The mere mention of the word Lapland conjures up mystical and enchanting thoughts. It takes you back to your youth, a time of innocence and excitement in your life where, for once a year, the world became just that little bit more exciting.
Lapland is of course, the official home of Santa Claus, and is a dream destination for families and children, desperate to meet their idol and pass on their Christmas list.
But as we found during our time there, there is so much more to winter in Finland, especially around the vast northern area of Lapland!
Winter In Finland
Lapland is an enchanting and beautiful place. Picture perfect winter wonderlands adorn every turn in this wonderful region, and the vast size provides ample opportunities for a variety of activities.
So here’s the lowdown on our top 8 recommended activities during winter in Finland, complete with mini-stories, photos and video!
1. Meeting Real Reindeer Farmers In Wild Lapland
This was an absolute highlight from our time in Lapland, and most definitely a top recommendation!
Close to the heart of Finland’s Sami culture centre in the northern area of Inari, we spent a wonderful morning in the forested wilderness surrounding Inari with two local reindeer farmers, learning about their lives and meeting their many reindeer.
Something we always aim for on our travels are authentic experiences, and this was certainly one of them. This wasn’t petting a reindeer in a zoo or enclosure, this was a 20 minute drive into the woods from Inari, followed by a 30 minute snowmobile ride through the snow blanketed forests of Lapland!
Sat in a sledge behind a snowmobile, we were hurtled across frozen lakes and through narrow, tree-lined routes towards our local reindeer herders’ farm. This was an absolutely brilliant experience of winter in Finland!
When we arrived, we were instantly greeted by many reindeer wandering around the forest. It was so exciting and we were already delighted when, all of a sudden, our farmer guide blew on his special whistle and out of nowhere hundreds more reindeer began appearing all around us. It was a completely overwhelming experience as everywhere we looked, more reindeer appeared from behind snow covered bushes and trees, with their grey, black and white furs contrasting against the beautiful white scene around us…
They came in their droves, surrounding us entirely in a matter of seconds, their antlers and bodies gently brushing against us as we spun around to capture the scene in our minds.
It was incredible.
After the initial couple of minutes, we got our bearings and began watching and admiring the reindeer as they fed. The farmers we had come with were feeding their reindeer today, something they do every two days, so the reindeer were excitable and constantly jostling with each other for position.
After a while we all sat down by a fire, expertly set up by the reindeer farmer in a simple hole in the snow. Despite the cold, it was cosy as we sat on small rugs and listened intently while our hosts explained their labour of love and how reindeer farming works, especially in Lapland. From the history of herding by snowshoe and cross-country skis, to the more modern approach with snowmobiles and ATVs, it was fascinating to learn and get a glimpse into their lives. All the while a small pot of tea brewed above a roaring fire.
It was at this point that the initial bewilderment subsided, and we were able to sit back and admire the reindeer in a more relaxed setting. Reindeer for the most part have been romanticised in our culture, forever linked to emotions of youth, innocence and, of course, Santa and the most wonderful time of the year. By sitting in the wilderness of Lapland, we saw them in their natural habitat, battling each other with their antlers, grazing and sitting in the snow with a quizical watch over us.
After a couple of hours, it was time for us to bid farewell to the reindeer and make our way back to Inari. It had been a wonderful and enchanting experience, and one we wish we had even more time to enjoy.
As we bumped our way back along behind our snowmobile, the snow-covered trees racing passed us, we reflected on what a beautiful scene we had just witnessed.
In Lapland, the mystical beauty of the reindeer in our minds was matched, and perhaps even surpassed by what we found in that cold, snowy forest in Lapland.
2. Experiencing A Traditional Finnish Smoke Sauna
If there is something that is quintessentially Finnish, it must surely be the sauna. Everywhere we went in Finland there was a sauna, from private ones in our hotel rooms to larger public saunas, there is no shortage to satisfy the locals love of a daily visit. In fact most Finns even have one in their home, now that we could get used to!
So of course it goes without saying, that when we were offered the opportunity to take the experience to a whole new level, well we grabbed it, despite what was involved! We just didn’t realise it would be quite so extreme…
The ‘smoke sauna’ was the good part, we later learned. Consisting of a huge stove filled with wood, this is a special type of sauna without a chimney (known in Finnish as the savusauna). As the wood is burned, the smoke fills the room while the fire is allowed to die whilst the smoke ventilates out when hot enough. What’s the result of this special type? Well the air is smooth and whilst still extremely hot, it’s less intense on the skin due to the wood smoked method and therefore extremely enjoyable for much more than 10 minutes!
So what’s the extreme part you might ask? Well it’s the tradition that follows the sauna that shocked us, literally! After enjoying the warmth of a good sauna, it’s traditional in Finland to take a dip into the closest lake or pool (despite it being winter or summer!) So at Kiilopää, right in the heart of sub-zero Lapland, this involved taking a rather refreshing dip in the Kiilopuro fell brook i.e. a small but deep pond of freezing cold water adjacent to the sauna! So with a wintertime water temperature of approx. -1 ºC, it was just a little bit of a shock when we tried the famous Finnish sauna routine for the first time…well that’s an understatement!
