Laurence and I recently had the pleasure of spending a few weeks visiting Finland in winter during the month of January. Most people tend to avoid Northern Europe during the winter and head to sunnier and warmer destinations, but there are so many reasons to travel to Finland in winter. Yes, it is cold and there’s snow and the daylight hours get shorter, but there are also fewer tourists, surreal winter landscapes, and unique winter activities to be discovered throughout the country. You can’t go ice fishing, try dog sledding, take a traditional sauna, learn how to kicksled, drink cloudberry wine, or go hunting for those mesmerizing Northern Lights along the Mediterranean. We’ll share our tips for visiting Finland in winter as well as share our top 15 winter activities in Finland to help you put together your own trip to this magical winter wonderland.
Tips for Planning your Trip to Finland in Winter
If you have never lived or traveled to a place with winter snow and below freezing temperatures or driven on snowy roads, Finland can be a bit of a shock and some visitors come unprepared. This was Laurence’s first real foray to experiencing freezing temperatures, winter driving, and lots of snow, but luckily we both did a bit of research and came prepared (well mostly anyway). We’ll share our tips on planning, packing, driving, and even protecting your camera in preparation for your trip to Finland in winter.
When is the Best Time to Visit Finland in Winter?
If you have a choice of when to visit, the best time will depend on the sort of activities you are most interested in doing and which regions you want to visit. So if you want to ski or go dog sledding for instance, you’ll need to visit at times when you are pretty guaranteed to find snow, such as in January and February in northern Finland. A visit around Christmas can be magical if you want to visit Santa Claus in Rovaniemi, do holiday shopping, or enjoy the holiday spirit in the capital city of Helsinki. When choosing your dates, you might want to take into account the temperatures and length of daylight hours as well. We visited in January where the amount of daylight hours, particularly in northern Finland, were quite short. However, if you come towards the end of winter, say March or early April, you can still enjoy the winter atmosphere with much longer daylight hours.
Where Should I go in Finland during the Winter?
This again really depends on what you want to see and do. You can roughly break Finland into four large regions: Lapland, Helsinki region, Coast & Archipelago (western Finland), and Lakeland (eastern Finland). For a trip that is one to two weeks in length, you’ll probably want to try to concentrate on one or two regions, whereas those planning a longer trip can leave room for more exploration. Lapland in the north is probably most tourists’ dream of a Finland winter wonderland with the chance to partake in all sorts of winter cold-weather activities (dog sledding, ice fishing, skiing, snowmobiling, etc.), the opportunity to meet Santa Claus, and the best region to have a chance to see the Northern Lights. Helsinki is always a popular place to visit despite the season and is the most metropolitan and largest city in Finland with a number of cultural opportunities and great transportation links. The Coast and Archipelago and Lakeside regions undergo major changes from summer to winter as the many lakes and coastal waters become frozen and kayaking and swimming spots become popular places for ice fishing, kick sledging, and ice skating arenas. Summer cottages are popular along the coast and in winter can be rented out for lots of fun winter activities and many come with private saunas. You can read more about the four regions of Finland on Finland’s tourism website.
How to Pack for Finland in the Winter?
A good way to ensure you enjoy your winter holiday in Finland is to come prepared by packing and dressing properly. It is cold, especially if you plan to visit northern Finland where temperatures can easily drop to -25 degrees Fahrenheit (-32 degrees Celsius), and you need to bring proper winter clothing to be able to enjoy outdoor activities. Luckily most activity tours and ski resorts provide or rent out things like thermal socks, gloves, hats, ski boots, goggles, ski gear, and ski suits, but you’ll still need to come prepared with your own winter clothing or buy it once you are in Finland. Prices are not cheap in Finland, and options are often limited outside of Helsinki, so it is probably best to buy and pack the main things you’ll need before you come.
We recommend the following as a starter packing list: at least one set of thermal underwear (merino wool or synthetic materials are best), several winter sweaters/ long-sleeved shirts that are good for layering, a few pairs of thermal socks, a pair of ski pants (if you plan to do outdoor snow related activities), a couple of comfortable pairs of warm pants that will fit over the thermal underwear (we wore both hiking pants and jeans), a scarf or neck muffler, warm winter coat designed for below freezing temperatures, sunscreen (the sun can reflect off the snow and make it easier to burn), warm hat that fully covers your ears, a balaclava or ski mask, glove liners (optional), a good pair of warm winter gloves (waterproof would be best for outdoor activities), and waterproof winter boots. You might also want to pack a travel flashlight or headlamps if you plan to be outdoors a lot so you don’t get caught in the dark.
