Winter is a magical time to visit Finland and the traditional Christmas markets make this time of year especially festive.
Finns love to celebrate the holiday season. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, beginning with pikkujoulu or Little Christmas in early December, the atmosphere is exuberant. Markets bustle with activity and are lit up at night, offering an abundance of unique gifts, delicious food and hot glögi (Finnish mulled wine) to take the chill out of the air.
Experience some wonderful Yuletide cheer and shop the markets for high-quality handmade goods, Finnish design and edible seasonal treats.
Depending on location, winter in Finland begins in November and can last up to five months, with temperatures ranging from a balmy zero to a lung-freezing minus 35.
Strings of light float above Aleksanterinkatu, Helsinki’s official Christmas street, a tradition which began in 1949 as a gesture of hope after the darkness of the war years. Candles flicker in the windows of the surrounding shops and cafes and the city is aglow. A blanket of snow makes it even cozier — it may be cold outside but Helsinki radiates warmth during the holidays.
Helsinki Christmas Market
Helsinki Christmas Market is located in Senate Square and is the oldest and most popular Christmas market in Helsinki.
This historic area of Helsinki is a gathering place for many events and festivities throughout the year and is notable for the beautiful white cathedral overlooking the square. Designed by Carl Ludwig Engel in the 19th century and completed in 1852, Helsinki Cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in Helsinki and an impressive example of neo-classical architecture. It is on the steps of the cathedral that the newly crowned St Lucia, a young woman dressed in white, descends each year on the 13th of December. A tradition borrowed from the 4th century Italian Christian martyr, it has become an important and symbolic occasion for the Finns and is definitely worth seeing if you are here.
There are more than one hundred stalls at Helsinki Christmas Market offering a wonderful pot pourri of beautifully-crafted gifts, Christmas ornaments, as well as locally-grown produce, fish, meats and prepared foods. Santa Claus pays daily visits and an old-fashioned merry-go-round spins in the centre of the square, providing free rides for children and a dose of nostalgia.
Women have been coming together at Naisten Joulumessut in Wanha Satama, or The Women’s Christmas Fair, since 1922. With roots in the Finnish feminist movement, the first Women’s Christmas Fair was organised by Gösta Stenman’s Art Salon on Mannerheimentie to showcase handicrafts made by women and to enable them to earn money of their own.
Now situated in the lovely Katajanokka neighbourhood of Helsinki on a peninsula adjacent to the main harbour, women from all over Finland gather every year to sell their hand-made products that range from textiles to woodworks.
The fair has evolved over the years to reflect the changing times. Since 1978, it has been run by the Women’s Cultural Association and proceeds are used for outreach programs such as the promotion of immigrant women’s cultural activities. A section of the market is set aside for elderly women and their artistry and ensures the market remains connected to its past. There is also a food fair selling traditional Finnish delicacies.
Just a little more than half an hour outside of Helsinki, this small medieval city is picturesque anytime of year but during Christmas the old town of Porvoo is particularly charming and you might easily feel as if you are stepping back in time.
Perfectly preserved colourful wooden houses and riverside huts dress up for the occasion and cobblestone streets are strung with lights. When it snows, this is truly a winter wonderland. Old-fashioned kick sleds or potkukelkkas are still a mode of transportation here, as they are in many small towns around the country. Locals embrace the season and ski the frozen river, and stroll through town to shop, eat in pretty cafes and meet with friends.
Christmas officially begins with a ceremony in Old Market Square on November 26th and there are festivities throughout the month of December. The thriving community of artists living here ensure you will find something locally-made and authentic.
There is a traditional Christmas market in Old Town Hall Square where purveyors dressed in old-time costumes sell regional crafts and food items. The Christmas Market at the Art Factory, on the other hand, has a more contemporary focus on design.
Finland’s oldest and third largest city, Turku, is a two hour train ride from Helsinki to the southwest coast, in a dense and beautiful region of the Finnish archipelago.
Situated at the mouth of the scenic Aura River, the original town was settled in the 13th century and has been launching the Christmas season with a traditional Declaration of Christmas Peace since its inception. The essence of the message calls for harmony and graceful celebration and the people of Turku take the tradition to heart, making this a truly Christmas city.
A giant spruce tree is lit up at Turku Cathedral each year and Turku’s official Christmas street, Yliopistonkatu, is adorned with garlands and light. The main Christmas Market is open on weekends the month before Christmas and has two locations.
The Old Great Square is a family-oriented fair, with food, concerts, Christmas characters and a boisterous feel, while the Christmas market at Market Square is a smaller, more intimate event where the locals shop and you might find more refined products.
Both locations are sure to provide some of the Christmas peace and good will that the people of Turku have been harnessing for centuries.
Tampere is Finland’s second largest city and lies in the southwest of Finland on the banks of the Tammerkoski Canal. A former market town established in the late 18th century, the city is now known for its rich cultural life.
The Tampere Christmas Market in Central Square has a definite artistic flare and offers much more than just arts and crafts and specialty foods. Held December 3rd through the 22nd, there is a full roster of entertainment to complement the artisanal market, including concerts, theatre, glass blowing, forging demonstrations in the blacksmith corner and of course daily visits by Santa Claus.
Central Square becomes a village within a city for the month of December and is certainly worth the trip. From Helsinki, the train ride is just under two hours.
Oulu is a small city on the central west coast of Finland with a population of about 200,000 people. Founded in 1605 by Sweden’s King Charles IX, the city is situated at the mouth of the Oulujoki River on what was once an ancient maritime trading site.
Because of its location in the middle of the country, Oulu is often considered Finland’s gateway to the north. It is also the southernmost fell region, making it a popular winter holiday destination for both downhill and cross country skiers.
You are almost sure to have snow here during the Christmas season, providing the perfect ambiance for the Tiernatori Christmas Market.
From December 2nd till 22nd, Rotuaari Square in the heart of Oulu is a busy marketplace filled with handmade Christmas products and traditional fare as well as a unique Nordic re-telling of the Christmas carol, We Three Kings, on the Rotuaari stage.
Rovaniemi is the capital of Lapland, home to 62 000 inhabitants and, as legend has it, Santa himself.
Just 10 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, Rovaniemi is known for its beautiful nature and spectacular views of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. And while it only officially became a city in 1960, there is evidence of settlements here dating back to the Stone Age.
The Finnish Santa or Joulupukki has pagan roots but late 19th and early 20th century lore claim his origins are in Lapland where he launches his reindeer-driven sled each Christmas Eve for destinations south.
Santa Claus Village draws thousands of Finnish and international visitors each year and is in essence a giant Christmas market. With crafts, Finnish design, traditional cuisine and plenty of activities for kids including reindeer rides and excursions to the ‘forest of the elves’, a trip to Rovaniemi at Christmas is a one-of-a-kind journey to the original Finnish Christmas city.