11 Top-Rated Things to Do in Rovaniemi

Rovaniemi is the capital of Finland's northernmost province, Lapland, and is also known worldwide as the hometown of Santa Claus. The city also provides unparalleled access to the Arctic Circle (Rovaniemi lies just 6.4 kilometers south of the line) and all the unique attractions it has to offer.

In summer, it's an ideal spot for fishing and hiking enthusiasts, but Rovaniemi in winter is when this arctic area really shines – even with the reduced hours of daylight. From staying up late to spot the colorful waves of the aurora borealis to taking sightseeing day trips out in the wilderness of Finnish Lapland, see our list of things to do and places to visit in Rovaniemi.

1. Santa Claus Express

Train tracks in the snow on the Santa Claus Express

Since Rovaniemi is the official home of Santa Claus, the sleek double-decker train that runs from Helsinki to Rovaniemi is affectionally known as the "Santa Claus Express." With up to two daily departures, the later nighttime departure is the most popular with locals and tourists alike: snuggle down into your private two-bunk sleeping cabin and wake up the next morning to the snowy landscape of Finnish Lapland.

The journey is about 885 kilometers and takes eight to 10 hours depending on the scheduled stops. Each sleeper car has a shared bathroom, but the cabins are kitted out with their own sink, fresh linens, power outlets, and a window. Sure, it's dark when you board the train, but the thrill of waking up to see the sunrise over snow-covered pine trees while hurtling towards the Arctic Circle is truly unique.

Tip: For easy access, have your toothbrush and nighttime gear in your hand luggage before boarding the train. Your main luggage will be stored under the bunkbeds with no room in the cabin to fully open them.

2. Santa Claus Village

Santa Claus Village in the evening

If the chance to meet Old St. Nick has you (or your kids) giggling with anticipation, a visit to the Santa Claus Village won't disappoint - after all, Rovaniemi is the official hometown of Santa Claus in Lapland.

Just eight kilometers north of Rovaniemi city (either take Highway 4 towards Ivalo or hop on the local #8 bus labelled "Santa Express"), this festive holiday village is where you'll find all things Christmas and Kris Kringle related. The Main Post Office has a direct mail route to Santa himself, Mrs. Claus bakes traditional gingerbread cookies and tells stories about Lapland at her Christmas Cottage, and Santa explains how he and his jovial elves prepare for Christmas each year in his work chambers.

This is also where you can take a photo (and get a certificate) of yourself stepping over the Arctic Circle, with a painted sign marking the circle of latitude that runs 66°33'45.9" north of the Equator.

Tip: To see Santa face-to-face in a timely manner, be ready and waiting in line as soon as visiting hours begin. If you push it until later in the day, the line could take hours.

3. Reindeer Sled Rides

Reindeer sleds in Rovaniemi

In Lapland, there's a roughly a one-to-one ratio of residents to reindeer, as the region's indigenous Sami people have a long and intimate history with these gentle beasts. While you may spy reindeer wandering unaccompanied through the snowy woods, they are actually owned by a specific Sami herder (they have special identifying marks on their ears) and are rounded up each year.

Reindeer sleds have been transporting families and goods across Europe's Arctic for as long as there have been people to pull. Settling into one of these specially designed wooden sleighs piled high with pillows and blankets behind the furry tails of a well-trained reindeer feels like you're a part of living history. As their hooves quietly pad through a snowy forested trail and their harness bells gently ring, it's hard not to be swept away in the picturesque magic of it all.

From Rovaniemi, there are plenty of options when it comes to visiting a local reindeer farm and booking a sleigh ride, such as Christmas House Safaris and Raitola Reindeer and Husky Farm.

Tip: Reindeer are naturally shy, and it takes years of training to get them to be comfortable around humans and sled ready, so remain as quiet and calm as possible - and always respect the driver's directions.

