Yes, Jennifer, there is a Santa Claus and he lives way up north at the Arctic Circle in Finland! Loving Christmas as much as I do, it was a dream to go to the city of all things Santa Claus. What I found once I got to Rovaniemi was a cultural experience like no other. Even more impressive than the ultimate Christmas experience was the reverence for nature and how it plays such a huge role in the Lappish peoples’ everyday lives.
Getting to Rovaniemi
A search on your favorite travel booking website may have you gasping at the fares to fly to Rovaniemi. I often use split fares; I fly to a hub city first and then book a separate ticket to my final destination. Finnair offers daily flights from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, making it a suddenly much more affordable destination! The modern and sleek Hotel Glo Kluuvi, located right in the heart of Helsinki, is a great location to get a taste of the 2012 World Design Capital before flying north to the Arctic. Spend a day exploring the Finnish design houses along the Esplanade and marveling at the grandeur of the Helsinki Cathedral on Senate Square. Visit the four-story Academic Bookstore on Aleksanterinkatu Street; the building was designed by the celebrated architect Alvar Aalto, who also designed the city of Rovaniemi.
I recommend making a dinner reservation at Juuri, where the food is as artfully designed as the city itself. Juuri is known for their sapas, which are authentically Finnish hors d’oeuvres handmade according to Finnish culinary traditions. Juuri recommends you select three to four sapas to start and order a main course. I particularly enjoyed the fresh sausage with vodka mustard and the mushroom soup from the sapas menu. The organic pork side quite literally melted in my mouth and I was pleasantly surprised that the “cinnamon apple butter” described on the menu was a baked apple filled with butter, cinnamon and black currant mustard.
Tip: Take the Finnair City Bus that run at 20-minute intervals. At just €6.20 each way, you can affordably get to and from Helsinki City Center and it is just a short walk from the Central Station to Hotel Glo Kluuvi. Current room rate: from US $275.
The Official Hometown of Santa Claus
Arriving at Rovaniemi Airport, I was literally greeted with the Christmas Spirit! Even the baggage carousel, adorned with polar bears and snowy owls, was the most festive I have ever seen! Baggage quickly in hand, I was off to the Santa Claus Holiday Village.
For children, the highlight of a visit to the Santa Claus Village will be a visit to the jolly man himself. The fairytale became true as I ceremoniously crossed over the Arctic Circle Line at 66 ° north, which runs right through the middle of Santa Claus’ office. The secrets of how Santa Claus delivers presents to all the children of the world in just one night were revealed as I traveled through his time machine and into his chamber. I must admit I was a little nervous as Santa beckoned me to sit down and asked what I would like for Christmas this year.
Santa welcomes visitors to his office every day and each visit with Santa is live streamed so that family and friends back home can experience your meeting with the jolly old elf.
Santa Claus Office Entrance: free. Pictures are not allowed at the Santa Claus Office; packages to remember your visit start at €30.
While a visit with Santa is not to be forgotten no matter your age, the highlight of my visit to the Santa Claus Village was the Santa Claus’ Main Post Office. The Santa Claus’ Main Post Office has received nearly 15 million letters from 198 countries since 1985. At Christmas time, Santa can receive around 32,000 letters daily. The letters are first sorted by country and then opened. Christina Elf made me an honorary elf and we opened some letters from the United States and a very special wish list from a group of school children in Poland.
The Santa Claus’ Main Post Office also has its own special Arctic Circle postmark. Each card, letter or package mailed from Santa’s post office is stamped by hand with the special postmark. If you’re visiting at other times of the year, drop your postcards in the red mailbox to be held and specially delivered just in time for Christmas.
I enjoyed lunch at Santa’s Salmon Palace where the Sámi owner, Konsta, prepares salmon in the traditional Lappish style over the open fire. Not only was the salmon delicious, Konsta was kind enough to tell me all about the Sami culture and share some special “squeaky” cheese made from reindeer milk.
Santa’s Salmon Palace: €20 for a generous portion of salmon, macaroni salad and bread.
During the Christmas season, from November 26 – January 14, an exciting fantasy world built in the underground caves of Napapiiri delights children and adults alike! At Santa Park wishes come true. As I wandered through the homey cave, Mrs. Claus invited me in to decorate gingerbread cookies with her in her kitchen and the elves helped me to make my very own Lappish Christmas decoration. A magical sleigh ride took me through the Lappish forest before arriving in the Elves’ Toy Factory where reindeer, toy soldiers, and dolls are all being handmade. Finally, the Ice Princess gave me a warm cloak to wear and invited me in to her frosty ice gallery where she told me stories of the Finnish nature and culture.
Santa Park entrance fee: adults: €28, children: €23 for a 2-day ticket
Ranua Wildlife Park
Located in the middle of the Lappish forest, Ranua Wildlife Park introduces visitors to the arctic animals in their natural habit. In December only a glimpse of sunlight can be seen as the polar night takes over the Arctic and most of the Arctic animals are at their most active. That was certainly true the day I visited! The pack of wolves was playing on the ice, the Arctic foxes were curious, reindeer were hoping I had carrots, and the otters were feasting on salmon. Observing the only polar bears in Finland as they first test the ice and then break it apart to retrieve food was the ultimate highlight of my visit to Ranua.
