Lapland casts a powerful spell. There’s something lonely and intangible here that makes it magical. The midnight sun, the Sámi peoples, the aurora borealis (Northern Lights), and roaming reindeer are all components of this – as is Santa Claus himself, who ‘officially’ resides here – along with the incredible latitudes. At Nuorgam, the northernmost point, you have passed Iceland and nearly all of Canada and Alaska. Spanning 30% of Finland’s land area, Lapland is home to just 3% of its population. Its vast wilderness is ripe for exploring on foot, skis, or sled. The sense of space, pure air, and big skies are what’s most memorable here, more so than the towns. Lapland’s far north is known as Sápmi, home of the Sámi, whose main communities are around Inari, Utsjoki, and Hetta. Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle, is the most popular gateway to the north.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Kemi is an important deep-water harbor and heavy-industry town. It’s home to two of Finland’s blockbuster winter attractions – a snow castle and an icebreaker cruise – while summer diversions include a gem museum and a wide waterfront where you’ll find a handful of kid-friendly activities at Santa’s Seaside Office.
Situated on the impressive Tornionjoki, northern Europe’s longest free-flowing river, Tornio is joined to its Swedish counterpart Haparanda by short bridges. After Russia claimed the Finnish trading center in 1809, Haparanda was founded in 1821 across the river. Upon joining the EU, the twin towns reunited as a ‘Eurocity’. Cross-border shopping has boomed here in recent years, with a vast Ikea on the Swedish side and new malls on the Finnish side. Finland is an hour ahead of Sweden (meaning double celebrations on New Year’s Eve).
Situated right by the Arctic Circle, Rovaniemi is the ‘official’ terrestrial residence of Santa Claus and is the capital of Finnish Lapland and a tourism boomtown. Its wonderful Arktikum museum is the perfect introduction to these latitudes, and Rovaniemi is a fantastic base from which to organize activities. Thoroughly destroyed by the retreating Wehrmacht in 1944, the town was rebuilt to a plan by Alvar Aalto, with the major streets in the shape of a reindeer’s head and antlers (the stadium near the bus station is the eye). Its utilitarian buildings are compensated for by its marvelous riverside location.
Peaceful Kemijärvi sits on a spectacular lake and makes a good stop on your way north or south. The lake and the creations of the town’s sculpture festival are the main attractions.
The area between the fells of Luosto (1686 feet) and Pyhä (1771 feet) forms a popular winter sports center. Most of the area is the Pyhä-Luosto National Park and is an excellent winter sports center. Pyhä-Luosto National Park is also excellent for trekking. Pyhä and Luosto both have ski slopes and are fully serviced resort ‘villages’. They make value-packed if quiet, places to stay in summer, with bargain modern apartments and log cottages available. Pyhä is 10 miles northwest of the main Kemijärvi–Sodankylä road, while Luosto is the same distance east of the Rovaniemi–Sodankylä road. A good road connects the two resorts, which are 15.5 miles apart.
Amid breathtaking mountain scenery, Ylläs is Finland’s highest skiable fell. On either side are the villages Äkäslompolo, in a pretty lakeside setting, and smaller Ylläsjärvi. Both are typical ski-resort towns with top-end hotels, holiday cottages, charter flights, and winter activities. They shut down substantially in summer when reindeer roam with impunity. Both villages are about 3 miles from their respective slopes.
One of Finland’s most popular ski resorts, Levi has a compact center, top-shelf modern facilities, and large accommodation capacity. It hosts many high-profile winter events and is also a very popular destination for hiking during the ruska (autumn leaves) season. There’s enough going on here in summer that it’s not moribund, and great deals on smart modern apartments make it an excellent base for exploring western Lapland, particularly for families. Levi is actually the name of the fell, while Sirkka is the village, but most people refer to the whole place as Levi. The ski season runs from around late October to early May, depending on conditions; in December overseas charter flights descend at nearby Kittilä, bringing families in search of reindeer and a white Christmas.
The last significant stop on Rd 21 before Kilpisjärvi and Norway, Muonio sits on the scenic Muonionjoki that forms the border between Finland and Sweden. It’s a fine base for summer and winter activities, including low-key skiing at nearby Olos. Most of the town was razed during WWII, but the 1817 wooden church escaped that fate.
