Travel Finland. Rovaniemi for First Time Visitors

Where is Finland? The Republic of Finland in Northern Europe shares a border with Norway in the north, Sweden in the northwest, and Russia in the east. It only became independent from Russia as recently as in 1917. The country is so sparsely populated, that one might say Finland is in Europe what Namibia is in Africa.

Travel Finland. Rovaniemi for First Time Visitors

I jump onto the train in Helsinki, the capital city, to drive to Lapland and I soon realize that there are woodlands everywhere. For hours I look at birch trees and lakes. Finland has got 200,000 lakes or so. I’m under the impression that during my 800 kilometres ride through Finland, it is a long country, I probably saw almost half of them. I feel sedated in a good way, imagine you would have watched eight hours relaxing natures scenes on YouTube, Blu-ray or DVD; what a soothing trip through a magical landscape.

Lapland makes us think of spirits and fairies and supernatural stories in the isolated and beautiful wilderness of the north and the Arctic Circle. It makes us dream of bright Northern Lights, deep-frozen lakes, intensely colourful foliage, fast flowing rivers, bear-like wolverines, fluffy reindeers, the endless light of the Midnight Sun, Christmas, functional design, museums, stylish restaurants, and healthy and hearty food.

Six kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, in Finland's northernmost province, is Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland. The city is spread out over 8,016.75 square kilometres, and that makes it the largest one in the European Union. Everyone knows that the Finns are happy people and I see that the only 62,000 humans, who live here, have all reason to be happy. They have more than enough space to play under the midnight sun or in the snow, pick berries, go hiking and breathe fresh air. The country has a great environmental policy, women and man enjoy the same rights and opportunities, and the Finns have a beautiful work-life balance, so overall one can say they enjoy a good quality of life.

Read Rovaniemi for First Time Visitors to see what you can experience in Rovaniemi, when to travel and how to best get there. You will find out how much wood will grow during your visit, where the real Santa office is, how to best jump over the Arctic Circle, where to watch the Northern Lights in Rovaniemi, where to eat vegetarian and also get a few ideas for instaworthy places in Rovaniemi.

Pilke Science Centre – All About Trees

Finland is covered in woodland. It is only natural that one wants to learn as much about forests as possible when in Rovaniemi, so it is best to make your way to the Pilke Science Centre. Some situations in life make us feel as if we can't see the forest for the trees; Pilke's motto is "to see the forest for the trees".

Sustainable wood was used to build the property that is used as an office for 135 people of the state-owned Finnish Forest Administration as well as a museum. It is the largest wooden structure in Finland and the material was chosen to combat climate change and since wood is the only completely renewable building material and carbon emissions are only one-third of those of a steel or concrete building this was the way to do it. If you enter, you will feel all warm and welcomed. You enter the museum after you walk down a long oak staircase. Pilke tells you all about Finnish forests and what we get from them. On your visit, you will understand why the sustainable use of forests is essential for the environment and the future of the planet. There are lots of interactive games, you can even climb into a giant excavator-based harvester and play driver, and I particularly liked the cosy wooden tree egg.

I already experienced that Finland is covered in woodland, and my impression gets confirmed, Finland is the most forested country in Europe, 77%, or 26 million hectares is forest. There are nine native tree species in Northern Finland and roughly 50% is pine trees. Others are spruce and birch, Common Juniper and Aspen, Grey Alder and Rowan, Bird Cherry and Goat Willow (Pussy Willow). The subsoil and water resources dictate which tree species grows where. A forest will grow back in a lifetime, which means that generation after generation can enjoy a mature forest. Finnish forests grow back at a rate of 16 cubic metres per second. And now over to you, calculate how much forest grows during your visit to Finnland.

Pilke Science Centre is a dream for design aficionados, nemophilists (one who is fond of forests or forest scenery; a haunter of the woods) and lovers of a sustainable lifestyle.

Top tip: When you buy your ticket, you get a little brochure that you can fold into an origami tree. Return the tree to the Pilke info desk to receive a gift.

