Levi or Rovaniemi?
When I excitedly scanned my DNA results, my eyes stopped when I saw Finland. I had daydreamed about this winter wonderland. Visions of snowy adventures, Santa Claus, and cozy fireplaces flooded my mind. Could it be that a small piece of my DNA is from this place that I’ve dreamed about?
That was it, I knew I had to go.
As I planned my Finland itinerary, I had the hardest time deciding what the best place to visit in Lapland in winter would be for me. Sure, I’d make a stop in Helsinki, but my heart was drawing me to the clean crisp air of the Arctic.
Here’s what I learned.
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Disclaimer: I have chosen to use the term “Lapland” as it is more widely recognized, however it’s important to note that some native Sami people find this term offensive and prefer the name “Sapmi”.
Why visit Lapland?
For years, I thought that Lapland referred to the northernmost region of Finland located in and above the Arctic Circle. That’s only half true, though. Lapland technically spans across the northern areas of Sweden, Norway, Finland and even a small part of Russia.
The people indigenous to this area are called Sami and have lived in the region for several thousand years. The traditional Sami lifestyle is centered around reindeer herding and a deep connection to nature in the harsh conditions of the region. Visiting “Lapland”, or “Sapmi”, without learning about the Sami people would be a huge mistake!
Aside from the culture, why would anyone venture into these harsh winter conditions for fun? There are so many reasons!
For starters, from September to March this region is an excellent place to view and photograph the Northern Lights. At times you can even see them as early in the year as August, offering the unique experience to see them reflected in the many lakes in this region.
Pro Tip: Many sources say that Finnish Lapland is a better place to view the Northern Lights compared to Iceland due to Iceland’s cloudy conditions.
The area is also an incredible place for all sorts of winter adventures including dogsledding, snowmobiling, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, ice fishing, winter hiking and reindeer rides! Sounds amazing, right?
Where to visit in Lapland?
Levi and Rovaniemi are both excellent winter destinations for any outdoor lover. But, the two cities offer quite different experiences.
Levi is located in the Arctic Circle, about 2-½ hours north of Rovaniemi by car. Rovaniemi is located on the line which delineates the Arctic Circle.
While there are trains and buses to travel from Helsinki to either Levi or Rovaniemi, flights tend to be quite affordable and save half a day or more in travel time.
Both Rovaniemi and Levi have Northern Lights tours, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, ice fishing, hiking, reindeer tours, and those drool-worthy glass igloo hotels. But, let’s talk about the differences between Levi and Rovaniemi.
Levi is a quaint ski town surrounded by mountains.
Close your eyes and imagine an adorable ski town clustered at the base of a mountain, surrounded by frozen lakes and fells. This is Levi.
Whether or not you enjoy downhill skiing (there are 43 slopes if you do!), there is SO much to do in Levi in winter. There are more than 700 lakes in the surrounding area, 143 miles (230 km) of cross-country ski trails, and 550 miles (886 km) of snowmobile trails.
Expect snow from late October or early November through mid-May. However, if you want to enjoy sports that involve getting out onto the frozen lakes, it’s best to wait and visit in early Spring (starting in late February).
The town itself is compact, just a 10 minute walk from end to end with loads of places to stay, groceries, restaurants, shops and bars for all budgets. Also, the ski school and several gear rental shops are located right in the center of the town.
One unique thing about the Levi area is that it’s known to have the purest air in the inhabited world (according to the World Health Organization). Enjoy that truly fresh Arctic air!
Levi is the best place to visit in Lapland for:
- Downhill skiing
- Small town feel
- Easy access to trails and activities
- No rental car needed
Getting to Levi
Kittila Airport is about 20 minutes away by car or shuttle. The shuttle from Kittila Airport to Levi costs 14,00 Euro (return ticket) and departs regularly throughout the day with several convenient dropoff and pickup locations in the city centre. There’s no need to pre-purchase tickets as they can be easily purchased onboard the shuttle.
Flights primarily fly through Helsinki. There are very few direct flights from Europe. Finnair operates several flights per day at an affordable price.
Rovaniemi is the capital of Lapland and the official hometown of Santa Claus.
If you’re looking for a lively, more established city, Rovaniemi is the best place to visit in Lapland in winter! With nearly ten times the population of Levi, Rovaniemi offers more extensive shopping and dining options.
Although the city is more expansive than Levi, the majority of tour companies, shops and restaurants are located in the easily walkable city centre. However, to really enjoy the outdoors you need to get out of the city. So, I recommend you either rent a car so you can explore on your own or book tours that either depart from the city centre or pick you up where you’re staying.
Similar to Levi, Rovaniemi is surrounded by water but instead of lakes, it is located right where the rivers Ounasjoki and Kemijoki meet. Also, about 90 minutes away you can visit the Korouoma Canyon with frozen waterfalls (which are also one of the top ice climbing destinations in the world!). Other unique winter adventures in Rovaniemi are ice floating in a nearby lake and ice breaker boat tours in the Bothnian Sea.
What Rovaniemi is really known for is being the official hometown of Santa Claus. Visitors can meet Santa himself, explore his village and even send a letter to Santa from the Post Office.
Rovaniemi is the best place to visit in Lapland for:
- Bigger city feel
- All things Santa Claus and Christmas
- Less expensive accommodation options (compared to Levi)
Getting to Rovaniemi
Rovaniemi Airport is about 15 minutes away by car, or bus. The Airportbus offers convenient service to the bus station in the city centre as well as specific addresses in the city centre. It’s recommended to book a seat in advance when traveling from the city centre to the airport. However, when traveling from the airport to the city centre there’s no need to prebook a seat. The Airportbus departs conveniently after each Finnair and Norwegian Air flight’s arrival.
Direct flights to Rovaniemi are available from some European cities, including frequent daily flights from Helsinki. Again, I recommend Finnair for affordable prices and frequent daily flights.
Why not visit both? Rovaniemi to Levi Finland Drive
As I researched these two cities, I simply couldn’t decide between the two so I went to both! Because accommodation was cheaper (but equally as nice!) in Rovaniemi, I used the money I saved to rent a car and drove the two and a half hours from Levi to Rovaniemi.
The rental car was equipped with great winter tires that wouldn’t slip and slide on the icy roads. Plus, this was an awesome way to see some of the countryside!
Pro Tip: Purchase a Solis (previously Skyroam) portable wifi device to help you navigate while driving between Levi and Rovaniemi. Use code THISBIGWILDWORLD for 10% off!
In Levi, rental cars are available at Kittila Airport which is about 15 minutes from the city centre. Alternatively, Europcar offers rental cars for drop off and pick up at Lapland Hotel Sirkantahti which is right in the city centre. This saves you the cost of the shuttle back and forth to the airport unless you decide to rent a car for the entire time you’re in Levi (which is really not necessary).
In Rovaniemi, rental cars are available at the airport and throughout the city centre.
So which is the best place to visit in Lapland in winter for you?
Rovaniemi and Levi are such different cities, choosing the right one really depends on what you’re looking for. If you have the time and don’t mind driving, visit both! Out of my five days in Lapland, I spent three and half in Levi and one and a half in Rovaniemi. That was the perfect split for me!
Plan your visit with my destination guides for both Rovaniemi and Levi (coming soon)!
Read my DNA Travel Journal: Finland Edition with reflections on what I learned on this first leg of my journey.