Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, updated with new information.
In northern Finland, tucked beneath the snow-covered trees, you’ll find reindeer-led sleighs, elves, kid-size snowmobiles, glass domes made for viewing the northern lights and … Santa’s cottage.
From the moment the playful (and sometimes naughty) elves greet you in Ivalo, Finland, to when they lead you in Christmas songs on buses as you make your way to the Lapland region to meet Santa, this trip embraces all things Christmas in a way that even Buddy the Elf would appreciate.
I would know, as my family and I went all in on the magic and booked a package to see Santa in northern Finland last year. The journey to find Santa not only ticked off a once-in-a-lifetime experience my kids will cherish forever, but it also helped bring some of the holiday magic back that had been missing throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
If you’re hoping to embark on this incredible adventure to the Lapland region of Finland to come face-to-face with Santa, here are five things you need to know.
It’s breathtakingly beautiful
This part of the world may be remote, harsh and unforgiving, but it is also truly magnificent in a way that takes your (frozen) breath away.
During the winter holidays, it never gets truly bright, but the midday twilight shining on a blanket of white snow is something straight out of a storybook you have to see for yourself.
Whether you personally go in search of Santa or just want to experience a place that looks so magical you’ll find it hard to believe it’s real, you’ll love exploring this part of the Arctic.
We found it every bit as mesmerizing as we’d hoped. From reindeer sleigh rides to dog sledding, we saw and did things that took us very outside our comfort norms … in a good way. It was like we were living in a fairy tale flanked with fur and elves.
You can visit on your own or through a packaged tour
It’s possible to head to one of the cities or villages that Santa frequents in the Lapland region of Finland without being on an organized tour, but if you want to hit the easy button on planning, a tour may be the simplest solution.
We went with Santa’s Lapland, which offers three- and four-day trips from the United Kingdom to Finland.
While these packages are quite pricey (prepare yourself for sticker shock), know that the trip does include charter flights from the U.K., lodging and ground transfers in Finland, all meals (except a few lunches), the use of thermal snow gear and a number of winter activities — such as dog sled rides, reindeer sleigh rides and snowmobiling. Most importantly, you’ll also have the chance to hunt for Santa’s hidden house.
Related: 8 of the best destinations to visit in December
You can book a couple of add-on activities such as northern lights-viewing excursions and snowshoeing to enhance your experience, but given how busy your trip will be with all the inclusions, you may want to refrain from packing your visit with many extra adventures. We added several activities to our trip, and while they were enjoyable, if I had to do it again, I would only tack on a few hours of a skiing session since the slopes are close by.
In total, our three-night “Santa’s Aurora” journey for two adults and two kids required paying a little less than 6,000 pounds (or nearly $7,000) before we added on extra activities, which cost between 25 pounds ($28) and 114 pounds ($128) per person. To save some money, consider choosing one of the more affordable two-day packages, which start around 1,100 pounds ($1,234) per adult, with reduced rates available for children.
If shelling out thousands of dollars for a package doesn’t sound like the right option for you, know that planning your own adventure is also an option. This is what I’d do to save money the next time around.
Rather than book a package, I’d likely connect through Helsinki and target Rovaniemi, Finland, as our final destination. Like last time, I would use ANA miles to fly business class to Europe and back for 88,000 miles per ticket. You can transfer miles to ANA from American Express’ Membership Rewards program, making this option possible for those with cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express.
Should you decide to take this route, you can then hop aboard the overnight Santa Claus Express train to complete the 12-hour journey from Helsinki to Rovaniemi. While there are more budget-friendly standard seats available, I’d suggest paying a little more for a cabin, as they have beds, with some also offering private bathrooms.
Once in Rovaniemi, you can pursue whichever winter activities are most appealing to you. Several operators are available for dog sledding excursions, northern lights outings and more. They can fill up fast, though, so be sure to schedule your preferred activities as far in advance as possible.
Related: Northern lights viewing season is back: Here are the best places to see them
The experience is unlike anything else
If you do decide to purchase a package to see Santa in Finland, be ready to truly go all in for a few days. From the moment you arrive to the day you depart, you’ll be aware of what time of year it is and who you’re in town to see.
When we boarded the included Jet2holidays plane for our charter flight to Finland from the U.K., it was clear this was far from an ordinary flight. Lightning on the plane was a deep red hue, and Christmas carols were sung at 36,000 feet.
When we landed in Finland and headed to baggage claim, we spotted naughty elves laughing and spinning around on baggage carts as they sneakily sent our bags back on the belt and out of our sight.
In the ensuing days, they would throw snowballs, mess with people’s hats and cause a lot of trouble — but it was always in good fun. So long as you lean into this Christmas chaos, you’ll fully enjoy the experience.
The hotel included in our package was Star Arctic Hotel, a higher-end option you can also book on your own.
Located a bit away from town but right on the slopes of Saariselkä, Europe’s northernmost ski resort, Star Arctic Hotel is an ideal place for outdoorsy types.
