Approximately a year ago, friends of mine had posted photos online from their holiday visit to an extraordinary destination. It was a “Wintry Wonderland” invoking memories of childhood revelry and joy. This piqued my interest enough to plan a visit there myself. What was this happy place?! Where was it located?! My upcoming trip would be a visit to Finland’s Lapland region to the “Santa Claus Village” in the city of Rovaniemi. A December weekend getaway would provide just the right amount of time for me to spend a day in Helsinki’s Christmas Market and then catch an early morning flight to enjoy a two day adventure in the Arctic city of Rovaniemi.
On the evening of December 13th, I headed to Boston’s Logan Airport to embark on my journey. Stephanie’s Restaurant in Terminal B (Stephanie’s) is always my “go to” restaurant at this airport. Their lentil burger with a side of greens is a decent dinnertime meal.
My connecting flight in Reykjavik, Iceland provided time for me to have breakfast at Keflavik airport. Mathus (Mathus) is a market that offers a hot and cold salad bar, as well as refrigerated cases of packaged sandwiches and salads. Some of these options were marked as “vegan” on the packaging. A veggies and avocado hummus wrap was my satisfying morning meal. One hour or so later, the time had come to board my flight to Helsinki, Finland.
Upon arrival in Helsinki, I made my way to my hotel for check-in. After dropping off my luggage, it was time to explore the Christmas Market. The “Helsinki Christmas Market”(also known as “Toumaan Market”) is the oldest event in town. Situated in the city center in Senate Square, the market focuses on regional foods and traditional crafts. The organizers responded to my email by referring me to several food vendors offering vegan options. A merry-go-round provides entertainment for kids and kids-at-heart.
Helsinki Cathedral is the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral of the Diocese of Helsinki. Built from 1830-1852, it is a glorious backdrop to the holiday market event. I climbed the steep steps to reach its facade and stood in awe of the spectacular view of the Christmas Market below. Row upon row of traditional European huts in pastel hues lined the square.
One of the vegan-friendly vendors was Gopala (Gopala), a toffee and fudge vendor. Their food hut listed a few vegan flavors indeed. I purchased the dark chocolate fudge with nuts. Wow! The flavor was superb!
For my lunch entree, I opted for the delectable eggplant pizza at the Tenho(Tenho) food hut. Tenho has a brick and mortar restaurant location in Helsinki. A flavorful “glog” (the traditional Nordic Christmas beverage made here as a non-alcoholic drink of apple juice and spices) washed down my meal.
As I strolled by each row of gift huts to my right and to my left, a variety of items met my gaze. Everything from jewelry to artistic postcards to housewares to finely crafted goods were available for purchase by excited holiday shoppers. I found a skincare products vendor offering some clearly labeled vegan soaps.
Another vendor stand displayed a selection of whimsical gnome ornaments, as is quite popular in Nordic countries.
After walking about the various aisles of gift huts at the market, I found several vegan food vendors. For my dinner entree, I opted for the savory “oyster mushroom” sourdough waffle at Restaurant Nolla (Restaurant Nolla), located in a larger hut with seating space. The restaurant also has a brick-and-mortar location in town.
Gravlox is a traditional Nordic dish consisting of salmon thinly sliced with topping and dill. Fortunately, a market vendor “Mama Nikolas” served up a tasty vegan version of this appetizer, made of thinly sliced steamed carrots topped with a vegan sour cream and some dill.
This same vendor offered vegan apple almond sweet buns. I devoured my delectable dessert.
A Finnish Orthodox priest at the Pokrova hut was serving up cups of borscht, the Eastern European sour soup made of beetroot, cabbage, and other veggies. I enjoyed my tasty portion.
After perusing the market stands for about four hours, I decided to explore the historic town sites. My stroll took me by the magnificent 19th century presidential palace and the peaceful waterfront where one can catch a ferry to Estonia or Russia.
The next morning, I awoke early for a 7:20am fight to the Arctic town of Rovaniemi. Much to my delight, the Helsinki airport included a vegan-friendly food vendor kiosk called “Freshly Made” (Freshly Made).
A avocado and sundried tomato sandwich and a strawberry smoothie made a yummy breakfast meal.
When I arrived in Rovaniemi, I headed for my airbnb. For the Christmas season, a special “Santa Express” bus takes travelers from the airport to various locations across the city to “Santa Claus Village”, located 8km away from city center.
Rovaniemi had recently received its first snow of the season. The city glimmered with pristine snow cover, as the Christmas lights strung about the downtown area welcomed travelers to the Arctic region.
During my first day in town, my agenda included visits to the holiday markets and the local museum.
The first market that I visited was the popular Rovaniemi Christmas Market at the local school. Local artisans and craftspeople proudy showcased their wares of Christmas character statues, ornaments, wooden carvings, and more. Several vendors offered the traditional Finnish wooden mug referred to as Kuksa.
“Arctic Market Days” was held at the Arktikum Museum. This was the second stop on my itinerary.
Everything from jewelry, wooden crafts, and knitwear may be found here.
Within the museum market, I purchased a tasty vegan sorbet made with the local blueberries.
I decided to explore the Arktikum Museum after enjoying the market. The museum exhibits showcase the Arctic snowy geography, the region’s indigenous Sami peoples, Eastern Orthodox Christian influence, the Aurora Borealis phenomena, and other aspects of the Lapland culture and history.
After my busy day was complete, it was time for dinner. Himo (Himo) is a vegan-friendly Asian restaurant in Rovaniemi city center. I selected the delectable veggie wok with tofu and fried rice. Prices are fair and there is plenty of seating space.
