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Lapland - When and where to visit
Although Lapland’s climate is subarctic, there are considerable variations between milder maritime regions and those further inland, which suffer the full brunt of the Arctic winter chill. The coastal areas of Norwegian Lapland are considerably milder and wetter than the inland plateaux of Swedish and Finnish Lapland, where, for example, January mean temperatures are commonly below –15°C, and in some areas as low as –30°C. Large parts of Lapland receive less than 500mm of precipitation per year.
The flow of the warm North Atlantic drift is the factor of greatest importance in modifying the climate of coastal stretches of Norwegian Lapland. Here there is no great excess of either cold or heat; winter temperatures fluctuate a couple of degrees either side of freezing, and in summer they reach 10–12°C. As distance from the sea increases, so, in general, winter temperatures decrease and summer temperatures increase; maritime influences seldom find their way over the mountain chain dividing Norway from Sweden and the Finnmarksvidda from Finland.
Undoubtedly the most magical time to be in Lapland is winter. Snow is thick on the ground, activities are in full swing and it’s the only time you can see the northern lights. However, this is the busiest time of year for the tourist industry and accommodation is at a premium during the winter months; it always pays to book well in advance to ensure a bed for the night.
In general, the winter season starts in late November/early December, peaks at Christmas and New Year, and runs through to around Easter, though destinations such as the Icehotel in Swedish Lapland stay open for several weeks beyond the end of the peak season. It’s worth remembering that daylight is in short supply during winter and that Christmas and New Year are the darkest time of the year – the sun barely skims the horizon at the Icehotel. Snow cover helps considerably in brightening things up by reflecting the little light there is.
For trips to see the northern lights, take a look at our list of recommended tour operators.
The northern lights over Swedish Lapland © Kevin Bourdeaux, Shutterstock
The snow usually melts in May (or mid-June in more mountainous areas). Spring in Lapland, though short-lived, is glorious: trees burst into leaf seemingly overnight, flowers emerge from their enforced period of winter hibernation, carpeting the plains in a melee of reds, yellows and blues and the birds start to return – and sing. Within a matter of weeks the short but hectic Lapland summer is in full swing with the midnight sun adding to the attractions of this time of year. In tourist terms, summer is usually counted as mid-June to mid-August, the period when everything is open and there’s a marked spring in people’s step. After the middle of August certain museums and other services start to close down. If you’re thinking of hiking or canoeing, summer is the perfect time of year to visit Lapland, though be prepared for swarms of Scandinavia’s infamous mosquitoes, which are present from the beginning of June until early August.
By August, the first frosts are generally felt somewhere in Lapland, marking the beginning of the slow return to winter. However, the frost is responsible for one of the most breathtaking spectacles of the Lapland year: the Finns call it ruska, nature’s last stand before winter, when the leaves on birch, aspen and mountain ash trees turn bright yellow or scarlet red, bathing the hillsides in an orgy of colour. It’s hard to predict the exact time this happens, though generally the sight is at its most spectacular between mid-August and mid-September. Autumn is the time to come to Lapland to enjoy nature’s fruits – this is when the region’s forests are bursting with berries, mushrooms and various herbs ripe for picking. The exact time of the first snows varies from year to year but there’s usually snow cover somewhere in Lapland by October.
In winter, Lapland’s two blockbuster attractions are Icehotel at Jukkasjärvi near Kiruna in Sweden and Santa Claus at either Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle or Kakslauttanen near Ivalo, 260km further north. The main draw in Norway is the North Cape, which is accessed via Alta. One day is enough for the attractions at Icehotel, though, if you visit Kiruna as well you should add in one or two more; it’s perfectly feasible to visit Icehotel over a weekend and be back at work on Monday morning. For trips to Santa Claus, allow two to four days depending on how many activities you want to include. Although there are plenty of one-day charter flights to Lapland during the winter months specifically aimed at visiting Santa Claus, such a flying visit will give you the briefest glimpse of Lapland (it will already be dark when you get there); remember, too, that a direct flight from Britain to Lapland is around four to five hours one-way.
Although it is possible to visit all of these destinations on one trip, it will entail driving 1,800km in icy conditions and isn’t recommended for first-time visitors. If you’re looking for a two-centre break of a week in Finnish Lapland, a good option is to combine a visit to Rovaniemi or Kakslauttanen with a husky safari out of Muonio; the distance between Rovaniemi and Muonio is 230km, Kakslauttanen to Muonio is 300km.
In summer the main place to head for is undisputedly the North Cape. Consider starting your adventure at Alta, the main airport closest to the cape, and perhaps also visiting the Sami settlements of Karasjok or Kautokeino, to make a week’s holiday. Alternatively, make the journey directly to the cape starting from either Kiruna or Rovaniemi; once again, you should allow a week for this trip. Another option for a week’s holiday would be to combine a visit to Kiruna with an excursion to the Lofoten Islands in Norway. With a couple of weeks at your disposal you could extend this journey to include the North Cape by flying into either Lulea or Kiruna in Sweden, then heading via Narvik across to the Lofoten islands en route to the cape and then return from there via Karasjok or Kautokeino to Rovaniemi in Finland. From here you could fly home or continue back to Kiruna or Luleå to complete your circuit.
Fly to Kiruna and stay at Icehotel. Rent a car or travel by train south to Lulea, crossing the Arctic Circle, to see Gammelstad. Then cross the border into Finland and take a trip on the Sampo icebreaker in Kemi. Then either head for Muonio for a few days dog-sledding or make straight for Rovaniemi to see Santa Claus and a chance to go snowmobiling.
As above, but extend your journey north from Rovaniemi or Muonio into Norwegian Lapland and include a visit to the North Cape, stopping in Karasjok and Alta on the way. Consider flying south from Honningsvag to help reduce the long journey south from the North Cape.
Fly to Lulea to see Gammelstad. Then take the train north via Kiruna to Narvik to experience the fantastic views of the Ofotbanen railway. From Narvik head out to the Lofoten and Vesteralen islands before returning back to Evenes airport for your flight south.
As above but extend your journey from Lofoten by flying to Tromso and then continuing to the North Cape. Return from the North Cape by bus south to Rovaniemi, perhaps stopping in Karasjok or Inari on the way south.
The ultimate tour of the whole of Lapland. As the two week summer tour, but continue east from the North Cape to Kirkenes, either by Hurtigruten ferry or by plane. From Kirkenes head south into Finland to visit Utsjoki and Inari. Consider canoeing on the Ivalojoki river before you head south for Rovaniemi. From Rovaniemi take the train south to Kemi and cross back into Sweden to return to Lulea. From Lulea you could also extend your travels to include Arvidsjaur and Jokkmokk, returning to Lulea for your flight home.