The northern regions take up a vast portion of Finland: one third of the country lies north of the Arctic Circle. It’s sparsely populated, with small communities often separated by long distances and little of anything in between besides tundra-like plains or dense forest. The coast of Ostrobothnia is affluent thanks to the flat and fertile farmland around; busltling Oulu is the major city, though it maintains a pleasing small-town atmosphere. Further north is the little-traipsed territory of Lapland, its wide-open spaces home to several thousand Sámi, who have lived more or less in harmony with this harsh environment for millennia. Up here are two good bases: the university town of Rovaniemi and, further north, the quiet village of Inari, Lapland’s de facto capital and a great jumping-off point for trips to the rest of the region; there is an extensive bus service and regular flights from Helsinki. Make sure you try Lappish cuisine, too – fresh cloudberries, smoked reindeer and wild salmon are highlights.
Top image © Johannes Asslaber/Shutterstock
A half-day bus ride north of Rovaniemi, Inari lies along the fringes of Inarijärvi, one of Finland’s largest lakes, and makes an attractive base from which to explore this part of Lapland further. In the town, the excellent Siida(Sámi Museum; June–Sept daily 9am–7pm; Sept–May Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; €10) has an outstanding outdoor section illustrating how the Sámi survived in Arctic conditions in their tepees, or kota, while the indoor section has a well-laid-out exhibition on life in the Arctic. Huge photographs depict how drastically the weather fluctuates here throughout the year. Towards the northern end of the village, summer boat tours (€20) depart from under the bridge to the ancient Sámi holy site on the island of Ukonkivi. If walking’s your thing, then check out the pretty Pielpajärvi Wilderness Church, a well-signposted 7km (2hr) hike from the village. Hotel Inari (t 016 671 016) has an adjoining outdoor adventure company that organizes fun excursions in the surrounding wilderness.
Saariselkä is a ski resort about the same distance (50km) from Ivalo airport as Inari, only heading south. It’s not Finland’s best ski centre but it is the easiest to access, as Rovaniemi–Inari buses stop by. South of town, try a stay at Kiilopää (t016 668 741), a delightful complex with a hotel, hostel, cabins and a legendary woodsmoke sauna. Here you can go fell-walking, snow-shoeing or partake of just about any outdoor activity you like. Dorms €30, doubles €82, four-person cabin €137.
Oulu, with its renowned university, is a great place to pause on your way up north, with a good collection of restaurants and cafés and a pulsing nightlife. On Kirkkokatu, the copper-domed and stuccoed Tuomiokirkko seems anachronistic amid the bulky blocks of modern Oulu. Across the small canal just to the north, the Northern Ostrobothnia Museum has a large regional collection with a good Sámi section.
The few museums are nothing to write home about, but Oulu has won plaudits for its fabulous network of cycling trails, connecting the surrounding islands and woods, including Hietasaari Island with its lovely beach. Pick up a map of them at the tourist office.
Rovaniemi is touted as the capital of Lapland, and while its fairly bland shopping streets are a far cry from the surrounding rural hinterland, the town’s Arctic sensibility makes it worth spending a day here while gearing up for an exploration of the truly wild Northern Finland. The midnight sun is visible from Rovaniemi for several weeks each side of misdummer.
Prepare yourself for what lies further north by visiting the 172m-long glass tunnel of Arktikum at Pohjoisranta 4 (mid-Jan to May & Sept–Nov Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; June–Aug daily 9am–6pm; Dec to mid-Jan daily 10am–6pm; €12). Subterranean galleries house fascinating insights into Sámi culture, the log-floating industry and all things circumpolar.
At Koskikatu 1, Lapland Safaris (branches also all over Lapland, including Inari; t 016 331 1200), and are the go-to adventure outfit for organizing excursions in Lapland proper, including their wonderful husky rides (€126 per person).
The biggest attractions are outside town. The Arctic Circle, 8km north is connected by hourly bus #8 from the train station (€6.80 return). A few paces north is the Santa Claus Village (daily: early Jan to May 10am–5pm; June–Aug 9am–6pm; Sept–Nov 10am–5pm; Dec to early Jan 9am–7pm; free), a large, very commercialized log cabin where you can meet Father Christmas all year round.