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Our Family Trip to Finland: A Weekend in Lapland

As I type this, my son’s stuffed toy reindeer, dubbed “Finney,” is staring at me from across the table. Every time I see Finney she reminds me of our once-in-a-lifetime adventure weekend in Lapland.

Spending a weekend in Lapland? There's so much to do and so little time, but this post has all the fun things to do in Rovaniemi, Finland

And actually, our Lapland weekend almost didn’t happen. My mom flew out to Germany to spend Thanksgiving with us, and I had a wild idea to cross one of the things off our bucket list: see the northern lights.

I looked for flights and my hopes and dreams were immediately shot down. Tickets to Lapland for a weekend were so expensive; I tabled the idea. But then, just for the heck of it, I checked again a few weeks later and prices weren’t horrible—under $200 round trip per person to Rovaniemi, Finland.

Without thinking twice*, I booked them for all six of us.

*I did think twice, and I asked my mom if she’d be cool hopping on a flight to Finland for a weekend in Lapland while she was here. She very enthusiastically said yes!

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Our Weekend in Lapland

We flew out of Belgium on a Friday morning in late November and landed a couple of hours later in Finland (there is a time change from mainland Europe, by the way). Our return flight was on Monday, so we had about two and a half days to explore.

Landing in Finland is something I hope I’ll never forget: it was white as far as the eye could see, and the roads were snow packed and icy. The scenery was utterly spectacular, and our energy and excitement for actually being there went through the roof.

Oh, and it was bone-chilling cold!

This trip was relaxing and gorgeous, and fun, in a place I’ll never forget.

A D-I-Y Weekend in Lapland

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So here’s something I didn’t realize until I hopped on some Lapland Facebook groups: a lot of people go to Lapland (the region where we were in Finland) with tour groups and tour packages.

They find it a lot easier than booking everything on their own because these packages/tours will provide cold-weather gear as well as transportation.

We did this trip DIY-style and didn’t have any issues. Here’s a quick look at what we booked on our own:

Flights: RyanAir
We flew directly from Charleroi in Belgium (near Brussels) to Rovaniemi on RyanAir. Another option many people take is flying into Helsinki and taking a “Santa Express” overnight train into Rovaniemi.

Find Your Flight to Rovaniemi Here


Accommodation:
We stayed at the Holiday Home Villa Vihtori outside of Rovaniemi. I’m sharing more about our stay at the end of this post).

Van Rental:
Since we stayed outside of town, we booked a big ol’ van via Green Motion (booked using credit card points). If you’re staying in town and booking activities they typically provide transportation. You can also get to most places by taking Bus number 8, or by hiring a taxi.

PRO TIP: If you’re renting a car, have someone leave the baggage area and go stand in line for your vehicle. We all put our winter gear on and went to the bathroom before leaving the baggage area since we didn’t know where we’d be going. Because of this, we were pretty much the last people in line to get our van. If we had a do-over I’d send someone to stand in line while everyone else gets their jackets, bags, bathroom, etc.


Activities:
Booked all on our own. Keep reading to hear about what we did.

Our Weekend in Lapland

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Since we only had two and a half days in Finland I didn’t try to cram too much into our stay.

Honestly, this is mostly because I felt overwhelmed when I looked at all the things you could do in Rovaniemi. I didn’t want this to be a stressful trip; I wanted to relax and enjoy being in such a majestic place.

I was overwhelmed because there are lots of things to do, and dozens of different companies that offer the same things.

Day 1 in Rovaniemi:

After we landed we grabbed our rental van and immediately went to SantaPark, an indoor, underground Christmas theme park in Rovaniemi, for the afternoon.

Since it took longer than expected to get our van, we ended up eating lunch at SantaPark and while I don’t recommend lunch there, it was convenient so we could just roll right into all the activities they had to offer.

We highly recommend a visit to SantaPark if you go with the kids. They met Santa, learned how to be an elf at Elf School, decorated gingerbread cookies, rode on rides, made some Christmas crafts, saw an awesome aerobatic elf show, crossed over the Arctic Circle underground, and so much more. Tickets are good for two consecutive days, and it’s only a few minutes from the airport.

I’ll have a full write-up/review of our experience there soon.

PRO TIP: Check the opening days/times for SantaPark since they are not open year-round. For the 2022 season, they were only open from 19 November—7 January.

After our time at Santa Park, we found a grocery store nearby to stock up on essentials (breakfast, snacks, etc) for our weekend in Lapland. I expected prices to be astronomical, but the upcharge wasn’t that bad.

We went to this supermarket another day and wished we started out at this one. It was huge and delightful.

PRO TIP: If you want hard alcohol or even beer/wine over 4.8% ABV, you need to find an actual liquor store. They’re also closed on Sundays.

