Lapland – Epic Outdoor Experiences in Northern Finland

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Saana fell near Lake Kilpisjärvi, northern Lapland, during autumn foliage. Photo: Ville Palonen

Lapland, the northernmost part of Finland, is an epic travel destination where you can find unforgettable experiences all year round. Lapland is known for its northern lights, reindeer and Santa Claus – but Lapland’s most enchanting attraction is emptiness. As you look over the expansive landscape that spreads around the top of a fell, your mind is filled with a strange mixture of peace and passion.

In this article the best experiences of Lapland are introduced by photographer Ville Palonen, who has travelled around Lapland more than 15 times in all four seasons. Palonen’s most memorable experiences in Lapland include trekking in blazing autumn foliage colors, mushering a dog ​​sled in mid-winter, and fishing for grayling from a canoe. 

What is Lapland?

Lapland covers a third of Finland. It’s larger than, for example, Hungary, Ireland or Portugal. But despite its enormous size, Lapland is sparsely populated: only about five percent of Finland’s population lives there.

Lapland is one of the northernmost inhabited areas in the world. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, which warms the North Atlantic, the climate is more than ten degrees milder in winter than in other equally northern regions. You can’t travel as comfortably in other Arctic regions – although of course Lapland also has seriously freezing winter temperatures, sometimes as low as -30 degrees Celsius. In the summer, it’s often so warm that you can even wear a t-shirt, unless there’s too many mosquitoes.

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Crossing the Arctic Circle near Pello, Lapland, in late summer. Photo: Ville Palonen

Real Lapland begins in the Arctic Circle. In the north, the sun does not rise at all during the midwinter polar night – nor does the “midnight sun” set in summer for two months.

Lapland summer activities

The deserted landscapes of Lapland make a lasting impression if you view them from the right angle. Finland does not have high mountains, but gently sloping fells, which are easy to climb during snow-free summer and autumn months. Admiring the midnight sun from the top of a barren fell is for many tourists the most unforgettable experience in Lapland.

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Saana fell has a rugged landscape. Kilpisjärvi, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

The most amazing (but easy to reach)vantage points are Ounasvaara next to the city of Rovaniemi, Kiilopää near the Saariselkä ski resort, and the rugged Saana rising in the northernmost corner of Lapland. The tops of some ski resorts like Levi and Saariselkä can be reached by car – even in winter.

If you want to experience the wilderness of Lapland thoroughly, you have to pack your backpack and head for a trekking trail. There are several large national parks in Lapland, all of which have free services such as campfire sites and a comprehensive network of wilderness huts. Believe it or not, some wilderness huts even have a sauna!

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Wilderness hut Käsivarsi Wilderness Area, Lapland, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

My own favorite of Lapland’s hiking destinations is Urho Kekkonen National Park, named after Finland’s longest-serving president. Urho Kekkonen National Park is a huge wilderness area where you can easily hike for a couple of weeks. On the eastern edge of the park rises Korvatunturi. Every Finn knows that this legendary fell is the home of Santa Claus.

Read more: Trekking Trails in Finland – 3 Best Multi-Day Hikes

In addition to hiking, you can enjoy many other outdoor activities in Lapland in the summer. Tornio River, which meanders along the Finnish-Swedish border, is one of the best salmon rivers in all of Europe (another legendary salmon river is Teno River flowing on the Norwegian border). The huge Inari Lake – called the Sámi Sea – is a world-class kayaking destination. Many smaller rivers in Lapland also have canoe routes suitable for beginners.

And don’t forget berry picking! Did you know that anyone in Finland can pick berries and mushrooms from the forest? The best time to pick blueberries and cloudberries in Lapland is August.

Lapland winter activities

Winter is the high season for Lapland tourism, and for good reason. The ski resorts – the largest of which are Levi, Ylläs, Pyhä and Saariselkä – are crowded with snowboarders and cross-country skiers, especially during the Finnish winter holiday weeks in February and during Easter.

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Lake Inari is popular destination for snow mobile safaris. Lapland, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

Highlights of Lapland’s winter include snowmobile safaris, dog sled rides and northern lights hunting. On the southern border of Lapland awaits the small coastal town of Kemi, where take a cruise by an icebreaker and swim in a floating suit in the middle of ice.

Large tourist centers have extensive services and party vibe – for example, Levi ski resort resembles any Alpine village. Those who dream of peace and quiet of nature are better off in more remote and atmospheric accommodation like a rental cottage. The most romantic option is of course a glass igloo, where northern lights can be enjoyed  in the warmth of the fireplace. 

A ski trip between the fells along a winding track is a wonderful outdoor experience. At the break, you can sip coffee from a thermos, fry a sausage by the campfire and watch the free-range reindeer. The best time for skiing or snowshoeing in the fells is March to April, when the days are long and sunny.

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Saariselkä and nearby Kiilopää are famous for their amazing cross country skiing tracks. Lapland, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

The winter adds a new dimension to one of the must-do-experiences: the Finnish sauna. You can jump from the hot sauna into an icy lake, or at least cool off by rolling around in the snow.

The best-known smoke sauna in all of Finland can be found in the Kiilopää Fell Center in Eastern Lapland. Of course, all rental cottages have their own saunas.

