For as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of visiting Finland in winter. I have visions of dog sledding safaris, finding the Northern Lights, and seeing Santa Claus Village. Thanks to Anne-Marie Tucker, I want to travel to Finland now more than ever. She took the ultimate winter road trip in Finland, and now I know I need to make this happen. Take a journey through Lapland, Rovaniemi, Porvoo, and other Finnish destinations as she shares her tips for planning a winter road trip in Finland.
How to Plan a Winter Trip to Finland
Finland is a relatively small country, only 689 miles long from Helsinki to its northern border, so when we decided on several places to visit in Finland, we thought we’d get a better experience of the country if we visited by car.
How to rent a car in Finland
Renting a car in Finland is pretty easy for foreigners with a valid driver’s license. In the winter, car companies include snow tires. Four-wheel drive is available from some companies but these vehicles book quickly. We rented a large van with front-wheel drive and only had one minor mishap due to wintery conditions. Experience with winter driving is recommended. All major highways are well maintained but conditions on smaller roads can change quickly. They are often coated with snow which made braking challenging and required us to drive more slowly than usual.
How to decide where to go in Finland
We flew from the US into Helsinki. After a short visit in Helsinki, we took a flight to Rovaniemi where we began our road trip. Prior to our trip, I used Google Maps to figure out what to do in Finland. I saved sights around and en route to the places we were going to visit. We used the Google Maps app for navigating through the country and only got off track once (mostly because we weren’t paying attention to the navigation and missed a turn). Mobile coverage was good in most of the areas we visited. The only downside to using turn-by-turn directions is that it often considers the shortest route and not road conditions. When planning your time in Finland, be sure to review your route before heading out.
Things to do in Helsinki
Parking in Helsinki
Parking in Market Square was easy thanks to the ParkMan app. This app is used all throughout Finland and came in handy when parking in urban areas. Rates are typically a few euros per hour and billed monthly via the app. We were able to find plenty of parking easily using the app which allows users to load a map of nearby parking areas.
Visiting Suomenlinna is one of the most popular things to do in Helsinki. It involves a 15-minute ferry ride from the Helsinki city center to and from the island. Tickets can be purchased from a self-service kiosk in Market Square. Children under 7 ride for free and discounted tickets are available for children between the ages of 7-16.
The trip gives you a unique vantage point of Helsinki. We enjoyed spotting the winter swimmers at Allas Sea Pool. Plan to spend an hour or more on the island wandering and taking in the views and architecture.
Outdoor Art and City Parks
We spent the remainder of our day in Helsinki visiting some of the city’s art installations. My kids enjoyed both Bad Bad Boy and the Sibelius Monument. We rounded out our day with a visit to a local playground. We stumbled upon Topelius Park. Just the novelty of playing on snow-covered equipment is probably enough for most kids.
Our family lived for a number of years in Chicago, so this was an experience my kids were pretty used to. The novelty for us came from the equipment itself. We all enjoyed discovering and deciding how to use the “octopus merry go round.”
Traveling to Rovaniemi
By car, the trip from Helsinki to Rovaniemi could take about 10 hours. There’s also a Helsinki Rovaniemi train. That trip takes approximately 8 hours and can be made as an overnight trip. In the interest of time, we decided to fly. The flight to Rovaniemi airport is about 1.5 hours and tickets are fairly inexpensive. We paid around $55 USD per person, which included seat selection and one piece of checked baggage.
Things to see in Lapland
Snowman World and Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi
Santa Claus Village is the center of tourism in Rovaniemi and provides an awesome introduction to Finnish Lapland for kids of all ages. We decided to try the Lunch Experience in Snowman World which gave us entrance to the Ice Restaurant & Ice Bar plus unlimited snow tubing and ice skating in the Winter Zone.
Lunch was a delicious, rich and hearty salmon soup. My daughter has a gluten intolerance and we were pleasantly surprised by how accommodating all of Finland was to her gluten free diet. The lunch experience includes bread and a gluten free option was made available to her.