For dinner we headed to Santa Claus Village, not to be confused with Santa Park. Santa Claus Village is more of a touristy area with souvenir shops, places to eat, outdoor activities, and another Santa to meet.

It was only 5 pm when we got there but we found several places closed.

Thankfully, Santa’s Pizza and Burger was open. It was super casual and had exactly what we needed: easy food. The beer was perfect, the burger (get the “Big Cheese Burger”) was delicious and the pizza was…different.

We opted for their special: smoked reindeer and peaches pizza (not a typo), and I was surprised when the flavors actually worked really well together.

PRO TIP: Keep an eye on the times for things. Places close earlier than you might think.

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After our bellies were full, we started making our way to our place for the weekend. It was about 40km out of town, but since it was already pitch black outside and we (my husband) were driving on snow-packed roads, it took a good 45 minutes to get there.

Y’all, our place in Finland was perfect. From the minute we drove up and saw the little gnomes welcoming us, I knew it’d be great. More on it below!

Day 2 in Rovaniemi:

We spent the morning at our home away from home. Our place was right on a frozen lake, so we played out there for as long as we could handle the cold.

The kids had a blast making snow angels and walking on a lake. Watching them literally giggle while they were playing was music to my ears. They were so excited and happy!

It was nice to just relax and enjoy the morning.

On our way back towards Santa Claus Village/Rovaniemi the kids started complaining about how long they’d be in the car. To keep them busy, I told them to keep their eyes peeled for animals.

Not even three minutes later Julia shouted that she spotted something.

Lo and behold, she sure did see something. We watched as some northern visitors came out to say hello: a herd of REINDEER was just a few feet away from us.

Seeing them “wild” and outside of our window was so much fun and a memory I hope will stick with us for a long time. I didn’t even know reindeer could be white, and I didn’t know how gigantic their antlers could get. They were so beautiful.

FUN FACT: There aren’t any “wild” reindeer in Finland. They all have an owner and to keep track of them, they have collars. Even though they technically have owners who look after them, you will see them roaming around. So drive extra slow…some of the reindeer’s fleece is as white as snow.

Best Lunch Ever

We decided to have lunch back in Santa Claus Village at Santa’s Salmon Place—another place we highly recommend.

You basically eat in a little, but very warm, yurt. The menu is extremely limited, which actually made it a pretty quick place to eat. Salmon cooked before your eyes under an open fire tops the menu, but it comes with bread and potato salad.

There’s also traditional—and tasty—Finnish (squeaky) cheese and jam on the menu as well as ice-cold beer and warm juice.

We had our kids split a salmon and that seemed to work well for them.

And this is a bold statement, but here it goes: this was the best salmon I’ve ever had. It was caramelized and crispy from the fire, sufficiently minimally seasoned, and so tender and flavorful.

PRO TIP: When you arrive in Santa Claus Village double check the hours for Santa’s Salmon Place. There was conflicting info on Google and on their website. We actually looked at their physical location the day before to see their hours and that’s what we went off of. Also, it’s first come, first serve, and you have to wait outside for a table to open up. Still worth it!

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After lunch, we wandered around Santa Claus Village for a little bit.

We got postcards to send to friends and family, and we almost stood in line to see Santa (again).

Since we saw Santa at Santa Park the day before, but our middle kid wanted to see him again since there were signs everywhere saying he was there, too. We started standing in line and then realized we’d be there forever (a least an hour) so we backed out slowly and talked up our previous experience with meeting the Big Guy.

She got over it pretty quickly and we moved on…

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The highlight for us here was the giant Arctic Circle that you can cross; a perfect spot for fun photo opps!

We hopped, walked, and stood on the Arctic Circle and then went to see what else the place had to offer.

FUN FACT: There’s a live webcam at Santa Claus Village right by the Arctic Circle—plan your time there to coincide with family back home. Our aunt back in New Mexico got to see us “live” when we were there!

Next up was checking out Santa’s Official Post office. Go inside; it was packed, but fun to walk around.

There are plenty of activities to do in Santa Claus Village and you can stay there, too. Personally, it seemed a little too gimmicky to stay there, but if you want the full package, and don’t want to travel on your own much, then it’s a great option.

A note about activities at Santa Claus Village: They have all the fun stuff to do there (husky rides, snowmobiles, reindeer petting, feeding, and rides, etc.), and while the prices did seem affordable, the lines seemed too crazy for us. For some of them, you can pay ahead of time and reserve times, but several said you just show up. Hence, the long lines. It was too cold for us to stay out just waiting for that long, so it was an easy pass.

Dinner in Rovaniemi

Because I didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of the arctic with six people with no place to eat, I made a reservation for dinner based on recommendations I found online.

We went to Restaurant Nili in the heart of Rovaniemi, and I immediately loved the rustic Finish decor and atmosphere as soon as we stepped inside. It was so warm and homey with dark wood all around us.

