We’re just back from from our DIY trip to Lapland! It was absolutely the holiday of a lifetime and something that I never thought I would ever book. Until one day in September when I read this post by Corrina on CherrySue, Doin’ the Do and suddenly oops, we’d booked a holiday to Finland!
If ever we were going to do it, this year was the perfect time. The small boy is 5, his favourite film is The Polar Express, the Santa magic is strong, and Corrina’s plan made something that I had always perceived to be very expensive seem like a flippin bargain! And, in fairness, it really was.
Our itinerary went like this:
We flew from Dublin to Helsinki with Finnair on a Friday evening. It was probably the most relaxed and pleasurable flight we’ve ever had. No mad queues, pushing or shoving, and there was loads of room on the plane. The flight is three hours and Finland is two hours ahead. It was 11:30pm by the time we were in our prebooked taxi to the hotel and we were straight into our jammies when we arrived. We stayed in the Radisson Blu Royal in the centre of the city and availed of a late check out at 2pm to ease ourselves into the trip. We had breakfast at the hotel, which in hindsight was a good plan because Helsinki may be beautiful, but it’s not cheap!
The hotel was in a perfect location because we were less than a 10 minute walk to Helsinki train station, where our train to Lapland would leave from, and more or less in the thick of everything. The train station has a fantastic luggage facility in the basement where for €6 you can store large pieces of luggage in lockers. We had a large rucksack and a 10kg backpack in the locker and probably could have squeezed in another.
With luggage safely stowed we were footloose and fancy-free to enjoy the city for the rest of the day before our overnight train to Rovaniemi at 10pm.
We went ice skating on the outdoor ice rink right beside the station (approximately €30 for 2 adults and 1 child including skate hire). Even if you’re not inclined to take to the ice yourself, you’ll be more than entertained watching the seasoned toddlers impressively pirouetting around like pros!
Next we visited the Christmas Market in Senate Square with an old-school carousal as its centrepiece. Children seemed happy to queue for up to 20 minutes in -2 degrees to enjoy it. It’s all about the motivation, see. Helsinki’s Cathedral looks down on the square and you can pop in for some “silent sightseeing”, as they call it, if you like. The Christmas Market was really lovely and there was plenty of traditional food and drink to enjoy in little outdoor huts dotted around. But really as a foreign tourist you’re more soaking up the atmosphere, rather than shopping. You wouldn’t be basing a whole trip to the city around the market on its own.
The Christmas Market at Senate Square in Helsinki. Just the right amount of brrrrrrr, lights and gluhwein/hot chocolate for that proper Christmas feeling🎄 #winterinhelsinki #visithelsinki #christmasmarket #senatesquare #hellohelsinki #babyitscoldoutside #makingmemories #ipbig #pbloggers #helsinki #freezingcold
From the top of the Cathedral steps, the small boy spotted the Skywheel, a 40 metre high “observation wheel” – or really posh Ferris wheel, to you and me – so we headed down to the harbour to give it a go. Even with a pricey entrance fee of €12 per adult and €9 per child over 2, it was well worth it. The pods are made entirely of glass, except for the floor (thank God!) and are heated during the winter but air conditioned in the summer. We took in breathtaking views of the city and sea, while also taking some deep breathes to calm the nerves (that was 2 out of 3 of us, guess which 2???). If you’re feeling very flush, there’s also a Veuve Cliquot bar if you fancy some bubbly!
The poshest and scariest Ferris wheel I’ve ever been on! Scary cos I’m a scaredy cat and it’s basically just a glass box. But with piped music…and heating…and Veuve Cliquot if you fancy it (no I didn’t! 😂) @skywheelhelsinki – gorgeous views of Helsinki, such a fab experience #skywheelhelsinki #helsinki #hellohelsinki #jaysusmevertigo #visithelsinki #ferriswheel #winterinhelsinki #ipbig #pbloggers #makingmemories
The Polar Express
We headed back to the train station and boarded the 12 hour night train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi just before 10pm. The excitement at this stage was MIGHTY! We had our own 2 berth cabin, which to be honest was a must. The cabins are small but very cosy and clean, but I couldn’t see how you’d be comfortable sharing with a stranger. When you travel with VR, children under 12 are free if they share a berth with a paying adult, so that worked out really nicely for us. Each cabin has a small sink with liquid soap and paper cups provided. There’s also a towel and a small bottle of water on each bed. The beds are made up with sheets, a pillow and duvet. Each berth has a little night light, an alarm clock, a wall net for your stuff and a cubby hole for the rest of your stuff.
