If winter is not a high touristic season for many European countries, it is quite the opposite for Finland. Many travellers come here hunting for the Northern Lights, winter activities and snowy sceneries. Most of them head to the capital of Finland, Helsinki, when the second half goes to Lapland. Just like that, many hidden gems and nice winter cities are left unrecognized between these parts of Finland. One of them is Oulu, a city up north, but not as north as Lapland. Oulu is situated on the western shore of Finland, and it is an enjoyable destination for a winter vacation.
Rudolf's bells are ringing, snow is falling, and winter lights are all over the town - it's time for a winter vacation in Oulu. First of all, Oulu is full of ski slopes, there are literally hundreds of kilometers of them around the town. So why not discover Oulu skiing? If discovering ski slopes on your own does not sound like your kind of activity, there is the Ruskontunturi, a skiing center of Oulu situated just a few kilometers from the city center.
Ice skating is another popular winter activity in Finland. You can find many places to ice-skate in Oulu since it is situated on the seashore. The safest and coziest ice-skating would be on the Market Square, tasting delicious local food in the breaks. You will find traditional red wooden houses in the line, full of cafes and restaurants, these are a must-visit. For example, Pannukakkutalo is my personal favorite. It is a restaurant serving only pancakes, but the selection is grande! Pancakes might be a tuff food to eat in summer but a perfect match for cold winter days. From sault variations to desserts - it is always a blast to visit, trying something new each time. It is also a very special place since there are just a few of them throughout the country, and none is in Helsinki. Toripoliisi, which literally translates as a "policeman of the square", is a local celebrity. Nobody knows exactly why but taking a photo with him is a must. It is a short, round and kind-looking dude by the Market Square.
Ice-swimming is also a known activity. Locals are waiting the whole year for waters to freeze, and that makes ice-swimming special and a long-awaited activity. You can experience ice swimming in the swimming area of Tuira or take a ride with Saunalautta – another popular local way of discovering two traditions at once: sauna and ice swimming. Saunalautta is a drifting sauna that takes its visitors through the Oulujoki River. Jumping into ice water after warming up and then returning for another sauna round is a unique experience not to be missed.
Let’s make it clear, Oulu is not Lapland, but it is enough up north to experience all the things that Lapland has to offer. One of the main Lappish activities is a reindeer sleigh ride. The good news is that Oulu has a winter fairy tale of its own - Nallikari Winter Village in Oulu, full of snow, reindeer and activities for whole families. Reindeer are inseparable part of Finnish culture. In fact, there is more reindeer in northern part of Finland than people! So, meeting these amazing creatures and taking a ride with them is a magical experience, making you feel like Santa.
Speaking of Santa, the main city of Lapland, Rovaniemi, is 200 kilometers away but possible to make a day trip for very enthusiastic travelers. In fact, my first ever trip to Lapland happened on a day trip basis from Oulu.
One more enchanting gem of northern nature are the Northern Lights. If you are lucky, you can spot them in Oulu as well. In the high winter season, Northern Lights are above Oulu about every fourth day. The best place to spot them is any spot without street lights. Nallikari is believed to be a good place for Northern Light's hunters in the city of Oulu.
Oulu is not as popular as Lapland among tourists, but locals know about the place and appreciate it greatly. It has everything a Finnish winter experience should be – skiing, winter swimming, sauna, lots of snowy forests and frozen seashore, ice-skating and reindeer sledge riding. I have been to Oulu in different seasons and can tell you for sure – it is an enjoyable Finnish winter destination.
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