Winter in Finland is enchanting; a land of vast skies, spellbinding scenery and incredible adventures. We visited Finnish Lapland in mid-December and spent a week discovering the magical arctic north. This area is completely unlike anywhere else I have ever visited and we all quickly fell in love with Finland.
Where to go in Finland with Kids
If you’re looking for the complete winter wonderland experience (with a trip to see Father Christmas included) then you have two options. The first is to fly into Rovaniemi and visit either the Father Christmas Village or SantaPark, two places where it’s Christmas all year round (yes, every single day!).
Your second option is to do what we did and fly into Kittilä and travel to the village of Äkäslompolo. This peaceful town is next to Ylläs, one of Finland’s most popular downhill ski resorts, and is a wonderful place to base yourself for your arctic adventures.
There are lots of tour packages offering three-day, four-day or even one-day trips to Äkäslompolo, where you can take a husky ride, meet reindeer and even see Santa himself. Alternatively, you can organise it all yourself! We spent a glorious week in Äkäslompolo and I would highly recommend that you forgo the package tour and create your own itinerary. And, whatever you do, don’t rush! This is a truly special corner of the world that deserves to be enjoyed, appreciated and savoured.
Things to do in Lapland with Kids
We visited Finland during the polar night, when the sun never quite makes it over the horizon. Daylight lasted from about 10.30am until 2.30pm but even then it was never bright. What we did discover, however, was that as the sun hovers below the horizon, the sky reveals some amazing colours in shades of blue and purple. We also quickly realised that, it doesn’t matter if it’s pitch black outside, life goes on as normal.
There is lots to do in Lapland for families, in addition to spending a lot of time building snowmen and sledding. Here’s what we got up to during our week-long holiday.
Take a Ride on a Snowmobile
Our first adventure was a snowmobile tour with Snow Fun Safaris. We met at 3.30pm, when it was already dark outside, and were given our helmets with visors (and goggles for the youngest). The kids and I jumped in the sleigh that was pulled by our guide Joosef’s snowmobile and Nick hopped on to a snowmobile (we swapped over half-way through, someone had to look after the toddler!). We then headed off on a tour through the ink-like forest, illuminated only by the lights of the snowmobiles. It was otherworldly; the tracks were bordered by trees, their branches drooping under the weight of snow, and above us were star-filled skies.
Half-way around the 20km track (and the youngest fast asleep), we stopped at a kota for a drink. These traditional Finnish rest points can be found everywhere throughout the country and house a central fire pit where you can warm up and even cook. We drank traditional hot berry juice and snacked on cardamom bread. On the second half of the journey, I took over the snowmobile and drove through the forest, which was the most amazing experience! And not just because of the heated handlebars to keep my hands warm.
Visit the Snow Village
Located half way between Äkäslompolo and Kittilä (where the airport is), the Snow Village is an ice hotel open to guests for an overnight stay or just a day trip. Ever year, a new snow village is constructed using around 20 million kilos of snow and 350,000 kilos of crystal clear natural ice (we saw something similar when we visited the Ice Hotel in Quebec). The design changes annually and each year sees a new theme; 2017 was the Game of Thrones and included some very impressive dragons and even the Iron Throne carved from ice.
The Snow Village houses a number of suites and standard rooms where you can spend the night on a bedframe made of ice (and tucked into an arctic sleeping bag), as well as the Ice Restaurant, Ice Bar, Ice Chapel (a wedding was taking place when we visited!) and even the Ice Cinema. Not surprisingly, my kids loved the Ice Slide the best.
We visited for a couple of hours and it’s definitely a fun place to wander around and marvel at the amazing talent of the designers and artists that construct the village (and wonder why anyone would want to sleep in -5C temperatures!).
Walk in Snowshoes
We enjoyed a couple of tours with Timo from Sisu Outdoor and I can’t recommend him highly enough. He’s friendly, engaging, highly knowledgeable about the area, and brilliant with kids. He’s also a great teacher. We had an initial snowshoe test run on a series of candlelit paths through the trees behind Timo’s shop before meeting the next day for the main event.
I’ll be honest, we did not walk for miles on our snowshoes, largely because we had to pull Sam in a sledge and because all three kids kept stopping to go sledding down hills! That said, we managed to follow a good path between the trees and had a lot of fun along the way. Snowshoeing is a wonderful way to experience the area and enjoy the complete silence and tranquility of the woods (or, rather, I imagine that it would be the best way to soak up the silence if you didn’t have three noisy children with you!). Nevertheless, the big kids loved this activity and felt that they were authentic explorers off on their arctic expedition.
