Rovaniemi, located on the Arctic Circle, is very much the beating heart of Lapland. As the capital city of the region it forms a central hub from which the rest of Lapland and the larger Barents region can be easily accessed.
With the third busiest airport in Finland, the second-to-last Northern stop on the train network, and its location on the E8 highway, Rovaniemi is easy to reach from other destinations, and is a frequent stopping-off point for people travelling further North.
Positioned as it is at the point where the Lapland Fells begins to rise from the surrounding plains, there are plenty of outdoor activities to explore and relish in Rovaniemi — so many in fact that a year-through comprehensive guide would be impossible in the space of a blog post. What follows, therefore, is a “best of” list of activities and places to visit if you happen to find yourself in town for a short visit or the long haul.
The landscape of Rovaniemi is divided by the Kemijoki and Ounasjoki rivers, which have their confulence in the city center, and flow between the low hills of Ounasvaara, Santavaara, and Vennivaara. It only takes a ten minute drive from the city center to get away from it all and find a peaceful spot in nature. There are vast tracts of forest, wetlands, and waterways that each offer their own delights.
Arctic Circle Hiking Area
Of the managed hiking areas, the Arctic Circle Hiking Area is probably the most popular, and offers some of the prettiest walks in the area. There are several routes of varying length, beginning at three parking places.
In the north, at Vaattunkiköngäs, the Vaattunkivaara trail (4km) crosses the rapids and climbs via a spring to an observation tower at the top of the hill. It's a very nice walk — I like to take the loop in a clockwise direction.
In the south, the Vikaköngäs rapids offer a short wheelchair accessible nature trail to a couple of laavus (lean-to shelters), and a beautiful walk through some forested islets criss-crossed by streams. I often lead my Rovaniemi nature photography tours in this area as it is particularly photogenic, and one of the few places in the area accessible on foot in winter.
Vikaköngas is also the starting point for the 7km Mire Trail, and the 10km route north to Vaattunkiköngäs.
The Mire Trail is an interesting hike on duckboards around the wetlands, passing over a few isolated tree-covered islands. In summer, dragonflies will accompany you, darting down and resting on the boards.
The longer Vikäköngäs-Vaattunkiköngäs Konkaiden Polku trail (11km) is also very nice, but because it is a “there-and-back” trail, it’s best enjoyed as a walk from either starting point to the laavu at the half way point in Vaattunkilämpi.
By the E8 you'll find another parking place for the Pikkurompa trail (4km), and the Konkäänvaara trail (3.16km). The Pikkirompa is a nice walk across a mire, and through forest to a Kota (indoor fireplace). The Könkäänvaara trail takes you up to the top of a rocky hill with some nice views. You could, if you wished, start the Vikäköngäs-Vaattunkiköngäs Konkaiden Polku trail from here, adding an additional 2.5km or so to its 11km.
A short (2.1km), but charming little walk very near the center of town, perfect for taking the kids along. The Koivusaari trail starts about three quarters of the way along the E8 bridge (by foot, where it crosses under the motorway), or from Ounaspaviljonki (by car). It leads around a small island, and if you're lucky you'll see the sheep that graze there. You'll find a couple of interesting historical markers, and a floating viewing tower from which you can spot birds.
If Rovaniemi is the heart of Lapland, then Ounasvaara is the heart of Rovaniemi. From the town center, you can see Ounasvaara — a hill — rising across the river. It's the location of the ski slopes and XC trails in winter, and in summer you'll find a maze of short and long distance trails to satisfy your outdoor desires, whether they be walking, trail running, mountain biking, or orienteering. It's very popular with locals, and trails start on the other side of the Jätkänkyntilä bridge, and on Hiihtomajantie just up the hill from Santasport. There are plenty of maps on the trails, but the best introduction is the 5km Nature Trail which starts from the parking place halfway up Hiihtomajantie (or also from the trailhead across the Jätkänkyntilä bridge. The trail converts to a Winter Trail when the snow comes, so you can keep on exploring even if you don't have skis or snowshoes (plus you can laugh at the tourists who have been conned into walking it on snowshoes). It's a relatively easy walk, that passes a couple of laavus and the Belvedere viewing tower, from which you can get good views over the city. You can also climb to the roof of the Sky Hotel at the top of Ounasvaara, but it costs a couple of euros (ask at reception for the code).
The Virikkolampi Hiikng Trail is a nice 6km hiking trail at Poyliovaara, which is unfortunately not maintained by the city and currently falling into disrepair. However it's worth exploring. The forest here is some of the oldest in the area, and quite spooky in places. The laavu and lake at Virikkolampi is quite nice, but sadly not serviced anymore, and people have taken to chopping pieces off it for firewood. A great shame.
