What do you think of when you hear the word “Lapland”?
Reindeer, cold, snow, huskies pulling dogsleds?
All of that is true, of course, though in reality the dogsleds are mostly for tourists these days; locals are more inclined to use 4x4s or snowmobiles.
If you ever venture this far north, the town of Rovaniemi, right on the edge of the Arctic Circle, is, in effect, the capital of Finnish Lapland.
Disclosure: This is a sponsored post. I received a media discount at the Arctic Light Hotel, as well as a free Culture Pass and a free meal at the hotel’s Arctic Restaurant. This was all part of the #visitrovaniemi #RovaniemiSummerAmbassador campaign. Nevertheless, all opinions stated here are my own and #visitrovaniemi had no influence over what I have written.
Additionally, this article contains affiliate links. If you click on one of them and make a purchase, I will get a cut of what you pay. This will not influence your price.
Things to do in Rovaniemi in winter
Rovaniemi is a popular destination for tourists in the wintertime. People go to Rovaniemi to experience the Northern Lights, dog-sledding, hiking, cross-country-skiing, and other cold weather activities. Some base their stay in Rovaniemi and make day trips into the wooded landscape, while others just pass through on their way to wilderness camps and lodges in the woods.
Things to do in Rovaniemi in summer
One of the goals of #visitrovaniemi is to attract more people during the summers as well as in the wintertime. After my husband and I finished our Hurtigruten cruise up the coast of Norway, our plan was to drive from the cruise’s endpoint, Kirkenes, Norway, straight south through Finnish Lapland and then down the east coast of Sweden. Rovaniemi was right on the way, so it seemed a good fit to take part in their #RovaniemiSummerAmbassador campaign.
While this town tends to just serve as a starting point for active travel into the wilderness, I was pleased to find that it has some other things worth seeing right in town. The three main museums are covered by the Rovaniemi Culture Pass, and we visited all three:
1. Arktikum Science Center and Museum
Arktikum is basically all about the Arctic, covering the natural world in its Science Center as well as Arctic people, their traditions and how they have changed over time in its Regional Museum of Lapland.
It is housed in a built-for-purpose structure, centered on a long, glass-covered hallway, partly below ground with doorways to the exhibit halls on either side. When we visited in early August, it was a brightly-lit space. I can imagine that in the winter it is especially atmospheric, particularly on clear nights if the northern lights are visible.
Dramatically-lit walls and exhibits show large photos with brief explanations, interspersed with hands-on displays. As an example of these hands-on learning opportunities, in the section about the Arctic, visitors can turn a wheel to see short films about different aspects of its destruction.
In the section about Arctic wildlife, a wall case shows a series of taxidermied animals, which made me think “How old-fashioned!” at first glance. Then I noticed that a screen in front of the case lets visitors choose each animal to hear what sound it makes. Somehow this made it much more interesting than just looking at dead animals.
In a section addressing climate change, photos of glaciers can be slid right and left to compare their early 20th century form to their more recent form: a very shocking sight!
The section about nature in the Arctic includes all the major species: i.e. reindeer, both domesticated and wild; polar bears; various birds; elk; and lots of other animals, large and small.
A cultural exhibit tells all about the people of the Arctic, the politics of indigenous people, as well as alliances between the local Sami and other indigenous groups around the world. It describes the traditional as well as more modern way of life of the Sami people, including how reindeer herding works and how climate change has affected both animals and people in the far north. It covers Sami history and Arctic archeology.
The museum gives understandable explanations of the northern lights and how they happen. An aurora borealis “show” involves a round, dark room with a slanted floor covered in cushions. Visitors lie down with their feet toward the center of the room and watch a film projected on the roof. In August, that was the closest I would get to seeing the northern lights.
Rovaniemi’s recent history is also visible in the museum, with accounts of Olympic athletes raised there (ski jumping is particularly popular) and how the city was affected by World War II. Like many towns in northern Finland, it was bombed by the Germans in its “scorched earth” punishment of Finland for signing an armistice with Moscow.
In a section on the oil industry in the Arctic, a table piled with wooden blocks sets the task to create an oil pipeline, testing it using balls to roll down the “pipe” to make sure the “oil” flows properly. With activities like this, Arktikum is very child-friendly: lots of buttons to push, videos to watch and even a video game. It might be a frustrating visit for parents, who’d want to linger more over some of the exhibits. We could have spent far more time than we did; nevertheless, in the couple of hours we spent in Arktikum, we learned a lot.
2. Pilke Science Center
While Pilke is called a science center, that’s not really what it is. Arktikum covers the science pretty thoroughly. Pilke is really only about northern forests and forestry.
The exhibits cover local trees and their varieties, the ecology of the forests (86% of Finland is forest!), but also how forestry is carried out through planting and thinning and generally controlling the forests. It moves on to how the wood is harvested, what it’s used for, new materials being developed from wood products, etc. and then to how it is recycled and reused.
