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River in Vikaköngäs hiking area, Lapland. River in Vikaköngäs hiking area, Lapland.

The best things to do on your trip to Lapland

We went to Finnish Lapland recently and had the best time. Here's everything we got up to, from meeting Santa Claus to hunting the Northern Lights.

Eat well in Rovaniemi

Trout Citrus at GUSTAV Kitchen & Bar in Rovaniemi.

Where else to start our Lappish adventure than in Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. Yes it's 'officially' the home of Santa Claus, but we'll talk about that later.

There's a lot more to Rovaniemi than just festive cheer – it's got plenty of that though, don't worry. There's the Arktikum Science Centre and Museum, which tells the story and science behind life in the Arctic Circle, from Lappish culture to how climate change is impacting the Arctic landscape. Ranua Zoo is worth the visit too, home to Hedwig's snowy owl friends, an actual real-life polar bear and a family of giant moose. The plural should totally be meese, but whatever.

But if you just came for the food, you'd leave very full and very happy. Our first meal was at the swanky GUSTAV Kitchen & Bar, which served up traditional Lappish meals with a modern twist and in a contemporary setting. We obviously got the Knut bread for the table, which came with the most delicious toasted butter, then went for citrus-cured trout to start and a juicy steak with Lappish potatoes for the main. Make sure to book a table in advance, as it gets very busy very quickly. And it's no surprise the locals love it – the food was incredible and the service was even better.

There was no need to worry that we had peaked too early on the food front either, as there were plenty of other great places to eat. Gallis Restaurant in the Glass Resort at Santa Claus Village was a particular highlight, serving up traditional Lappish delicacies in a plush yet cosy setting.

Lapland Travel Guide

Go on an adventure north of the Arctic Circle where reindeer roam wild and the Northern Lights illuminate the sky…

Hassle-free guide

Enjoy an authentic Finnish sauna experience

Sauna with lakeside views

You can't go to Lapland without heading to the sauna at least once. Whether you choose to do so authentically is up to you.

The Finnish people say that all your toxins and bad energy seep away in the sauna, and that's definitely the feeling you get when you've been in one long enough. For those who have never been in one, the heat is about the only thing you can focus on. After a few ladles of water over the hot coals, the layer of water from the shower is quickly replaced with a layer of flattering sweat. It's more relaxing than it sounds, honestly. Just think of all that bad energy you're releasing.

But what makes the sauna an authentically Finnish experience? We found that out quite quickly, as we were joined in the sauna by a very naked local. Brits are famously awkward and we were no exception in our prudish swimming trunks, but our new friend made us feel at ease with their friendliness and sheer confidence. Everyone we met in Finland made us feel that way in fairness. And the nakedness did seem quite freeing, so might be one to brave next time – maybe not with work colleagues, though…

We can however understand if you'd prefer everyone in the sauna to keep their clothes on. Thankfully there are options outside of the authentic public saunas – we hired a private one for a couple of hours, which even came with an outdoor hot tub! You might be thinking it was too cold for an outdoor hot tub – and at -10°C you might be right – but we found the heat from the sauna kept us nice and toasty on our short but icy commute there.

Meet Father Christmas at Santa Claus Village

Central Square at Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Lapland.

It'd be rude to visit Lapland without paying the big man himself a visit. And Santa Claus Village is one of the most magical places you can visit with (or without) the family, especially when it's draped in snow.

There's so much to do in Rovaniemi's top attraction. The Arctic Circle border runs right through the centre of the village, and after jumping through it you can receive your certificate to mark the feat. You can meet Santa's reindeer too, who'll happily take you on a sleigh ride through the surrounding forest, as will the cute huskies at the Husky Park for an exhilarating experience.

Your friends and family will want to know all about your visit, and there are plenty of ways you can include them in your trip. There's a live cam in the central square so you can wave hello to them in real time, and you'll find lots of cute postcards at Santa Claus' Post Office to send them right away or just in time for Christmas.

But let's be honest, the number one reason you're here is to meet Santa Claus. We did, and can confirm that he's everything like the jolly legend you hope he is. The queues inside Santa's Office can be a bit long, but there's plenty to keep you entertained along the way – including little peepholes showing Santa's elves hard at work sorting presents and looking after baby reindeer.

