My first memories of Lapland trace back to my childhood sitting in geography class learning about the barren and unrelenting landscape of the Nordic north. I was enthralled and captivated by the cold and the people who could endure such conditions. After all, I grew up in a place where the summers are so warm it’s nauseating. Snow was such an anomaly to me. The stillness in the photos I gazed at of Lapland seemed to lull me and I always desired to experience it in person.
Two trips to Finland and decades later, I finally had my chance to experience a very small part of Lapland and I am so over the moon about it that I can’t stop mentally planning my second trip back there. Kuusamo, Finland is an area close to the Russian border known for its wildlife, Sami history, world-class skiing, and tranquility that one can only dream about. Finnish Lapland is everything I had hyped it up to be in my head… and then some. This post will discuss 7 things to do in Ruka and Kuusamo, Finland in winter.
Go Skiing in Ruka
Ruka is synonymous with skiing. I knew we were going to ski when there, but I never considered I’d be given the option to snowboard instead. I decided to opt for that as I have snowboarded before (it wasn’t pretty) and know that if I go back to powder in the future, it’ll be on a snowboard and not on skis.
I was given an awesome instructor named Emmi and she showed me the basics. I actually did a pretty good job… on the snow at least. Trying to get up after getting my binding on was another story (and not a pretty one). Nevertheless, I feel so lucky to have gotten a chance to experience these slopes, even if my slope was more of a snowy pasture.
Ruka, or Rukatunturi, is a ski resort located in north-eastern Finland in Lapland that has won several awards for being the best ski resort in all of Finland. Not only is it one of the best ski resorts in Finland, it is also one of the largest in sales generating a revenue of over 9 million Euros annually. Perhaps the coolest thing about the ski resort, in my opinion, is that you can ski over 200 days a year. I come from a place that doesn’t really get snow or winter weather, so knowing that a place exists where snow is on the ground at least 200 days a year is mind-blowing.
When I was staying at Ruka Village, my accommodation within the village, we got to experience the Polar Night Light Festival, which lasts for a couple of weeks and lights up the entire village in neon and happy colors. Since the slopes are open daily from 0930-1900, you actually get the chance to ski down through the lights which is pretty cool.
If you don’t bring your gear with you, don’t worry! There is a shop that has everything you need for renting skis and snowboards. It is also a great place to get souvenirs or gifts for skiers if you have friends that are into the sport.
There are plenty of things to do in Ruka for families and non-skiers, as well. They have everything from tubing to hiking trails to about 30 restaurants and cafes in the area. If you’re a snowmobiler, you will also be able to find over 500 kilometers of marked, free-of-charge trails in the area. I think I’ll have to take up snowmobiling next time I am there as the scenery is so alluring. If you’re really lucky, you may even get to witness the northern lights in Finland there!
Pohjolan Pirtti (aka Santa’s Cottage)
I love being outdoors during the winter, but the snowy outdoors with a cozy, historic cottage and I’m golden. Pohjolan Pirtti is just that. Better known as ‘Santa’s Cottage’, Pohjolan Pirtti is situated in Vuotunki, one of the oldest villages in Kuusamo. World War 2 destroyed nearly all of Lapland, but Vuotunki had ten homes survive the war, including Santa’s Cottage. The current home is from 1891 and the estate itself dates back to 1686.
On-site, you’ll find a restaurant, sauna, nature and trails, and various programs- including the “Day as a Finn” program which I was fortunate enough to take part in! We got to do everything from baking traditional, local bread and pastries called ‘pulla’ to downtime in the sauna. It was such an enjoyable and relaxing day… and it really gave us an informative insight into the local culture, history, and people.
While we were there, it was a stunning, but cold day, but we walked the premises and down to the lake to uncover the best photo spots and views. We also had the chance to enjoy a casserole filled with moose meat and vegetables which was absolutely delicious. I highly, highly recommend a trip to Pohjolan Pirtti when in Kuusamo and I can also recommend the “Day as a Finn” for something really local (and rejuvenating!)
Silvia from Heart My Backpack doesn’t always actually heart her backpack- sometimes she leaves it in the snow when it is -23C.
Vanessa from Snow in Tromsø enjoying her time in Finnish Lapland
Stay at Isokenkäisten Klubi
When we arrived at Kuusamo Airport, we made a dash for our first night of accommodation at Isokenkäisten Klubi. No one really knew what to expect but after arriving, I can confirm that all of us were pretty speechless in the best of ways. The property is absolutely idyllic and easily one of the coziest places I’ve ever been or stayed at.
Isokenkäisten Klubi is a small guest village located remotely in the Finnish Lapland countryside a mere two kilometers from the Russian border. Located on Lake Heikinjärvi, the village is run by sisters Katja and Sirpa as they carry on the legacy of this family business.