The Winter Zone at Snowman World features two snow tubing runs, one gentle hill and another steeper hill for the more adventurous set. My 7-year-old was fine on this run, but it took him a bit to work up the nerve to try it. All equipment is provided but most of the fun is self-service.
The kids were responsible for pulling their own tubes up the hill and we had to select the right skate sizes and put them on ourselves. The skating rink seems to be mostly natural and not resurfaced, so my kids grew tired of it pretty quickly but happily spent hours on the snow tubing hills. The staff at Snowman World is awesome and were more than happy to push the kids together in big snow-tube trains or send them spinning down the hills.
Of course, no visit to Santas Village would be complete without a visit to see Santa Claus! This is a trip to see Santa unlike any other your kids have ever had. Rovaniemi claims to be the official hometown of Santa Claus and visiting him in his “office” in Rovaniemi is truly a magical experience. It’s free to enter the office.
The line to see Santa is reminiscent of a Disney queue and weaves in and out of and interesting toy-factory-like setting. We waited in line about 30 minutes. Groups are allowed into Santa’s office one by one. Including taking a photo, Santa interacted with my kids for about 3 minutes. They were completely delighted the entire time. You cannot take any personal photos or videos during the interaction. After the visit, you’re offered to purchase photos and videos of your visit for 45€ but this is completely optional. We declined and were given a card where we could preview and buy our photos from a website later.
From Rovaniemi, we travelled north to the town of Kittilä. Our specific destination was Pallas-Ylläs, one of Finland’s National Parks. We booked a dogsled tour with Rami’s Huskies. Rami’s is the only tour operator allowed within the boundaries of the park. This ended up being the coldest day of our trip. Knowing the weather might not be ideal, we booked the shortest, 5km trip. Our group was given brief instructions for mushing the dogs. The entire group stops midway through the trip to switch places. Our children rode together in a large sled led by a guide. The roundtrip ride took about 30 minutes to complete.
After the ride, we were invited into a warming space and given sausages and warm berry juice. You have plenty of time to visit with the dogs and take photos. All of the dogs were very comfortable with people.
Polar Explorer Icebreaker Cruise
We had to travel into Sweden for the Polar Explorer Icebreaker cruise. There is no document requirement for traveling between Finland and Sweden. The experience was similar to crossing state lines. We opted for this cruise over Finland’s Sampo Icebreaker primarily because the height requirement for children on the Polar Explorer is 120 cm which assured all of our children (ages 7 – 12) could participate in the ice float. The experience was well worth the detour.
Onboard the icebreaker ship, we are free to explore and learn about icebreakers and their role in the Arctic waters. Your ticket includes a guided tour, but we opted to explore at our leisure. The ship provides wi-fi and a mobile application for self-guided tours. Guests are allowed to get very close to the equipment and see how the ship really works. We were able to explore everything from the engine room to the captain’s bridge.
It can be quite chilly on the main decks but guests also have access to a heated cafeteria where you can spend some time warming or purchase food and drinks to help with the process.
Midway through the trip, the ship stops to allow guests to experience ice floating. At check-in, we were given a specific time to report to the changing room. Since we were assigned to one of the later groups, we used the open time to step out onto the frozen ice of the Gulf of Bothnia. This experience was completely surreal. You can walk next to the ship and see the 12-inch thick ice which was smashed by the ship just a few minutes before.
Ice floating was also a highly memorable experience. The crew works very efficiently helping guests out of and into survival suits. It’s helpful to know the exact height (in cm) of your children because the crew will ask in order to find the right size suit. Our older children were suited up and sent outside first. Followed by the younger two who were asked to wait while my husband and I got ready. The younger two children were then introduced to their dedicated guide who helped them into the water and then swam along side of them the entire time. This was a pleasant surprise because I hadn’t thought of how difficult it might be to keep us all together while floating aimlessly. The guide was wonderful. He played with the kids and kept them close to me the entire time we were in the water.