A happy elf will be waiting for you at the front of the queue, who'll then introduce you to Santa. He's a busy man but has all the time in the world to chat with you and have your picture taken with him. At the end you can take home a digital or printed photo, as well as a video of your chat. Top tip – hand a present to an elf at reception and they'll pass it on to Santa to give to someone special.

North Pole travel guide

You might not be able to get to the actual North Pole on your standard package holiday but our guide may be the next best thing.

Merry Christmas!

Drive north to Ivalo and stay in an igloo hotel

Person in a Santa hat in a glass igloo looking out at the snow in Aurora Village | Ivalo, Lapland

Remember our naked sauna friend? Well he got us very excited about the prospect of travelling further north into 'proper Lapland' as he called it, so up into the Arctic Circle we went.

Three and a half hours north of Rovaniemi, the drive to Ivalo was long but we wished it was longer. The frozen lakes, wild reindeer you occasionally had to stop for, cute huts and snow-capped trees that lined the roads were Christmas-card worthy, and there was loads to see along the way.

Our first stop was Sodankylä, home to possibly the oldest wooden church in Finland. Built in 1689, Sodankylä Old Church has gone through various states of disrepair over the years – a local told us that most of the buildings in the area were burned down by the Nazis during WWII, but the church was miraculously spared. Visit in winter like we did and it looks beautiful set against snowy surroundings, but to see the inside you'll have to visit when it's warmer.

Also en route is Saariselkä, one of Finland's top ski resorts. The ski lifts weren't open yet when we visited, which meant we had the place basically to ourselves. Luckily there was still a thick layer of snow for us to trudge through and amazing views to admire over the mountainous, forested wilderness.

We could tell we were well into the Arctic Circle when we arrived in Ivalo. The snow was deep and the thermometer was reading -21°C – it's clear to see what our sauna friend was talking about when he called it 'proper Lapland'. If you want a guaranteed winter wonderland, it's a great bet.

We stayed in Aurora Village, where you'll find everything from sledging and reindeer feeding to a cosy restaurant to warm up in. The glass-roofed igloos there are as romantic as they sound, perfect for spotting the Northern Lights from the comfort of your bed. Well it would have been perfect had they shown up, anyway. Apparently the Aurora Borealis is more likely to make an appearance further north in Lapland, but no matter. We had plenty of other opportunities to see those famous green flashes.

Tips for a winter holiday

If you're going on a winter holiday then we've got some excellent tips to help you make the most of your winter wonderland adventure.

Find out more...

See the Northern Lights – or try to, anyway

Aurora Village cabin in Ivalo at night | Lapland

Apart from seeing Santa, the other main reason tourists flock to Lapland every year is for the chance to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. We can confirm it's easier said than done – between September and April they are usually visible every other day in Lapland, but cloud coverage and light pollution can get in the way. Thankfully the hunt is all part of the fun.

Our best chance was an organised Northern Lights hunting trip with an expert guide, who took us to some of the top locations near Rovaniemi to catch them at their ethereal best. Our first stop was a frozen lake seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Standing in the middle of a frozen lake beneath the pitch-black sky really drives home the gravity of where you are – it creates the eerie yet wonderful feeling that you are the only person in the world.

The sky was beautifully lit up by crystal-clear constellations – Ursa Major was looking fabulous – but unfortunately not by the Aurora Borealis. So we moved on to location two, a lakeside campfire in the Vikaköngäs hiking area. Wholesome doesn't quite cover it – we sat around the fire eating gingerbread and hot berry juice and it was very cute. Surrounded by thick snow and in our warmest and cosiest of winter clothes, it's exactly the sort of thing that comes to mind when dreaming up the ideal winter holiday, Northern Lights or not. And you guessed right, still no Northern Lights.

While the hunting trip didn't provide us with those all-important snaps of the Northern Lights – and neither did the excellent viewing spot behind the Arktikum Museum – it was still an unforgettable experience. And we did manage to see them in the end. Well some of us did, anyway – flashes of green were visible on the plane journey back, but only from the right side of the plane, so only half the team managed to see them.

As one of the unlucky two who didn't catch a glimpse, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. But to give comfort to those who are anxious about their chances of seeing the Northern Lights, I don't know whether to book another trip there or go straight into house hunting! It's impossible not to fall in love with Lapland and the people who live there, and if you don't see the Northern Lights it absolutely won't ruin your trip. And it's all the more reason to head back – you'll definitely want to.