February 2016, we spent a magical week in Finnish Lapland, we came here for one reason: the Northern Lights but we were rewarded with so much more.
We arranged everything ourselves. We first booked flights with Finnair with a stop over in Helsinki. We landed in Rovaniemi in the evening so we booked a night in a hotel in the centre of town – Scandic Rovaniemi.
The next day we went to pick up our rental car and off we went on the frozen roads of Lapland. It took a little bit of getting used to but once I trusted the tyres, I became a lot more comfortable on the road and we reached Ivalo, our base in no time.
Here are my recommendations for a magical stay in Lapland.
When to go to Lapland?
We went for the Easter break and you could tell it was the end of winter. A lot of snow melted when we were there. The river near our hotel was starting to melt as well. I recommend to go earlier if you can so that you see the frozen beauty of the place. We want to go back in January or February so we can see even the trees completely frozen.
Where to stay in Lapland?
We chose to stay in Ivalo far above the Arctic circle to have the best chances of seeing the aurora borealis. Hotel Ivalo was a great base for us, but I’m not going to lie you won’t go there for the hotel. It caters for groups and us as a couple felt a little bit overwhelmed by the number of French tourists on our first night. Our bedroom was overlooking the river, which at this time of year is completely frozen.
The hotel had everything we needed: warmth, a view, free skis, snowshoes, a sauna and also arranged your typical excursions. We booked a few with them and did the rest ourselves. It helped that we had a car.
What to see in Lapland?
Apart from the Northern Lights? Everywhere we went to looked beautiful. The landscapes were incredible.
Nellim, near the Russian border
We were really happy to have a car. That allowed us to drive away from the town and any source of light.
I don’t really have any particular spot to recommend as you are not guaranteed that they will always appear at the same place. You need a few conditions to meet to be able to see this magical phenomenon. In Ivalo, you are above the arctic circle so that’s a good start. It also helps if it’s cold. You need a clear sky. And you need aurora activity of course. In Finnish Lapland they have such activity for about 200 nights a year. We were really lucky and saw them twice, on our first and last nights in Ivalo.
This is what you could see:
And if you’re wondering how to take the same photos, you need a tripod and know how to use long exposure.
What to do in Lapland?
We booked a one-hour excursion with the hotel. We were in a small group and they spent 15 minutes telling us to control the sledge. The dogs around were all so excited to go for a run that they were all barking in unison so it was hard to understand. I was the first one to have a go and it was an incredible experience. As I was the first sledge, I had the forest for myself with just the breath of the doings for background noise. Simply magic.
Our hotel lent us pairs for free so we always had them in our car. We used them a couple of times. Snowshoes basically stop you from sinking in the snow. We did a good hike near Saariselkä.
This is the second activity we booked via Hotel Ivalo and we were slightly disappointed. For starters, it is slow. Very slow so you get cold. The sledge is also very uncomfortable. After the ride, we had tea and cake in the hut of the Samii people who ran the reindeer farm. We fed our reindeer moss before learning a few facts about reindeers but we didn’t get as excited as we did with the dogs.
This is not for the feint-hearted. Finns swear by it so we thought we’d try it. We did this at the same time as we tried the sauna. We started by spending 10 minutes in a very hot and steamy sauna. We ran to our hole in the frozen pond and slowly went down. It bites! First time, I didn’t go all the way down, it was too hard. After another 10 minutes in the sauna, I managed to go all the way to my head. And the third time, I stayed and calmed my breathing. I felt so good after. It is true what they say, it does you a world of good.
Sweat in a sauna
Who doesn’t love seating in 90 degree heat? Me. I really don’t do well in the heat. But I thought that it would be a mistake to not try the sauna in Finland. We had one in our hotel and we used the one next to our ice swimming hole. We tired all the crazy things, Finnish people do like rolling in the snow after a sauna session or even go in naked!
Where to eat in Lapland?
We didn’t think we would enjoy the food but we were mistaken. We have been pleasantly surprised by every dish we tried. As you can imagine, there was a lot of reindeer involved. Here, I list the restaurants we loved.
Arctic char and reindeer on the menu at this pit stop on the way to Ivalo.
We went twice. It was that good. We went ones for lunch and then booked the next day for ice swimming and brunch.
For our second night of watching the northern lights we decided to start from Inari so we booked dinner at this restaurant overlooking the river.