While in the water, a photographer snaps pictures of the ice floaters. Each floater is given a unique tag which can later be used to purchase the photos. The crew advises that if you want a picture of your group, you should stay together. You can purchase the photos for download from 10€ per tag. Please note that the tags sometimes “fail” so try to make sure yours is visible to the camera. We were unable to retrieve any photos from the older kids’ tags. Once back on land, you are also able to take a group photo in your survival suits.
Many people take trips to Lapland trying to spot the Northern Lights. When I originally planned to visit this region of the world, the Aurora were admittedly a big draw. As I did my research, I realized that spotting the Northern Lights depended on a number of factors, including the strength of the solar activity and clarity of the skies. Several companies out of Rovaniemi offer a Northern Lights tour. The more reputable ones will not take you on the tour if the forecast doesn’t look good. This was the case during our visit.
We spoke with a tour operator from Aurora Hunting Lapland and he explained that there was almost no chance of spotting the Aurora during our time in Lapland. I kept my eyes glued to a free app from AuroraAlert that tracks the best time to see Northern Lights and my husband and I peaked out the window every night around midnight in hopes of catching the Aurora.
The Northern Lights proved to be incredibly elusive. I was finally able to “catch” them just after our visit to Sweden. We were staying significantly south of the Arctic Circle in the town of Valtimo, Finland. I went outside alone with my camera and scoured the skies. The moon was more than 50% illuminated, which likely made it more difficult to see the Aurora, but easier to see if the sky was clear. At one point, I was trying to catch a shot of our villa. I set up my camera and used a slow shutter to capture the ambient light and low and behold – there they were!
I stared at the sky bewildered. While my camera had been able to capture enough light to see the glowing green of the Northern Lights, I still couldn’t see them with the naked eye! It was exciting to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, but be careful not to plan your whole trip around it. Don’t get caught up in taking a Northern Lights trip, because you may be disappointed. What I did eventually “see” wasn’t even worth waking the kids.
Where to Eat in Swedish Lapland
One of the joys of a road trip is stumbling upon hidden treasures. This was absolutely the case the night we dined at Roady. Located in the town of Töre, Sweden, Roady is approximately 40 minutes away from the Nordic Lapland Resort where we stayed the night before our icebreaker cruise. We found several restaurants via Google Maps and decided to drive the extra distance for what seemed to be a traditional local meal. Don’t let the fact that this restaurant is literally attached the a gas station in the middle of nowhere deter you.
We dined on a number of tasty items including shaved reindeer with mashed potatoes, garlic and rosemary roasted lamb served with roasted root vegetables and seared steak with fries. Everything we ate was cooked perfectly and tasted delicious. What was most surprising about Roady was the price. Our family of 6 enjoyed this roadside, fine-dining experience for approximately 1000 SEK or roughly $110 USD total.
Where to Stay in Rovaniemi
In Rovaniemi, we decided to experience a traditional Finnish “holiday cottage” instead of Rovaniemi hotels. You can book Villa Vihtori an Airbnb in Rovaniemi HERE.
This lakeside cottage was one of the most enjoyable parts of our trip. The home is meticulously maintained and features three bedrooms in the main house (plus an additional studio apartment attached to the garage). There is an indoor sauna and an outdoor warming hut. The host, Jukka-Pekka, provides everything you could imagine to enjoy the nearby wilderness. He provided an abundance of wood for the warming hut, snow shoes, cross country skis and sleds – even headlamps for making your way around the property at night. The remoteness and tranquility of this location is difficult to put into words. My husband and I enjoyed venturing out onto the property’s dock after the kids had gone to bed and simply admiring the shear silence and abundance of stars.
The cabin is about a 45-minute drive from Rovaniemi so be sure to stock up on groceries and supplies before heading out to the cabin. Also note that when renting a holiday home in Finland, hosts do not typically provide linens and housekeeping is typically not included. Guests are given specific checkout cleaning instructions. We opted to pay a modest additional fee for both linens and final cleaning. Be sure to communicate with your host to determine what may or may not be included.