The first part was simple enough, we sat in the sauna and we sweated, and sweated a bit more…it was damn hot, just the way the Finns like it. After 15 minutes, we both looked at each other, it was time for our freezing ice bath. So out of the sauna we went, into the brisk cold air outside. A quick jog along the wooden promenade brought us to our challenge, an icy cold pool of water below us. It was so cold the steps were frozen. No time to think, there were Finns watching and we didn’t want to disappoint. Into the pool we went.
The initial shock was bewildering, firstly the pool was a lot deeper than we thought, so as we cautiously entered it wasn’t long before we were neck deep in icy cold water with no ledge to hold us up! I know we should’ve expected it to be cold, but it really shocked our systems. I went to grab hold of the rope, only to find that it had frozen solid. Damn it was cold in here!
Before I knew it, Laura was out and heading back to the sauna, leaving me to freeze my extremities off. And it felt like they were freezing off. Fearing my chances of having children, I launched myself out of the ice pool, along the freezing wooden promenade and back into the heat of the smoke sauna. Only now this boiling hot sauna didn’t feel remotely hot, my body so cold from the ice pool. I found Laura in the darkness, and slowly, over the next ten minutes our bodies warmed back up until we were once again sweating.
“Let’s go back in the ice pool!” Laura whispered to me. I was baffled, there was no way I was going back in that ice pool.
A few minutes passed, and after watching various elderly aged couples take the plunge again and again, I reluctantly headed back into the pool.
Again the cold brisk air hit us as we jogged along the wooden promenade, and this time there was no delay as we launched ourselves into the icy waters. The initial impact was the same, a massive shock of cold that felt like it was coursing through our veins. But after a few moments, everything went eerily calm. It was still very cold, but this time we were able to stay in longer. My extremities didn’t feel like they were going to drop off this time. Phew.
Again we only lasted around 30 seconds, but trust me it felt a lot longer than that. We took a moment, relaxed our breathing and took it all in. Then we bolted again for the sauna.
Back in the safety of the sauna, I could finally relax. All my bits were intact, and it was time to enjoy sweating it out with new Finnish pals. Or so I thought.
Around 10 minutes later, Laura turned to me and uttered the immortal words:
“I want to go in the ice pool again”
I was speechless, I thought perhaps I wasn’t hearing right. Maybe my ears were full of sweat. But no, it was true, my wife is a glutton for punishment. I was done with the ice pool, in fact if I never see an ice pool again it’ll be too soon. But she was insistent, she was going back in the icy water. And so in she went, one last time.
This was her best performance yet. She hardly screamed at all this time, and spent exactly 40 seconds in the water. Moments later she was back in the sauna…
Although it might sound like we hated the ice pool, it really was an incredible experience, and one we would recommend you try at least once, perhaps twice. The contrast of hot sweaty skin and freezing cold water is invigorating, and we can see why it’s a favourite pastime of the Finns.
We managed to capture some GoPro footage of our experience, so check out the video below to see our shocking but invigorating ice pool dips!
3. Cross-Country Skiing In Northern Lapland
From one classic Finnish pastime to another. This time it was cross-country skiing, and something we were very excited to try when we arrived in Finland.
The premise is pretty simple, you grab a couple of skis and sticks, and you head out onto one of the many trails to get some exercise and explore the forest. Sounds simple right? Well after a couple of hours of tuition and practise, it unexpectedly was! We’re absolutely no experts but cross-country skiing turned out to be one of our favourite experiences in Lapland. There’s something truly magical about being out in the wintry forested wilderness, able to explore under your own steam, in a quiet and serene way.
If you’ve been downhill skiing before, cross-country skiing isn’t too difficult to figure out and something we’d highly recommend trying when in Lapland. The main difference? The skis are smaller, narrower and lighter, and although you clip your feet to the skis, you’re able to lift your heel off the ski to aid your movement. Easy!
Here we are getting some tips at the brilliant Kiilopää ski school in Northern Lapland…
After our lesson, we skied for around 3.5 hours, exploring the many trails around vast Urho Kekkonen National Park in Northern Lapland. It was an amazing experience, though probably long enough for us with our legs beginning to ache towards the end!
4. Hunting the Northern Lights
Ah Finland, home of the Aurora Borealis which makes an appearance around 200 days a year. Such a good chance of seeing it! Or so we thought.
The experience of hunting the aurora borealis is up there as one of the most frustrating of all our travel experiences. We have been incredibly lucky with weather conditions on many of our adventures that it was bound to run out at some point. And sadly the weather didn’t cooperate in our time hunting the Aurora Borealis.
Despite spending a week in Lapland, and countless hours standing outside in the cold night, the northern lights proved almost elusive, until one evening in Inari where I caught just the slightest of glimmers in the night sky.
I had been standing in the cold for 3 hours. It was now 11pm and -22 °C. I was cold, once again my extremities began freezing up and I seriously considered going back inside. But then something caught my eye directly above me.