Tips for Driving in Finland in Winter?
It is fairly easy to rent a car in Finland and Finland has a good road network, but make sure you understand the winter road regulations and know how to use everything in your car before you leave the rental lot, especially if you are not experienced in driving in winter conditions. For instance, you might find a large thick electrical cable in your glove box or trunk which is used to plug your car into outdoor electrical sockets to power the engine-block electric heater which makes cars easier to start and reduces fuel consumption. During the winter months, all vehicles must have winter tires, preferably studded, and these should be in place when you rent the car but it doesn’t hurt to double check. Unlike in some countries where roads are salted, cindered, or gritted, the roads in Finland are generally maintained by snowplows. Other regulations of note are that vehicles must legally have their headlights on at all times, winter or summer, and there is a reduced general speed limit throughout Finland in winter to 80 km/h. We found that the roads were quite well-maintained and while we had to slow down in certain places, we never had any major issues even when driving on snow-covered roads.
How to Protect Your Camera in the Winter?
Laurence and I typically travel with at least two cameras, a tripod, and other photography equipment so taking care to protect our equipment in the cold winter temperature was very important in Finland. Whether you plan to bring a simple point-and-shoot or a professional DSLR camera, you want to take a few steps to protect your camera and equipment. These might include bringing spare batteries to carry on your person, having a rain/snow cover for your camera, storing gear in a backpack or bag, and having an airtight plastic bag with you that fits your camera. You’ll also want to read up on some winter photography tips about how to best protect your camera gear and capture winter scenery, such as how to adjust your exposure for snow scences.
Need More Help Planning your Trip to Finland?
Finland’s official tourism board, Visit Finland, has an excellent website and is a great resource for finding articles about visiting Finland in winter, exploring attractions, finding lodging, and planning an itinerary. You can also contact them by email ([email protected]) with specific questions or interact with them on Facebook or Twitter. If you are visiting Lapland, you might want to check out Lapland’s website for travelers. For figuring out train, plane, and bus connections within Finland, you can check out the Finnish Transport Agency website.
Visiting Finland in Winter: Top 15 Winter Activities
As in any country, there are numerous things to do, foods to try, and attractions to visit in Finland. But traveling to a place like Finland, you’ll find that the winter versus summer activities can be vastly different. Laurence visited Finland for the first time during the summer and you can read about his summer outdoors adventures in Finland here and here, and he said it was almost like visiting another country as the weather, scenery, and available activities change a lot! We’ve tried to sift through everything and find those activities that we think are either unique to winter or are very well-suited for a winter visit. We hope these suggestions will serve as a great guide to helping you plan and piece together your own Finland winter trip itinerary. So here are 15 things to do while visiting Finland in winter, listed in no particular order.
1. Skiing or Snowboarding
Finland enjoys a long snow season with snow beginning around November and lasting until May in northern Finland, making it a perfect place for downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, and snowboarding. It is not as well known as other countries for skiing, but there are plenty of opportunities with Lapland being the most popular region because it has the most reliable snow fall. Lapland has four major ski resorts: Levi, Ylläs, Pyhä-Luosto and Ruka with slopes from about 1,640 to 2,300 feet (500 to 700 meters) above sea level with lengths up to 9,800 feet (3 kilometers). While neither of us are big skiiers, we stayed at the Hotel Iso-Syöte in Syöte, Finland’s most southernmost fell, which is a hot spot for skiers. Syöte is a great spot for both beginner and intermediate level skiiers and was the location for the World Snowboard Tour competition in 2014. You can read a full review by Laurence of our experience at the Hotel Iso-Syöte.
