Oulu is the largest city in the sparsely populated northern region of Finland but despite its remote location, it’s fast becoming an alternative Finnish destination to visit. Oulu is known for its long association with Finish technology companies and the city has a huge focus on science and tech that you will keenly feel when traveling here. Combined with the natural attractions in the surrounding region and the unusual festivals held here, this all makes Oulu a rather unique city to travel to.
Oulu is one of the largest northerly cities in the world. It’s a great place to visit in summer if you are searching for the fabled Midnight Sun when the sun never sets, while in the darker months of the year you are guaranteed to see the Northern Lights, particularly if you head into the countryside.
It’s is a wonderful city to explore and to help you to plan your trip, here are our favorite things to do in Oulu.
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How to get to Oulu
Oulu is located on the northeast coast of Finland in the region of Northern Ostrobothnia, overlooking the frigid waters of the Gulf of Bothnia that separates the country from Sweden. On a map, the city looks completely isolated in the far northern reaches of Finland and geographically, it is. Thanks to the excellent Finish transport system though Oulu has never been easier to reach.
Helsinki, the Finnish capital, is located over 600 kilometers to the south, while the popular tourist destination of Rovanaeim – known as the capital of Lapland – is around 200 kilometers further north. This strategic location between north and south has grown Oulu into the hub and into the large city that it has become today. The airport at Oulu is one of the busiest in the country, after Helsinki of course, and offers regular connections domestically to the capital, to Tampere, to Rovaniemi, and to Turku. Domestic flights connect Oulu easily and conveniently with the rest of Finland while a few international flights also ensure that the city is connected to cities in the nearby Baltics too.
If you are traveling from further afield then Norwegian Air and Finn Air have flight routes from Helsinki that connect all over the world, as far as Asia to the east and the US to the west. These airlines offer many cheap flights to Finland and you can find great deals throughout the year. At Helsinki, you can then connect onward to Oulu on a domestic flight with these airlines ensuring the journey is as smooth as can be. From Oulu Airport there are regular bus connections to the city center, a journey of just half an hour each way.
If you would rather travel overland, however, then Oulu is well connected by road and rail to the the rest of Finland too although due to the vast distances involved, it is not the quickest way to travel. The country’s main train line runs from Helsinki in the south to Rovaniemi in the north with a stop at Oulu along the way. From Helsinki to Oulu is a journey time of around 9 hours with Finnish Railways, on comfortable, modern trains if you take the overnight sleeper option or there are also several faster trains during the day which complete the journey in around 6 hours.
Bus travel is another way to get to Oulu and from Helsinki, you can expect the journey to take at least 9 hours if not more. There are no real advantages to taking the bus over the train as in many cases the longer, less comfortable buses can be more expensive.
Traveling around Oulu and to the surrounding towns in the region can be achieved quickly and efficiently using the public transport system, with inexpensive tickets and extensive routes. A popular way to traverse the city is by bicycle and you will find that Oulu is very cycle friendly.
What to Expect in Oulu
Oulu is a modern European city that is easy to navigate and pleasant to explore. It’s a safe place to visit and you will find it to have a welcoming charm. The local language is, of course, Finnish, however many of the locals will speak great English and will be happy to help you out. Finland uses the Euro as their currency and there are plenty of ATMs around the city and at the airport where you can withdraw money.
Perhaps the most important thing to note about Oulu when planning your trip here is that due to its very northern location the weather and time of year that you visit the city can very much dictate what you can do and what you can see.
Oulu Finland is far enough north that you can see the Northern Lights and the Midnight Sun. In the summertime, the days are endless while in winter the night never ends. Summer sees great weather although temperatures will still never rise much more than 30 Degrees Celsius. Winter sees incredibly low temperatures, and you can expect lows of -40 Degrees Celsius in the coldest months. Be prepared for this unusual Arctic climate and plan your trip accordingly.
Where to Stay in Oulu
Oulu has a fantastic range of accommodation and there are many excellent hotels available that are kept to a high standard. It’s best to book in advance, particularly in summer, as the number of rooms in the city is low due to the fact that Oulu is not an established tourist destination as such and caters more to business travelers. There is still a mixture of budget and high-end options available though and the quality is always going to be good.
Best Western Hotel Apollo – The Best Western Hotel Apollo is one of the most comfortable and well-regarded hotels in Oulu. There are a range of room styles available from economy options through to more luxurious suites. If you book in advance then the basic rooms can have excellent savings attached to them. The Best Western is right in the city center and puts on a delicious buffet breakfast each morning.