4. Visit a Village Made of Ice

Snow castle in Lapland

Nearly a two-hour drive north of Rovaniemi city limits, you'll find something quite extraordinary - a breathtaking resort complex constructed from 44 million pounds of snow and 772,000 pounds of natural ice. Almost every year, Lapland Hotels designs and builds a new SnowVillage, complete with hotel rooms, a wedding chapel, and dozens of mind-blowing snow and ice sculptures for day-pass visitors and overnight guests to enjoy.

While the hotel rooms are kept below zero, the beds have real mattresses and sub-zero bedding (plus, guests have access to a warmup room if it becomes too frigid). The team of talented Finnish designers and builders comes up with a theme, then spends a whole year bringing it to life. The theme in 2018/19 was Game of Thrones, featuring complicated figures of fearsome dragons, throne rooms, and a life-sized "weirwood" tree. In the 2019/2020 season, the theme is "Illusions" where designs will trick and tease the mind.

Tip: Be sure to go around lunchtime to enjoy a large bowl of traditional reindeer soup with a hearty slice of butter bread at the on-site, not-made-from-ice cafeteria.

5. Korundi House of Culture

Aerial view of Rovaniemi

One of the best places to visit in Rovaniemi to get yourself acquainted with the local culture and history is the Korundi House of Culture, made up of the Chamber Orchestra of Lapland and the Rovaniemi Art Museum, located on the edge of the downtown core of Rovaniemi city.

The art museum is housed in an old bus depot, one of the few buildings that survived the devastating bombing of Rovaniemi (and much of Lapland) in WWII that destroyed 90 percent of all buildings in Rovaniemi city. The permanent and rotating collections focus on contemporary Finnish art from the 1940s onwards, with a special consideration for northern-born artists, even featuring a local artist of the month.

The 340-seat Korundi concert hall hosts various events throughout the year and is the home of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra.

Tip: Before heading to Rovaniemi, check out Korundi's events calendar for upcoming shows and book your tickets in advance to experience the musical and dramatic arts of Finnish Lapland.

6. Cross-Country Skiing

Cross-country skiing in Lapland

Rovaniemi is considered the "gateway to the Arctic" and provides a great jumping-off point for all the wintertime outdoor pursuits this unique area of the world offers. One of the most popular winter pastimes in Finnish Lapland is cross-country skiing, with one in five Finns identifying as active skiers. It's no wonder - with its dry, consistent snow and mostly flat or gentry rolling landscape, Lapland was built for this sport.

Add in an extensive network of government-maintained ski trails along the main highways, side roads, and through the region's extensive wooded parklands, and you have the perfect combination for a ski-obsessed nation (Finland constantly finds itself on the podium at the Winter Olympics for the sport). Most resorts and hotels offer ski rentals to guests, as do local sports shops and tour operators.

Tip: If you've never skied before, consider taking a lesson with a trained ski instructor before hitting the trails on your own - your legs will thank you.

7. Strap on Snowshoes

A family snowshoeing in Rovaniemi

If you don't think you'd be comfortable on skis or fussing with multiple pieces of rented equipment, snowshoeing makes a great mode of self-propelled transport across the well-groomed snow trails that zigzag through Finnish Lapland. Simply strap on a pair of lightweight aluminum snowshoes over your own snow boots and step out into the paths that follow the curves of Rovaniemi's Kemijoki River with very little fuss (or snowshoeing knowledge).

If you want to get off the beaten track, hook up with a local tour company to organize a day trip a little farther out into the Arctic Circle. These seasoned guides know where to go to give you the best views and increase your chances of seeing arctic animals, and are fully trained to help you if something goes amiss while trekking through the silent wilderness. Plus, your guide will likely be carrying tasty snacks and drinks (hot loganberry juice is a Lappish favorite) in their backpack to hand out as needed.

Tip: Make sure your boots are comfortable and fully insulated to keep you warm and cozy on the trails. If they aren't, you can likely rent a different pair from the outdoor outfitters.

