North of the Arctic Circle, Lapland is the home of the Sami people, who refer to the land as Sapmi. It's a forest-filled wilderness that accounts for almost one-fourth of Finland's territory, and it stretches across much of northern Norway, Sweden and western Russia. The region's complete quiet will bring you peace—or drive you crazy. Many visitors go May-July to see the midnight sun. The Polar Night, when the sun never completely rises, happens north of the Arctic Circle from the end of November to mid-January. Just as many flock to the ski trails and slopes in winter, and there is a thriving Santa Claus business, with several venues, some tacky, some with a genuine charm, vying for position as the "authentic home" of Father Christmas.
Many prefer to visit in the spring or fall—during the summer, mosquitoes and blackflies can be unbearable for some, and winter brings darkness 24 hours a day, albeit relieved by reflected light from the snow. But in the fall, when the leaves are changing colors, a drive through the forests is very pleasant and fell hiking across well-marked trails is popular.
Local outdoor activities include cross-country skiing, canoeing, panning for gold, camping, hiking and white-water rafting. We advise spending most of your time in the far-northern areas around Levi (a resort offering great winter sports, and a few summer ones, too), Inari and Ivalo. Lapland also caters to skiers with its high-quality ski resorts. (Don't go expecting Aspen-like bowls or faces, as the mountains are more like hills.) The resort of Saariselka, close to Ivalo, is a busy winter resort with plenty of slopes and trails, a magnet for Finns on winter holidays.
In the heart of Lapland, Levi (450 mi/725 km north of Helsinki) was founded in the 16th century. It's primarily a logging town set beside both a river and lake, but it also offers a variety of winter sports, including snowmobile safaris and cruises on an icebreaker (complete with a dip in the sea—you must wear a survival suit). In summer, canoeing and sailing are popular.
The regional capital of Rovaniemi (445 mi/715 km north of Helsinki), almost astride the Arctic Circle (the town is just a few miles/kilometers south), is primarily a jumping-off point for other areas of Lapland. After the town was nearly destroyed in World War II, functionalist architect Alvar Aalto redesigned many of the buildings. The graceful architecture in town contrasts beautifully with the scenic countryside.
But the main attraction in Rovaniemi is Santa Claus, who lives just outside the town. Thousands trek there every year to visit Santa, the elves and his workshop. An elf-training school has opened, and there are rumors that escorted visits may be allowed. (Parents of small children may wish to note that reindeer meat is featured prominently on most hotel menus.) There is also a Santa Claus Hotel in the city, and an underground themed Santa Park close to the airport.
After visiting Santa, go to the Arktikum, a science and culture museum depicting life in the Arctic region. Nearby activities and attractions include reindeer-driving lessons, the Museum of the Province of Lapland and a glass factory on the Arctic Circle. During the winter, the cross-country skiing and snowmobiling are excellent.
In March, the Santa Claus Ice Golf Tournament takes place on the ice and puts a new spin on the game—it's best to play with orange balls (they are allowed by the rules) as you'll incur a penalty stroke if you can't find your ball in less than three minutes.
In some smaller towns, the Sami still wear traditional clothing. Sodankyla has Lapland's oldest church and an interesting Sami art gallery. In the town of Tankavaara, 30 mi/50 km south of Ivalo, there is a tourist center with information on the northern lights (aurora borealis). Also in Tankavaara is the Gold Prospector Museum and the Finnish Gold Panning Championship (late July).
Urho Kekkonen National Park covers 975 sq mi/2,525 sq km in the northeastern part of Lapland. Southeast of Ivalo, between Saariselka Falls and Raututunturi Falls, there are splendid forests with interesting fauna, cabins, hiking trails and a good visitors center (it's an excellent area to see the northern lights—best seen in March or September, but visible on many cloud-free winter nights too). Plan to stay three nights in Lapland.
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