Where to Stay in Karelia
From the Sweden-Finland border, we drove cross-country to the Karelian region. We stayed overnight in the Puukarin Pysäkki Guesthouse. We booked the chalet which offers private accommodations for up to six. The entire experience was exactly what we might have expected from staying in the Finnish countryside. The one-room chalet is humbly decorated with two twin-over full bunkbeds and a loft with two additional twin mattresses plus a private bathroom. The lower bunks have privacy curtains, making them the most desired spot for the kids.
Your stay at the Puukarin Pysäkki Guesthouse includes a large breakfast in the main house. We were the only guests on the property and were still treated to an abundant breakfast of eggs, meats, yogurt and granola, a variety of breads and cinnamon rolls plus coffee and tea. The sunrise views from the guesthouse porch were stunning. As an added bonus, the kids loved visiting with the guesthouse’s dog Vikki.
Things to See in Lakeland
Our trip continued into the region of Finland known as Lakeland. The large number of lakes in this area make it a popular tourist destination in the summer. It is no less beautiful in the winter. We stopped to explore Olavinlinna Castle, a medieval castle in the middle of Lake Saimaa. In the welcome center of the castle, a host explained to us that in the wintertime, English tours are limited. Luckily, we were the only tourists at the castle at that time, so she offered us the opportunity to take the tour in English so long as no other visitors arrived. Moments before the tour was set to begin, another group of families walked in. We were delighted to discover they were British tourists! This meant we could all continue on the tour with an English-speaking guide.
The history of the castle is fascinating. It was used primarily as a fortress and never housed any royals. Later it fell into disrepair until a group of locals decided to restore it and reopen it as an events venue. Today Olavinlinna hosts an annual opera festival each summer. Other than the potential language barrier, there are a few considerations for visiting the castle in winter. Access to the towers is dependent on the weather. If there is too much snow on the passageways, the guides will not take tours to the towers. Additionally, it is important to dress warmly as the welcome center is the only part of the castle that’s heated.
Visiting Spa Taikametsä
Located at the Imatra Spa Resort, the Spa Taikametsä was a waterpark-esque experience that could only be had in Finland. Access to the spa was included in our stay at the resort. We were able to use the spa both on the day of check-in and after check-out. Guests have to enter the spa through the locker rooms. If you have modest children, like I do, this experience may make them a little uncomfortable. Finnish people are accustomed to nudity in public spas and saunas. Even though the locker rooms are divided by gender, my girls were a little spooked by having to shower and change in the presence of other women.
Also of note, male visitors must wear European-style trunks or Speedos. We saw signs indicating this rule, but they were confusing, saying that “shorts” could not be worn in the pools. My husband and sons proceeded into the facilities wearing traditional American board shorts, only to be stopped by a Pool Manager and told their “pockets” were not allowed. Guests can rent a swimsuit for 5€ or the resort’s gift shop sells them for approximately 30€ – 50€.
Once we were all through the changing rooms and in proper swimming attire, we were delighted by the sensory experience that Spa Taikametsä offers. There are slides, hot tubs and a children’s area much like the water resorts we’re used to, but a spa day at Spa Taikametsä also offers a variety of water massage areas and sensory experiences unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Throughout the pools, there are “hidden” buttons with small signs that read “TOUCH.” The kids enjoyed this treasure hunt of experiences. Touching the buttons launched water falls into action or fired up a bubble bench. In addition to the water features, the lights and music throughout the pools varies to match images on screens. One of my favorite experiences was watching the Northern Lights flicker on a massive screen above the aqua jogging pool.
Another highlight of the spa was the outdoor heated pool. The outdoor pool is connected to the indoor pool via a tunnel, so it’s possible to have an outdoor swimming experience without ever leaving the warmth of the pool water. If you’re tempted to give cold water swimming a try, the spa offers that experience as well. A small dip pool is maintained at 8°C. Thankfully, it’s located right next to one of the warm pools, so it’s possible to give this outrageous sport a try without having to make the full commitment to being in natural body of water outside.