Buses run between Rovaniemi and Ranua for €26 roundtrip. Ranua Wildlife Park entrance fee: €15, 50
Konttaniemi Reindeer Farm
In days gone by, the Lappish traveled around Lapland by reindeer sleigh so an essential part of a true Lappish experience is learning to drive a reindeer sleigh. At Konttaniemi Reindeer Farm I had the opportunity to do just that. It’s fairly simple; settle onto the sleigh and loosely hold the reins. A slight smack on the flank with the reins and my reindeer was off and running. So long as I returned still on the sleigh, I would be handed my reindeer driver’s license. After the exhilarating experience, I was able to feed the reindeer while learning about how Mari, the owner, makes a living herding reindeer.
There are approximately 200,000 people living in Lapland and twice as many reindeer. All the reindeer are owned by people in Lapland and they are free to wander the forest. Around December each year when the reindeer antlers begin to fall off, the reindeer are herded
home so that they can get food they would otherwise have a hard time getting under the snow. Reindeer antlers grow again each year under a layer of fur called velvet.
Reindeer rides start at €15 per person
Getting Out of the Cold
Need to come in out of the cold? Rovaniemi is the largest city in Finnish Lapland and there is plenty to do in the compact city.
I really enjoyed the Flying Stories exhibit at the Korundi House of Culture. The Flying Stories tell about the Sámi life and culture, the myths of the indigenous people of Greenland, and life on the coast of the Arctic Ocean.
Next I visited the Arktikum science center and museum to learn more about the Sámi culture and Arctic climate. The architecture itself reflects Lapland in winter. The exhibit rooms are all underground to symbolize how nature buries itself under the snow to protect itself against the harsh Arctic winter. And while I didn’t have a clear enough night to see the northern lights while in Rovaniemi, I did catch a glimpse in the Arktikum’s Polarium Theatre. The theater tells the Finnish folk story of the Fox Fire; that a fox in the north is running on the snow and it is sweeping its tail so that sparks fly off into the sky, creating the Aurora Borealis.
Next door to the Arktikum, the Pilke Science Centre tells, through all five of our human senses, about the sustainable use of northern forests. I learned that Finland is 86% forest and forestry is equally as important part of Lappish daily life as reindeer are.
Just outside of Rovaniemi, on the banks of the Ounasjoki River, Irene and Ari Kangasniemi have a workshop just in front of their house in which they make traditional Lappish handicrafts using reindeer antlers and wood such as knives and jewelry. Irene was also more than happy to welcome me into her log cabin home, serve me homemade blueberry juice and dried reindeer meat while telling me about daily life in Lapland and how she and Ari live off the land. “I have reindeer on both sides of the road,” Irene tells me. As I learned at the Arktikum, the Lappish people measure wealth by the number of reindeer they own.
Tickets: Korduni House of Culture €8, Arktikum €12 and Pilke Science Centre €7.
Local fish and game meat play a prominent role in traditional Lappish cuisine. Arctic wild berries are distinctively featured in Lappish cuisine with their strong flavor and high nutrient content. It is still quite common to go picking berries straight from the forests.
Gaissa in the Hotel Santa Claus features a “Rovaniemi Menu” consisting of three courses: turnip soup with star anise foam, bear meat balls with black currant sauce, and cloudberry sorbet with chocolate fondant. Never having had turnips before, I discovered I am a fan! The bear meat was delicious with a faintly gamey taste, and the oozing molten chocolate was perfectly complemented by the cloudberry sorbet.
Rovaniemi Menu: € 47 per person
My favorite Lappish dining experience was at Rovaniemi’s most popular bistro Monte Rosa. Earthy, warm and cozy, Monte Rosa offers a variety of menus and a la carte dishes to meet any budget. I recommend splurging and having the five-course surprise menu. I began my surprise Arctic cuisine journey with lightly smoked salmon with a Lappish potato topped with the Finnish delicacy white fish roe. Next, I was delighted to receive truffle risotto served with my very own Lappish pine from the forest. I had to chuckle as the chef told me “Don’t eat the pine; it is only for you to enjoy the scents of the forest.” I was pleasantly surprised to find the pike perch had a very nice flavor and was accompanied with turnip puree, my new favorite! A Lappish meal would not be complete without reindeer and the filet was tender and delicious. Finally, dessert was an artful milk chocolate ganache and raspberry sorbet with violets and cloudberries. Each course was accompanied by a perfectly paired glass of wine.
Surprise Menu with wine pairings: € 83 per person
Each experience was so very special in its own unique way. The absolute openness of the Lappish people to share their culture with me coupled with the beauty of the forest and the magic of Santa Claus exceeded any expectations I had of Finnish Lapland. Next time, however, I hope to experience the magic of the Northern Lights as they dance across the Arctic sky.
About The Author
Jennifer Dombrowski is a training specialist and social media strategist in the field of higher education. Based in Italy with her husband, Tim, they have a passion for travel and love discovering the world. Follow her on twitter @jdomb.
NOTE: This trip was sponsored in part by VisitFinland.