Lapland in Winter – Best Winter Activities

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Reindeer seraching for food near Kiilopää, Lapland, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

Snow, reindeer, northern lights and Santa Claus – Lapland in the northern part of Finland is a memorable travel destination in winter. Lapland’s busiest tourist season is December, but the late winter, too, is a great time to visit: the snow doesn’t melt until the end of April.

When is the best time to see the northern lights? Is it possible to meet Santa Claus only in December? Where can you join a snowmobile safari or a dog sled ride? What to wear in winter in Lapland?

This article answers these (and many other) questions and introduces the best winter activities and experiences in Lapland. If you have another question, please leave it to the comment box in the bottom. Thank you!

When is winter in Lapland?

In Lapland, winter begins when the permanent first snow falls – usually already in late October. In the northernmost part of Lapland, the snow cover lasts until May.

The polar night means the dark season when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. In northernmost Lapland, the polar night lasts almost two months. In southern Lapland, in Rovaniemi located right on the Arctic Circle, the polar night lasts only two days.

However, the polar night doesn’t mean complete darkness. On the contrary, there is a magical bluish twilight all the time during the season. The snow on the ground, of course, adds brightness.

Best month to visit Lapland

Finns travel to Lapland mainly during the winter holiday weeks in February and during the Easter holidays in April. The favorite season for international tourists is Christmas and New Year.

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

If you had to choose the best month to travel to Lapland, it would be March. That’s when the snow condition is at its best, and on the other hand, the days are long. In fact, in mid-March, the daylight hours are about 12 hours in Lapland – the same as in Helsinki, a thousand kilometers further south. Actually, the only downside to March is that the best northern lights season is already coming to an end.

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

Christmas in Lapland – meeting Santa Claus

Ho, ho, ho! The most famous person in Lapland is Santa Claus. The official home of the red-coated gentleman can be found in Rovaniemi, although of course all Finns know that Santa Claus actually lives on the remote Korvatunturi fell.

In fact, Rovaniemi has two Santa Claus-themed attractions. Santa Park Arctic World is a theme park located in a cave and the only place in the world where you can cross the Arctic Circle underground. Next to it is the finest hotel in the Rovaniemi area, Arctic TreeHouse Hotel, which has been praised in travel magazines around the world.

Near Rovaniemi International Airport, right at the Arctic Circle, is Santa Claus Village. There is no entrance fee and chatting with Santa is free, but taking a picture will cost 40 euros. 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.

Read more: Rovaniemi – Gateway to Finnish Lapland

How to see northern lights in Lapland?

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Northern lights above Inari, Lapland, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

As different shades of green and red dance around the night sky, the sub-zero temperature that numbs the face is completely forgotten. Watching the northern lights is one of Lapland’s unforgettable experiences, and for many tourists, the northern lights are the main reason to visit Finland in the winter.

Northern lights can be seen in the dark winter months from October to February. During the midnight sun in summer it’s impossible to see them. The Featuring Finland team has seen pale northern lights already in September, but the light show is at its best in mid-winter.

Northern lights can be seen equally well everywhere in Lapland. There is no clear one and best place, but the further north you are, the better. In addition to this, northern lights are easier to observe in remote places, as far away as possible from light pollution of cities and ski resorts.

Northern lights are caused by particle bursts from the sun called solar wind, and their appearance can be forecasted in the same way as the weather. Still, seeing the northern lights is never 100% certain, because even if the conditions are otherwise right, cloudy weather can obscure the light show that occurs at an altitude of 100-200 kilometers.

Lapland’s ski resorts have tour operators that specialize in the “northern lights hunting”. They organize trips to locations that have the best chance of seeing aurora borealis based on weather conditions and northern lights forecasts. Excursions of a few hours are made in the evening, as northern lights are usually at their best before midnight.

Glass igloo – the most romantic experience in Lapland

Many hotels, too, specialize in viewing the northern lights. They offer accommodation in glass igloos, small cottages with a transparent glass roof (and often one complete glass wall). The glass igloos are set in their own peace a little away from the hotel and restaurant buildings, so privacy is guaranteed. Usually the decor of the glass igloos is luxurious, finished with a romantic fireplace.

Nowadays glass igloos can be found all over Lapland. The most famous place is Kakslauttanen Holiday Village, where the whole craze started 20 years ago. Kakslauttanen is still one of the best – but also the most expensive – glass igloo resorts.

In addition to Finland’s first glass igloos, Kakslauttanen Holiday Village has the best contemporary art gallery in Lapland. Above the building rises a 30-meter tower that has a rooftop bar resembling a glass igloo. Next to Kakslauttanen Art Gallery is a brewery and the largest planetarium in the Nordic countries.

