Rovaniemi, Finland

Photo: Arctic Light Hotel
Photo: Arctic Light Hotel

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Snowflakes are starting to fall. White lights reflect off shiny surfaces. Holiday decorations brighten up the winter darkness. People are focused on finding the perfect gifts—and giving to those in need—instead of themselves. While children are already thinking about what they might find under the tree on Christmas morning. But you don’t have to wait until Christmas Eve to see Santa Claus. You can visit him above the Arctic Circle.

Rovaniemi is known as the official home of Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, as he is known in Finland. It’s surrounded by the Ounasvaara and Korkalovaara mountains, the long Kemijoki river, and snow-covered pine trees. Winters are long, cold, and snowy here; the sun only rises for a few hours each day right now. But tourists flock to this magical little city 800 kilometers north of Helsinki. Every winter sport imaginable is available. The aurora borealis dance across the pitch-black sky up to 200 nights a year. While Santa Claus Village, just north of the city, is home to Santa’s workshop, an elf school, a gingerbread kitchen, and the post office where letters from around the world are delivered.

The capital of Lapland, Finland’s northernmost province, wasn’t always this enchanting. The Sami people, who first settled the area during the Stone Age, lived in peace for thousands of years. They weren’t disturbed until the 1800s, when loggers and gold rushers arrived. Then, during World War II, the Germans destroyed 90 percent of Rovaniemi. A German cemetery still sits outside of the city as a memorial to the battle that ensued.

Photo: Arctic Light Hotel
Photo: Arctic Light Hotel

After visiting Santa Claus Village—everyone’s first stop, especially this time of year—cross the Jätkänkynttilä bridge (marked with an eternal flame) to find your hotel in the city. The new Arctic Light Hotel is a modern, family owned hotel in Rovaniemi’s former city hall. The lounge feels like a ski lodge with brightly colored chairs and fluffy fabrics. Bespoke rooms are categorized as Magic, Arctic, and Polar. They’re decorated with wooden floors, arctic animal wallpaper, and chandeliers. Plus stuffed polar bears, the adopted mascots, act as both the welcome committee and a reminder of how climate change will affect the Arctic.

Despite your cozy surroundings, you still have a bit of a chill. Go to the top floor of the hotel to find the sauna—every hotel in Finland seems to have one—to cleanse yourself physically and spiritually. Sip a hot drink by the fireplace in the lounge. Then sample seasonal Arctic specialities—like winter hare, reindeer fillet, and lingonberry cake—at Arctic Boulevard for dinner. The northern lights are starting to streak across the sky by the time you finish your interesting, but surprisingly delicious, meal.

The next morning, eat breakfast in the winter garden. The greenery will almost make you forget the piles of snow outside. But bundle up when you eventually go out. You need thick-soled boots, warm headgear, and lots of layers to spend the day exploring. Visit the gorgeous Arktikum, a museum and science center whose glass corridor sparkles against the snow. See real polar bears and reindeer at the Ranua Wildlife Park. Go skiing under the northern lights at the Ounasvaara Ski Resort across the river. Ride a sleigh led by huskies across freshly fallen snow. Then sip hot coffee by a crackling campfire to warm up again. Your Christmas wish may have already come true.

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