Have you ever wondered what would happen if you mail a letter simply addressed ‘Santa Claus, North Pole’? I am sure many kids do, looking at the thousands of letters and postcards, that are collected at Santa’s Post Office in Rovaniemi, Finland. These letters generally end up here, at a large collection of buildings, right on the Arctic Circle. The central building, next to the post office, is the official home of Santa Claus, who can be visited year-round. It is one of the top attractions of this attractive modern city, which literally is the gateway to the Arctic.
Located on the fork of two main rivers, Rovaniemi became a settlement in early times. Over time it became a central hub in the Lapland wood trade, collecting and processing timber from the enourmous boreal forest that covers most of the area. When gold was found it also became a centre for mining and mineral traders. A remote and rough community, growing into the administrative capital of Finnish Lapland. The city suffered badly in the second World War, basically destroying the entire city. After the war the city was rebuilt into the modern regional capital that it is today.
Apart from its status as administrative capital and university city, the main activity in Rovaniemi is tourism. In fact, the entire region of Lapland is undergoing a great tourism boom, with new resorts popping up all over the area and increasing numbers of visitors flying into the cold and dark weather every year. One of the main attractions: the Northern Lights. The Rovaniemi area is one of the best accessible places in the world to watch this Solar phenomenon. Combined with fun Arctic activities like dogsledding, snowmobile tours and Finnish saunas, this has created an entire new local economy, based on winter tourism. And this is especially visible in Rovaniemi, which could be considered the capital of Arctic tourism.
I visited Rovaniemi several times over the past years, always in winter. Let me take you on a virtual trip around town (pictures taken March 2013):
The Jätkänkynttilä Bridge, or Lumberjack Candle Bridge, spanning the Kemijoki River, is one of the most prominent landmarks in the city. It is also the first landmark you’ll see when coming into the city from the airport. It is a homage to the forestry industry of the region, with its eternal ‘lumberjack’ lights in top of the two large support columns.
After the largely wooden city was destroyed in World War II, it was rebuilt in a modern Scandinavian style. This square marks the new city center, with the Visit Rovaniemi headquarters and Hotel Santa Claus both at this location. Please note the temperature. Winters are very cold in this area!
Most of the shopping is indoors. You will find a lot of ‘Official … of Santa Claus’ spots in and around Rovaniemi, starting with the airport. Also the Revontuli shopping mall carries the ‘Santa Claus Land’ markings.
On a more serious note, here is the world’s northernmost McDonald’s (at least, that is what they advertise, not sure what McDonald’s in Murmansk, Russia will say about it). It would be a waste to eat here though, as Rovaniemi has undoubtedly some of the best Nordic restaurants in Lapland.
You will see many traditional Sami people, but also your snowmobile or husky safari tourguides walking around with traditional knives. They use these for their outdoor work, from cleaning fish to splitting firewood. The Marttiini knive factory (and museum shop) is located between city center and the Arktikum. Makes for a great (and truly local!) souvenir. I have one for my outdoor adventures…
One of the highlights of any visit to Rovaniemi is the Arktikum. This multi-purpose building is best known as the home of the Arktikum Museum, with permanent and temporary exhibitions on life in the Arctic. The building itself is extraordinary as well, offering warm and comfortable views over the frozen river and Arctic landscape behind it. In the middle of winter you can even watch the Aurora Borealis from inside.
The striking central corridor is great for pictures. Both the exhibition areas and the conference center auditoriums are on this hall.
If you missed the real thing outside, get into the Arktikum’s Aurora simulator to have a Northern Lights experience. Interesting to hear the ancient beliefs about this awesome natural light show too.
Right next to Arktikum is another exhibit. The Pilke Science Centre tells the story of the forest and its people, animals and plants. Although mostly aimed at young visitors, it is cool to sit in the cabin of a large forest harvester, or to go on a virtual moose hunt.
The famous Santa Claus Village, a few kilometers north of the city is the highlight for many visitors to the region. A bit of a tourist trap perhaps, but I guess it makes for a nice quick stop if you are on your way to the ‘real’ attractions in the Arctic wilderness.
Visiting Santa Claus costs nothing. You get to see his house and the toy factory and meet his helpers. Believe it or not: Santa knows everything about you! His knowledge will make you want to spend your money on your special memory photograph 😉 And yes, that’s me on the left hand side of the picture. Tick in the box!
The best attraction of the Santa Claus Village is definitely the post office. Post a card from Santa Claus to your family back home or just read some of the very emotional letters to Santa Claus from kids all over the world.
If you come in the right season, when it is dark most of the time, away from city light pollution, chances are very good that you will see the mysterious Northern Lights. Somethimes faint (like in this picture), sometimes really bright and straight over your head. This is something that should be on everybody’s bucket list.
Practical information: Rovaniemi can most easily be reached by air (most flights via Helsinki). The airport is dubbed the ‘Official Airport of Santa Claus’. There is also a train connection from Helsinki and most major roads to the North of Finland lead to Rovaniemi. Rovaniemi has a few large and several smaller hotels. In addition Rovaniemi is a perfect starting point for trips further North, for example to the Pyhä-Luosto National Park (150 km, see my blog about it here), to Saariselkä (250 km) and the Ivalo/Inari region (350 km, see my blog about it here)
Check out the useful website of Visit Rovaniemi to learn about accommodation and attractions in the area. Also have a look at one of Finland’s largest inbound tour operators: Lapland Safaris. They organize great local tours in most Lapland destinations, including Rovaniemi, and have their headquarters on the banks of Kemijoki River in Rovaniemi.