About 70km south east of Rovaniemi, you'll find the Auttiköngäs waterfall and nature trail. It's a fairly short walk (3.5km) but takes in the rapids, a scenic gorge, virgin forest, and a gentle climb to a viewing tower atop Könkäänvaara. There is also a café in the parking lot.
Kaihuanvaara offers a less-frequented, more wilderness-like experience, and couple of nice trails. The Kaihuanvaara Hiking Trail is a 10km hike over varying terrain, taking in the high point of the area. The Wilderness Trail is an 8km variation on that route that reveals some rare sections of virgin pine forest.
Slightly further afield, the Pyhä-Luosto National Park will give you a true taste of Lapland. The exceptional 13km Noitatunturi trail takes you up and over Noitatunturi (a sacred Sámi site) with spectacular views over Lapland, then back down via craggy rocks towards the deep gorge of Isokuru. If you get a chance it's really worth doing. I hear there is also a quite good photography tour that follows the same route.
A little further to the east is the Korouoma Nature Reserve, the location of some spectacular cliffs (very popular year round with climbers) and a beautiful valley. More info can be found on the National Parks website.
Paddling areas (SUP)
The Ounasjoki river is (I'm led to believe) Europe's longest free-flowing river. While many rivers feature hydro-electric dams, the Ounasjoki is free to paddle. You can find a lot more info at http://www.ounasjoki.fi/
Many local safari companies offer rafting on the Raudanjoki, with the rapids at Vikäköngas and Vaattunkiköngäs being the main attractions.
The Rovaniemi Mountain Club is your best source of info on climbing destinations near Rovaniemi. They have their own climbing wall in their center, and can point you in the right direction for bouldering and climbing spots. Korouoma is one of the most popular places in lapland for climbing, and it's located about 90km from Rovaniemi. Closer to home, I've seen people scaling the cliffs at Hautapäänkuru, just to the south of Rovaniemi
Rovaniemi makes a nice central hub for some beautiful road loops, mostly circling around the rivers via the few bridges the cross them. There are three "classic" loops:
All of which can be combined to create longer rides. None of the hills around Rovaniemi are particularly difficult, and indeed compared to many countries can barely even be considered hills.
The Valajaskoski route can also be extended down to Petäjäskoski for a very nice 80km loop with some lovely scenery and views. The western side is cycle path all the way, and the eastern side is not so busy (but the cars drive very fast, so beware).
Mountain biking is very popular in Rovaniemi, and there are many, many routes to enjoy. Again, Ounasvaara provides a lot of fun, with marked trails aplenty. The classic loop from Pöyliövaara to Ounasvaara is a good place to start. Another popular route is the Mäntyvaara-Pohtimoämpi hiking trail (which is more often used by bikes these days).
A good place to start with more adventurous routes Fiillaroi on Facebook.
RolloMTB run a mountain bike park in Ounasvaara. I've not tried it out, but it looks fun!.
Beaches for swimming
There are several nice beaches in Rovaniemi for those crazy enough to brave the chilly waters of the Kemijoki. The most popular is undoubtedly the beach right opposite the city center. Popular with families and kids on the rare days warm enough to go without a shirt, it's a safe and large beach, with a murky-looking pool that younger children enjoy paddling (don't be alarmed if you hear locals calling it the "Ebola Pool"). It you're really crazy, a winter swimming organisation makes an avanto (hole in the ice) here, too.
Other nice beaches include:
There are around 100 laavus (lean-tos) scattered over the Rovaniemi area, plus a handful of kota (tipis), day huts and wilderness huts, all of which are free to use, and many of which have free supplies of wood. It's a great Finnish tradition to take the family out into the wilds and have some really bad sausages. I prefer to break with tradition, at least in respect of sausage quality, but you can find a detailed list of all the laavus and more on this website provided by Rovaniemi City. If you click on the laavu name you'll get a map, and "lisätiedot" will even show you a photo. That's some seriously obsessive work. Some of my favourite laavu's are Karhukumpu, Virikkolampi, Kuninkaanlaavu, and Vaattunkilampi.
Parks / Picnic areas
Ounasvaara is once again a popular place to head to for a metsäretki (forest walk), but you'll find most picnicking is carried out at the laavus mentioned above. For a nice view over Rovaniemi and up the Ounasjoki, try Kuninkaanlaavu (but beware - the road is treacherous).
For kids, the Angry Birds activity park at Konttisenpuisto has become something of an international attraction. It's also right outside my house, so wave hello if you see me (I'm there almost every day with my daughter, or so it seems).
Did you know Santa Claus lives here? Apparently he has his own village, complete with post office, discount outlet stores, 24-hour carols, and souvenir shops selling some of the most amazingly tacky rubbish money can buy, presumably all made by exploited elves. Isn't Capitalism wonderful?
Rovaniemi is full of tourist/safari companies offering snowmobile safaris, husky rides, dodgy northern lights tours, and other expensive offerings. I prefer to head out and find a little peace in the world on my own terms, but if industrial tourism in large groups is your cup of tea, go for it. You'll find plenty of things to do via visitrovaniemi.fi. If you are looking to photograph the Northern Lights, I can recommend this guy.
About 50km south of Rovaniemi, you'll find Ranua Zoo. It's a nice day out, and they have some cool animals in large enclosures — polar bears, bears, wolves, reindeer, moose, and a lot of owls.
Last but not least, there is a summer toboggan run in Ounasvaara. Now you can have an approximation of winter all year round! Yay!
Winter is of course a main attraction here in Lapland. The hiking trails become XC ski trails (and further trails are added along the rivers), Ounasvaara turns into a ski resort, and the town is very busy. Hiking is limited to the winter trail in Ounasvaara, but put on a pair of XC skis and a lot more options open up.
To be honest, winter is such a big thing it's impossible to cover it here at the same time as all the summer activities. To do it justice, I'll add a separate "Guide to Outdoor Activities in Winter" at some point...
In Case of Rain or Extreme Cold
There are plenty of places to activate your muscles on days when the weather is less obliging.
A sport center-cum-spa, Santasport (you'll notice many places draw on Santa for inspiration) offers accommodation, a swimming pool, kids indoor activity area, an adventure (climbing) park, bowling alley, gym, and bike/ski rentals. They also organise special group activities.
The swimming hall offers—surprise—a pool, gym, and massage.
Rovaniemi Mountain Club
The Vuoristoklubi, in the absence of any actual mountains nearby, has a climbing wall with public access hours.
Ounasvaaranpirtit runs Rovaniemi's only public sauna. It costs €5 per person.
There is also a Sauna Boat, for a more unusual experience.
If all that outdoorsiness is too much for you, you can give your body a rest and expand your mind at some of these great museums and cultural centers:
Arktikum - the museum of the Arctic houses a great permanent exhibition on all things North, the Polarium theater (so you can see the northern lights even if it's cloudy), the provincial museum of Lapland, and a cafe. Allow about 4 hours for it.
Pilke - the science center Pilke is in interesting visit, providing all sorts of interactive education about Lapland's primary industry – forestry – and a lot more. It's great for kids of all ages who like big machines.
Korundi - those of an artistic bent can get all cultured up at Korundi, an art gallery and concert hall. There are usually some very interesting exhibitions (and if you're really lucky you might find one of my video installations on display), and the chamber orchestra is very good.
Outdoor shopping & Services
Remarkably, in a town with so many outdoor activities going on, and being so centrally located for Lapland in general, there are no truly great outdoor stores in town. The motley crew of generic chains (TopSport, Intersport, Stadium, and Sportia) offer clothing of varying quality from large and unknown brands, and very little in the way of useful equipment.
Even more astonishing is that perhaps the best outdoor shop is the local big chain supermarket, Prisma, which has a large collection of footwear, hiking gear, bikes and other outdoor equipment and supplies.
Erätukku is nearby Prisma, but its collection of clothing is rather poor (mostly overpriced knock off brands), and the camping gear selection even poorer. It's not bad for hunting supplies though.
The nearest truly great outdoor store is the Partioaitta/Naturkompaniet Outlet Store in Haparanda, Sweden, and also the Haglöfs Outlet nearby. Both offer some great bargains on old stock as well as new gear. Neither are particularly local at 120km away, but if you happen to be passing through (or visiting IKEA), they are both worth a visit.
Back in Rovaniemi, for bikes, and bike repairs, the Mountain Bike Center is very good.
For fishing, Ollin Erä ja Kalastus is a good local shop. They also have a small selection of camping gear.
Services / Outfitting
Santasport has some rental items, mostly bikes and skis.
The Ounasvaara Ski Stadium has ski rentals for XC and downhill. They also used to rent mountain bikes, but I'm not certain that they still do.
You can rent snowmobiles from any of the safari companies in town, if that's your sort of thing (you might guess I'm not very "pro" snowmobiles :) ) They will also offer you all kinds of other activities from rafting, to cruises, to aurora tours. Watch out for the aurora tours though — many companies will take you even in cloudy weather or when there is little or no chance of seeing them. If you want to capture great photos of the northern lights, I do know one reputable company...