The Pilke Science Centre is located on the banks of river Ounasjoki in Rovaniemi, and the bank side is perfect for a scenic walk with a view over the Lumberjack's Candle Bridge.

Info Pilke Science Centre Ounasjoentie 6, 96200 Rovaiemi. Hours: Tuesdau to Friday 9am to 6pm, Saturday to Sunday 10am to 6pm. Closed on Mondays. Tickets: EUR 7 / adult, EUR 5 / child (7-15 years). Please visit the website for more information.

Design Heaven - Café at the University of Lapland

Be it the colourful patterns and fabric designs by Marimekko, the fun Iittala glassware or the unobtrusive architecture of Alvar Aalto, we all have heard of these Finnish design heavy-weights.

Visit the cafeteria of the University of Lapland (programmes on offer at the Faculty for Art and Design are Graphic Design, Fashion Design, Interior and Textile Design,Audiovisual Media), to see more design. The cafe at the university is a prime location to look at contemporary design and to drink coffee in style (open for graduates as well as visitors). Every single piece of furniture, the lamps, the carpets, the floor and textiles are created by Nordic designers.

The large room is divided by colour, and, when viewed from a higher level, one can see that each individual area is methodically divided. All is decorated in wood, concrete, soft fabrics, tiles and glass in blue, yellow, green and red. There are Vitra chairs in the yellow area. The red district is the living room with Muuto sofas and Kiki-benches by Ilmari Tapiovaara and Keel Coffee tables by New Works and there are plenty of Stool 60 by Artek. In the green area, there is a shaggy rug plus the comfiest rocking chairs by Yrjö Kukkapuro.

Info University of Lapland Yliopistonkatu 8, 96300 Rovaniemi, Finland. Tickets: Free. Best to visit around lunch time.

Arktikum – Nature and History

The Arktikum and its long stretched glass dome that points towards the north is surely Rovaniemi’s most striking structure. You are at the Arctic Circle, and it is here that you can discover Finnish Lapland, learn about its breathtakingly beautiful nature, and the people and their traditions. I promise that with visiting Lapland’s Arctic Center and the Regional Museum of Lapland, you will gain a deeper understanding of the Arctic. I found out that around 10 percent of the population in the Arctic are indigenous people, and that the Sami people are the only indigenous people within the EU. When you leave the Arktikum, pay attention to the bedrock around Rovaniemi, it consists of volcanic formations deposited and erupted more than 200 Million years ago. It is fascinating how much there is to learn about this region.

The museum is a dream for design fans and everybody who loves the great outdoors and history.

Stop at the stylish looking café with friendly service for lunch or to grab coffee and cake. The beautiful shop offers Lappish made products, as in kitchen ware, handbags, slippers, posters and books and more.

Info Arktikum Hours exhibitions and shop: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm. Closed Mondays. Christmas Eve 24.12., closed. Hours Café: Monday 11am to 2pm. Tuesday to Saturday 11am to 4pm. Closed Sundays. Tickets: Adults EUR 13, children (7 to 15 years) EUR 6, Children under 7 years free, admission to temporary exhibitions EUR 6. Please visit the website for more information.

Rovaniemi City Library - Designed by Alvar Aalto

Is the Rovaniemi city library instagrammable? It is 100% instaworthy. The library was constructed in 1965; long before Instagram, still, it looks like it would have been built just for that. Aalto designed this library as a clear, no frills place. It is as nondescriptive as it is inviting. On a lower level, there are large reading bays with an intimate feel which can be looked into from a mezzanine level. The furniture, the lamps the atmosphere, it is a design- and book lovers heaven.

Most buildings in the town centre were destroyed in 1944 during World War 2. Architect Alvar Aalto, one of Finland’s famous architects, was involved in the reconstruction of the town. Walk a few metres along the square to see the city hall, which was completed after the architect's death in 1986, by his architect wife Elissa Aalto. Directly opposite the library is the Rovaniemi Theatre, also built by Aalto. Together these three buildings form the Aalto centre. Overall, Aalto designed the town shaped like a reindeer, whereas central Rovaniemi sits inside the reindeer’s head, with the Keskuskenttä sports stadium as the eye. The roads leading north, west and south make up the antlers.

