During the winter, you'll find plenty of things to do in Lapland, a stunning, snowy extravaganza that shimmers with the oomph of the human spirit. Lapland itself spans Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. It reflects the long held traditions of the Sami more than modern map making convention. Each country in Lapland has unique things to do but there are, not surprisingly, activities that overlap as well. If you book through these links, we may earn some commission at no extra cost to you. Here's a hand-selected collection of some of the best things to do in Lapland.
Again, this is a tradition borne out of necessity rather than a kooky tourist trick. That said, there are many ways to try it as a visitor and some are definitely better than others!
Be warned that sitting on the sleigh can be cold with a capital C, whereas the role of the driver allows you to bend and stretch and generally stay a little warmer.
Lapland has several incarnations of ice hotels: places to sleep made of compact snow and sometimes ice. I've visited a few and my favourite, by far, is the original.
The Ice Hotel in Kiruna, Sweden is a masterpiece in glacial sculpture. Built and then dissolved by the sun each year, it’s a feat of snowy engineering and a mesmerising one at that. Rooms vary in their level of sophistication. Some are straightforward. Others, gothic horror, James Bond, abstract art and iced floral wildernesses.
One year, a full size front carriage from a London Underground tube train stood in in a state of frozen bedroomness.
Artists travel from around the world each year to carve sculptures for these rooms and by day the hotel is a museum, the quality of work is so high.
And as a side note, just how cool (ahem!) would it be to announce that as your job title at customs? Ice builder extraordinaire.
So that’s the ice part, but what about the hotel?
Well, common sense does prevail and you only actually spent one night sleeping on the ice. Most guests stay for 3 nights (but you can stay for more) and spend the other two in the modern, sweet timbered, heated hotel building a short walk away.
And when the temperature is minus 40, you need any walk to be short.
Here, you can also take up ice sculpting classes yourself (as well as transfer to a normal, cosy room nearby once the thrill of the ice has come and gone!)
The Ice Hotel kits you out with all the outer garments you need: body suit, giant boots, gloves the size of a floppy leather tennis racquet. But when it comes to sleeepy time, only you’re advised to keep it light.
A training session advises you to sleep in thermals – and to remember to go to the toilet before you go to bed.
Couples are advised to snuggle together beneath one sleeping bag atop the reindeer skin.
Singletons are encouraged to find a couple.
Everyone seems to make a beeline for the icy vodka bar, with one or two shots (no more) to ease the transition into slumber. (And it’s spirits only, I’m afraid. Beer and wine freeze in a bar like this.)
The final tip is to thoroughly wear yourself out in the day through a combination of husky sledding, snowmobiling, cross country snow shoeing and even a spot of chatting to Rudolph by spending time with reindeer.
Morning arrives with a member of staff bringing you a glass of hot lingonberry (oh, yes, there are no doors here) and I was so warm and cosy I dozed off and had to be woken again.
By day, the place is an art museum and a coach load of tourists wanted to come in.
So, I grabbed on all the outerwear and headed to my first ice-sculpting class.
Well, everyone has to start somewhere.
While possibly ranking as one of the least traditional things you could do in Lapland, it also rates as the most fun. And I'm not one for motorbikes or go-karting in particular.
Snow mobiles are the modern day car in Lapland and after surprisingly little training, they're agile through the forests and across the open frozen plains.
Well, look for them at least!
The very words the Arctic Circle and the promise of the Northern Lights are enough to send shivers down the spine. The reality of trying to find them can morph shivers into frostbite with a frozen camera to boot.
The Northern Lights
The Northern Lights have always fascinated me. I’ve heard the explanations: how oxygen and nitrogen release photons after colliding high in the atmosphere and how that energy looks green or red, according to the time frame or distance, or something else that only ever seemed semi-plausible.
Despite studying science, there are a few things that always seem magical to me (or perhaps I just enjoy thinking of them that way.)
The Northern Lights are one such phenomenon. A greenish glow, occasionally scarlet, expressed as a paintbrush sweep across the sky, as fickle and fast as a dream.
Their other name, Aurora Borealis, comes from Aurora, the Roman Goddess of Dawn and the Greek word for north wind, Borealis.
Yet in the middle of the night, braced against the glacial breeze, I wasn’t paying much attention to the science, nor thinking about names.
I was simply enjoying the view: mother nature’s pyrotechnics at their very best.
