Taking the Santa Claus Express to the Arctic Circle
Want to see the Northern Lights and Santa Claus in one trip? Then head to Finland with your Eurail Pass and grab the Santa Claus Express.
Mysterious, ethereal, and famously remote: Does the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, hover near the top of your travel bucket list? If it does, maybe it’s time to cross it off. This is predicted to be a perfect winter for sighting the magical solarwinds named after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn. While you can glimpse them from many places on earth – including Canada, the northern U.S., and Scotland – Scandinavia remains practically synonymous with the phenomenon.
The Northern Lights frequently appear in Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. But it’s only in Finland where they occupy the same landscape as Santa Claus’ “official office” on the Arctic Circle. (Finns call him Joulupukki, but you’ll still recognize the iconic Father Christmas figure with the white beard and long red hat.) Have you always dreamed seeing the Northern Lights from a reindeer safari before bunking down in a thermal igloo? Lapland is your place.
Part of the mystique lies not simply in the otherworldly nature of the lights themselves – swirling green streaks that glow against the dark arctic sky – but in, well, the challenge of getting to Lapland. With sleeper trains running north from Finland’s capital city, that challenge is solved. Yet the overnight journey, with the tracks plunging into the snowy darkness of the Arctic Circle, remains an utterly mysterious one.
When to go?
The autumn and spring equinoxes (September 21 and March 21) frame the time window for aurora borealis. While you’ll mostly spot the Northern Lights from late fall through very early spring, there’s no guarantee that they’ll appear on any given day. Plan on spending several days in the Arctic Circle to maximize your chances. The lucky – and the patient – are sometimes rewarded with nights in which the spectacle appears and reappears several times, returning to the starry stage for multiple encores.
The Santa Claus Express train
Operated by Finnish Railways, the Santa Claus Express is not a cozy sleigh drawn by reindeer. But it’s the next best thing: a comfortably appointed double-decker train that delivers you to one of the most remote corners of Europe while you sleep. In the morning, sip coffee and check your wifi in the bistro car as the snow covered landscape rolls past. Sleeping compartment prices are surprisingly economical. Double sleepers range from 36 to 43 euros per person, with the more expensive compartments outfitted with private bathrooms. You can book the Santa Claus Express 60 days in advance.
The Santa Claus Express Train Route
While both follow essentially the same routes, the Santa Claus Express trains feature two options. The Pikajuna 265, which departs Helsinki Central Station in the early evening, stops in Rovaniemi the next morning. Then it makes its final stop in Kemijärvi just over an hour later, at 9 a.m. The Pikajuna 273 departs a bit later, leaving Helsinki just before 10 p.m. and arriving at Rovaniemi at 10:40 a.m.
After the night train departs Helsinki Central, it heads north towards Tampere. It passes through many small towns that appear only as collections of glimmering lights. On the Pikajuna 273, you’ll arrive at Oulu around breakfast time — just before 8 a.m. If you can delay the anticipation of the Arctic Circle for another day, it’s worth stopping to check out.
Stopover in Oulu
Oulu’s most idiosyncratic claim to fame might be that it’s home to the Air Guitar World Championships. But this university and tech town of around 200,000 is probably better known for being one of the northernmost cities in the world. In summer, its pleasures are obvious. Explore the islands that make up the city on the impressive bike paths. Then head to a café in Kauppatori, the buzzing market square along the waterfront, to bask in the all-night sun.
In winter, Oulu is perhaps even more unique. By day, play in the snow or go sledding at Nallikari Winter Village. Those adventurous and undaunted by Arctic temperatures can take a snowshoe safari or a stroll on the frozen Gulf of Bothnia.
Arriving in the Arctic Circle
The first thing you’ll hear about Rovaniemi, the unofficial capital of Lapland, is that it’s the hometown of Santa Claus. He “resides” at Santa Claus Village. If you’re traveling with children, or want to impress your friends back home with a letter sent from Santa’s official post office, consider a visit.
Regardless of your ideological stance towards Santa, don’t miss an excursion to a reindeer farm or the Ranua Zoo. It showcases Arctic fauna such as polar bears. At least one day per year, the sun never rises over Rovaniemi. In addition to spotting the Northern Lights, it’s also a perfect place to see kaamos, the deep blue light on the snow that’s reflected from the winter sky.
The Rovaniemi rail station is within walking distance from the town center, where most lodging is located.
If a fetching mountain town with a decidedly retro vibe is more your speed – or you simply want to brag that you’ve hit the northernmost town in Finland – take the train about an hour past Rovaniemi to Kemijärvi. Here, the snowy peaks of this dramatic landscape are called fells, an Old Norse word for mountain. At Pyhä Fell skiers will find downhill skiing with nine chairlifts across 14 slopes. In addition to downhill skiing, Suomu Fell features over 70 km of cross country ski trails, some of which are lit for night skiing.