Riding on a snowmobile is a great way to experience the outdoors in Finland and they can be ridden by one or two people at a time. This was by far one of Laurence’s favorite activities in Finland as it was not only a fast and efficient way to get from one place to another but it also allows you to go fast and take in gorgeous scenery along the way. It’s a lot of fun and isn’t too hard to learn the basics, but do be careful as you can get it stuck in a snowdrift (yeah, Laurence did this on our first trip and our guide had to help dig us out) and the machine can tip so do pay careful attention to safety instructions and go only as fast as you (and your partner) feel comfortable. Laurence really loved the machines with self-warming handle bars which are common. We did most of our snowmobile riding at Hotel Iso-Syöte, but you can rent snowmobiles or take snowmobile tours in any area of Finland where there is a lot of snow.
Kicksledding, or kicksledging, is a unique mode of transportation that is primarily done in Norway, Finland, and Sweden and was invented in this region. Kicksledding is pretty straight forward. You’ll need a kicksled and either a large surface covered in ice or hard-packed snow, after which you stand at the back of the sled on the runners, and kick to provide forward motion. This works best on unsalted ice or hard packed snow, as loose snow tends to be a bit sticky and makes the process a lot harder on your legs. We gave kick sledging a go in Rauma, and it had unfortunately just snowed, but we still had a lot of fun even if it was quite a workout! We were able to reach a small island and build a fire to enjoy sausages, pulla (Finnish sweet roll), beer, and coffee which made for a nice break after the cold workout. You can read more about our trip to Rauma, here.
4. Dog Sledding
Ever dreamed of dog sledding after watching the Iditarod or the movie Balto? Finland is a perfect place to make that dream a reality. Dog sledding does require a minimum amount of effort, but mostly we found that the dogs seemed to know what they were doing in terms of direction and so on. The main thing to do is to hold on and learn how to operate the brake to stop the sled, because the huskies like to run and they often won’t stop unless you make them! We did a shorter husky sledding experience at Hotel Iso-Syöte, and Laurence also did a two-day husky safari up in Rovaniemi with Bear Hill Husky Safaris, which was a very hands-on experience that included an overnight cabin stay and feeding and cleaning up after the dogs. You’ll find husky dog sledding companies throughout Lapland and we recommend carefully reading reviews beforehand to avoid booking companies that show any signs of mistreating their dogs.
5. Enjoy the Finnish Sauna Experience
Someone told us that the only Finnish word commonly used in the English language is “sauna” and we don’t pronounce it correctly (it’s “sowna” not “sawna”). Saunas are an integral part of Finnish culture and historically were the place where many major life events would take place from birth to death, and today sauna houses are still popular places for Finns to meet friends, visit with family, meditate, and even hold business meetings. Traditionally, most people visited public saunas, but now many Finns have their own private saunas in their homes or summer cottages. There are three major types of saunas: smoke sauna (savusauna), wood-heated sauna, and electric sauna. The smoke sauna is the most traditional type of sauna, the wood-heated sauna are the most common in the countryside, and the electric saunas are the least traditional but most abundant in the cities and apartment complexes. It would really be a shame to visit Finland without experiencing a traditional sauna, and it is an experience that is fairly easy to arrange no matter what part of Finland you are visiting. Saunas are usually sex segregated and done nude in the company of either family or members of the same sex. When done in a mixed sex scenario with non-family members, people will often wear a swimsuit or towel. Birch branches are often brushed or hit against the skin and this is believed to be good for the skin and circulation. Read this informative article for more about the basics of Finnish sauna etiquette. For the full winter sauna experience, you should consider doing a sauna next to a lake so you can cool off with a plunge into the icy water. It’s invigorating as Laurence found out, but not for the faint of heart! Having roasted sausages and beer is a very typical Finnish after-sauna experience. We had our sauna experience thanks to the nice people of Siikluoma, who rent out a lovely cottage on the shore of a lake near Rauma, which is just perfect in the winter for sauna (it has its own large sauna next to a frozen lake) or for discovering the Finnish outdoors at any time of the year.
6. Sail on an Ice Breaker Boat
For a unique experience, consider a ride on an ice breaker boat. From the town of Kemi in the north of Finland you have the chance to sail on the Icebreaker Sampo. Formerly owned by the Finnish government, today it is used to give visitors an idea of what an operational ice breaker is capable of doing. There is also the option of taking a swim in the sea while wearing a full dry survival suit. We didn’t personally try this one but it sounds like quite an unusual experience!