Yes, if ice is a step too far, you can always try glamping in the luminous Aurora Domes next to Lake Torassiepi in Finland's Arctic Circle.
These beautiful canvas domes turn snuggly inside through fur carpets, reindeer skins and a log burner pre-lit by thoughtful staff. Look across the frozen lake and hope to see the Northern Lights... the slightly warmer way.
The Harriniva complex in the Arctic Circle has several different components spread over five sites.
I spent most of my time in Torassieppi, where sweet-timbered chalets with heart-shaped cutouts and private saunas live between snow-covered pine tree pathways and one Santa Claus’ grotto come December.
And just between the chalets and the thick and frozen lake live the captivating Aurora Domes.
The Aurora Domes, these majestic glamping igloos, promise to show the splendours of the night sky from the warmth and wisdom of a cosy, comfy bed.
Hot from my reindeer safari (who am I kidding? It was, of course, cold) I crunched my way through the snow toward my bed for the night: the firelit Aurora Dome.
Inside lay all the romance and snuggliness a girl could want.
A roaring fire. A sinkily comfortable bed. Even chilled bubbly, which felt welcome once the warmth had returned to my bones.
And best of all, a clear canvas opened out to the Arctic sky.
I tucked myself beneath the antlers, all woollen socks and childlike wonder, and waited for colour to blaze across the lake of ice.
I stoked the fire.
I thrilled in the textured fabric beneath my feet. After days in thermal socks and thick boots, scrunching toes between wool and wood and brushed white fur seemed like a sensuous treat.
And I stared at the starlit sky.
The anticipated blaze of colour never appeared: but I suppose the possibility of that happening is part of the allure. Where is the space for the mystery if the gods please you every single time?
Tucked snug, amid white winter fur, it hardly seemed to matter. Watching a monochrome landscape etch delicate shadows into twisted beauty, with starlight falling like glitter from the sky and flickers of fire-bright orange at the edge of my sight, my little heart could rest content.
All the beauty of the frozen landscape. Absolutely none of the pain.
It’s fair to say that I slept well that night.
In the words of the quote in my dome:
Feel the heartbeat of our wilderness and learn the secret of patience.
What I loved
The concept. Cosy and snug yet within an icy wilderness.
The open fire.
The soft furnishings – many shades of white and gorgeous textures beneath toes.
What to know
You need to head back into the snow to reach the toilet. But don’t be daunted. Finns plunge naked into snow and water at this temperature as part of the established sauna ritual. And there is a sauna nearby if you do get too cold.
Unfortunately, my transfer to the airport was moved earlier so I had to leave before sunrise so couldn’t review the dome in daylight.
Only one night is advised within the Aurora Dome – spend other nights in the timber Torassiepi cabins nearby.
In all likelihood, you’ll need to fly in to Helsinki and then on to Lapland from there. Make time to spend a few days in Helsinki – it’s a fascinating place.
Up in the arctic circle, reindeer aren't just found at Christmas.
They live here. Work here. Pay taxes here, or near enough given their contribution to local society.
Reindeer have hollow-fibred hair, their own down jacket, which allows them to survive temperatures of minus 50 degrees, a feat even in a country that considers minus 27 to be a breeze.
They can grow antlers at a rate of 2 cm a day and can run at a speed of 80 kilometres per hour.
But, of course, in conditions like this, they're not just here to look pretty.
Through their meat, their fur, their speed and their everything, reindeer have helped men to survive beyond the arctic line.
The Sami people live across Lapland, with a wealth of nomadic tradition and culture.
Close to the reindeer farm in Kiruna, a farmhouse dusts off the centuries to reveal thick-threaded Sami clothing in striking scarlet and black. Appropriately heavy and rusting machinery hangs on wooden walls, the sort that allowed farmers to thrive.
Sleds await, along with shovels and trowels, but a giant nutcracker stood out for its story as much as its shape.
A castration device, E.U. approved, no less. It replaces the more traditional method, whereby herders used their teeth, and not all that long ago at that.
The mind boggles. The men, I'm guessing, wince.
With a knife and hook at the ready, learn the survival techniques people have used in Lapland for years.
Disclosure: I travelled to Finland as a keynote speaker for the MATKA Nordic Bloggers Experience. I travelled on to Lapland as a guest of Visit Finland and Harriniva. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like: reindeer, snow, castration, the lot. Otherwise…well, what’s the point?!
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