Spread across a series of islands, Finland’s capital Helsinki is a fascinating mish-mash of Baltic, Russian and Scandinavian influences.
Home to wide tree-lined boulevards, grand neo-classical buildings, and an onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral, it’s also known for its groundbreaking modern architecture and striking Finnish design.
Its attractive harbourfront, laid-back atmosphere and many museums and saunas certainly merit a few days’ exploration. For more on Helsinki’s highlights, read our ultimate guide to One day in Helsinki.
But, if you want to want to see rural Finland – the land of lakes, forests, rivers and snowy wide-open spaces – we suggest taking a trip up north to Rovaniemi.
Where is Rovaniemi?
Rovaniemi lies on the edge of the Arctic Circle, some 830km north of Helsinki. Home to the Santa Claus Village, the town is in Finnish Lapland and a great place to base yourself for winter activities.
There are plenty of places to stay in Rovaniemi, including the central boutique-style Arctic Light Hotel close to the river with family rooms and a sauna.
If you’re self-catering, we recommend the well-equipped Arctic Aurora studios, with a balcony and close to both the bus and train stations.
Those visiting with kids may want to stay at the Santa Claus Village, 8km out of town, for the full-on festive experience, including a free trip to see Father Christmas.
Its cottages are well-equipped – they even come with their own saunas – and there’s a full range of activities available including reindeer safaris, husky rides, snowmobile trips and ice-fishing.
So if a trip to Rovaniemi appeals, there are four main ways to get to there from Helsinki: by plane, by train, by bus or by car.
The quickest way to get between Helsinki and Rovaniemi is by plane, though of course you have to factor in the time it takes to get to and from the airports and through security.
Finnair has 4–5 flights a day from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, while Norwegian also flies the route 2–3 times a week (daily in December). Fares on both airlines start at around £50 each way, and the flight time is one hour, 20 minutes.
Helsinki airport is about 20km north of Helsinki city centre, a 30-minute train ride. Read our guide for more info on getting to and from Helsinki airport.
Rovaniemi Airport is about 10 kilometres north of Rovaniemi centre, a 15-minute bus trip.
The fastest train journey from Helsinki to Rovaniemi takes 8 hours and involves a change of trains in Oulu.
There are two direct trains, both overnight. One leaves Helsinki around 7.30pm and one leaves at about 11pm: both arrive 11–12 hours later. Fares start from around €23 each way, but you’ll need to book well in advance to get this rate.
The basic fare includes a seat, but for extra comfort you can book a cabin on the overnight train. They start from €46 for a two-person cabin, or €66 for an ensuite cabin with shower and toilet.
You can also order breakfast, which will be delivered to your cabin or seat from €10 for a Scandinavian breakfast of porridge, berries, juice and coffee.
Designed by renowned architect Eliel Saarinen, the art nouveau Helsinki Central Station is a landmark in itself. Finland’s busiest station, it’s on Kaivokatu 1 in the centre of the city.
Tickets can be bought at the station, but for the best rates you need to reserve online as far in advance as possible. Bear in mind that at busy times, overnight trains and cabins get booked up fast.
Rovaniemi is a small town and its railway station is fairly central, within 15–20 minutes’ walk of most of the town’s sights and amenities.
Onnibus runs two daily buses from Helsinki’s Kamppi station to Rovaniemi, one leaving Helsinki at 8.20am and one overnight bus that leaves Helsinki at 9.20pm.
Both buses take about 11 hours, 30 minutes. Fares start from around €26 each way for the overnight journey: the day journey usually costs a few euros more.
The comfortable buses are mostly double-deckers and have wi-fi, air-con, charging sockets and toilets, and you will be allocated a seat when you buy your ticket.
The best prices can be found by buying tickets online as far ahead as possible: tickets go on sale about ten weeks in advance. You can buy tickets from the driver (with a credit/debit only; no cash), but only if there are free spaces on the bus.
Whether you opt for the day or night bus depends on personal choice. Taking the day bus has the advantage that you get to see the scenery: the night bus is usually slightly cheaper and saves you the price of a night’s accommodation.
Driving non-stop from Helsinki to Rovaniemi takes around nine hours and 30 minutes – traffic and weather conditions depending!
The quickest route is straight up the E75, which runs from Helsinki right up to Finland’s northern border with Norway.
Of course, you’ll want to stop en route. About three hours out of Helsinki, the town of Jyväskylä is the capital of central Finland’s lakeland district and makes a good first stop.
Acclaimed Finnish architect Alvar Aalto lived here and the district boasts the most buildings in the world designed by him: design fans can visit the town’s Alvar Aalto Museum.
The town of Oulu, another four hours’ or so drive, is a good second stop. On the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia, it’s the capital of northern Finland and a vibrant, creative university city.
Stroll down Oulu’s lively Market Square, visit the beautiful cathedral or check out the university botanical gardens.
From Oulu it’s another two hours, 30 minutes’ drive up to Rovaniemi.
For information and good deals on renting a car in Finland, click here.
Getting from Helsinki to Rovaniemi: which way is best?
Clearly, flying is the quickest way, though it’s the most expensive and worst for the environment.
The train and the bus cost around the same, provided you book both well in advance.
Bearing in mind that the train is more comfortable (and can be much quicker if you change trains in Oulu), we recommend taking the train.
Taking the night train can also save you the price of a night’s accommodation, though you’ll miss out on the views.
Driving can be fun in summer if you have plenty of time and stop off en route. You can camp for free on the way, stop off for a swim in the many lakes that you pass, see herds of moose wandering by, and there are long hours of daylight.
Read our trip report, A budget road trip through Scandinavia for inspiration.
Bear in mind, though, that you’ll have to factor in the price of a rental car and petrol too.
Other essential information
Finland is the only Scandinavian country to have the euro – useful if you’re travelling from another eurozone country.
The time of year you’re visiting will have an impact on which travel option you choose. A summer road trip is fun, but if you’re driving in winter, there are a few things to consider.
Although it’s a main road all the way to Rovaniemi, which will be cleared by snowplough, speed limits are lower in winter, and you’ll need to rent a car with winter tyres.
Bear in mind too, that the days get shorter the further north you travel in winter, so you may want to take two days over the journey to avoid too much driving in the dark.
For more details on Finnish weather conditions, read our guide to the weather in Finland.