Cold Winters, Warm Welcomes: the Unforgettable Beauty of Finnish Lapland

by | 24 Jun 2024

When choosing where to go in Scandinavia, Finland offers stunning natural landscapes, including thousands of lakes, dense forests, steamy saunas and the awe-inspiring Northern Lights. For an unforgettable magical experience, head north to Finnish Lapland. Sometimes called ‘Europe’s last wilderness’, this vast wild and uncultivated land, famed as home to Santa Clause himself, makes for a spectacular destination.

Curious about the magical north, we spoke to Tiina Hernesiemi, this week’s Insightful destination expert to learn more. Born in Rovaniemi, the official hometown of Santa Claus, Tiina lived the first 20 years of her life 130km north in Finnish Lapland. A Finnish language and literature teacher with a degree in Applied Sciences, she’s worked as a qualified Finnish tour guide since 2009.

Tiina describes Finland as “clean, environmentally conscious and a country of smiling, happy people.” The country is renowned for its high standard of living and has consistently been ranked highly in global happiness and quality of life indexes, and she tells us why Finnish Lapland should be on your travel bucket list.  You can also find clues to this week’s Insightful travel trivia within the article. Have a read and then play the game.

For travel inspiration: Finland destination guide 

What sets Finland apart?

“In Finland there is such beautiful nature everywhere,” Tiina explains. “The people here, especially in Finnish Lapland don’t hurry. We take our time to explore daily living and appreciate the nature.”

Finland is home to approximately 5.5 million people, with roughly 178,500 living in the northernmost region, Lapland. One tenth of the country’s surface area is water, with 187,888 lakes. 73.9% —or about 22,500,000 hectares—of Finland is forested. A vast wilderness, Finnish Lapland represents 30% of the country’s total land area. That’s a lot of nature to enjoy.

“The silence which you enjoy is unmatched,” she continues. “Once here in Rovaniemi, drive 15 minutes and you are just out in the wilderness. Take one of the lovely forest hiking trails and all your worries will disappear. You can camp in the summer, in the Autumn you can pick the berries, and in Winter the landscape is just magical.”


So many lakes

“Of course, thousands of lakes are the most distinctive thing in Finland – such a number cannot be found in neighboring countries,” Tiina says of the 187,888 lakes. “We are proud of our lakes and enjoy camping beside them. Hundreds of years ago, people built houses on the shores of rivers and lakes, because in winter they were ice roads and in summer you could travel along waterways.”

Trees, trees and more trees

When you arrive in Lapland, you can’t help but notice the abundance of trees. Finland is encompassed by a significant portion of the vast taiga forest stretching from the northern shores of the Atlantic Ocean, through Scandinavia and Russia, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. This extensive forest, the largest biome globally, predominantly consists of birch, spruce and pine trees in Lapland. Additionally, there are scattered Christmas pines, aspens, and willows, adding to the diverse flora of the region.

“Nature and forests are extremely important to Finnish people,” says Tiina.  “Some even like to sleep outside even in winter. In the summer, many people move to their summer cottages and work remotely from there. Also, over 660,000 Finns are private forest owners. In fact, private ownership covers the largest amount of forest in Finland and Metsähallitus (the Finnish forest government) only owns about 26% of the forests.


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Distinctly different in the north

“One of the main things you will notice about the North and Finnish Lapland is that the forest is different,” Tiina tells us. “In southern Finland, the trees are big and wide like a spruce, but here in Lapland the trees are like candle spruces they are not wide at all, they are totally like two different species. Our pines are very old and tight, because they are growing more slowly, it is a very visible difference.”

In winter the forests are mystical and still, the world frozen beneath sparkling ice crystals and dark green emeralds. A popular way to enjoy the frozen forests is from the back of a reindeer-pulled sledge.


The Reindeer

An iconic symbol of the snowy north, reindeer are an integral part of the culture in Lapland. “The number of reindeer in Finnish Lapland roughly equals that of people,” Tiina tells us. “Although of course it is not possible to count all the reindeer as they are semi wild animals.

“There are no reindeer in the south of Finland because there is no reindeer husbandry” she says referring to the industry, culture and way of life that comes with these beautiful animals. A small industry on a national scale, for both Sámi and local communities reindeer husbandry of great importance for the economy, employment and culture.


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The Sámi

“There are about 10,000 Sami people living here in the North,” she explains. “Formerly a nomadic people, today they lived in fixed houses. However, as there are no physical borders between Finland, Sweden and Norway the reindeer often stray, so the Sami need to collect and return them. To facilitate this, they may pitch up teepees during certain months near the borders to get their reindeer back home.”

The Sámi people are the only Indigenous people in Europe and inhabit the Arctic area of Sápmi. This encompasses parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, with a significant presence in Finnish Lapland.

Traditional Sámi livelihoods and cultural practices are protected and promoted in Finland, preserving their language, customs and traditional knowledge. The Sámi Parliament of Finland, established in 1996, serves as the representative body for the Sámi people in Finland, advocating for their rights and interests.



A sensational stage for the Northern Lights

Topping many a travelers’ bucket list, Lapland is one of the best places to view the spectacular Northern Lights. “This really is the greatest lightshow on earth, something everyone should see at least once in their lifetime,” says Tiina. With Finnish Lapland being one of the most accessible places to reach in the Arctic, it’s a great location to see this ethereal phenomenon.

The northern lights are visible from the end of August until late April. As the Arctic moves towards fall, displays get more vibrant as the skies get darker. The further away from civilization you can get, the darker the night sky will be.

As the largest city in Finnish Lapland, Rovaniemi is a great spot from which to chase aurora borealis. With roads heading out of it in pretty much every direction, it makes escaping the clouds easy. Riisitunturi National Park is home to one of the most iconic winter views in Lapland, the popcorn trees. This phenomenon happens every winter, mainly in January and February, when the snow sticks to the pines and makes them look like small piles of popcorn.



A visit to Santa Claus symbolizes the spirit of the country

Finland is known as the official home of Santa Claus, with the enchanting Santa Claus Village situated in Rovaniemi. Welcoming visitors year-round to experience the spirit of Christmas, here, guests can meet Santa himself, observe his cheerful reindeer, and even cross the magical Arctic Circle line.

“In the wintertime, you can visit Santa’s village and its totally free,” she tells us. “I think it’s also nowadays quite a unique thing about Finland. There are many places you can visit, and you don’t have to pay any entrance fee.

“I feel this is symbolizes the way of living here in the North. We don’t have any borders between neighbors, we are open, welcoming and ready for your visit.”

I'm a writer, editor and interview specialist with a lifetime's love of travel. There’s nothing more inspiring to me than meeting, and writing about, the world's leading destination experts and travel industry insiders. The thing I love most about writing for Insightful is that I'm always learning something new.