What to do in Oulu? | Finland beyond Helsinki and Lapland

Oulu ⁠— the stop before Lapland! It is the fourth largest city in Finland, located around 170 km south of the arctic circle. The city has been chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2026. So if you happen to find yourself in this city, here is a list of things that you may want to check out.

Hunt the auroras: I mention this first as this was what brought me to the city for the first time. It was the September of 2021 when I saw news of a period of high solar activity that may bring in good auroras. Oulu is one of the southernmost locations in Finland with frequent auroras. Unfortunately, the weekend we travelled to Oulu was cloudy and we got no show. However, it was during another trip later that year, I finally managed to see the aurora in Oulu. The Facebook group Oulu Aurora Spotters has a map that tells the best locations in Oulu to see auroras. The group also has active members who post about aurora sightings almost immediately.

Winter cycling: Oulu is the winter cycling capital of the world and home to the Winter Cycling Federation. It has the most extensive network of cycling routes in Finland covering the entire city and also the neighbouring municipalities. Not just that they have the routes, but most of them are well maintained and kept illuminated even through the cold dark winters which is basically about half the year. The real thrill of cycling does come when the temperatures go as low as -20°C.

Meet the Toripolliisi: Be it sun or snow, the policeman is on duty overseeing the Oulu's market square. The bronze statue sculpted by Kaarlo Mikkonen was unveiled in September 1987. It is dedicated to the market police officers who patrolled the area between 1934 and 1979. The Toripolliisi is probably the most recognisable and photographed landmark in the city. So don't forget to get yourself clicked with the officer.

Rovaniemi — The hometown of Santa Claus | Exploring Lapland by public transport

Rovaniemi is undoubtedly the most popular destination in the Finnish Lapland. It sits right on the Arctic Circle, around 900 km north of Helsinki. It is the most convenient place in Finland to get to watch the midnight sun in summer and the auroras in winter. Rovaniemi also happens to be the "official" hometown of Santa Claus and you can meet him at his office throughout the year. As of July 2022, I made two visits to Rovaniemi — first during the mid-summer weekend in June 2021 and then again in December 2021 a week before Christmas and I had a contrasting experience either time. Not only because of the contrasting weather but the vibe of the place. During my June visit, the town was literally empty like most other Finnish cities during mid-summer. The Friday I reached there and the Saturday next, only a few restaurants were open and most stores closed early. Even the public transport was not operational on Saturday and threw my plans in jeopardy. In December however, I could hardly find cheap accommodation thanks to the high demand. There were tourists all around. For the first time in Finland, I saw and travelled in a crowded city bus where many passengers had to go standing.
Enough of my experiences! Let me show you Rovaniemi from my perspective.

City of Snowman - Kemi | Exploring Lapland by public transport

Kemi is a small town just at the base of the Finnish Lapland where it touches the Gulf of Bothnia. The place might not exactly be on someone's itinerary more than being a stopover on way further up to Lapland or while returning from there. Even I had just passed through Kemi on my way to Rovaniemie twice — in June and December 2021. But I finally got some time to explore the town during my mid-summer 2022 bikepacking trip. While I may tell about that trip in a separate post, I will here focus on what to do if you happen to be in Kemi.

How to reach?

Kemi is well connected to Helsinki and most other major cities in Finland through buses and trains. Almost all busses and trains on the way to Rovaniemie from Helsinki stopover at Kemi. It might also be possible to hop on the only overnight train service from Helsinki to Rovaniemie. Kemi also has its own airport but the number of connections is limited.

My stories of chasing the aurora in Finland

"Because it is not only about the lights, but the stories behind it that excite me"

Back then, I had never expected to see the northern lights in Kuopio. Though I had heard about these rare sightings, I never expected to be that lucky to see the lights so close to my home. It was a Friday night and I had gone out with my bike to click the sunset (late summer sunset at around 8.30 pm), but by the time I could negotiate a hill and reach the other end of the town, it was already dark. However, the darkness had a surprise for me in store. Like every other day, I halted at the Särkilahti bridge to catch up on my breath from the 30 km ride. I was about to ignore a man thinking he was just out with his dog, but he had his camera and eyes fixed towards the sky. I would have missed the faint aurora but thanks to him it was my first encounter with the northern lights.

The September equinox is one of the times when the solar activity is at a peak and the chances of seeing the auroras are higher. It was also in the news about a certain day or days when the aurora might be visible — the start of the season. I decided to improve my chances by travelling further north to Oulu and was accompanied by a friend. At Oulu, we also put up at a place close to the beach which is among the best places to see northern lights in Oulu according to Oulu Aurora Spotters group. But this trip taught us yet another lesson about travel and hunting auroras — be humble, keep your expectations in check and enjoy whatever comes your way. Every night might be not yours. It was overcast for both the nights we spent there and only cleared just a few hours before we were about to travel back to Kuopio. Even though our target remained unfulfilled, we ended up exploring the city amid the autumn colours.

Chasing the auroras in Finland

Auroras are one of nature's best gifts that Finland has. As per the Finnish Metrological Institute (FMI), auroras can be seen every other day in Lapland. The same web article mentions Kilpisjarvi among the most favourable places to see auroras. The cities in Lapland might give a good show from within the city itself. Yet it might be a better idea to get outside the city limit as city lights may hamper the view. In other parts of Finland, the phenomenon is rare but not zero. Auroras can be occasionally seen even in Helsinki when the conditions are favourable. Solar winds are the major factor that cause these stunning lights to occur towards the earth's poles. But two other things that are far more important are the time of the day and cloud cover. The lights are actually ignited throughout the day, but is only visible when dark and when there are no clouds to obstruct the view. Here are some of the links that might be helpful in knowing, chasing, and capturing the auroras. 

Know more about auroras