Read more: Lapland in Winter – Best Winter Activities

Lapland with kids – best family attractions

Lapland is an excellent travel destination for the whole family. The highlight of the children’s holiday is a visit to Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, where you can taste Christmas cookies and meet the world’s most famous Finn, Santa Claus.

Ranua Zoo is home to 50 different Arctic animal species, including brown bear, wolf, wolverine and lynx, which all exist in Finnish nature. In addition to top predators, you can see moose and reindeer.

The reindeer is the most famous animal in Lapland. There’s up to 200,000 reindeers grazing in the forests and fells, so on a trip to Lapland you are guaranteed to spot a reindeer – quite often next to the road and possibly even wandering at a gas station. If you want to make a closer acquaintance with reindeer, there are many reindeer farms in Lapland, where you can take a sleigh ride. One of my favourites is Torassieppi.

You’re in for a wilder ride with a dog sled. The noise is deafening when the huskies shoot in motion. All you can do is hold tight for the first couple of hundred meters, as nothing can stop these creatures – the huskies just love to run!

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Husky safari near Levi, Lapland, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

For the little ones in the family, a memorable experience is fishing in the winter. Because the lakes are covered with ice – which can be as thick as one meter – the bait is dropped through a drilled hole. A usual catch is grayling and perch.

Ski resorts are best suited as a base for families with children, as they offer a wide range of accommodation options and services (some even have a spa). There are many tour operators in the ski resorts, whose day trips are an easy and safe way to experience Lapland’s winter highlights.

Best cultural attractions in Lapland

Most of Lapland’s best experiences are outdoor activities, but don’t underestimate cultural attractions. The Arktikum Science Center in Rovaniemi focuses on Arctic nature and culture. Inari has an excellent Sámi museum, Siida, half of whose exhibition focuses on the history and culture of the Sámi, the other half introduces the flora and fauna of Lapland. 

Inari is the best place in Lapland to learn about the Sámi people and their culture. At the end of January, the village hosts the Indigenous Film Festival Skábmagovat, and another major winter event is the reindeer race King’s Cup at the turn of March-April.

In addition, Lapland’s most amazing culinary experience awaits you in Inari. Restaurant Aanaar has been chosen several times as one of the best restaurants in Finland. The name means Inari in Sámi language, and the heritage is visible in the kitchen, too. There are no traditional dishes on the menu – imaginative modern dishes use ancient ingredients. Aanaar’s signature dish is “reindeer and pasture,” which includes smoked calf’s steak, blood pudding, mushrooms, potato puree, and fried lichen flavored with blueberries. Restaurant Aanaar is located at Tradition Hotel Kultahovi.

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Restaurant Aanaar in Inari is the best fine dining place in Lapland, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

The traditional dishes of Lapland – which can be found in almost every restaurant – are the sautéed reindeer (thin slices cut from frozen rump), and salmon which is slowly cooked over the radiated heat of an open fire.

Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, known for the first glass igloos in Finland, has the best contemporary art gallery in Lapland. Next to the Kakslauttanen Art Gallery is a brewery restaurant and the largest planetarium in the Nordic countries.

Near Levi, a little off the highway, the Särestöniemi Museum awaits. It showcases the stunning art of a bohemian painter, Reidar Särestöniemi, in his former home built of thick logs.

Sodankylä is an arctic Cannes – at least for a few days in the beginning of every June. Founded by Mika Kaurismäki and his brother Aki, the Midnight Sun Film Festival is one of the most exotic film festivals in the world.

Video: 8 Most Instagrammable Places In Finnish Lapland

Seasons in Lapland – best time to visit Lapland

You can travel to Lapland all year round, as each season has its own highlights.

The midwinter polar night is the best time to see the northern lights. Late winter, on the other hand, is best suited for outdoor activities and enjoying the scenery. Lapland ski resorts are usually open until the end of April.

In the summer, the midnight sun – which shines 24/7 in the far north for two months – makes the sense of time disappear completely. In summer it’s time for hiking, fishing and berry picking.

Autumn colors paint the Lapland lanscape in mid-September. Käsivarsi Wilderness Area, Kilpisjärvi, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

In my opinion, the best time to visit Lapland is early autumn. In September-October, autumn paints the landscape to breathtakingly stunning colors, and thanks to the cool nights, mosquitos don’t bother like they do in summer. In autumn, the nights are already so dark that with luck you can see the northern lights dancing in the sky (I’ve seen them twice in early September).

Read more: Best time to visit Finland – the four seasons

How to travel to Lapland – plane or train?

The car journey from Helsinki to Lapland is over a thousand kilometers, and the train journey from Helsinki to Rovaniemi takes 9-10 hours. If your holiday is short, you should fly to Lapland.

The busiest airport in Lapland is Rovaniemi Airport (RVN). The northernmost airport in Finland and the European Union is Ivalo (IVL) in eastern Lapland. In western Lapland, there is Kittilä Airport (KTT), which serves tourists traveling to Levi and Ylläs ski resorts.

Read more: Rovaniemi – Gateway to Finnish Lapland

Hotel reservations in Lapland should be made well in advance, especially for the winter season. Book your accommodation before buying plane tickets.

Instead of a hotel, you can stay in a cottage in Lapland – it’s a great option especially for families. Lomarengas is a Finnish booking service where you can find more than 1,200 rental cottages in Lapland.

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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