Heading almost to the North Pole in the middle of winter may seem like a crazy idea but a trip to Lapland with kids is a magical experience. Visit the home of Santa Claus, enjoy the outdoors in a snow covered landscape and see the Northern Lights. This post covers how to visit Lapland with kids, DIY and cheap without sacrificing comfort.
Seeing an episode on an English TV programme where Kirstie of “Kirstie and Phil” went to Lapland for the perfect Christmas made me realise that a visit to Lapland didn’t just have to be a dream. This fantasy Christmas holiday at the home of Santa Claus could be a reality.
Living in New Zealand, literally at the other end of the earth, visiting Lapland with kids still seemed like a pretty far fetched idea. When we moved to Germany, A visit to Lapland went to the top of our family travel wish-list.
I first started planning our trip to Levi in Lapland when Ella was only 1 year old. After researching how to dress kids for winter in Lapland and the realities of travelling to Lapland with a baby I realised that to make the most of our trip we would need to wait until our daughter was at least 2 years old. By this time, she would grow out of that toddler age and would be able to walk independently in the required snowsuit and boots.
When we travelled to Lapland as a family my youngest was almost three years old. She did struggle with the cold sometimes. Travelling with grandparents, we were able to tag team and arrange our day so she could spend a bit more time warming up indoors. Our five almost 6-year-old, on the other hand, had no trouble coping with the cold, was able to move and play enough that he kept warm and happy even in the sub-zero temperatures.
Planning a DIY Trip to Lapland
There are plenty of companies that do package tours to Lapland, mostly out of the United Kingdom. There is value in these trips if booked early enough; package tours are usually not our style of travel, finding a DIY trip to Lapland was the preferred option.
For a budget trip to Lapland, you don’t need to rule out package tours completely. You can save money on package tours by booking early, booking outside of peak weeks (this then rules out the Christmas period) and by comparing excursion prices offered by the tour company with the local tourism board and direct with the activity operator. To get value out of tours it is best to book your flights and accommodation together.
Why we booked a DIY trip to Lapland?
- We weren’t living near an airport that did the charter flights used by the tour operators.
- We didn’t want to join a German tour, Christmas traditions are different and living in a foreign language is exhausting enough.
- We were meeting family travelling from New Zealand.
- We wanted to be able to Self-Cater to have a cheap Lapland holiday.
- We wanted the space and facilities of an apartment or cabin so we could cook and had somewhere nice to hang out while the youngest was napping or to play cards and relax by the fire.
- We wanted flexibility so we could plan things that suited our schedule and the three generations of family travelling.
Why did we choose Levi?
- While most tourists flock to Rovaniemi, I decided that Levi was more our style.
- Rovaniemi sounded too commercialised; this is the place that holidaymakers fly in and out on day trips to Lapland. If you are short on time and your trip to Lapland is just about Santa, then Rovaniemi is worth considering.
- Levi is further north
- Has an alpine ski field,
- Plenty of good outdoor snow and ice driven activities,
- Good opportunity for seeing the Northern lights only a short walk from the town centre
- Activities like horse-drawn sleigh, husky sledging, snowmobiling, ice fishing, reindeer rides and a low key, more authentic Santa experience.
- Cheaper accommodation that Rovaniemi
Finding flights to Lapland
Finding flights to Lapland was the hardest part. Many of the flights are seasonal and charter flights which didn’t show up on my go-to flight planning websites.
Check on the local Lapland airport website to see which carriers fly in and work from there. You may need to contact the airline directly as in our case the flights were only once per week and would only come up on the airline website when the correct day was chosen.
Talk to a travel agent and don’t give up, there are flights from most major airports in Europe. If you have exhausted all options and can’t find direct flights, then your next best option is flying into Helsinki and taking a short domestic flight to reach your Lapland destination.
Finding Family Accommodation in Lapland
You will find most Lapland hotels on booking.com. Since many are reserved by tour companies availability can be limited.
For cabins, townhouses and apartments look on Airbnb or check out the local tourist board accommodation listings. The Levi tourist board had an extensive list of accommodation still available even if booking late in the year. But don’t delay, if you know your dates book your flights and accommodation as soon as you can.
Do I need to hire a car?
Usually, we are wing it travellers but going to Lapland in peak season meant we needed to book and plan ahead. Many activities we were a short walk from our apartment or like for our husky excursion a free shuttle would be provided from the Tourist information centre.
The only transport we needed to organise ourselves was our transport to and from the airport and a trip we wanted to visit the Ice Hotel just outside of Levi.
After pricing out the cost of taxis versus the cost of a rental car, using a taxi was the budget-friendly option. This also meant we didn’t need to worry about keeping the car warm or digging it out after a heavy snowfall. (check that your accommodation has an electricity point where you park your car to keep the motor from icing up).