Following the popularity of Kakslauttanen, similar accommodation has been opened elsewhere. Glass-roofed cottages are offered by, for example, Star Arctic in Saariselkä and Santa’s Igloos Arctic Circle and Glass Resort in Rovaniemi. Highly acclaimed Arctic Land Adventure Glass Igloos is located in a beautiful lake scenery near Kilpisjärvi. A slightly cheaper option is igloo-style “glamping” offered by Torassieppi near Muonio.

Snow castle – sleep in a hotel made of snow

In addition to glass igloos, Lapland also offers another exotic accommodation type: a snow castle. This means a huge building made of snow, where you can have dinner and sleep in the middle of ice sculptures.

The first snow castle was built in 1996 on the Baltic coast in Kemi, southern Lapland. The building made it to the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest snow castle. Today, a snow castle is built in Kemi every winter. Kemi SnowCastle Resort features a hotel, restaurant and chapel.

Kemi Snow Hotel has been such a huge success that nowadays hotels made of snow are also built in Ylläs (Lapland Hotels Snow Village), Rovaniemi (Arctic Snow Hotel) and Muonio (Torassieppi Winter Village).

Icebreaker cruise in Kemi

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Cruise on Icebraker Sampo is an unforgettable experience. Photo: Icebraker Sampo

Kemi’s other winter attraction is a cruise aboard an authentic icebreaker. Atmosphere is awesome when the ship crushes through the thick ice. The highlight of the day is swimming in the fault made by the ship. Swimming in the middle of ice rafts is completely safe, thanks to waterproof floatation suits.

Crown snow-load 

When there is a lot of snow, it accumulates on the trees and makes them look like modern sculptures. The best time to admire the crown snow-load is January-February, when the temperature and humidity conditions are right. Later in the winter the snow falls off the trees little by little.

One of the best places to see the landscape covered with snow is Ounasvaara hill next to Rovaniemi. Although the place is at the Arctic Circle, on the scale of Lapland it’s still so far south that the slopes are covered with forest. In the northernmost part of Lapland, the peaks of fells are above the treeline. The equation is clear: if there are no trees, there is no crown snow-load.

Visiting a reindeer farm

Reindeer is the most iconic animal in Lapland. Semi-wild reindeer graze freely in forests and fells, and sooner or later a traveler will see them – often walking on the highway. Motorists should be careful in Lapland, as reindeer collisions are quite common.

The best way to make a closer acquaintance with reindeer is to visit a reindeer farm. There you may feed the animals and take a ride on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. One of the recommended reindeer farms in western Lapland is Torassieppi, which also has a fascinating little reindeer museum.

At the turn of March-April, a traditional reindeer derby is held in Inari. Reindeer King’s Cup is a race where reindeer pull jockeys standing on skis around a frozen lake.

Reindeer are also eaten – in addition to salmon, reindeer meat is one of Lapland’s most traditional dishes. Sautéed reindeer and reindeer fillet are on the menu of almost every Lapland restaurant. Don’t hesitate to try; reindeer meat is delicious and healthy!

Riding a dog sled – husky farms in Lapland

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

Even more adventurous ride awaits at a husky farm. When you sit on the sleigh the noise is deafening as dozens of huskies bark excitedly – they can’t wait because they love to run. And when the dog sled is unleashed, its driver instantly becomes a passenger. Don’t fall off the sleigh – the huskies won’t stop and wait.

There are several husky farms in Lapland that offer dog sled rides. Most trips take about half an hour, and you can either musher the sled by yourself or sit on under reindeer skins as a passenger and just enjoy the ride.

Snowmobile safari and ice fishing

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

Snowmobile is an everyday vehicle for Lapland residents who need to move around lakes, swamps and forests in winter. For the rest of us, a ride with a snowmobile is an exotic experience. 

Snowmobile safaris ride along marked trails and are guided by a local expert. You can ride the snowmobile yourself or sit on a sleigh. A snowmobile safari includes a coffee break by the campfire, and often it’s possible to combine a safari with a couple of hours of ice fishing. 

When ice fishing, a hole is drilled in the thick ice and fishes are attracted with a metal lure and a small fly larva as bait. The most precious catches are grayling and arctic char. In Finland you don’t need a fishing license for ice fishing.

Skiing and snowboarding in Lapland

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

For most Finns, Lapland is mainly a winter sports destination. Large ski resorts are busy especially during the winter holidays in February and Easter. Originally, Lapland’s winter tourism began with skiing, which can be practiced both on flat land along the tracks and downhill on the steep slopes of the fells. 

All ski resorts in Lapland have good opportunities for skiing, downhill skiing and snowboarding. If the main focus of your holiday is winter sports, then a few destinations are definitely recommended.