The spread-out village of Hetta, usually signposted as Enontekiö (the name of the municipal district), is an important Sámi town and a good place to start trekking and exploring the area. It’s also the northern end of the popular Hetta– Pallastunturi Trek.
PALLAS-YLLÄSTUNTURI NATIONAL PARK
Covering more than 250,000 acres, Finland’s third-largest national park forms a long, thin area running from Hetta in the north to the Ylläs ski area in the south. There are 217 miles of hiking trails, 50 miles of mountain-bike trails, and 310 miles of cross-country skiing trails. The main attraction is the excellent 34-mile trekking route from the village of Hetta to Pallastunturi in the middle of the park, where there’s a hotel, the Pallastunturi Luontokeskus nature center, and transport connections. You can continue from here to Ylläs, although there are few facilities in that area. In winter Pallastunturi Fell is a small but popular place for both cross-country and downhill skiing.
The remote village of Kilpisjärvi, the northernmost settlement in the ‘arm’ of Finland, sits on the doorstep of both Norway and Sweden. At 1575 feet above sea level, this small border post, wedged between the lake of Kilpisjärvi and the magnificent surrounding fells, is also the highest village in Finland. The main reason to venture out here is for brilliant summer and ruska (autumn color) trekking or spring cross-country skiing. Kilpisjärvi consists of two small settlements 3 miles apart – the main (southern) center has most services; the northern knot has the hiking center and trailheads.
Sodankylä is the main service center for one of Europe’s least populated areas. It’s at the junction of Lapland’s two main highways and makes a decent staging post between Rovaniemi and the north; even if you’re just passing through, stop to see the humble but exquisite wooden church Vanha Kirkko. A contrast is provided by the high-tech observatory Aurora House just outside town, an important collection point for data on the atmosphere and the aurora borealis.
The bustling, touristy village of Saariselkä, 155 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is more resort than community, as it’s basically a collection of enormous hotels and holiday cottages, but it’s a great spot to get active. It’s a major winter destination for Christmassy experiences, sled safaris, and skiing, and in summer it serves as the main base for trekkers heading into the awesome Saariselkä Wilderness.
SAARISELKÄ WILDERNESS & URHO KEKKONEN NATIONAL PARK SAARISELKÄ
Wilderness, incorporating the 627,000-acre Urho Kekkonen National Park and large tracts of protected forest, extends to the Russian border. It’s a fabulous slice of Finland, home to bears, wolverines, and golden eagles, plus thousands of free-grazing reindeer. This is a brilliant trekking area, with a large network of wilderness huts amid the unspoiled beauty of this huge expanse of forest, marshland, and low fells. The area is divided into several zones, each with different rules. Although fires (using deadwood) are allowed in certain areas, take a camp stove, as fire bans are common in summer. A map and compass are essential for the most remote areas of the park.
A small town by most standards, Ivalo is a metropolis in these latitudes. With plenty of services and an airport that’s particularly busy in winter, it’s a useful place, though with few attractions. However, Inari’s Sámi culture and Saariselkä’s plentiful activities are close by.
Situated on the shores of Inarijärvi 26 miles northeast of Ivalo, this tiny, tucked away village is one of the major Skolt settlements and worth a visit for anyone interested in Sámi culture. There’s also a significant Inari Sámi and Finnish population, and Nellim likes to dub itself the meeting point of three peoples.
The tiny village of Inari is Finland’s most significant Sámi center and the ideal starting point to learn something of Sámi culture. Home to the wonderful Siida museum and Sajos (cultural center and the seat of the Finnish Sámi parliament), it also has a string of superb handicrafts shops. It’s a great base for forays into Lemmenjoki National Park and the Kevo Strict Nature Reserve. The village sits on Lapland’s largest lake, Inarijärvi, a spectacular body of water with more than 3000 islands in its 418 square mile area.
LEMMENJOKI NATIONAL PARK
At 705,000 acres, Lemmenjoki is Finland’s largest national park, covering a remote wilderness area between Inari and Norway. This is prime hiking territory, with desolate wilderness rivers, rough landscapes, and the mystique of gold, as solitary prospectors slosh away with their pans in the middle of nowhere. Boat trips on the river allow more leisurely exploration of the park.