Toilets are just a few cabins away at any stage. They’re more or less the same as an airplane toilet but with a showerhead also, although I can’t imagine showering would be a particularly pleasant experience! There’s also a dining cart, which we never got as far as. It turns out rocking trains, coupled with a hugely stimulating holiday, makes for amazing sleeping. We skipped our free porridge on both trips to avail of extra zzzs.
We woke the following morning to this incredible view:
The sun rises near the artic circle just after 10am as we pull into Rovaniemi in Lapland. Can’t describe the awe of waking up to this view at the end of our overnight train journey from Helsinki. The real life Polar Express 😍 #rovaniemi #polarexpress #lapland #nighttrain #helsinkitorovaniemi #makingmemories #hellofinland #ipbig #pbloggers #tripofalifetime
The landscape was just breathtaking – so peaceful and quiet. The train journey was really one of the highlights of the trip. The small boy’s excitement and the sheer novelty of it for the adults made it worth it alone. It’s also exceptional value at €118 (2 adults, free child) per trip.
Winter is coming, but not soon enough. So The Dwyers took the #PolarExpress to the Artic circle to find it. #ArticExpress #WinterIsComing #YouKnowNothingJohnSnow #ArticCircle #Rovaniemi #Train #Railway #ByTrain #ByRail #AWinterWonderLand #Finland #WalkingInAWinterWonderland #NorthPole #LapLand #SantasGrotto #SantaClaus #WinterHolidays #TravelGram #Snow #Frozen #LetItSnow #WinterInFinland #BabyItsColdOutside #VisitRovaniemi #InstaTravel #VRTrains #WinterIsHere
Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland
We had originally booked a self-catering apartment through booking.com but the week before our trip, I had a big panic when I started to wonder where exactly we’d source food, arrange meeting times, and what we’d do with our luggage etc. We ended up cancelling the apartment and instead booked into a hotel in Rovaniemi city which instantly made all my stressing disappear.
When we pulled into the train station, of course there was the mandatory snow throwing before we gathered our thoughts. It was about -12 degrees at that stage but it got progressively colder over the next two days. I thought the train station was closer to the hotel than it was, so we ended up getting a taxi to town (€13) rather than walking. We left our bags in the hotel and ran for the number 8 bus (runs about once an hour, €2.80 for adults) to take us to Santa Claus Village.
Santa Claus Village
Santa Claus Village is about 8km outside of Rovaniemi. Entrance to the village is free, as is a visit to Santa, but you pay as you go for everything else. For example, you can purchase a present in advance for Santa to give to your children. You’re talking €15-€40 per child depending on what you choose. When you visit Santa they take plenty of photos and a video which you can choose to purchase after your visit. Of course we were absolutely definitely NOT going to do this, until we saw them… Individual photos are €35 in a single photo or in a pack of 5 postcards. You can also download all of them for a €40 package. The video is an extra €20 on top of that. Meeting Santa was really magical, it’s a lovely experience. An added bonus is that, because it’s the real Santa, your visit is live streamed at www.santaclauslive.com, and you have ample time to give all the relatives back home the heads up to switch on their computers to watch you.
There’s other activities in the village too including reindeer rides (we paid €50 for three of us on a 400m forest trail – it was magical and worth every penny) and Snowman World, where you can ice skate and have unlimited gos on their very cool snow slide, which looked ridiculously fast when we watched over the fence! (€20 per person for the full day). You can take a look at all the other activities here. They’re all additional costs and, depending on your budget and the kind of holiday you’re looking for, will seem either really good value or very expensive!