One more fanciful activity was remaining on my day’s agenda. A special Christmas season theatrical show called “Joulufantasia” invites guests to venture deep into the snowy woods of Rovaniemi then to stand still around the towering trees, while elves and lumberjacks play and perform dances to Finnish music. This has been a popular tradition for the past thirty years.
Bright and early the next morning, I headed to the elegant “Arctic Light Hotel” (Arctic Light Hotel Restaurant) for their extremely popular breakfast buffet. Guests must rsvp months in advance to be assured a spot. The buffet is known for offering several vegan options. Their many fresh juices and smoothies, raw cakes, and local berries are well renowned.
My breakfast choices included raw mini-cakes such as chocolate and berry, various breads, jams and nuts with granola and coconut milk, oatmeal with cinnamon, roasted cauliflower/broccoli/mushrooms, and fresh arctic berries. A berry smoothie and carrot ginger juice accompanied my meal. Everything was absolutely delicious.
Next on my agenda was “Santa Claus Village”, the main reason for my vacation in Finland. What an experience it was! Upon arrival, I entered through the main entrance and got the “Arctic Circle” stamp onto my passport. I also purchased a decorative certificate stating that I had crossed the Arctic Circle. The building also contained a couple of gift shops.
I exited through the back door and entered onto the “Santa Claus Village” landscape. Santa’s Main Office building was directly ahead of me, with several lit Christmas trees before its exterior.
Excitedly like a “kid at heart”, I marched through the entrance and was greeted by “elves” and “Santa’s Helpers” in the lobby adorned with Christmas presents. I headed upstairs where more of Santa’s Helpers directed me into the office where I would meet Santa himself.
The staff takes a photo of guests with Santa. The photos are available for purchase, before exiting the building.
“Santa’s Main Post Office” welcomes visitors to peruse the gift shop, examine the shelves of letters that Santa receives each year, and to purchase and mail a postcard with a local stampmark.
I took a brisk walk throughout the Santa Claus Village park. The snow-covered landscape truly was a “Winter Wonderland”.
I passed by a section of the park where visitors can go riding on snowmobiles.
Further down the path, a small snowmobile museum resided. Military, Sami, and other snowmobiles were on display.
Santa Claus Village is also home to a chocolate shop named “Santa’s Chocolate and Candy Shop”. The shop even carries vegan chocolates.
Santa Holiday Village is a hotel with cabin accommodations. However, its main lobby contains a Christmas exhibition of Christmas traditions across the world.
Within Santa Claus Village, one finds the Arctic Circle coordinates. Like other tourists, I took a photo standing at its exact location.
There was no time to grab some lunch, so I decided upon a slice of decadent raw chocolate pie at Loft Cafe (Loft Cafe).
I hopped on the bus that brought me back to Rovaniemi city center during mid-afternoon, after four hours at Santa Claus Village. A lovely Christmas Caroling event took place at Rovaniemi Church. Hundreds of locals filled the church pews. They sang Finnish Christmas Carols in unison. A choir sang a few songs as well. It was an endearing tradition that the Finnish people look forward to each year.
On the way back to the bus stop, I walked by the Angry Birds Park, dedicated to the popular video game that was created here.
After the concert, I returned to Santa Claus Village to eat dinner at the popular Snowman World Resort ice restaurant (Snowman World Ice Restaurant).
Once night struck, the village was immersed in stunning colorful light displays among the trees and buildings.
Snowman World resort builds a snow and ice restaurant each winter season after the first snowfall. The restaurant is located behind the hotel. A series of cave-like archways brings guests into the dining space. Characters are carved into the walls of snow. Ice sculptures stand proudly on the restaurant floor, while colorful lights shine within them. Diners wear coats during dinner, yet the food is served warm and remains warm in their plates.
Reservations are booked far in advance. Four dinner options are available. One of the options is plant-based and can be requested as vegan. Local vegetables and local fruits comprise the meal.
My starter was a flavorful beetroot soup.
The main entree was delicious cabbage rolls filled with tofu in a gravy-like brown sauce. Root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, and onions comprise the accompanying side dish.
For dessert, scrumptious blueberry mini-cakes with a scoop of chocolate ice cream completed my meal.
I ran to catch the last bus of the night heading back to Rovaniemi city center. A good night sleep turned into morning. I headed to the airport for my returning flight to Helsinki. Before boarding, I had time to have some oatmeal for breakfast at the Rovaniemi airport.
Prior to boarding, I noticed the sign before us stated that Rovaniemi airport is Santa’s official airport.
Upon arrival in Helsinki airport, I stopped by Pier 0 Restaurant (Pier 0 Restaurant) for lunch. I opted for the appetizing portobello and mushroom bowl.
I also had time to visit the airport’s Aleppo Market to grab a frozen package of vegetable pasties, the popular local snack food.
The airport’s duty-free shop also carries the local lingonberries, as a dried berry snack. I purchased some for nibbling on my flight.
Time had arrived to board my connecting flight to Reykjavik, Iceland. Upon arrival at Kevflavik Airport, I had to rush to the gate to get my connecting flight back home to the United States. Thank goodness that Iceland Air now offers a vegan meal option. I ordered their veggie burrito with falafel as my dinner choice. It was quite tasty.
My vacation in Finland was a wonderful experience! I really enjoyed the historic Christmas Markets of Helsinki and the merry “Santa Claus Village” in Rovaniemi! Strolling around both cities, exploring the Arctic Museum, attending the Christmas carols event and the Elves Christmas performance were also highlights of my holiday. The vegan dining in Finland was superb. I highly recommend a visit to Finland during the Christmas winter season!