It began as what looked like a white sliver of cloud directly above me. But it was moving in a unique way, seemingly remaining in situ but still rippling above me. I turned my camera around to capture it, and suddenly it exploded into green, just hovering above me. It was truly mystical, and all I could keep saying to myself was “it’s here, it’s here”!
In the excitement, I caught these 2 images of it, my small experience of the northern lights.
It hovered above me for only 3 minutes, but it was a magical moment. There was not a single person with me, I stood on a frozen lake at 11pm all alone, freezing but so excited. And 3 minutes later it disappeared, and that was it. Our week of aurora hunting resulted in a 3 minute sighting, but I was thankful I’d had that.
It’s worth setting expectations when it comes to the northern lights. They are elusive, and many people don’t see them. We met people who had been in Lapland for a week and didn’t see them once, not even a glimpse. So check the aurora forecast every 30 minutes and be ready to run out at a moment’s notice, as I found, the northern lights can be a fleeting experience.
5. Cruising Onboard The Sampo Icebreaker (And A Polar Plunge!)
After our experience of the ice pool with our smoke sauna, you’d think we’d had enough of throwing ourselves into freezing water. But no! If there’s one thing we love, it’s a unique experience we can’t get anywhere else. And so here we were, getting suited up in a wet suit on an icebreaker ship in the Gulf of Bothnia, ready to jump into the frozen arctic sea!
Perhaps we should rewind a little. Earlier that day, we’d stepped aboard the Sampo Icebreaker, the only tourist icebreaker ship in the world, at the port of Kemi in Lapland.
We’d left port, and our powerful ship had smashed its way through huge sheets of ice. Surrounded by vast white expanse, we’d watched in awe from the outer deck as our ship dramatically cracked, shuddered and lifted up to make its incredible journey through the arctic ice pack.
After a fascinating tour of the 1960 built ship, including a special sneak peek into the bridge and engine room, it was time for our dip in the frozen arctic sea…
The Sampo Icebreaker has its own special wet suits that keep you completely dry, so you don’t need to undress to get into the sea – simply step in, get fully zipped up, and slide yourself into the icy waters!
This was a really great, if surreal experience. The suits not only keep you dry, but also afloat, so you don’t have to do anything, just lie back and enjoy the surreal experience.
There’s something strange about floating on your back, in a frozen sea, alongside the hull of a huge icebreaker, but we weren’t complaining, it was a brilliant experience, and if you do take the amazing icebreaker cruise, you have to try the ice dip!
6. Sleeping In A Snow Hotel
If you find yourself in Southwest Lapland (perhaps already booked on the Sampo Icebreaker cruise from Kemi that we’ve just mentioned!), then why not consider this other unusual and totally unique winter in Finland experience!
Drawing thousands of tourists each year, it’s a fascinating winter landmark of the small coastal town of Kemi. Specially constructed on an annual basis, you can visit the ‘SnowCastle’ and even sleep overnight in the ‘SnowHotel’ for around 3 months of the year (typically January to March).
Despite this being something of a touristic novelty, we couldn’t resist trying the experience for ourselves for a night and here’s what you can expect.
The vast construction and intricate sculpting, all made from real snow and ice was fascinating, but don’t come expecting a cosy and warm night’s sleep (obviously!). This is definitely one of those memorable, but once in a lifetime travel experiences!
7. Hiking By Snowshoe Around Beautiful Urho Kekkonen National Park
A simpler but still very enjoyable activity around Lapland is exploring some of the many beautiful areas and national parks by foot. Near Kiilopää fell centre, positioned within the eastern national park of Urho Kekkonen National Park (the second largest national park in Finland), there are many mapped out routes so we decided to explore by snowshoe – another new experience for us!
We found snowshoeing a great way to access parts of the snowy walks we might not have otherwise been able to traverse. Again it was surprisingly easy to get used to the snowshoes and they were great for discovering our own quiet and peaceful areas.
We were absolutely stunned by the natural beauty of this area, and would love to return some day for more cross-country skiing and snowshoeing adventures!
8. Sampling Hearty Lapland Cuisine
Last but by no means least of our highlights of Lapland has to be a special mention to the delightful and hearty cuisine we came across. Being food-lovers, we’d done our research and couldn’t wait to sample some of the local produce. Thankfully it didn’t disappoint!
From delicious soups to light fish dishes and heavier stews and steaks, we loved following up our cold outdoor activities with a hearty warm buffet or gourmet meal!
Soups are a Finnish favourite and often accompanied by freshly baked healthy rye bread, so it was a welcome lunchtime staple for us. Usually followed by some locally caught fresh fish or meat for dinner, with reindeer being the staple dish of the Sami culture in Lapland. Though it wasn’t our favourite, there were always many options to choose from so every meal was an exciting event…yes we love our food!
So that’s it. A full round up of our favourite Lapland adventures! As you can see, we crammed a lot into our 1 week winter tour. There is so much to see and do around this vast area, and it would be easy to fill weeks rather than days. However there’s no doubt that it’s the beauty and peacefulness of Lapland that makes it so magical. A truly enchanting place to visit.
Note: We were guests of Visit Finland for this latest adventure, however as ALWAYS, all opinions are our own.