Info Rovaniemi city library Jorma Eton tie 6, 96100 Rovaniemi. Main door at Hallituskatu 9. Hours: Rovaniemi City Library (and reading rooms). Monday to Thursday 9am to 8pm. Friday 9am to 6pm. Saturday 11am to 4pm. Tickets: Free.

Jätkänkynttilä – Lumberjack’s Candle Bridge

The 320-metre long bridge over the Kemijoki river connects Ounasvaara and the town centre. The bridge is named after a Lumberjack's Candle. Lumberjacks traditionally carved deep cuts into wooden logs, to lit a fire in them, when in the forest. On the top of the two columns in the centre of the bridge, there is a light, and that resembles a lumberjack’s candle. You have an excellent view of the Jätkänkynttilä bridge from the park at the Arktikum.

Jump Over the Arctic Circle and Visit Santa Claus

We call everything north of the Arctic Circle the Arctic. Rovaniemi sits almost directly on the circle, and if you make your way to the Santa Claus Village, which is located only seven kilometres north of the city, you are right there. The Arctic Circle marks the southernmost latitude, which is 66°33′45.9″ north of the Equator, where the sun can stay continuously above or below the horizon for the full 24 hours of the day. These particular days/nights are called Polar Night (the period lasts for 28 days) in winter and Midnight Sun (that period lasts for 50 days) in summer. You can jump easily over into the Arctic here with one single step.

Please stop reading if you are under the age of six or seven. I don’t want to spoil it for you. People say with absolute certainty that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. When I visit the office and workshop of Santa I’m not so sure anymore, I doubt it, even more, when I meet some of his helpers and elves. Never stop dreaming, or so the saying goes, why stop dreaming when you wake up? I take photos, smell the cinnamon, put on hats, and for a moment I believe even more in Christmas as I do anyway. What makes Santa Claus so trustworthy and loveable is that he has never done anyone any harm; he is just there and spreads the love. This is the place where even the hardiest of Ebenezer Scrooge-types starts believing in Christmas. An Arctic Circle postal stamp is special.

Rent a red cottage with a private sauna in the Santa Claus Village to make the most out of it. I love the lampshade over my bed, decorated with foxes. The Sami people believe that the Northern Lights are caused by a fox running over the moorland of Lapland, stirring up snow with its tail and sending particles up to the northern sky, where these form a colourful arc of fire that lights up the dark landscape. There is also a restaurant called Three Elves and an inviting and cosy bar.

Info Santa Claus Holiday Village Tahtikuja 2, Rovaniemi 96930, Finland. Superior Cottage with Finnish box-spring beds, bathrobes and slippers, towels & bed linen, hair straighteners and hair dryers, sofa, separate bed- and living room, bathroom, private sauna, fully equipped kitchen and terrace plus free Wi-Fi and daily cleaning, inclusive breakfast buffet from EUR 194/night to EUR 1400/night, depending on the season. Please visit the website for more prices, and other cottage options. 

The eco-friendly Arctic TreeHouse Hotel is a truly special option, a magical resort of wooden shingle tiled chalets on stilts, built into the forest on the Arctic Circle.

Experience the Great Outdoors in the Arctic Circle Hiking Area

Rest assured, you can safely go for walks, and there are no bears around here, not even polar bears, no. You find brown bears in the region around the Russian border, and that is a few hours away by car.

You reach the Arctic Circle hiking area after a short drive of only 25 kilometres from Rovaniemi. It is pure magic, you are right in the ‘wilderness’ of Lapland, but you are only just outside of town. The River Raudanjoki runs right through the park and is the perfect backdrop. Hikers can choose from hikes between one to five hours; if you want to experience and enjoy Finnish nature, this is the place to visit. Walking through the forest along the river, all is quiet, one feels so cosy, and the smell and the look of the moss covered trees is simply divine. Here you can create memories to hold onto. Throughout the park there are signs that tell in detail about bird- and plant species of the area.