7. Ice Fishing
If swimming in a frozen lake doesn’t appeal to you, how about fishing in one? Ice fishing is considered a public access right in Finland, which means that you don’t need a license to go ice fishing. The top of the lake may be frozen, but if you can drill down through the ice you’ll find water and fish. Most people do this as part of a tour, but you could also do it alone if you rent or have access to the equipment and know where to go. You’ll need an ice drill, fishing pole (which is amazingly tiny), and bait, along with a bit of luck. Perch, the national fish of Finland, and pike are two of the common types of fish in the lakes. We, somewhat unexpectedly, had a lot of fun ice fishing, even though we didn’t actually catch anything. Normally fishing is a fairly solitary quiet activity well-suited for deep thought and meditation, and people seriously intent on catching fish usually stick it out for several hours. The post ice-fishing campfire with coffee and sausages were also a real highlight, of the experience. We are newbies to ice fishing, but you can read this detailed guide about ice fishing in Finland to learn more.
If skiing or snowboarding is a little fast paced for you, or you just want to try something a bit different, then maybe you should give snowshoeing a go. This involves strapping oversized “shoes” onto your feet and then wandering the snowy landscape. The wide snowshoe allows you to walk over snow without sinking very far in as the shoe helps distribute your weight more evenly over a wider surface. These are recommended for winter hiking as they cause less damage and erosion on trails than walking in regular boots. Walking comfortably in them can be a little tricky to master at first, as suddenly you find yourself with what feel like clown shoes on, but we both got used to it fairly quickly. It’s a different way to get around, and it allows you to see landscapes and locations that you might not have otherwise accessed without the shoes.
9. Stay in an Igloo or Ice Hotel
A number of places in Finland provide the opportunity to stay in an igloo or an ice hotel. There are the traditionally-constructed igloo’s, made out of snow, that you can spend the night. For instance, there was an igloo at Hotel Iso-Syöte that one could spend the night and igloos are also offered at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort. There are also seasonal ice hotels and restaurants where everything from the beds to the walls are made of snow and ice such as the Arctic Snow Hotel and the SnowHotel at Snow Village. Just note although these sound very cool, the temperatures here are just below freezing to keep the snow and ice from melting and require the use of thick furs and heavy-duty sleeping bags (provided) and can still be quite chilly for some guests. If that sounds a bit cold then you might like to try one of the glass igloos, which are optimized for viewing the Northern Lights. These offer full glass ceilings in an igloo style, whilst still being fully heated so they are warm and cosy! Most are to be found in Lapland near or within the Arctic Circle, which offers the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Take a look at the glass igloos at Kakslauttanen and the Arctic Snow Hotel for an idea of what these are like!
10. Visit Santa Claus and his Reindeer
You may have thought that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. Or in Indiana. Well, according to the Finns, you’d be wrong. Santa Claus actually lives in the Finnish town of Rovaniemi, just inside the Arctic Circle, where he spends the year chatting with visitors, posing with them, and of course, replying to all the mail from children (and the young at heart). In fact it is a whole village, the Santa Claus Village. This is the official home of the Santa Claus post office, which receives over half a million letters a year from people all over the world. It’s a fun place to visit, and is actually free, although if you want a photo of yourself with Santa you do have to pay. If you want to see reindeer, there are lots of opportunities from visiting a reindeer farm, wildlife park, or doing a reindeer safari with reindeer pulling a traditional sled. We actually spotted two reindeer just walking in the middle of the road while driving. Reindeer is also a traditional meat in Finland, especially the northern part of the country and you’ll find it on quite a few menus if you are interested in trying it.