This museum leans even more toward interactive exhibits than Arktikum. Most seem aimed at children, but we found them interesting too. Arranged around one big multi-story hall, each one stands on a table or hangs on the wall. Almost everything is hands-on, so I could enjoy the feel of the different woods, wood-based products and even toilet papers.
We laughed a lot trying out a simulator, driving the machine they cut trees with, but very badly. We (and other adults visiting at the same time) got in touch with our inner child, moving from table to table and trying all the buttons, screens and dials. We stopped short of actually settling down on the floor to build a transport system with blocks or climbing into the huge tractor and pretending to drive it.
Clearly the place is very child-friendly. When we visited, soon after opening time, there were few people and we could enjoy the activities. I can imagine that if it was crowded with children, that big space could get pretty loud, and you’d have to wait your turn on the more popular activities.
3. Korundi House of Culture
Culture House Korundi is in a large pre-war building, a rarity in this part of Finland, since most of Rovaniemi was leveled by the Germans at the end of WWII. Built in 1933, it was a post bus depot, but has been redesigned for its current use: to house the Rovaniemi Art Museum and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra.
The museum features big, beautiful open spaces highlighting some wonderful contemporary art by Finnish artists I’d never heard of. Some of it is very powerful.
We meant to just take a quick look, but the art was of such consistently high quality and so well displayed that we ended up wandering all of the gallery rooms.
Unlike the other museums, this museum is not child-friendly. My art-loving daughter would have enjoyed it as a child, but only as a quick walk-through, with our go-to question whenever visiting an art museum with her: “Which is your favorite artwork in this room?” A quick decision, perhaps a brief explanation of why it’s the chosen work (“Because it’s got lots of pink!”), and then move on to the next room. Your mileage may vary; we tried the same strategy with our son and it was a complete failure.
While the Culture Pass just covers these three museums, one other attraction is definitely worth mentioning, and it’s why most visitors go to Rovaniemi:
4. Santa Claus Village
Located right on the edge of the Arctic Circle, Rovaniemi bills itself as “the official hometown of Santa Claus”. This may seem very Christmassy, but I guess Santa needs to live somewhere in the summertime too!
Santa Claus Village is a theme park of sorts, built around Santa Claus. Besides meeting the man himself, visitors can see Santa’s reindeer, stay in accommodations in Santa Claus Village, shop for souvenirs, mail a postcard from Santa Claus’s post office, and take various “safaris” into the surrounding forests.
Santa Claus Village is open all year. We only visited briefly during the day, but we did peek into where Santa Claus was meeting guests. The man playing Santa looked the part perfectly, but I was not allowed any photos, since they charge for them. The rather old-fashioned displays leading up to Santa Claus’s room surprised me. I guess I expected something more flashy and high-tech.
Summer activities in and around Rovaniemi
Rovaniemi itself is not particularly pretty, except for a pleasant riverside walk; as I’ve mentioned, much of it was destroyed in the war. Just like in the winter, the city is a good place to use as a home base for excursions out of town.
There are plenty of things to do outside Rovaniemi. Here are some of them:
- You could take a midnight sun excursion like this one on a fat-tire e-bike, taking you to see some beautiful midnight views and including a Lappish barbeque. Or take a half-day off-road fat bike ride.
- On this midnight sun excursion, you can float on a lake in the forest under the sun. Don’t worry, it includes a survival suit to float in comfortably.
- Visit a husky farm and a reindeer farm, go canoeing on a lake, and enjoy a Lappish barbeque on this combination excursion.
- If you prefer hiking, try this excursion into Korouoma National Park and look out for reindeer and moose.
- If biking and hiking aren’t your idea of fun, you can take this excursion in a vehicle to find moose in the forest.
- This five-hour guided tour by vehicle includes both Rovaniemi itself and the surrounding natural areas.
- If you like cooking, try a cooking class, focusing on the food and culture of Lapland.
- Ranua Wildlife Park is a large zoo that focuses on Arctic wildlife. It is about an hour from Rovaniemi.
Where to stay in Rovaniemi
We stayed in the Arctic Light Hotel, a boutique hotel which I have to say was truly outstanding. Decorated to an Arctic night theme, the décor is mostly quite dark, yet the cleverly-designed indirect lighting makes it cozy. The furniture is soft and fuzzy, accentuating that warm, cozy feel. (I should warn, though, that any strict animal activist might not be comfortable with the animal pelt carpets and antlers used as decoration.)
The lobby is inviting, dotted with cozy sofas and armchairs in clusters, with a fireplace and a large pile of firewood in the corner. At check-in, we were handed a coupon for a welcome drink of blueberry juice at the bar across the lobby from reception.
A glassed-in “terrace” behind the lobby provides ample comfortable seating to enjoy a drink with friends.