What to wear in Lapland
To answer this needs a whole post. But in the meantime, here is a quick summary.
Focus on 3 layers:
Layer 1, the base layer: Thermal underwear, long sleeve thermals, avoid cotton and choose merino, silk or special thermal fabric which is breathable but also pulls moisture away from the skin. A thin pair of gloves and a thin pair of socks.
Layer 2, A mid layer of warmth: a fleece or woollen jersey, thick warm socks. A pair of track pants or fleece leggings.
This is also what will be seen when you come in from the outside, though you may get too hot and strip down to your base layer on the top if you are in a heated restaurant for example.
Add an extra layer here if you are going to be outside for long periods or doing activities where you won’t be moving around a lot such as photographing the Northern Lights.
Layer 3, outer shell: This layer should be windproof and waterproof. A ski jacket, fleece or down lined to provide additional warmth, thick waterproof pants or a full-length snowsuit. Waterproof gloves (mittens retain heat best). Waterproof snow boots. A thick beanie and a scarf.
You can rent ski suits, jackets and pants from the Intersport store in Levi centre.
What to expect visiting Santa in Levi?
We did our Santa excursion with Aurora Safaris. We wanted to go snowmobiling, so when we saw the option to combine seeing Santa with snowmobiling, it seemed a good option (and more budget-friendly than doing separate activities.)
It was still dark when we left the apartment, a 15-minute walk to our meeting place where we would start our excursion at 10 am. We were given full-length snowsuits and helmets. Two adults to a snowmobile and the kids were in a trailer covered with reindeer skins to keep them warm.
The drivers were given a lesson and safety briefing.
We then set out just as the sky was beginning to lighten for the day, across a frozen lake and then through the forest, making fresh tracks in the snow.
It is only light for around 6 hours a day in Lapland during the winter and with the sun never breaching the horizon the day is a perpetual sunset to sunrise. Orange and Purple light mix reflecting on the white snow.
Riding on that snowmobile with only snow, trees and glorious colours filling the sky was a magical experience.
When we arrived at Santa’s house he was standing outside waving at us. A long white beard, a rich red velvet robe with shoes and gloves made of reindeer skins.
He took groups of children on a short reindeer-drawn sleigh ride around a coral and then each family had a chance to visit with Santa on their own.
Inside the small cottage with an open fireplace, Santa had letters laying on a table. My kids immediately recognised the letters they had sent to Santa; this confirmed to them that this was “real Santa.”
He was softly spoken and very authentic.
After taking some photos, we headed to a cafeteria building for cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate before getting back on the snowmobiles and riding the 10km back to Levi.
Husky sledding in Lapland with kids
The drivers use anchors to hold the sledge in place as you climb in, the dogs are so excited to get going that as soon as it seems a possibility they are pulling with anticipation. Once we are all sitting on the sled, low to the ground one in front of each other, the driver at the back of the sled lifts the anchor and whistles to the dogs. The dogs bark as we get up to speed and then fall silent as they find their rhythm. With echoes muffled by the thick snow and trees, there is an eerie silence as we are whisked through the fell.
Snowmobiling in Lapland
We were lucky enough to experience snowmobiling as part of our Santa excursion. Snowmobiling can, of course, be done as a stand-alone excursion or part of another excursion such as viewing the Northern lights or ice fishing.
Tips for seeing the Northern Lights in Lapland
Lapland in Finland is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis. We were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights 3 times during our 1-week Lapland family vacation.
The Northern lights are produced when particles released from the sun collide with gas in the earth’s atmosphere, they don’t appear every night and can vary in strength from hour to hour.
The Northern Lights when they do appear are stronger nearer to the North Pole and can only be seen on dark, clear nights. The longer the night, the better chance you have to see them.
Light pollution from street lights and buildings make the lights more difficult to see.
If you are staying in a cabin just outside of Levi you may be able to see the lights from your accommodation, those staying in town can take the short walk past the information centre and out onto the frozen Lake Immeljarvi.
You can use a free service like the Finnish Meteorological societies Aurora Now! Email alerts or a paid app like Northern Lights Alert that will send you an alert when the lights are visible in your area. We used this app costing around 10 euro, the app alerted us two nights at around 11 pm and another at around 1am.
We took our 5 year old son out with us one night, we were lucky to have the grandparents with us to stay with our younger daughter.
Dress extra warm for light spotting, you won’t be moving around much, at one point we even lay down on the snow so we would just lay and enjoy the experience.
Glass igloos and cabins for Northern Lights watching.
We did look into staying in a Glass Igloo not far from Levi but the cost was more than 4x the price of our apartment in Levi and seeing the northern lights on any given night is far from guaranteed. Instead, we opted for a night in a lakeside cabin, which also included meals and was much cheaper.