8. Sauna Time

Finnish sauna

Sauna culture has been a staple of life in Finland for a very long time - the first written record of Finnish people sweating it out in a sauna dates back to 1112. Nowadays, there are an estimated two million saunas in Finland - almost every house, apartment building, and hotel has one (or three) - and with a population of 5.5 million people, that's one sauna for every 2.75 people.

There is a process to the Finnish sauna, which includes heating up a wooden room to 230 degrees Fahrenheit, using silver-birch branches to gently whack your skin, and then either plunging into freezing water or diving into a nearby snowbank to cool off, before doing it all again.

In Rovaniemi, there are plenty of options when it comes to trying out this Finnish tradition, from organized day trips out to a secluded Lappish lakeside sauna to simply using the one at your hotel or resort.

Tip: There are often strict rules and etiquette when it comes to what to wear and how to manage the heat inside the sauna, so make sure you are familiar with the rules before stripping down.

9. Hunt for the Northern Lights

Northern lights in Rovaniemi

While the northern lights are visible in Finnish Lapland year-round, you can significantly up your chances of a shimmery sighting by planning your trip between September and March, when the sky really starts to light up. Most Rovaniemi adventure companies provide specific nighttime aurora borealis tours out into the surrounding Arctic Circle wilderness via snowmobile, snowshoeing, or skis.

The key to having the best view of Nature's light show is to wait for a clear, starry night and make sure you're far away from ambient light thrown off by streetlights or building windows. Also, get to an elevated location with clear, tree-free sight lines - think the top of a hill or on the edge of a lake.

There are also a number of apps, such as the My Aurora app, that predict the likelihood of seeing the northern lights and give you the best viewing window daily by tracking the solar winds and weather systems in your specific area.

Tip: Put on more layers than you think you'll need - you'll be standing or sitting out in freezing conditions for a number of hours, waiting and not really moving too much. Plus, make sure you have a hot drink on hand for immediate warm-ups.

10. Drive the Arctic Ocean Highway

Car on winter road in Rovaniemi

Linking Rovaniemi to the Liinakhamari port on the northern coast of Lapland, the Arctic Ocean Highway opened in 1931 and became the world's first highway to stretch all the way north to the Arctic Ocean. Built on ancient 16th-century cart tracks that were used to connect the trading routes that stretched from Russia to Norway, it's the continuation today of Finnish National Road 4, which begins in Helsinki.

Zooming along this double-lane, snow-packed highway in the dead of winter gives you the scoop on the icy landscape and a sense of open space that can only be found above the Arctic Circle. As you can see, our list of things to do in Rovaniemi is as varied and extensive as this area of the world is wild and wonderful - no time like the present (especially if it's wintertime) to check out this fascinating Arctic area.

Tip: To tackle this strip of remote road, which ends at the north coast of Finland, rent your own 4x4, hop on a tour bus in Rovaniemi, or reach out to a private transport company to get you up there.

11. Visit the Ranua Wildlife Park

Polar bear at Ranua Wildlife Park

Around an hour's drive from Rovaniemi, the Ranua Wildlife Park has a population of more than 200 animals representing more than 50 species of arctic wildlife. Some species live in enclosures, while others have a little more free reign in the wildlife preserve areas of the park.

Among their most popular residents are Finland's only polar bears, Manse and Venus, who live happily together in a spacious habitat.

The park is also home to reindeer, including wild forest reindeer, as well as white-tailed Siberian musk, and roe varieties of deer. Among other large animals are brown bears and moose, and smaller mammals include lynx, otter, mink, wild boar, grey wolf, and the tiny stoat. The park also has a significant bird population, with eight different varieties of owl, four types of geese, golden and white-tailed sea eagles, buzzards, ducks, and raven.

Visitors can explore the park on their own with a downloadable audio tour or, for an additional charge, take a guided tour led by naturalists. Those who really want to immerse themselves in the experience can take a behind-the-scenes wildlife safari or camp at the park. The park also has a restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch, as well as a gift shop that supports the animals.

Address: Rovaniementie 29, 97700 Ranua, Finland

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