Sitting just south of Finland’s Lapland region, Oulu is the country’s fifth largest city and likes to call itself the Capital of Northern Scandanavia. Oulu has carved out a place on the regional tourist map in the summer thanks to its Baltic Sea beaches. But during a recent trip in mid-March to a still frozen Oulu, I found the city offers a range of winter marvels waiting to be discovered by anyone who comes with the right attitude. And the right arctic attire.
The boast about its capital status isn’t so far fetched. The city is one of the largest anywhere in world that sits this far north. Fortunately, that hasn’t left people who leave here feeling isolated or cut off. The city is known for a thriving technology economy, and is one of Nokia’s most important research and development centers.
Oulu attracts about 600,000 tourists a year, with Sweden and Norway being the top two origin countries, followed by Russia and Germany. The height of the tourist season is late June through August, when the weather turns warm enough and the Baltic Sea temperatures rise enough to make swimming pleasurable.
Of course, one could come in the deep winter, but you’d be lucky to get four hours of daylight in late December. By contrast, when I arrived on March 11, we had 12 hours of daylight. And yet everything was still covered in snow, and at night temperatures dipped as low as -15 degrees Celsius. So it was a good balance of sunshine and arctic chill.
And with that combination, there turns out to be plenty of great experiences.
Oulu: Fatbiking Across the Baltic Sea
I had heard of fatbiking, but this was my first try. We drove north of Oulu to the Nallikari Holiday Village. In the summer, it’s one of the main beach resorts. In the winter, you can rent fatbikes, which have wide, thick tires designed to ride on snow. We also were provided with heavy snowsuits and gloves, though the sun was so bright on this day that I found myself sweating pretty heavily underneath.
From the village, we set out riding right across the Baltic Sea, which was frozen solid. We passed a handfull of locals who had cut holes in the ice to fish. In theory, one could ride all the way to Sweden. Though eventually, there will probably be some ice trawlers breaking up the ice to let boats past. Still, it was exhilarating to be gliding along on the ice and snow to the point where the surrounding shores were almost out of sight.
You can also rent snowshoes and cross country skis if that’s more your speed.
Break Sokos Hotel Eden Spa
Right next door to Nallikari is the Break Sokos Hotel Eden which, beyond its accommodations, has a large spa and pool area. The wet area includes a sauna, and a large wave pool with water slides. It’s free for hotel guests, and €20 for adults.
Hunting the Northern Lights
As the temperatures tumbled to -10 degrees Celsius, we boarded a tour bus to go huning the Northern Lights. The trip was organized by Eventours. When the lights are intense, Oulu residents say they can spot them from their backyards. But for visitors like us, the safer bet was to leave the city behind.
Fortunately, we still had our arctic snow suits. The bus took us about 1 hour northeast of the city to a park area called Koitelinkoski. After climbing out, our guides led us through the woods, over a couple of wooden bridges to an opening where we saw the green flicker of the Aurora Borealis. Unfortunately, I was ill-prepared in terms of camera equipment, having not done much research on how to shoot them.
Fortunately, there was no wind. And with our heavy gear, the evening felt like pleasant walk through the woods. After getting our fill of the light show, we walked back to another area near the bus where our guides had started a large campfire to cook sausages and serve us copious amounts of hot chocolate.
Visit a Reindeer Farm
Reindeer are plentiful in this region. It’s standard on the menus, as I discovered when I tried both reindeer and reindeer tongue. At the Nallikari Holiday Village, you can stop and see a few just as you’re entering. But if you want a more local experience, you can drive about one hour northeast to the working reindeer farm of Poro-Panuma.
The trip has to be scheduled in advance, but the family has been raising reindeer for more than 250 years. The owners will give you a tour, a reindeer sleigh ride, and even feed them.
Part of the reason I was in Oulu was to attend an event called Polar Bear Pitching. Organizers cut a hole in the Baltic Sea just off the city center, and a series of entrepreneurs plunged into the water where they could pitch their companies for as long as they could stay in the water.
But beyond the event, winter swimming is really a thing in this region. There is a long tradition of locals going to the Tuira beach just a few minutes north of the city center to go for a dip into the icy waters. A local association will offer some tips on how best to approach the winter swim. At the beach, a wooden dock leads out to the a spot where a ladder with let you ease down into the water.
Drive Across an Ice Bridge
Just to the west of Oulu is the small island village of Hailuoto. While the island offers lots of its own winter delights, the real adventure is getting there. A few weeks out of the year, the Bay of Botnia freezes enough to create an ice road between the mainland and the island that you can drive across.
The road is about 9 km long and will support vehicles up to 3 tons in weight.
Stroll Around the City Center
Finally, the city of Oulu is delightful. I stayed at the Lapland Hotel Oulu, which sits right on the edge of the city center. Take some time to wander the streets, discover the Finnish architecture, and if you’re lucky get a little bit more snowfall.
Disclosure: My travel and lodging was paid for by Business Oulu. All opinions are my own.