In Ylläs you can find the longest skiing slopes in Finland. There is also a comprehensive network of cross-country ski tracks. In Saariselkä, you can go cross-country skiing in the magnificent Urho Kekkonen National Park, where you can also go on a multi-day ski trek from one wilderness hut to another.

Levi resembles a Central European alpine village and is known for its kilometer-long snowboard park and rowdy après ski culture. If you’re looking for a tranquil place for cross-country or downhill skiing, an excellent choice is lovely Pallas. There’s only a single hotel, Lapland Hotels Pallas.

Snowshoeing and fatbiking

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Kiilopää fell is easy to reach by snowshoes in winter. Urho Kekkonen National Park, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

Snowshoeing and fatbiking are relatively new winter sports in Finland. They allow you to explore the magnificent fell landscapes even if you don’t want to go cross-country skiing. Snowshoes and fatbikes are rented at ski resorts and many holiday villages. 

Snowshoes and fatbikes are now allowed on the ski tracks – they have their own trails. An excellent place for outdoor activities is Suomen Latu Kiilopää, which has dedicated fatbike trails. Rovaniemi, too, has a 25-kilometer winter route for cyclists.

Sauna and ice swimming

After outdoor activities, it’s time to relax in the sauna. And take a dip in a lake – also in winter! Ice swimming is not dangerous (even if you jump to ice-cold water from a 100-degree sauna), actually it’s healthy. Thanks to the combination of hot and cold, your blood rushes around the body like an energy burst, and afterwards you feel blissful. 

If a hole in a lake isn’t available, you can try rolling in the snow – butt naked, of course. But don’t jump head over heels, as a rock or tree branch may lurk under the snow.

Saunas can be found all over Lapland. The most atmospheric place is the Kiilopää smoke sauna near Saariselkä, which is considered to be the best public smoke sauna in Finland. It’s a mixed sauna where you must wear a swimsuit, and cooling off – in any weather – takes place in the icy mountain stream flowing past.

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Kiilopää smoke sauna has a swimming spot in the cool stream passing by. Lapland, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

Another great place to try Finnish sauna is Arctic Sauna World near Muonio. There are five different saunas. This is not a spa, because instead of hot tubs, you can take a dip in Lake Jerisjärvi. There are also glass igloo-style glamping tents, and a couple of kilometers away is the Torassieppi Reindeer Farm. If the main purpose of your holiday is not specifically downhill skiing, Torassieppi is a great destination for the whole family. There are huskies, snowshoes, fatbikes and other winter activities available.

Arctic Snow Hotel in Rovaniemi offers the most special sauna experience in Lapland. In addition to the snow hotel, glass igloos and a restaurant, this cool place features a sauna built of snow, 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: Sauna in Finland – the Ultimate Guide to Finnish Sauna Culture

Renting a cottage in winter

Staying at a cottage in winter is a special experience. Days are spent outdoors in snowy landscapes, and when the evening comes it’s time to light the fireplace. After the sauna, you can watch the northern lights dancing in the sky.

Lapland’s rental cottages are equipped for winter and in all aspects of higher quality than an ordinary summer cottage in southern Finland. Especially the large ski resorts in northern Finland (Ylläs, Levi, Saariselkä, Ruka) have hundreds of well-equipped rental cottages where Finns, too, like to spend their winter holidays. 

The cottages in the ski resorts of Lapland are very popular, so it’s necessary to book them well in advance. Lomarengas is a large and reliable Finnish cottage reservation service.

Read more: Cottages and Cabins in Finland – Guide to Finnish Cottage Life

Winter weather in Lapland – what to wear?

In Lapland the temperature can drop to as low as -40 degrees Celsius in January and February, although this is rare. The usual temperature in winter is between -5 and -15 degrees below zero. The rule of thumb is that when it’s snowing the temperature is milder, and in clear weather it’s colder. Towards spring the weather gets warmer. On a sunny day in April the daytime temperature can be clearly above zero, and you can literally see how the snow is melting.

As a tourist you should not worry too much about buying warm clothes for a trip to Lapland. Local tour operators lend all the necessary equipment, such as super warm overalls and winter boots for a snowmobile safari. However, a traveler should have the basic clothes needed to step out of the door – even if you just walk to the nearest restaurant in a ski resort.

The name of the game is layer dressing. That means wearing a thin thermal underwear, then a fleece or similar thin shirt, and a thick quilted or down jacket on top. A wool hat that covers the ears and proper gloves are a must. Mittens are warmer than gloves.

Shoes don’t have to be extremely warm as long as they have room for thick wool socks. Boots are better than sneakers, as a higher shoe keeps the snow out.

Video: Why we love winter

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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