Come on it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you. I mean with @mrzatoichi and the small boy 😊 Reindeer sleigh ride @santaclausholidayvillage today, all snuggled up under the animal skin. Magical 😍 #santaclausvillage #rovaniemi #lapland #santashere #reindeerride #sleighride #tripofalifetime #makingmemories #bleedinbaltic #reindeer #babyitscoldoutside #ipbig #pbloggers #visitrovaniemi
There are gift shops galore – essentially the equivalent of Carrolls in Ireland. You can completely ignore them or embrace them wholeheartedly. I will tell you though, if you’re after a snow globe from Lapland, the €20 price tag in Santa Claus Village might seem overpriced, but it turns out they’re probably the cheapest around. We passed on a purchase there only to find the same one firstly in Santa Park for €30 and then later back in Helsinki for, wait for it, €65!!!!!!
Ultimately though, the snow and the weather are the stars of the show. There are free plastic sleds for mucking about it, a playground (icy AF) and plenty of knee-deep snow for making snow angels and having loads of free craic.
Wrecked after a jam-packed day and a bit stinky from the train, we headed back to the hotel. I won’t lie to you, I was never more grateful that I changed our accommodation at the last minute. We stayed in the Arctic Light Hotel in the centre of Rovaniemi. It’s a four star boutique hotel and we got a bit of a fright when it transpired our “family sized room” was actually a very generous sized suite with loads of room for us to strip off and relax. A hot shower was never so welcome to warm our bones.
Dinner included two different takes on reindeer – yes we ate Rudolph (#sorrynotsorry) – himself had rack of reindeer ribs (delicious) and I enjoyed a pulled reindeer sandwich with fries. I’m telling ya, it’ll be all the rage with the hipsters next year. Fussy McPants had chips and chicken nuggets, pretty much a dietary staple for the less adventurous on the trip.
The cold and the darkness does funny things to the body and the whole family was asleep before 9:30pm.
Day 2 started with a mammoth breakfast, followed by a few hours enjoying the snow and the scenery. The river running through the city was completely iced over, possibly unsurprisingly with temperatures hitting -25 degrees later that day. That’s it there in the photo at the top of this post.
Travelling in December meant that daylight only lasted just under 4 hours with the sun rising about 10:30am, barely leaving the horizon and then setting around 2:30pm. So 3pm in the afternoon was enjoyed in darkness.
Our last trip in Rovaniemi was to Santa Park, an underground Christmas artic world thing. Myself and himself had big regrets about this. While it was very beautiful to look at, it was essentially just a very well presented shopping and eating opportunity. Yes, there was a free Santa train (think ghost train but Santa’s workshop themed), a 15 minute acrobatic show, and something called Elf School, but it definitely wasn’t worth the €33 per adult and €27 per child entrance fee. We spent 10 minutes in an ice sculpture room and then the rest of the time in the Angry Birds “play area” (one slide, one tube yoke, a large play mat and 3 iPads with Angry Birds on it that you can download for free from the comfort of your own couch). There’s other small things too but all in all, we were done within an hour. The small boy enjoyed it though, but he didn’t pay for it! For the same price, you’d get a family ticket to Funderland with unlimited rides for four hours. Because Santa Park is underground, sure it could be anywhere. Save your money for a Northern Lights safari, ice fishing or a husky ride, I say. You’ll pay probably double that but they’re all something you’re unlikely to have the opportunity to experience again.
Speaking of Aurora Borealis, we didn’t book a trip specifically to do this and hoped to just spot them ourselves. Just as we were preparing to leave for the return trip to Helsinki, we were lucky enough to get a little show on the horizon. Unfortunately, iPhone cameras can’t cope with such natural beauties but here’s a flavour of them.
Later that night, we boarded the train for our return journey and arrived back in Helsinki the next morning. Public transport in Helsinki is a thing of beauty and after enjoying the city for the morning, we returned to the train station and took a metro for €2.80 each to the airport for our flight home.
4 days and 4 nights of a truly magical experience! Nevermind the small boy, myself and Mr Mind the Baby enjoyed it even more than we were expecting and we’d definitely go back. And maybe even skip Santa to enjoy all the gifts the outdoors of the Artic Circle can offer.
If you’ve made it this far, well done! If you’d like to read some more details on itinerary, costs and practical tips, you can read my Getting to Lapland – costs and tips post.