We spent one night in the cabin on a lake about 15km out of Levi we got lucky and the lights were strong the night we were there, even sitting inside with the lights off we could still see the lights out the window. This would be a good option if you are travelling with small kids and don’t want to drag them out into the cold in the middle of the night.
The cabin was booked through the Levi tourist site and run by a company called Artic Frontiers they are a lovely Australian couple that have set up life for their young family in Lapland. They are photography and forest foraging food enthusiasts. A dinner of reindeer stew with locally foraged berries was in the oven when we arrived. They even provided a camera for us to photograph the lights- unfortunately not knowing much about photography at the time I didn’t keep the RAW images, a big regret now I actually know how to process them.
Visiting the Ice Hotel in Levi
Should I stay in an ice hotel with kids? No way. Even adults can find a night in an ice hotel uncomfortable and cold, you do it for the experience, not the luxury. You can visit many of the ice hotels in Lapland as a day trip, and there is a small one not far from Levi.
Luvattumaa – Levi Ice Gallery is a 10-minute drive from Levi (it is cheaper to take a taxi than join an excursion). The small Ice castle is rebuilt each year. Intricate ice carvings decorate the rooms, with themes vary from year to year, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones have been past years.
It took us 30 minutes to walk around the rooms, sometimes there is an option to have a drink at the ice bar or you can have Gloggi (mulled wine), coffee and doughnuts in the adjoining heated café.
Levi Spa World
This indoor swimming complex is a great way to spend a few hours burning some energy while escaping the cold. A series of indoor pools and small slides make a great playground for kids and if you are feeling adventurous you can take advantage of the unique opportunity to swim in the outdoor hot tub.
Skiing in Lapland
Levi is the largest alpine ski resort in Lapland. There are 43 runs mostly beginner and intermediate with 3 black runs for more advanced skiers. There are 2 gondolas, a handful of chairlifts and the rest are T-bars.
The slopes are perfect for families that are new to skiing and even as more advanced skiers it was an enjoyable place to ski despite the lack of challenging terrain.
The slopes are very picturesque. On our visit once we were past the lower slopes their were no queues at the lifts-.
We even got a glimpse of the sun over the horizon when we were at the summit. The main slopes are well lit to extend the skiing hours since it gets dark so early. The lights actually light up the whole town, which is good for late afternoon activities but means there is no chance to see the Northern lights until they are switched off at about 9pm.
Sledding in Levi with kids
As you face the ski slopes to the left of the slopes you will find the learner ski area as well as a sledding area with free sleds to use and a hut with an open fire where you can warm up with hot juice and toast complimentary marshmallows.
Where to eat in Levi?
To save money on our trip to Lapland we brought a box of food with us. Since we were travelling from Germany we didn’t need to pass through customs and were able to carry fresh foods with us. We headed to Lidl before our trip and packed cheeses (with an ice pack),crackers, wine, olives, nuts and other speciality items that we wanted to enjoy over Christmas.
The supermarket in Levi wasn’t too expensive and we purchased meats and fresh produce to make about half of our dinners and all of our breakfasts and lunches.
Eating out in Levi is expensive, even for simple food like Pizza so when we did go out we tried to make it count.
We had an amazing Christmas lunch at King Crab House where we got to try the giant arctic king crabs. The 5 year old seafood lover thought this was fantastic.
For traditional Lappish food with a modern twist we went to Jangalla, which also had a tepee and play area for the kids to use.
At Niliporo you can eat reindeer dishes with meat sourced from the owners own reindeer herd.
Where to stay in Levi?
The best options for booking accommodation in Levi are
- The Levi tourist office,
- A 3rd party site, my favourite is booking.com or
- Vacation rental sites like Airbnb or VRBO .
We booked our accommodation in July for a Christmas week trip. Many hotels were already booked (this is because the charter operators hold rooms for their customers), there were plenty of options still available on the tourist board website, which was cheaper than Airbnb. We ended up booking a large 3 bedroom apartment over top of the Irish pub.
Accommodation in Levi is very affordable but expect prices to double in the weeks around Christmas and New Year with another peak over Easter and Spring break.
We chose to stay in the centre of Levi so that we could walk everywhere and didn’t need to hire a car. I wasn’t confident driving in snow and cost wise it worked out cheaper to use the odd taxi rather than hire a car (the taxi company provided a car seat, I emailed them ahead of our trip to confirm they would have one available).
Many of the cabins close to Levi were already booked but this would have also been a nice option as we would have had a better chance of seeing the Northern lights from our accommodation and walking through the woods pulling the kids on a sleigh has a certain charm to it.
We had a fantastic time in Levi in Finish Lapland. It really was a magical holiday. It is certainly possible to take toddlers and babies to Lapland. I think the best age is over 4 but while they still believe in Santa. We never once told our kids that Santa was real but we didn’t tell them the opposite either. We simply asked them what they thought.