Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, is a surprising city. It is usually considered the official residence of Santa Claus, who actually lives in Santa Claus Village a few miles from Rovaniemi, on the Arctic circle. But if you expect to find little houses with pointed roofs, old street lamps and old women selling handmade wool socks, you’ll be disappointed. Well, you can still find the wool socks, but at the mall. Rovaniemi has a special atmosphere. It smells of ice and pinewood, with a scent of hot blueberry juice and cinnamon cookies. The airport itself, with its shops and Christmas decorations, reminds us that this town is home to the old man with a white beard and a red hat.
MODERN ARCHITECTURE IN ROVANIEMI
But the truth is, Rovaniemi is first and foremost an example of modern architecture. While driving from the airport to the city center, you can take a first look at the geometrical buildings which are typical of Nordic architecture. The houses we see now in Rovaniemi have been built since 1946, when the city rose from its ruins after being destroyed during the war. Also, the town hall in Hallituskatu street, the theater and the library were designed by Alvar Aalto, the famous Finnish architect known as one of the masters of the Modern Movement and leader of European organic architecture.
DESIGN & AURORA
Rovaniemi lies where two great rivers meet, Kemijoki and Ounasjoki. It is surrounded by pristine landscapes that,in winter are white and immaculate. The spectacle of the frozen river at sunrise and sunset, marking the beginning and end of the few hours of light granted by the Arctic winter, is one of the best memories of Rovaniemi that I’ve taken back home. Another, of course, is that of the Northern Lights. Sometimes they’re visible even from the city, but the artificial lights hinder the view.
In Rovaniemi you won’t find the charming little streets that visitors usually fall in love with in other Scandinavian towns. Still, the city has its own particular charm, especially in the coldest months. You have to walk in the main streets, go inside shops and supermarkets, to get an idea of how local live. Unsurprisingly, the three shopping malls are the most crowded places in the cold winter days. Inside you can shop, have lunch or a cup of coffe or hot chocolate, watch a movie or just relax and stay warm.
If you’re looking for authentic Lappish craft items, then pay a visit to Lauri, Marttini and Taigakoru. And if you’re looking for the classic Finnish brands Ittala and Marimekko, go to Santa Claus village. Yes, there are design shops at Santa’s place.
Among the things to do in Rovaniemi, one of the most enjoyable is trying local food. Located in the city center, Nili is the place to go if you want to eat Finnish in a very traditional atmosphere. As you enter the restaurant, you may think you’ve stepped into one of those inns that can be found in fantasy stories. Reindeer horns hanging on the walls, fur carpets and wooden tools make the room comfortable, cozy and very picturesque. They serve tasty dishes made with local products such as reindeer, salmon and arctic berries.
ARKTIKUM AND THE FORESTRY MUSEUM
One of Rovaniemi’s main attractions is Arktikum, a big museum dedicated to the Arctic region. Visitors will learn about the history of Finnish Lapland and the latest scientific discoveries. One section is dedicated to animals and Nature, with an exciting visual experience of the Northern Lights.
If Arktikum is the perfect place to spend a winter day, during the summer there’s another museum that is worth a visit. The Forestry Museum of Lapland is located on the outskirts of Rovaniemi, near Salmijärvi lake. It consists of cabins and buildings built along the river, each one telling its story about work and life in the 19th century. This quiet place also witnesses the deep bond existing between people and landscape, based on respect and pacific coexistence.
ICE HOTEL AND HOT SAUNA
When I was told there was a hotel where you could sleep in a room made of ice, I thought it was a joke. But then I read about the Snow Hotel, and I was fascinated by the idea of a place made of ice and snow. Like in fairytales. Not far from Rovaniemi, the Arctic SnowHotel, is an ice hotel in the middle of nowhere. In winter, everything is white and brown. Brown like the wood, white like the snow. The hotel main building is made of ice. Walls, beds, tables, floors, ceilings, decorations are white and cold.
It’s like being in Disney’s Frozen, when Elsa conjures up her own private ice palace. Luckily, glass igloos have been built for those – like me – who dare not spend the night in the freezing hotel. The warm rooms with glass ceiling and tea kettle are definitely more comfortable. And after having dinner at the ice hotel, the real “must” is the hot sauna, one of the most relaxing things to do in Rovaniemi… and in the rest of Finland.
MY FAV PLACES IN ROVANIEMI FOR…
• COFFEE: To warm you up, you can go to Cafe Rovaniemi, Rovakatu 26, for lunch or tea break.
• CAKE: The best place for cake lovers is Kahvila Konditoria Antikaapo, an old style bakery and coffee shop in Rovakatu 15.
• DINNER: Go to Nili Restaurant, Valtakatu 20. You can taste the most traditional Finnish dishes in a warm (and very Lappish) atmosphere.