However, my hopes and dreams for the place immediately sank when I saw the menu. Not only was it expensive, but they didn’t have a kids’ menu (or any “kid” food), and as exciting as we tried to make it, they were very opposed to eating deer or bear—the two prominent proteins on the menu.

The restaurant was extremely accommodating, patient, and nice, though. They said that any meal could be cut in half for the kids, and they let two of the kids share a (half) plate.

It was one of the more expensive items, but we all (including the kids) agreed that the bear was the tastiest, followed by the reindeer steak.

I regret not taking more (any) pictures of the actual restaurant. It felt so….Finnish!

Would I recommend this place? Yes. It was a good, local place. We could have had pizza or burgers again to make sure everyone ate and had something they liked, but where’s the fun in that?

Day 3 in Rovaniemi:

Our third and final day during our weekend in Lapland was a mixture of fun and relaxation. But it’s also where I screwed up. I knew I wanted us to do something other than just hang out, but I didn’t know what.

As I mentioned earlier: I was overwhelmed with all the options. Not only that, but the experiences in Finland were pricey, especially multiplying it times 6.

What I wanted to do was this fun “Snow Day” at the Apukka Resort. (Ignore the bad reviews from that link; I looked into it very thoroughly and it’s a fantastic deal. I also had a friend personally do it with her kids while we were there and they had rave reviews.)

It looked awesome because it was only a half day and it combined a whole bunch of things: a reindeer ride, a husky ride, riding in a snowmobile, playing in the snow, etc. And the price was fantastic, too.

The problem is that I waited too long to book it and it sold out. I was so upset with myself. Don’t be like me. Book this now; it has everything!

Going on a Reindeer Sleigh Ride

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So instead of doing that, we ended up going on a reindeer sleigh ride (also with the Apukka Resort).

They let you borrow their snow gear and boots—some of us used it and some of us used our own gear. And then they take you out to the reindeer.

We were all super excited and it had major potential to get five stars from us, but two disappointing things happened:

  1. They didn’t let our whole group go together. Because the overall group was so large, they ended up splitting the groups into two. But instead of putting families together, they split them up. HUGE bummer. So Madilyn and I ended up going to a different place and didn’t get to be with the rest of our family.
  2. The second bummer was that we ended up getting the last sleigh. This isn’t a huge issue except that all we saw (besides the stunning surroundings) was a reindeer’s butt. Everyone else had a reindeer right next to their sleigh the entire time so they all had selfies and fun pictures with a reindeer right next to their face. We have pictures of a reindeer’s butt.

So really, I’m the only one who was bitter about that experience. It was great for everyone else.

Actually, my favorite part was after the sleigh ride where we got to pet and feed the reindeer.

Since we were split into two groups, my daughter and I had some time to kill before the rest of our family returned.

We had lunch at the Apukka Resort—there was a buffet lunch that was really, really good with fresh fish, baked chicken, a salad bar, roasted veggies, etc. Not much on the “kid-friendly” aspect, but they managed to eat something and nobody complained about being hungry.

After our reindeer ride, we went back to our place to make the most of our time.

Knowing that our accommodation came with an outdoor fireplace, we brought things with us to make s’mores, so that’s exactly what we did.

The afternoon was spent playing outside and eating s’mores. Then we had dinner at home and spent the evening packing and cleaning up since we were leaving the next day.

If We Had More Time in Rovaniemi

These would’ve been cool to do, but we didn’t either because of time (we were only in Lapland for a weekend, after all), budget, availability or because it wouldn’t have been a good fit for everyone in our family.

The Northern Lights

We knew that even though we were in Finland during Northern Lights “season” (between September and April), the weather had to be perfect (i.e. clear skies).

I was obsessed with checking the weather, and unfortunately, it wasn’t looking very good for us. So we changed our frame of mind: it’d be awesome if we saw the Northern Lights, but the worst case is that we don’t see them and we still have a fantastic time in Finland.

Since we stayed on a lake in the middle of nowhere, we had a pretty good shot if we were going to see them.

There were two highly recommended apps to use to track and give you alerts when the most optimal times would be to see them. So whenever we got an alert we’d suit up (get our warm gear on) and head out to the dock on the lake.

APPS To Track the Northern Lights: get both of these apps and turn the notifications on when you’re in Lapland. My Aurora Forecast & Alerts and Aurora Forecast

It was VERY cloudy and often snowed while we were out there, which meant we definitely didn’t have clear skies.

BUT. But there were two specific times when we’re about 99% sure we saw them.

On our very first night, we went out and saw something that looked like clouds (gray), but they were kinda wavy in the sky. We heard that to the naked eye, they can actually look “hazy” as opposed to the vibrant colors you see in photos. So I took some pictures and in the camera, it actually came out blue/green.

