi Art Museum and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, the northernmost professional orchestra in the European Union. The exhibitions at the Rovaniemi Art Museum focus on contemporary art.

Rovaniemi – accommodation and restaurants

Rovaniemi’s center is at its busiest in winter, when the hotels are filled with tourists and bars with university students (at least on weekends). Summer is a quieter season.

The most famous Rovaniemi resident – right after Santa Claus – is Lordi, Finland’s only Eurovision winner. There is a small square in the heart of Rovaniemi city center named after the monster band and members have printed their handprints on the cement tiles decorating the square. During the summer, various events are held in the square. Opposite the square is Santa’s Hotel Santa Claus.

Next to the hotel is the excellent Gustav Kitchen and Bar, which serves delicious gourmet food at bistro prices. Gordon Ramsay ate here while visiting Finland.

Around the corner you will find the most praised restaurants in Rovaniemi. Right on the corner of Koskikatu and Valtakatu streets is a long-standing favorite, Roka Kitchen & Wine Bar. Opposite is another classic, Restaurant Nili, which has been voted many times the best restaurant in Rovaniemi. Nili serves Lapland flavors.

Immediately on the left side of Roka is the coolest place to stay in Rovaniemi, Haawe Boutique Apart Hotel, which features Northern exoticism combined with modern design.

The stylish design hotel Arctic Light Hotel is housed in a historic functionalism-style house. When the hotel opened a few years ago, it was featured on the list of the best new hotels in Travel + Leisure magazine. If you value a good hotel breakfast, you will not be disappointed here.

Opposite the hotel is the beloved Japanese restaurant Himo. Next to it, Tsar offers Russian cuisine and atmosphere.

Hostel Café Koti is a great, modern design hostel in a former bank building. There is a fun rooftop bar, Mökki Roof Terrace, and at street level Nabo Restaurant serves northern flavors with focus on veggies – proving that Lappish food is much more than squeaky cheese and reindeer meat.

You can also rent a cottage in Rovaniemi. Lomarengas has about 50 options, half of which are located in Ounasvaara.

Rovaniemi – gateway to Lapland

Rovaniemi has excellent transport connections. Rovaniemi Airport (RVN) is the third busiest airport in Finland. It can be reached by direct flights from London, Istanbul, and many other cities. There are several daily flights to Helsinki. 

There is a train between Rovaniemi and Helsinki. The journey takes 8-9 hours by day train and 11-12 hours by night train.

From Rovaniemi you can continue by bus to other Lapland destinations such as Saariselkä (4h) and Levi (2.5h). If you are looking for an adventure, you can start one of Finland’s finest road trips from Rovaniemi.

Read more: Driving in Finland – Tips and 4 Best Road Trips

The center of Rovaniemi is compact, and it’s easy to get around on foot. The airport and Santa Claus Village can be reached by local bus. A day ticket costs around 10€.

Read more: Lapland – Epic Outdoor Experiences in Northern Finland

Map of Finland’s best travel attractions

The map below shows the best tourist sights, museums, family attractions, hiking trails, outdoor activities, wildlife safaris and ski resorts of Finland.

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Ville Palonen (born 1976) is a freelance photographer and travel writer who loves mountains, wildlife and road trips. He has visited 80 countries and travelled in adventurous destinations like Amazon, Himalaya and Borneo. In Finland Ville spends his time photographing, hiking, fishing, hunting and mushrooming. Ville's favourite destinations in Finland are treeless fells of Lapland and wild parts of East Finland.

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