The property embodies the silence the forest exudes and I felt so relaxed and at peace the minute I walked into Isokenkäisten Klubi. The village is a natural sense of luxury- there is a Seven Star Smoke sauna, tasty home-cooked meals of the best Finnish food, and a deep encouragement to embrace the local elements, whether it be the wild berries of the forest or a frisky appearance of the northern lights.
Explore the Lapland Wilderness
Perhaps the most obvious thing to do anywhere in Finland is to explore the pristine and ethereal nature that exists in the country. We didn’t get to do this just once, but rather on numerous occasions (although I could have stuck around for a month doing it!) While Kuusamo is questionably not in Lapland at all (some places state it is, and some state it falls outside of the northernmost region of Finland), the rough landscape definitely felt like something otherworldly and dreamy.
Oulanka National Park is a large park that is in the area and it covers 270 square kilometers. While I didn’t get a chance to visit it, much to my disappointment, I know I am going to be spending a lot of time in the park next time I am in the Kuusamo area of Finland. It is heavily forested and has a picturesque river running through it. Hiking opportunities are ever-present there and I fully intend to take advantage of that (and the wildlife!) next time I am in Kuusamo.
Eat Wild and Local Game
It is no secret that I’m not an avid meat eater if you’ve read this blog for some time. I do, however, eat local dishes and trying things when I am on the road. If I had been traveling independently through Finland, I likely wouldn’t have indulged much in the wild game scene, but since I was with others and trying out different restaurants to recommend to my readers, I did try multiple dishes and delicacies in Ruka and Kuusamo.
We had so many delicious meals while there (and vegetarian options did exist in every single place, FYI), it is hard to pick favorites, so I will share the restaurants we ate at, what I ordered and if I liked it (spoiler alert: I loved everything I ate on this trip!)
Our first meal in Ruka Village was at RUOK Burger. Their menu had changed a bit for the Polar Night Lights Festival, so they had put a reindeer burger on the menu. I ordered it and I was completely blown away at how well reindeer works as a burger. It was very tasty and the side dishes (my favorite were the sweet potato fries) were a wonderful complement to the burger. They also came with some dipping sauces (the hot one was my favorite). RUOK Burger also has some Finnish craft beer. I felt totally in my zone in this place.
Riipinen Wild Game Restaurant
We enjoyed dinner at Riipinen Wild Game Restaurant a short walk from Ruka Village our first night there. The restaurant is exactly as it sounds by its name- wild, local dishes that make the best use of northern ingredients. They had everything on the menu from bear meat to reindeer to wild hare. Per recommendation, I opted for the moose steak. It was absolutely delicious and so perfectly cooked. Highly recommend Riipinen for a nice meal out in a rustic and cozy atmosphere.
To find out more about Riipinen Wild Game Restaurant, check out their website.
Restaurant Rukan Kuksa
We had dinner at Kuksa our last in Ruka Village after ice climbing (which I didn’t end up doing). The restaurant was conveniently located in the village and had a cozy, yet modern feel to it. Their menu had everything from vegetarian croquets to reindeer shank. I did order the reindeer shank, which had been slow-cooked, and the dish was so tasty and tender. The meat was falling off the bone and paired perfectly with the forest mushroom soup I had as a starter. Kuksa also offers an array of Lapland craft beers.
Have a Finnish Sauna Experience
I am probably going to rot in Finnish hell for this, but I am not a huge fan of saunas and spas. I don’t mind a small at home sauna, but I’ve never been someone who loves drastic body temperature changes or being too hot or too cold. While it is not particularly my thing (and I’ve done it countless times in several countries), I do recommend travelers to try it out and see if they like it. The Ruka and Kuusamo area is not particularly known for its mild temperatures, and I think a lot of people will love this super authentic Finnish experience!
We had a few sauna hours when at Pohjolan Pirtti and we also had a sauna in our ski village apartment, so opportunities are aplenty!
Visit Palosaari Reindeer Farm
Ohhh reindeer. This northern beauty of an animal has slowly won my heart over the last couple of months and I can’t get enough of them. On the other hand, I am really wary of animal tourism and I am not an advocate of the sleighing experience that is offered at many of them (just seems a bit pointless and the animal doesn’t look like it is enjoying itself and is just chasing around a bit of food).
While I can’t get down with the sleigh ride, I can get down with feeding the reindeer and learning more about them and their importance to the Sami people of the north.
The Palosaari Reindeer Farm was one of the highlights of my trip to Ruka and Kuusamo, Finland. Satu, our host at the reindeer farm, was informative and super hospitable. She was eager to answer all of our questions and treated us to a lunch of reindeer soup and delicious bread inside by the fire.
It was such a relaxing day and any day where I can spend time with animals is an automatic win in my book (even if I ended up eating those animals for lunch). If you’re curious to learn more about the history of the region and the Sami people, book a visit to this reindeer farm and Satu will be ready to answer all questions you have.
Ruka and Kuusamo, Finland is brimming with plenty of winter activities to keep visitors and nature enthusiasts occupied. To learn more about the many winter activities in Ruka and Kuusamo, click here.
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