There are a few different lodging options, two of which we tried out during our stay.
For the first night of our visit, we slept in a spectacular Aurora Glass Cabin that had several windows for viewing the northern lights. Luck was not on our side, as the northern lights did not make an appearance for us, but we still enjoyed waking up to an unobstructed view of the snowy landscape.
After our brief stint in a cabin, we moved to a suite with a sauna for the remainder of our stay. It was a little tight for the four of us, but it did the trick. The private sauna inside our suite was a terrific place to unwind after an active day in the cold.
Related: 8 incredible igloo hotels to visit this winter
Dog sledding and snowmobiling
When I first heard that our package included dog sledding, I assumed we’d be passengers riding along tucked under the blankets with an experienced guide at the helm. Wow, was I wrong.
Instead of being chauffeured around like you would in upscale winter destinations like Aspen or Vail, Colorado, we were in the driver’s seat … literally. After a brief lesson, I took the reins and steered myself and my daughter down the snowy trails. It was equal parts terrifying and exhilarating
Other activities here are also incredibly immersive, making them that much more fun (and wilder) to partake in.
For our snowmobiling adventure, we did not simply head out on full-size snowmobiles with the kids in a separate cart being pulled along. We had the opportunity to give my 6-year-old a chance to get in on the action and drive a miniature snowmobile attached to a pole. It was a bucket list experience I’m certain my daughter will remember for the rest of her life.
Because we booked a Santa’s Lapland package, all our meals were included with the exception of some lunches. Each was served buffet-style.
Overall, the food was fine, but it was not the highlight of our trip. There were chicken nuggets and french fries available for kids at most meals, but expect the bulk of the options to be more traditional Finnish dishes. Hopefully you like salmon, as it’s a regular fixture on the buffet.
If you have picky eaters in your crew, double-check the menus in advance, pack snacks and maybe make a grocery store run to ensure they have everything they need to stay content at mealtime.
Related: The 15 best Christmas markets in Europe
The shared experience
Booking a packaged tour means that you’re going to be around other families for several days. So, pack a little patience and understanding, as you may come across a strong personality or two in your group.
For the most part, this wasn’t a huge deal for us, as we were all just thrilled to be somewhere so special.
Regardless of what language our companions spoke or where they came from, it was clear that everyone understood how unique of an opportunity a trip like this was. They were just as eager to savor as many seconds of the experience as we were.
Related: From Branson, Missouri, to Newport Beach, California, here’s our guide to 13 of the best holiday light shows in the US
You’ll meet the man of the season
Traveling to Finland’s Lapland region will not only bring you up close to Santa’s house. You’ll also get a chance to see Santa for yourself.
At the end of a reindeer-led sleigh ride through the snow on our last full day, we came upon some elves at an adorable red hut hidden in the trees.
I’m not sure if the elves were really thrilled that we happened upon such a special spot in the magical woods, but they readily welcomed us in all the same.
After missing seeing Santa in person in 2020 and traveling thousands of miles to try and find him in 2021, it was quite the experience to be welcomed into his cozy cottage.
He was as kind as you’d expect. Somehow, he had the letters the kids sent to him weeks earlier, a personalized touch that added an extra bit of magic to an already magical experience.
Related: Why (and how) I rescheduled my father-daughter trip to see Santa at the ‘North Pole’
It’s really, really cold in the Arctic
While Santa’s cottage is warm and cozy, the outdoors is a different story. Despite the abundance of snow shown in photos, it’s not until you step foot in northern Finland that you realize just how chilly it is.
Temperatures hovered around 0 degrees Fahrenheit during much of our late-November visit. In fact, it was so cold that just walking two minutes across the parking lot to the reception area’s restaurant was about all we could do without getting in full thermal gear.
While you may worry about all the gear required to stay warm, know that some essentials will be provided once you arrive — if you book an organized tour.
Be sure to pack good base layers and comfortable clothes to layer under the clunky thermal suits you’ll receive from your tour guide. You’ll also want to bring glove liners, hats, thick wool socks and neck warmers.
Even with the provided gear plus the layers brought from home, it’s still really cold at times (especially when the wind gets going) — but don’t let it stop you from having fun. Once bundled up, the temperatures were doable for periods of time — even for my 6-year-old.
Still, know that your hair and eyelashes will feel frozen (and may look that way in photos), as anything exposed for any length of time will become seriously chilled in a hurry.
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We’ve skied in Canada, visited Alaska and even explored Norway, but nothing quite compares to the experience of meeting Santa in his snowy home in the woods.
Every family trip is special and memorable in its own way, but after the couple of years we’ve had and the things we’ve all missed out on, this first big trip post-pandemic was truly unforgettable. Visiting the Lapland region of Finland was so different and unique that it is forever etched in our collective story banks.
You don’t have to go all the way to the Arctic to find holiday magic, but if you do decide to make the trip, whether on your own or through a package tour, you’ll likely walk away with many memories to last a lifetime.