11. Try Hearty Finnish Foods (and Drinks)
Finnish cuisine was not something either of us knew a lot about before visiting Finland, but we were pleasantly surprised, both by the quality, and the use of fresh, local ingredients. Staples of Finnish cuisine include meats such as pork and beef (often in sausage form), mushrooms, berries (blueberries, raspberries, lingonberries, cloudberries, sea buckthorns, bilberries, etc.), potatoes, rye bread, porridge, and fish ( salmon, zander, pike, perch, Baltic herring). Meats such as reindeer, elk, and bear are also served, with reindeer being commonly served at many restaurants. A common treat eaten with coffee is pulla which is a sweet roll. Lunch is often served cafeteria style at many local Finnish places which often includes a main dish such as meatballs and mashed potatoes, cooked vegetables, bread, a dessert, coffee, and water. We really loved the traditional sautéed reindeer with mashed potato and lingonberry sauce which was a popular lunch item. We also really developed a taste for cloudberries, which are berries high in Vitamin C. These orange berries are a local delicacy and are used in all sorts of ways, even being eaten with heated leipäjuusto (a local cheese), cream, and sugar. Cloudberries also make for good wine and liquor, and you can find local alcohol made from these and many of the other local berries. Some of the meals that stood out to us over our three-week journey include the value-priced Finnish cafeteria-style food we had at Hanna Maria in Porvoo, the tasty home-cooked dinner we had following a sauna at Siikluoma near Rauma, the few campfire meals of sausages and coffee we had during our outdoor adventures, the wonderful à la carte menu at Hotel Iso-Syöte, and the fabulous traditional Finnish dinner in Oulu we had at Ravintola Sokeri-Jussi Kievari located in an atmospheric old timber storehouse in Pikisaari.
12. Celebrate Christmas in Helsinki
Helsinki has been nicknamed the “Christmas City” and it is no wonder that it is a popular city to visit during the month of December. Highlights include shopping along Aleksanterinkatu street with its festively decorated shop windows, exploring the handicraft stalls and local food vendors in the open-air St. Thomas Christmas market, and listening to church recitals in the city’s many beautiful churches. Another reason to visit is that the city is illuminated with lights and there is a decent chance for snow by Christmas giving the city that special Christmas winter glow. You’ll also find local parades and celebrations going on throughout the month of December, such as the St. Lucia Day celebrations. Traditional Finnish Christmas food and a glass of Glögi, a traditional Christmas drink made from warm spiced wine with a sprinkling of almonds and raisins, will help get you into that holiday spirit!
13. Take in a Local Hockey Match
A great way to get absorbed into the local culture in many places is to go to a local sporting match, and Finland is no exception. Whereas pesäpallo, a game similar to American baseball, is the national sport of Finland, the most popular sport is ice hockey. Attending a local ice hockey game (or pesäpallo, harness racing, or Formula One racing event) is a great way to do something different and see locals doing their thing. We had the chance to attend a local hockey game in the city of Rauma, and this particular game happened to be against the local rival team and it was a very engaged and energetic audience. Laurence spent a lot of time trying to figure out the rules (his first hockey game), and it was also a great place for sausage eating and people watching. You can read more about our time in the UNESCO heritage city of Rauma here.
14. Spend Time Indoors Exploring Local Museums and Churches
Visiting museums, churches, and other indoor attractions is not unique to the winter, but sometimes you’ll need a break from all the cold weather activities or you are liable to turn into an icicle! There are a large number of churches and museums in Helsinki, and you’ll likely find at least a couple of museums that will match your interests whether it is history, photography, art, design, or local Finnish history. A great thing is that some museums are free or have free days each week or month so you can visit even if you are traveling on a tight budget. But we also enjoy the smaller speciality museums that you can find in just about any town. For instance we learned about maritime history at the Rauma Maritime Museum, local Arctic life at the Arktikum in Rovaniemi, lace making in Old Rauma, and got to do hands-on science learning at the family-friendly Tietomaa in Oulu.
15. Chase the Northern Lights
One of the reasons many people come to Finland in Winter is to see the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. This gorgeous natural phenomenon is caused by solar activity, and results in an amazing display of light and color in the sky. The further north you go, the better your chances of seeing them, ideally you want to be well inside the Arctic Circle and away from any unnatural lights or pollution. Then, you need to have a good pile of luck on hand, patience, and of course, clear skies. Laurence got to see the green glow of the Northern Lights while outside Rovaniemi one evening while snowmobiling with Lapland Safaris, but we were unlucky during the rest of our trip. One of those clear glass igloos makes for a perfect viewing spot.
What do you think about planning a visit to Finland in winter, what activities would you enjoy the most? Planning a trip to Finland or have you already visited Finland? As always, we love to hear your questions, comments, and tips!
**Disclosure: We were hosted by Visit Finland and various local Finnish tourism boards during our stay which provided most of our meals, accommodation, and activities during our stay. However, this post only reflects our honest thoughts and opinions.**