Info Arctic Circle Hiking Area. Reach the area via Highway 4 (E75), there are signposts that point you into the right direction. Free parking. There is a map with trails at the entrance. You will find picnic spots and campfire sites with firewood and dry toilets. There is also an easy wheelchair friendly route. Visit the website for more info.

Watch the Northern Lights – Aurora Borealis

Chances are high that you will see the Northern Lights in Rovaniemi when you visit between end of August and early April. It is absolutely exciting; the Northern Lights are visible on around 150 nights a year in Finnish Lapland.

All you need is clear and dark skies and a place without light pollution. Try to be as far away as possible from any artificial light. People tell me they have even seen the Northern Lights in Rovaniemi near the centre of town at the Arktikum. Visit the website with the Aurora forecast for Europe, that uses real-time solar wind data from Nasa ACE spacecraft. I found it to be reliable and saw the Northern Lights exactly at the time predicted by the website.

Where to watch the Northern Lights in Rovaniemi? I viewed the Northern Lights here: Sodankyläntie 1656, 96900 Rovaniemi, Finnland. The viewing spot is by a beautiful large lake and only a quick few minutes’ drive from town by car. Dress up warm, and with that I mean wear proper winter attire, as in puffer jacket, beanie, gloves, scarf, winter boots. I visited in autumn and temperatures were already below zero. It gets cold quick when you watch the night sky in Lapland. There is a Kota right by the lake, a traditional Lappish log hut that has firewood. Everyone, regardless of who is invited to warm-up in here. You can roast marshmallows and make hot chocolate.

Do not forget to bring a stable tripod for your camera, if you would like to take photos of the Aurora Borealis. I brought my tripod and forget to take the head of it with me, so I had to place my camera on the ground to take a photo. 

Where to Eat Vegetarian in Style in Rovaniemi

I didn't expect to find so many stunning and stylish places to eat in a rather little town like this, I was pleasantly surprised. There is a lot of reindeer and fish on offer at Rovaniemi's restaurants and also lots of vegetarian options. I found chefs use primarily fresh seasonal and locally sourced ingredients to create ravishing dishes. Juices and sauces are often made from cloudberries, northern blueberries and lingonberries. Root vegetables like beet root, carrots and turnips are used widely as well as cabbage. I visited in autumn, and cabbage rolls were to be found on every menu. Wild celery adds a piney flavour, and the citrus flavour of juniper oil plays another key role in dishes.

Rakas Restaurant & Bar I dined here several times during my stay. The chef used pumpkin, chanterelle, cured egg yolks, lingonberry & potato crisps, summer cabbage, mushrooms and barley, pickled shallots, crispy kale and wild herbs, sheep milk cheese and it was a true delight. One of the desserts I had was made from cloudberry jam, thyme biscuits and meringue. I love the stylish and cosy flair of this place. Rakas Restaurant & Bar. Tarvantie 3, Rovaniemi 96930, Finland. Hours: Monday to Friday 12pm to 10pm, Saturday 12pm to 11pm, Sunday 5pm to 9.30pm. Expect to pay EUR 60 per Person.

Cafe & Bar 21 At first, I was suspicious until I found out it works. Try DON´T EAT MEAT. A waffle (yes, really) with salad, tomato, rocket, teriyaki tofu, roasted onions, fried capers and mustard seed mayo. This is also the place to grab a coffee, try the carrot cake, it is just as delicious as the waffle and vegan too. Cafe & Bar 21. Rovakatu 21, Rovaniemi 96200, Finland. Hours: Monday to Tuesday 11am to 9pm, Wednesday to Thursday 11am to 10pm, Friday 11am to 2am, Saturday 12pm to 2am, Sunday 12pm to 9pm. Free Wi-Fi. Expect to pay EUR 25 per Person.

Rosso Rovaniemi A large and friendly pizza place in a relaxed atmosphere in the centre of town, there are even vegan versions of Pizza on offer. Together with your Pizza, you can choose your starter from a salad buffet. Rosso Rovaniemi. Maakuntakatu 30, Rovaniemi 96200, Finland. Hours: Monday to Thursday 11am to 10.30pm, Sunday 12pm to 10.30pm. Expect to pay EUR 30 per Person.

