What's that we hear? Bells jingling and the choo choo of the Polar Express. Actually, getting to Santa's North Pole home is easier than you think — just a plane's ride to Scandanavia.
We’re talking about Santa Claus’s official hometown of Rovaniemi, Finland. The largest city center in Finnish Lapland — though that's not saying much — Rovaniemi is located right along the Arctic Circle, and you can visit Santa there any time of year... except on Christmas Eve, of course, when he'll be too busy.
What to Do:
The number one priority when planning a trip to Rovaniemi is probably to meet Santa Claus. However, there is so much more to add to your itinerary, from museums to visit, activities to partake in, to new foods to try. Here are some must-see sights and activities in Santa's hometown:
1. While you can't visit Santa’s home, which is a bit outside town up on Korvatunturi mountain, you can read about what he eats at home and you can visit him in his office in Santa Claus Village, located about 5 miles outside of Rovaniemi. There, get your picture taken with Santa, or ask Santa to send a letter to friends or family back at home.
2. Visit the Christmas House, home to a unique Christmas-themed exhibition of various Christmas traditions, decorations, and films from various cultures around the world. Your trip wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Santa’s Elves’ Toy Factory. You can also shop for unique Christmas gifts and Lappish clothing and specialties, or simply sit in the café with a cup of hot chocolate to warm up from the bitter cold weather.
3. Stop by Santa Park, a fantasy world built inside a series of underground caves that is within close walking distance from Santa Claus Village. There, you see Santa's elves hard at work. Visit Santa at his workshop to tell him what you want for Christmas, and get his autograph to take home. Or, make and decorate your own gingerbread house in the Gingerbread Kitchen. You can also attend classes at Elf School, view hand-sculpted ice sculptures, go on a sleigh ride, shop, or just sit and watch the Aurora borealis while sipping something warm inside the Hut Caf.
4. Looking for Christmas gifts to send to family members at home from Santa's Post Office? There are a number of shops and factories that you can visit while in Santa Claus Village, ranging from Marimekko products available at the Finnish Design House, to locally-made reindeer antler jewelry and reindeer skin products. (Click here to see the map.)
5. For an outdoor-adventure, go on a dog-sled ride in the winter, visit a reindeer farm, or sled down hills at Santa’s Ice Park. For those more athletically inclined, you can run in the Santa Claus Marathon, if you visit during the summer.
Where to Stay:
1. If you prefer to stay in a traditional hotel, opt for the CityHotel, a modern hotel set in the middle of Rovaniemi's prime shopping area. There is a pub and restaurant downstairs where you can kick back with a warm drink and shoot pool, or you can opt to sit down for a proper meal, choosing dishes from a variety of international and local specialties.
Rates start at €130 per night, double occupancy.
2. For a more adventuresome vacation, opt for a night in an ice hotel made of snow. Located along the shores of Lake Lehtojärvi, 25 kilometers from Rovaniemi, the SnowHotel is an igloo experience like no other, with rooms and even furniture made of ice. Outfitted with special extra-warm, fleece-lined sleeping bags to keep you warm, a night or two in these rooms will be an experience like no other. In the morning, guests are greeted with a warm beverage while breakfast is served in the hotel’s restaurant (don't worry, it's located in Lumikartano, the log cabin part of the hotel).
If you’re not up for the experience of spending a night in arctic conditions, there are also heated rooms available in Lumikartano, as well.
Opens in January 2011. Rates start at €120 per night for a room, €320 per night for a suite.
Where to Eat:
While there are a variety of restaurants and cafes to choose from when dining out, here are two places to put at the top of your list.
1. For an authentic and delicious Lappish meal using seasonal and local ingredients, dinner at the restaurant at Arktikum is a must. Whether you want to try reindeer filet, or cloudberry panna cotta, there are many options to choose from, as well as a full wine list.
2. Or dine — and dance — in an igloo at Snowland. Start your night off with bowls of hot soup (served at your table made of ice) and other Finnish specialties, and end the night with an “arctic disco.”