Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland, brands itself as the official home of Santa Claus, drawing crowds of the naughty and nice from all over the world. But there is so much more to Rovaniemi than Mr. and Mrs. C. For one thing, you can walk across the Arctic Circle while breathing in some of the freshest air on the planet, or watch the surreal dance of the northern lights from a glass ceiling in your hotel. On my last trip to Rovaniemi, I saw nature dressed in its Christmas finest while enjoying these eight wonderfully unique experiences.
1. Reindeer Charcuterie
Most of Lapland’s cuisine has a direct line to nature. Mushrooms are on almost every menu. So is reindeer. Though it might make you squirm to eat Rudolph’s relative (and in his hometown!) locals will explain that reindeer is one of the most sustainable and humanely-sourced meats. You can try a sampling of reindeer charcuterie, including reindeer tongue, at Rovaniemi’s popular Cafe & Bar 21.
Pro Tip: Finnish tapas are called sapas and Lappish sapas are called lapas. If you see it on the menu, you’ll know what it is.
Fun Fact: I also ate tar. JOS ei viina, terva ja sauna auta, niin tauti on kuolemaksi is an old Finnish proverb meaning, “If a sauna, vodka, and tar won’t help, nothing will cure you.” Tar may not seem like the most appetizing of ingredients, but it’s a staple in traditional Finnish cuisine for both sweet and savory dishes.
To set your mind at ease: It’s not the same thing we pave roads with. Terva is made from pine tree sap extracted from burning wood. It’s touted for its medicinal properties and is actually quite appealing on a cold, wet day. I tried it both as an appetizer and a dessert during a memorable meal I had at the Arctic Restaurant in downtown Rovaniemi.
2. Reindeer Herders And Artisans
I spent an afternoon with reindeer herders/artisans Ari and Irene Kangasniemi at their workshop/home in a snowy forest outside of Rovaniemi. Irene is a wonderful person, possessed by a loopy sense of humor and a “who’s to know” attitude. She comes across as Julia Child dressed in Marimekko.
In his leather workshop, Ari showed me the salmon skins he works with. I was mesmerized by the colors: blues, browns, reds, and whites. They are really the colors of Lapland — mushrooms, berries, lakes, and snow. Later, Irene and I drank blueberry juice and made cloudberry jam with berries she picked. She told me tales of the life of a reindeer herder and the history of the Sami people (the Indigenous people of Lapland) to which she belongs.
3. Arktikum: A Stunning Arctic Museum
Arktikum is a world-class museum on the edge of the Arctic circle. Through its fantastic interactive exhibits, it introduced me to the wonders, natural and scientific, of Finnish Lapland and the history and cultures of people living north of the Arctic Circle.
Pro Tip: Arktikum is a sprawling museum. To get the most out of it, give yourself at least half a day. It’s also architecturally dramatic with great spots for photo ops.
4. Coffee Cheese
Kaffeost, or coffee cheese, is a thing in Lapland. Actually, it’s a tradition of the Sami people and was a way to add protein to a hot beverage. I was honestly a bit put off by the odd combination but gamely gave it a try — especially when the hosts offering it looked sad that I would pass up such a treat. Kaffeost is served in an elegant hand-carved mug made out of birch burl (a knobby tree growth). A small piece of a leipäjuusto — or what is known in the U.S. as Finnish squeaky cheese traditionally made with reindeer milk but nowadays cow — is dropped in the mug of hot coffee as it softens without quite melting. It was actually quite tasty and satisfying.
5. The Northern Lights Through A Glass Roof
Rovaniemi has some expertly-designed hotels but one of my favorites was the Arctic Snow Hotel and Glass Igloos. It was a fine example of Finnish functional design. In this case, the function was optimal viewing of the Aurora Borealis from the comfort of a warm bed. Electrically-heated roofs in igloo-inspired cabins in the middle of a pine forest allow you to lie in bed and see the starry night sky — and, if conditions are right, the incredible drama of the northern lights. You can sign up for their Aurora Alarm to wake you up so you won’t miss the wondrous show in the sky.
6. Sunset From A Frozen Lake
I donned a special floatation costume to drift in a lake surrounded by chunks of ice while watching the sunset. Arctic ice floating sounds really cold and a little reckless but you are completely protected with your high-tech rescue suit; it keeps you dry and aloft to free your mind and body. (Guides are with you the whole time.) Just as dusk fell, I saw a couple of elk on the edge of the water. After we came out of the water, we were given blueberry tea and gingerbread. It was a totally magical experience!
7. Reindeer Sleigh Rides
Husky sleigh rides and Reindeer sleigh rides are both popular with visitors. The first is more high-octane but not quite traditional to Lapland. A reindeer sleigh ride is a truly authentic Lappish experience and there are many outfitters in the region to choose from. The white fur animals pulled us through the snowy white landscape, only their tall antlers breaking up the snow as we sped through the forest. I felt like Santa himself!
8. Santa Claus Village
Of course, the number one attraction in Lapland is Santa Claus Village. It’s so popular in Europe that there are special 1-day flights from cities like London to take kids and grandkids to visit Santa in his home. The village is open 365 days of the year so you can see how busy the elves are year-round. And despite his busy schedule, Santa is available to hear your kids’ and grandkids’ secret wish lists. After the visit, you can visit reindeer in Santa Claus Reindeer Park and cross the Arctic Circle — at the magical latitude of 66°33′45.9′′.
Pro Tip: If you don’t have young people with you on the trip to share the experience with you, you can send them a postcard from Santa Claus’s post office.
For Christmas celebrations all around the world, check out these articles: