Finnish Lapland is the official home of Santa Claus, but Finland itself has a big, wonderful and exciting life above and beyond the snowy Christmas season.
From Helsinki to Tampere, the country’s cities are deeply cultured, creative, forward thinking and techy-to-a-fault. Northern Lights, midnight suns and vast expanses of wilderness are just a few of the more famous natural wonders to hail from this deeply mysterious and enthralling Nordic land. And friendly is the default position of the naturally good humoured and welcoming Finns. Will kids be enchanted by a holiday here that doesn’t include reindeers and elves? Without a single shadow of a doubt.
Year round direct flights to Helsinki from the UK take less than three hours.
The city of Rovaniemi is home to Santa’s Village and direct flights from the UK during winter take just over three hours.
Direct flights to Kittilä from November to February put Finland’s top ski resorts within four hours flying time of the UK.
Finland has 40 national parks. Almost every one has marked hiking and walking trails, campsites and cabins to rent.
Finland’s Archipelago National Park has more islands than any other archipelago in the world and is under three hour’s drive from Helsinki and an hour’s drive from Turku.
Urho Kekkoven National Park on the edge of the Arctic Circle is the home of Father Christmas and one of the best locations in the world to witness the Aurora Borealis.
The Midnight Sun is one of Finland’s most famous natural phenomena and the country can have almost constant daylight in June and July – longer the further north you travel.
Where to go
Stretching out into the Baltic, surrounded by over 300 islands and as famous for churches as it is for enormous green spaces, Helsinki might not be the best known Nordic capital, but it’s a strong contender for most idiosyncratic in almost every way.
In 2011, Restaurant Day in Helsinki was celebrated four times a year. Now every day is Restaurant Day, meaning anyone in the city can open a pop-up restaurant anywhere and test their culinary skill on the critical palates of their fellow countrymen. Very original and very Helsinki.
Hopping round the 330 island strong Helsinki Archipelago is a favourite weekend pastime in the almost endlessly daylit summer months.
Visit in winter and Helsinki has over 200km of snowy trails for cross country skiing and ice rinks and sledging runs all over the city.
Over one third of Helsinki is green space and Sipoonkorpi and Nuuksio National Parks are under an hour’s drive from the city centre.
Impressive Helsinki Cathedral on Senate Square would be enough for most cities but Helsinki also has Uspenski Cathedral. Built in the onion-domed Russian Byzantine style, it’s the reason the Finnish capital was often used as a stand-in for Moscow in pre-Gorbachev era US movies.
Don’t miss: World Heritage Suomenlinna sea fortress; Temppeliaukio church; Ateneum National Art Gallery; the Ice-Breaker Fleet; Helsingen Kaupingenmuseum; Linnanmäki& Sea Life.
Choose central districts like Kauppatori or Kallio for a wide range of three and four-star family hotels.
Never heard of Tampere? If you’re travelling with kids, right that wrong as soon as possible. This is the city which was bequeathed Tove Janssen’s archive, it’s home to the world’s only Moomin Museum and the undisputed capital of magical Finnish Lakeland.
Finnish Lakeland is the largest lake district in Europe. Heartland of Finnish culture and tradition, it’s a fairy tale landscape of vast forests, islands, huge stretches of water, tiny villages and historic cities.
Tampere’s known as Lake City and, whatever the weather, the locals like to be outdoors. Visit in winter for skiing, husky picnics, snowshoeing, skating and sledging. Long, long summer days are for sailing, swimming, paddle boarding, kayaking, hiking, walking and island hopping.
Don’t miss: the Moomin Museum; Rulla Children’s Cultural Centre; Särkänniemi Doghill amusement park; Tampere Spy Museum; Kodin kakkonen flea market; Rajaportti sauna (Finland’s oldest) or Rauhaniemi sauna on the lake;
Cycling the Näsijärvi Lake Trail from Tampere is a fantastic adventure and the perfect excuse to sail the old fashioned Lakeland steam boats and stay in authentic summer cabins.
Tampere has a good choice of city centre hotels ranging from three and four star to great value self-service hotels with family rooms.
For an unforgettable holiday, rent a lakeside summer cabin or cottage direct from owners or through agencies in Finnish Lakeland.
The capital of Finnish Lapland, hometown of Santa Claus, keeper of Northern Lights in winter and summer-long Midnight suns, Rovaniemi is an incredible city in its own right and a gateway to the remote and magnificent wilderness of northern Finland.
Rovaniemi sits on the Arctic Circle and has snow cover for over six months of the year.
The Northern Lights can be seen in Rovaniemi any time between mid-August and April. Top viewing spot is the summit of Ounasvaara Fell or the Arctic Garden behind the city’s Arktikum Museum.
Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi is open 365 days a year and attracts 30,000 visitors annually – particularly in November and December, naturally.
Ounasvaara family ski resort is just outside Rovaniemi and has eight slopes, five lifts and two terrain parks.
Places to stay in the city range from four and five star hotels in the centre, self-catering chalets and cabins in and around Santa Claus Village and even an Arctic Snow Hotel – fun to visit.
What to do
Moomin Museum, Tampere The world’s first Moomin Museum containing Tove Janssen’s archive bequeathed to the city by the legendary Finnish writer herself.
Lake Näsijärvi Trail, Tampere A day’s cycle from the city or a longer tour sailing on the famous Lakeland steam boats and staying in Finnish summer cottages. There are four routes to follow.
Helsinki Museum This museum couldn’t be further from a stuffy national collection, it even has its own Children’s Town and a working Time Machine – and it’s free.
Suomenlinna Fortress, Helsinki It takes a lot to be the most famous island out of an archipelago of 330, but Suomenlinna manages it thanks to the incredible World Heritage sea fortress. Plan to spend an entire day here it’s fascinating.
Linnanmäki Amusement Park, Helsinki With 43 rides, rollercoasters and adventure games, Linnanmäki is an all-out amazing amusement park in the finest tradition. The difference here, is that profits go towards supporting Finnish child welfare charities and initiatives.
Repovesi National Park Just two hours drive from the centre of Helsinki, Repovesi National Park is a landscape of lakes, mountains, forests, vast open spaces and intriguing features (look out for the Hanging Bridge). 45km marked walking trails for summer and an extensive cross-country ski route network from November to March.
Archipelago Sea Three hours’ drive from Helsinki and an hour from Turku, this national park has more islands than any other archipelago in the world and is as wildly exciting as it is mysterious and breathtakingly beautiful.
Santa Claus Village, Rovaniemi Open 365 days, Santa Claus Village outside Rovaniemi is Father Christmas’s second home (the original is a Finnish Lapland secret). With snow six months of the year, it doesn’t even have to be December for the magic to work here.
Allas Sea Pool, Helsinki Three huge, purified sea water pools and three separate saunas, crowdfunded, very cool and one of the stand-out Helsinki waterfront attractions.
Särkänniemi Amusement Park, Tampere Part waterpark, part funfair and part theme park, kids might not know the well loved Finnish Doghill characters, but the fun’s universal.
Educational value for kids
Many of Finland’s public museums and galleries are free and almost all have guided children’s tours and year-round kid’s events.
Download the app or get a paper copy of the illustrated Helsinki For Kids city map – plenty of useful info for parents too.
Hop aboard Helsinki Tram 2 – it’s the unofficial city sightseeing tram.
Spending an entire holiday or even just a few days in a traditional summer cottage or cabin in Finnish Lakeland is a fantastic experience for kids.
Several family ski resorts are within easy travelling distance of Rovaniemi and Helsinki has cross country ski lessons and fun ski clinics for kids during winter.
All 40 Finnish national parks have guided walks and hikes and most have interesting and educational visitor centres.
Finnish Lapland is the traditional home of the Sami and their myths and legends are intrinsic to Finland’s culture, read a few of their tales to kids before you visit.
Getting around with kids in Finland
Finland’s a large country with an excellent road network supported by extensive ferry services and domestic flights. Hiring a car’s the best way to explore outside towns and cities, see the fantastic national parks and explore areas like the Lakelands and Archipelago Sea. Public transport in all cities is reliable, inexpensive and easy to use but most centres are compact and fun to walk around too – unless the weather’s freezing.