Lapland Hotels Oulu – Lapland Hotels Oulu offers guests premium, luxury rooms for a great price. The rooms are all styled to exude a Finnish vibe that takes inspiration from Lapland, and you will find yourself immersed in the local atmosphere and culture if you choose to stay here on your travels. The hotel has a high-class restaurant serving Finish delicacies alongside a busy bar and excellent spa facilities.
Radisson Blu Hotel Oulu – The Radisson Blue is a firm favorite amongst both business travelers and tourists in Oulu because the international chain offers uncompromising standards and great value. You can expect excellent service, cleanliness and you will find that the hotel is in an excellent location that overlooks the waterfront. There’s a restaurant, bar, and even a swimming pool.
Things to do in Oulu
The Northern Lights
One of the best things to do in Oulu is to see the vibrant illuminations of the Northern Lights in the night sky. In the right season, it’s possible to experience this dramatic light show almost every night for weeks on end. The Northern Lights season runs from September through to March although the darker the sky the more likely you are to see them.
Oulu’s cold climes make the for the perfect skiing destination and outside of the city you will find many fantastic ski resorts and places to learn and to practice through the winter months. As well as traditional downhill runs, a popular sport in winter is cross-country skiing, as to get around anywhere you need to be able to handle yourself on a pair skis in this extreme climate.
Oulu Market Hall
The city’s market hall is one of the most historic sites in Oulu and can date its foundations back to 1901. It’s long been the retail center of the city and today you can find many wonderful handicraft stalls and boutique shops selling local goods and produce from around the region.
A Finnish Sauna Experience
Finns are renowned for their love of saunas and you can’t visit Oulu and not have an authentic Finnish sauna experience at least once. You can find saunas across the city including in many of the city’s hotels and public swimming pools. In the dead of winter, sauna’s become particularly popular, as do, conversely, ice baths – another local experience you may prefer to avoid.
Air Guitar World Championships
Once a year Oulu plays hosts to one of the most unique events in Europe, the Air Guitar World Championships. In August the city becomes the main stage for this unusual festival which is competed in by air guitar enthusiasts from across the world.
Places to visit in Oulu
Tieteoma Science Center
Oulu is a hotbed for technology development and many local Finnish tech companies are based across the city. To showcase the scientific pursuits of Oulu, the city created the extraordinary Tieteoma Science Center. The museum lets visitors delve into topics as wide-ranging as prehistory and the Northern Lights and even has an air guitar area too. There are lots of interactive exhibitions and displays at the science center, as the aim is to encourage and to inspire people to get into science.
Oulu Castle dates back to the late 16th century when it was built to protect the developing settlement from potential incursions along the river, particularly from the rising Russian Empire. A century or so later, the Russians did in fact attack and destroy the castle, and the form you see today was built again in later years and not used as a fortification but as an observatory. There’s a small museum on the site that tells the history of Oulu and its castle.
Hailuoto Island is a beautiful place to visit that’s located just a short ferry ride away from Oulu in the Gulf of Bothnia. The island is sparsely populated but is full of outstanding natural scenery and it makes for a wonderful day trip away from the busier mainland. In winter, when the sea has iced over, you can even cross the bay by car on the ice road that forms, a unique experience in itself.
Oulu might not be the first destination that comes to mind when you think of a beach holiday, but the enduringly popular Nallikari Beach is one of the best places to visit in the area. Locals and travelers will visit any time of year, to enjoy the water during the hotter summer months or even to plunge into the icy waves during winter.
Tours to do in Oulu
Visit a Reindeer Farm
Reindeer are found in the areas to the north of Oulu, and close to the city there are several reindeer farms which offer visitors the chance to learn more about these magnificent animals. As well as being a chance to see the beautiful scenery of northern Finland, the farms are working farms and provide an insight into local culture as reindeer is very much a meat that is a huge part of the local diet. A popular farm to visit is Poropanuma, which is found an hour’s drive to the north of Oulu.
One of the best things to do in Oulu in winter is a dog sledding tour. In the north of Finland, dog sleds are still very much an authentic and practical way to travel during the cold, dark months of winter, when snow and ice continually blanket the ground. There are many local tour companies that can arrange husky adventures across the beautiful landscapes of Lapland from Oulu.