We kept our eyes on that spot for several minutes and it ended up disappearing.

Eager to try again, we went out on another night and thought we saw something in a similar spot, so we actually decided to see if we could see something from another view. We went to the front of the house and walked out to the street. (I say “walked” but keep in mind that it was snow-packed…so I trudged through the snow.)

In the dead center of the road, we saw lights in the sky. But I was worried it was maybe a light from another source, so we decided to drive and see where it led. We drove and drove and never saw a single soul or a house. We were met with a dead end.

It was also so quiet out there that we could hear anytime there was a car driving or if someone even shut a door. We didn’t hear anything, so we concluded that we saw a glimpse of them again.

All in all, I *think* we saw them, but I definitely wouldn’t mind a redo to try to see them again. We were told March and September are the best times to see them with the most luck on clear skies.

What We Wore in Finland

This was the part about going to Finland that I was most worried about for our weekend in the Lapland area. We come from very warm climates. And even though we’ve adapted to colder weather since living in Germany, Finland-cold weather is vastly different.

We experienced temps as low as -10º celsius (around 14º Fahrenheit), and I realize that’s not even that cold, but it was for us.

Thankfully, we all stayed pretty warm and dry, so whatever I packed totally worked. I totally patted myself on the back for the fact that the kids never said they were cold!

PRO TIP: Layers, layers, layers. That’s the key. You want several layers because they all work together to keep you warm, plus you can peel off layers as you get too warm.

Here was our plan:

Base layer (a moisture-wicking material)
Mid-layer (something to help trap and keep that warmth)
Outer layer (waterproof)

For Bottoms

For Tops

Extras

  • Socks (wool is best)
  • Scarf
  • Beanie or headwrap
  • Ear muffs
  • Gloves (mittens for kids; it keeps their fingers closer together, which makes them stay warmer)
  • Snow/waterproof boots (fave for women, fave for kids, fave for men)

Where To Get Your Winter Gear

This was seriously my biggest stress, because we’re not big on winter sports, so I knew we most likely wouldn’t wear them again. We did a mixture of buying, borrowing and renting our garb.

Borrow From Friends

Ask around and see if you can borrow outer layers, especially for kids since they grow so fast.

Buy Them

We bought a decent amount from Decathalon (in Germany/Netherlands), and on Amazon. In America you can also check out REI and there were a lot of recommendations to buy things from Mountain Warehouse. And, believe it or not, we found great deals at Aldi, and they worked out really well. We got a pack of top and bottoms thermals and some snow boots!

Rent Gear

If you book activities, most places mention that they include all of the winter gear. However, that’s only while you’re doing that activity. I called several places and asked around about renting weather gear for the duration of our trip, and struck out. Every place I contacted said they didn’t do it anymore.

PRO TIP: These are a lot more clothes than we usually bring with us, especially since it was just a weekend in Lapland. To save space in your luggage, put them in compression bags. It’ll still be the same weight, but they suck out all the air and save space.

PRO TIP: To save on how often you need to do laundry and how much need to pack, you may only need to wash the base layers. And you may need to only bring one or two of the mid-layers (sweaters/fleece).

Where we Stayed in Finland

The Holiday Home Villa Vihtori was perfect for the six of us, and I knew it would be from the first time I saw the listing. The pictures online do this place way more justice than mine do. (Fun fact: taking pictures in negative-degree weather is really cold and hard, and the freezing temps actually drain your battery faster.)

Every other place I looked at failed in comparison. I waffled hard on whether I should reserve it or not, but places were getting snatched up ASAP online and I didn’t want to lose this place.

Was it out of our price range? YES.
Was it 100% worth it? YES.

Not only was it comfy and cozy for our Lapland weekend adventure, but it would be spectacular in any season. We loved the location (basically in the middle of nowhere, but a beautiful nowhere), we loved the enclosed sun deck, and we really loved the 360º hut with a fireplace outside.

If the Northern Lights were doing her thing, it would have been simply amazing to sit and watch them in the sky while sitting in the cozy little hut.

A lot of people love staying at the Apukka Resort in glass “igloos,” and while it would’ve been really cool to do that, I loved that we were far from the city lights and in our own little winter wonderland. But if staying there is on your bucket list, then go for it!

Our Weekend in Lapland

This was a very quick trip and even though we did a lot (or writing it all out like this seems like we did a lot), it felt pretty laid back and relaxed. We did a lot of touristy things because we are tourists, and I loved it.

I’d go back to Finland in a heartbeat—and I’d stay where we stayed before. It’d be beautiful even if the area wasn’t covered in layers of snow. Hopefully next time we can spend a little more time than just a weekend in Lapland

If you go to Finland I’d love to hear about your trip, especially if this post helped you plan your Lapland weekend…or even longer.

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