Angry Birds Activity Park
Finland is home to the game developer Rovio – creator of Angry Birds, so it’s not surprise that there are a number of Angry Birds themed activities to enjoy in Finland. Our favorite was the Angry Birds Activity Park. Located inside the Kuusamon Tropiikki Holiday Club, a day pass for a family of four is available for 50€.
Even if your kids are not fans of Angry Birds, they’re likely to find something they enjoy in this 2-story indoor play space. On the first level there is a traditional play structure with tunnels and slides and a large foam pit. There is also an indoor pedal-cart track and a zip line where you can pretend to launch like an Angry Bird. There’s also a small theater that shows Angry Birds shorts and kiosks throughout where you can play Angry Birds.
Upstairs, there are games for the more adventurous kids. There’s a scooter park (scooters and helmets are provided), an airbag jump, a laser maze, digital soccer and an XBOX game lounge where everyone can try a variety of the latest games. During our visit to Angry Bird Park, we were one of a handful of families, so we never had to wait for any of the activities.
The final stop on our trip was the medieval town of Porvoo. We spent a few hours exploring the town and admiring the architecture. Many of the old buildings have been converted into shops and restaurants, so there are plenty of spots to pop into if you need a minute to warm up. We enjoyed dinner in one of them, Zum Beispiel. The Finnish food was tasty and the service was excellent, but the big draw for our kids was the “bread bar” which featured a variety of tasty homemade breads (including a fresh baked gluten-free variety for my daughter).
Things to Consider When Planning a Winter Road Trip in Finland
In Finland, all children begin learning English in elementary school. Consequently, English is widely spoken throughout the country. During our trip, we only had two encounters where the person assisting us didn’t speak much English and in both cases, we were able to fumble through the interaction well enough. Most restaurants in Finland offer English menus, if needed.
Driving in Finland
Finland is not a very populated country which means things like town, restaurants and gas stations can be spread fairly far apart. We planned our trip so that we wouldn’t be in the car more than about 3-4 hours at a time. While I did a nice job of planning stopovers and excursions, I put less effort into planning for meals and ultimately regretted this. Often times we’d arrive at a location thinking food would be nearby only to find we’d have to drive another 20 miles or so to reach a town with an actual restaurant. At some point in our trip, we discovered that ABC fuel stations (which are plentiful throughout Finland) all seemed to offer a small grocery, a fast food option and a restaurant with counter-service, chef-prepared meals.
Winter in Finland daylight hours are limited
Another thing to consider is that the days in Finland are very short. We had daylight for about 6 hours between the hours of 10am and 4pm. Since we spent the good daylight hours exploring, we were often driving in the dark. We allowed our kids to use mobile devices (iPads and Kindles) while we were in the car to help combat the darkness and boredom.
How to dress for the Finland winter weather
Finally, dressing in layers is a must. Finland weather is frigid, but inside our van it was nice and toasty. I’d recommend keeping a separate bag where kids can toss their hats and gloves between stops. We had another small bag for snow pants. This made it easy to find appropriate gear when it was needed. Knowing that we’d be visiting an indoor pool, I also packed a pair of slides for each of the kids. This was a nice alternative to snow boots when sitting in the car for longer periods.
I will admit that after days of road tripping through Finland, the scenery began to feel very familiar. In winter, there is an endless supply of snow-covered evergreens no matter where you travel. The sun was always at the horizon, illuminating the sky with pretty shades of pink and blue. By just looking out the car window, you’d never know how unique and interesting each of the regions we visited truly is. And therein lies the magic of Finland.
* All photos except Pinterest image courtesy of Anne-Marie Tucker. If you want to know about visiting Helsinki in the summer, you’ll want to read this post.
About the author: Anne-Marie Tucker is a mom of four from Austin, TX. She loves traveling with her squad, running and being active, and rooting for the Cubbies. She’s a sucker for cheap flights and especially loves traveling to Central America where all those years in Spanish finally pay off.