Cafe Arktikum Lunch buffet for EUR 14 includes soup and salad bar, main course and vegetable alternative, bread and butter, water, coffee/tea and chocolate or cookie. If that sounds too much for lunch, go for the soup and salad lunch for EUR 9,50 includes soup and salad bar, bread and butter, water, coffee/tea and chocolate or cookie. The coffee is served in beautiful designed cup, I highly recommend you go for a Pulla with it, a cardamom flavoured pastry. Cafe Arktikum. Pohjoisranta, Rovaniemi, Finland. Hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm / hours lunch: 11am to 2pm, Monday to Friday. You can visit the café without visiting the museum. Expect to pay EUR 20 per Person.

Cafe Hostel Cafe Koti I recommend this light and airy, all white place for lunch, it is beautiful to look at and housed in a former bank (check out the walk-in safe on your way to the loo). Everything here tastes fresh and made with love, the waiter tells me all is freshly cooked in-house und they even make their own bread and pastries. Please order a cinnamon bun for dessert together with an organic coffee. Hostel Cafe Koti Valtakatu 21, Rovaniemi 96200, Finland. Hours: Sunday to Thursday  7am to 9pm,Friday to Saturday 7am to 11pm. Expect to pay EUR 25 per Person.

Three Elves Have you ever eaten at the Arctic Circle, just around the corner from Santa’s office? This is your chance. I recommend the warm beetroot and cauliflower stew followed by cheesecake. End the night with coffee around the fireplace. Three Elves. Tähtikuja 2, 96930 Rovaniemi – Finland. Hours: 8am to 10pm.

Café at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi


Best time to travel to Rovaniemi

December to March: Winter and the Polar Night and the beginning of a freezing cold spring. Daytime temperatures in winter are between -5 degrees Celsius to -30 degrees Celsius.

April can still be snowy; temperatures are around 5 degrees Celsius. In May the snow melts and temperatures can climb above 10 degrees Celsius.

June and July is summer weather with temperatures from 15 to 25 degrees Celsius. You will experience 24 hours of daylight.

It is autumn in August, September, October and November in Rovaniemi. Expect temperatures to drop from around 10 degrees Celsius to -10 degrees Celsius in November.

The Northern Lights appear from August to April. Polar Night is from mid-November to mid-January. The Midnight sun is from early June to July. The Northern Lights appear from August to April. Polar Night is from mid-November to mid-January. The Midnight sun is from early June to July. In September and October, you will get to see the most colourful foliage, called Ruska in Finnish.

Which currency do you need and how to pay in Finland?

Until 2002 the Fins paid with the Finnish markka, this changed in 2002 when the Euro (EUR) became the currency of Finland.

Credit cards are widely accepted, you can sort of survive cashlessly. That way you can save on the fee for the ATM. Tipping: at restaurants/cafes, I always left 10 to 15% of the bill for the wait staff, in all cases reactions to that gesture was somewhat odd (as if they wouldn't expect a tip at all). I left EUR 5 in my hotel room for the room maid, she didn't take it. Better ask at restaurants/hotel reception how to deal with tipping.

How to get to Rovaniemi?

By plane Rovaniemi is easy to reach by plane via Helsinki. Visit the website of the airport, to see which airlines and routes are best for you. 

By train If you have a day to spend, use the train from Helsinki, you can chose from plenty of ticket options. Trains run year round, come rain, hail or shine, visit the website for tickets.

By Car

From Helsinki, Finland: 810 kilometres.
From Copenhagen, Denmark: 1,800 kilometres.
From Gdansk, Poland: 1,930 kilometres.
From Hamburg, Germany: 2,120 kilometres.
From Berlin, Germany: 2,220 kilometres.
From Budapest, Hungary: 2,760 kilometres.
From Munich. Germany: 2,770 kilometres.
From Strasbourg, France: 2,815 kilometres.
From Ljubljana, Slovenia: 3,175 kilometres.

Please note: The Pilke Science Centre and the Arktikum supported my research trip with sponsoring tickets.

From Berlin with love