Along the way, we stopped at a kota and had the best doughnuts in Finland. i’m not sure if this was their official title, but we all agreed that they were amazing.
Cross Country Skiing
The second activity that we enjoyed with Timo was a morning cross-country skiing. If you have never tried this before, and none of us had, just remember that the Finns make it look very easy. Almost everywhere you go in this corner of Lapland, you’ll spot locals out gliding their way around the forest tracks seemingly effortlessly. For us beginners, it was not so straightforward!
The skis are long, thin and very lightweight and there’s a lot of balance involved. Fortunately, however, Timo was a patient teacher and by the end of the lesson we were gliding (and slip sliding) our way along the paths. It is a very good work out and also very therapeutic; I can imagine that if I lived in Finland I would happily take up this sport and spend lots of my time navigating the local terrain on two skis.
If you are interested in trying either snowshoeing or cross-country skiing when you are in Äkäslompolo, then I highly recommend contacting Timo at Sisu Outdoors (he also helped us find a babysitter for the youngest during our cross-country ski lesson!).
Take a Reindeer Safari
A real highlight for me (in a trip full of once-in-a-lifetime highlights!) was the reindeer safari that we took with Snow Fun Safaris. The ride through the forest in a traditional Finnish sleigh was wonderful, but the standout performance on this outing was by Hannu, the reindeer herder. This charming, charismatic man charmed us all with his tales or travelling to school by reindeer and how he courted his wife, also on a reindeer ride! We sat around the fire drinking hot berry juice and eating arctic cloudberry tarts (which, just sound as if they should be in Harry Potter) and listened as he told us stories of his life as a reindeer herder.
There are several outfits offering husky rides where you can steer the sleigh and guide the huskies through the forest. We took a smaller, shorter, not-nearly-as-good husky ride from the town’s petting zoo but I would definitely recommend booking a ‘proper’ one. Try Snow Fun Safaris.
Ski the Slopes of Ylläs
Ylläs has two separate ski resorts, Sport Resort Ylläs on the Ylläsjärvi village side and Ylläs Ski Resort on the Äkäslompolo village side. In high season (around February time) the lifts linking the two resorts are open and you can ski from one to the next. When we visited, however, we stuck to the Ylläs Ski Resort and were grateful for the gondola lift given that it was -18C outside!
Skiing in Finland is very different to skiing somewhere like the Alps. The resorts are small and the terrain is not particularly challenging, particularly if you’re an experienced skier. What it does offer, however, is the most incredible snow and virtually empty slopes. I can honestly say that the few hours we spent carving tracks in the slopes were some of the best skiing I’ve ever enjoyed on some of the best snow in the world!
Say Hello to Santa
You can’t visit Lapland and not meet Santa, especially if you’re travelling with young children. There are a couple of ways that you can meet the Big Man himself, either by visiting him in the forest (there are tours who take you to his secret hideaway) or by arranging for him to come and visit you.
We decided upon the latter and, sure enough, on our final evening in Finland there was a knock on the door at our cabin and in walked Father Christmas himself. Dressed in traditional Finnish clothes, with a long beard and carrying a sack, he looked like the Santa of stories (rather than the Santa of shopping malls!). My kids were thrilled!
Santa sat and talked with us for almost an hour and the children were held spellbound as he told legends of the Northern Lights, regaled stories of life as Father Christmas and sang traditional songs in Finnish. Amazingly enough (or rather, unsurprisingly, given that he’s Santa), he knew all about the kids – their hobbies, their life and the fact that they had been annoying one another quite a lot over the holidays! It was a truly unique experience and once that made an already amazing holiday even more incredible.
Where to Stay in Lapland
For the first two night was stayed in Sini Kurana, a two-bed cottage on the edge of town run by Escape to Lapland. This was a lovely, cosy cottage perfect for families. Simon, the owner, could not have been more helpful in advance of our stay and even helped stock the fridge with some breakfast essentials given we were arriving so late. He owns a number of properties, many of them suitable for families.
For the remainder of our trip we stayed at Yllashilla, a wonderful wooden cottage on the outskirts of town that is ideal for families. You can read my full review of this family-friendly property here.
If a hotel stay is more your thing, take a look at these options from TripAdvisor.
What to Pack for Lapland
It gets cold in Finnish Lapland (very cold!). Make sure you pack everything you need with this packing guide.
Getting to Lapland
We flew with Finnair, which flies non-stop from Gatwick to Kittilä between mid-December and mid-March. At other times of year, flights transfer through Helsinki.
From Kittilä it is approximately one hour to drive to Äkäslompolo. Car hire is available at the airport and the office stay open late (we landed at around 11pm).
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