Our room, a “magic” double room, was beautifully decorated, including a small sitting area with big comfy chairs, a desk, a large flat-screen tv, and a big bed. It was, of course, spotlessly clean as well, with good blackout curtains: a necessity during the period of midnight sun.
We especially loved the wall of stars behind our bed, echoing the Arctic night theme, and the fact that we could control the various lights from panels on both sides of the bed. Ample outlets meant no need to move furniture to keep everything charged up.
The shower has both a normal shower head and a rain shower, with high-end amenities from a good brand, Rituals. My husband made use of the sauna, which is included in the room price, though it has to be reserved at the reception desk. He used one of the bathrobes and slippers provided in the room, and reported that the sauna was entirely satisfactory.
Breakfast at Arctic Light Hotel
The room comes with breakfast included, and that was also exceptional, created by a TV chef named Sara La Fontain. Besides all of the usual breakfast foods, both hot and cold, this breakfast emphasizes superfoods and their health benefits. A wide range of small glasses with interesting concoctions were arranged temptingly, things like a mango-chia pudding, a “super bee smoothie,” and yogurt with honey and homemade granola.
As for spreads, besides the expected jams and Nutella and the like, I could choose from beetroot hummus, cream cheese with lox, or cream cheese with smoked reindeer, to name a few.
A variety of sweets, including “raw” cakes tempted me as well, though I have to say the raw cakes didn’t really do it for me: beautiful looking, but I didn’t like the texture. I did love that besides the usual orange or apple juice, I could have blueberry or cranberry, which I mixed for a delicious drink. Or I could take a cup of assorted berries to eat as they were or to dump into my yogurt (I did both.).
Dinner at the Arctic Restaurant
The #visitrovaniemi campaign was kind enough to buy us dinner at the Arctic Light Hotel’s own Arctic Restaurant and that, too, was excellent. The restaurant emphasizes local cuisine: reindeer, king crab and salmon in particular. My king crab pasta was heavenly and Albert loved his “reindeer two ways.”
While the prices at the Arctic Restaurant are high, they weren’t as bad as we expected. Good restaurants at home in the Netherlands have similar or higher prices and the quality of our meal compared with the best of them. Your costs could run up quite quickly, however, if you drink alcohol, which is pricey everywhere in Scandinavia.
Rovaniemi is in Lapland, an area that extends north into the Arctic Circle as well as east and west into Norway, Sweden and Russia.
We got there by car, taking two days to drive slowly south from Kirkenes: about seven hours’ driving in all. To give you an idea of where it is, it would take about 9-10 hours to drive to Rovaniemi from Helsinki. By train it would take longer: about 15-16 hours.
Rovaniemi’s airport, “the official airport of Santa Claus,” according to its website, is very busy, especially during the winter. Lots of airlines, both full-service and budget, fly there. From Helsinki, it’ll take about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
The airport is about 10 km outside of the city center. See this page for the various public transportation options from the airport to town or directly to resorts. Alternatively, rent a car from the airport; several of the major car rental agencies have offices there.
Rovaniemi’s culture pass costs €20 and is good for seven days. It includes admission to Pilke, Arktikum and Korundi.
Arktikum: Pohjoisranta 4, Rovaniemi. Open daily 10:00-18:00 in June-August, December, and the first half of January. The rest of the year it is closed on Mondays. €13.
Pilke: Ounasjoentie 6, Rovaniemi, right next to Arktikum. Open daily June-August (Monday-Friday 9:00-18:00 and Saturday-Sunday 10:00-16:00). In September-November and January-May, the hours are the same, except it is closed on Mondays. In December and the first week of January, the open hours are Monday-Friday 9:00-18:00 and Saturday-Sunday 10:00-18:00. Adult admission €7.
Korundi: Lapinkävijäntie 4, Rovaniemi, about a 10-minute walk from the center. Open all year Tue-Sun 11:00-18:00. On Thursday evenings, it stays open until 20:00 and admission is free from 18:00-20:00, except on public holidays. Admission €9.
Santa Claus Village: Tähtikuja 1 in Napapiiri, on route E75 about 8 km north of the city center. Bus 8 and “Santa’s express” run regularly between Rovaniemi city center and Santa Claus Village. Santa’s office is open daily: June-August 9:00-18:00; September-November and January-May 10:00-17:00; December until the first week of January 9:00-19:00. Other businesses on the site may have different opening hours. It is free to enter, but activities all cost something, including pictures with Santa.
Arctic Light Hotel: Valtakatu 18 in Rovaniemi. Prices for the “magic” room that we had vary from the mid- €130’s into the €200’s: it is their most basic room. Pricing depends on time of year and day of the week, and they book up far ahead.
Arctic Restaurant: Next to the Arctic Light Hotel. Mains vary from €18.50 for chanterelle pasta to €34.50 for “reindeer cooked two ways.”
Have you ever traveled to the Arctic Circle? When would you most like to see it: in the summer or the winter?