Lastly, you can also rent packrafts from a very cool company called Backpacking North.
Sleeping indoors (& outdoors)
Rovaniemi is packed full of hotels, so you won't have any problem finding accommodation. My recommendations are City Hotel, Santa Claus Hotel, Arctic Light (if you're plush), and Rovaniemi Chalets (for a cosier experience). For cheaper options, check out Hotelli Aakenus, Guest House Borealis, or Hostel Rudolf.
If you're camping, you can do no better than Ounaskokski camp site on the other side of the river, right opposite town. Great views, good services, and a nice cafe to watch the sun go down.
If you're looking for a somewhere to camp more out of the way, Finland's "Everyman's Rights" allow you to camp wherever you choose as long as you are not disturbing anyone, so use your discretion and you're good to go. I like to head out to Mellalampi if I want to get away for a night — it's a nice location by a lake, and there are a couple of good spots where people have made fires. Parking is not so obvious, and it's a short but worthwhile hike along hard to find trails. Alternatively, the Vaattunkilampu laavu is a nice overnight destination, and sleeping in a laavu is a nice experience (you might want to take some kind of mosquito net for summer though ;).
Food & Cafés
There has been a steady increase in nice cafés in Rovaniemi in the last few years. Here are a few to seek out and enjoy:
Café 21 - great waffles and falafels. Beer rating 2/5
Kauppayhtiö - probably the best burgers in town, and experimental pizzas. Beer rating 2.3/5
Aita Deli - new place offering locally sourced brunches etc. Beer rating: tbc
Roka Street Food - new street food joint. Beer rating: 2.8/5
Coffee House - the barista won an award, the food didn't. Good laptop workplace. Beer rating: 0.5/5
Nili - the place to go (and pay) for posh Lapland food and drink. Beer rating: 1/5
Sky Hotel - one of the top ten restaurants in Finland. Beer rating: unknown.
Oliver's Corner - about the only pub in town where the beer rating is above mediocre at 3/5
Want to spend a couple of days in the wild around Rovaniemi? Your best bet is to leave town! Controversial, I know, but Urho Kekkonen National Park is only a three hour drive away. Phya-Luosto only 80 minutes. In either of those parks you can discover true Lapland on only a short hike.
Closer to home, as I mentioned above, a nice destination for microadventurial exploration is Vennivaara/Mellalampi. Take the Mäntyvaara-Pohtimolampi trail from Rovaniemi to get there, and then start exploring. Mellalampi lake is easy to find, but there are loads of little trails to explore on foot or MTB. Hardly anyone goes there, so you're almost guaranteed peace and quiet.
Getting around town
Some of the hotels or safari companies in town will rent or loan you a bike. Other than that, Santasport is your best bet.
While there is a bus service in Rovaniemi, it is fairly limited, and many people get around by bike. Most local buses leave from Ruokasenkatu, while long-distance routes depart from the bus station. It's fine if you want to go to Santa Claus Village, the University, or different city districts, but like it or not, transport in Lapland is much easier by car. There are various rental companies in Rovaniemi: Avis, Hertz, Budget etc. The Airport also has desks for car rentals.
Etiainen is a new resource that lists most of the hiking trails, laavu's, huts, and viewing towers around Rovaniemi. It's a great place to start to get more detailed beta on routes (although, typically, most of the useful info is only in Finnish).
Probably the best known online map of Finland, Retkikartta will show most of the official trails in hiking areas and national parks, but omits some of the more locally organised routes. Unfortunately it's hard to link to specific areas, so you'll just have to zoom in and find them for yourself.
Rovaniemi Map Service
Another resource for Rovaniemi's trails, routes, laavu's and other services is Rovaniemi City's comprehensive map service. It's even available in English (although for some reason hiking trails are listed as "Airing Routes" - go figure), and you can link to it, but again some of the less popular trails are sadly missing (but Etiainen.fi is your friend).
RolloMTB caters for the mountain bike routes around Rovaniemi, and makes the bold claim the Rovaniemi is the best city in Finland for mountain biking. On the site you'll find info and routes, but, as they say here an awful lot, "Unfortunately it's only in Finnish."
Rovaniemi Hikers Association
An active bunch of walkers often organising group trips.
Official pages of Rovaniemi City. lots of useful information if you can find it.
Newly renamed website covering all national parts, wilderness areas, hiking areas, and other recreational spaces in Finland.
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