Located in the north of Finland, Oulu is the gateway to the Arctic and one of the largest cities to be found this far north anywhere in the hemisphere.
Oulu is a city that’s growing year on year, and this city on the banks of the Gulf of Bothnia is quickly becoming an alternative tourist destination in the Nordic Region.
As well as being surrounded by rugged wilderness and as well as being situated close to the Arctic Circle, this is Finland’s most artistic and creative city. In summer, crowds descend upon Oulu for the World Air Guitar Championships, while the city is full of museums and home to some of the country’s best bands.
But like anywhere in Finland, the capital of Northern Ostrobothnia isn’t necessarily the friendliest places for budget travellers. There isn’t a huge backpacking scene and cheap accommodation and dining options can be hard to come by in Oulu.
Don’t let that put you off travelling though, because with a little forward planning and some prudent spending, you can visit Oulu on a budget. In fact, we put together this budget travel guide to Oulu, to help you to do just that!
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How to get around Oulu on a Budget
Oulu Finland is the largest city in the north of the country, and with a population that’s grown to over 200,000, this is by no means a small place to visit.
While you will be able to stroll through the city centre itself on foot, you will need to use public transport to travel further afield and to reach more cost effective lodgings in the suburbs.
The city’s airport is often the main entrance point to Oulu, and this can be conveniently reached for a low cost each way on the local bus service.
The bus network reaches across the city and covers most attractions, and while single tickets might seem expensive for budget travellers, you can invest in a cost effective 24 hour public transport ticket that will give you unlimited rides on the Oulu network.
If you’re planning on exploring outside of the city, you’ll have a harder time keeping things cost effective, as public transport will be limited. You might even want to consider joining organised tours to maximise your time and to hit up multiple tourist sites in one day.
In winter, when the weather is more extreme, organised tours with experienced local guides are a much safer way to get around outside of Oulu city itself.
Budget things to do in Oulu
The most iconic place to visit in Oulu is the Market Square. This is where you’ll find the impressive Market Hall, or the Kauppahalli as it’s known locally, which has long been the centre of both commerce and daily life in the city.
The best thing is, the Market Square and the Market Hall are totally free to explore. Stroll into the grand building, which dates back to 1901 and you’ll find an array of market stalls lining the interior, selling anything from local handicrafts to homegrown seasonal fruit and vegetables.
Make the Market Square your first stop in Oulu, so as to acquaint yourself with the centre of the city, as nearby you’ll find the lively Rotuaari too, a pedestrian only zone where you can find bars, cafes and more shops too.
Tietomaa Science Center
The city’s Tietomaa Science Center is one of the most intriguing places to visit in Oulu. This was the first of its kind in Finland, and the science centre has been wowing visitors since 1988.
It’s not free to enter but entrance tickets are bought at a minimal cost. You can learn about everything from the oceans to the Arctic, and there are plenty of hands on exhibitions to keep you entertained for hours so as to get your money’s worth.
Northern Ostrobothnia Museum
Another great museum in Oulu that you can spend hours exploring, is the grandiose Northern Ostrobothnia Museum.
Found in a serene location in the Hupisaaret Islands Park, the museum has been open for over a century. The focus is on local history and culture and it’s easily worth the minimal entrance price, even if you are travelling Oulu on a tight budget.
Hupisaaret Islands Park
The Hupisaaret Islands is a collection of islands that are located just outside the city centre, in the delta of the Oulu River.
This is not only where you’ll find the Northern Ostrobothnia Museum, but where you can enjoy wonderful nature just a short journey from the urban area.
The small islands are connected by walking trails and bridges and it’s a lovely place to spend a morning or afternoon enjoying a stroll.
It might not look like it today, but Oulu Castle technically dates back to 1590, when it was built to defend the Oulu River from attack.
Much has changed over the centuries and little remains of the original structure, which has seen its share of destruction.
There’s now an observatory on the same spot, but the island on which the castle ruins are found is a wonderful place to visit, and you can learn more about the local history here.
One of the best outdoor destinations to visit if you’re travelling on a budget is Nallikari Beach. This is an iconic natural attraction in Oulu, and this beautiful stretch of sand can be quickly reached by public transport.
The beach is found on a small island, and it’s a popular place all through the year – and yes, people swim here, even in winter.
There’s a resort by the beach, but if you’re on a budget then you can camp out at the designated camping ground instead to save money and to get closer to nature.
Cross Country Skiing
Oulu is surrounded by perfect ski terrain and while budget travellers will struggle to afford the cost of ski passes and equipment at the local ski resorts, a cheaper way to enjoy this national sport is to take on a spot of cross country skiing.
In fact, when it’s winter cross country skiing is one of the most popular ways to get around, because everywhere is covered in snow. All you need is some warm clothing and a pair of skis, and you’re away.
Air Guitar World Championships
One of the most popular reasons that tourists visit Oulu, is because this is the home of the Air Guitar World Championships.
This is the biggest cultural event of the year, attracting thousands of Air Guitar lovers from around the world who battle it out for the championships. It’s held once a year, and the city is packed out for the event.
After a hard day of sightseeing, there’s not much else that can beat a Finnish sauna experience. This is the country’s most popular past time, and Finns take their sauna culture very seriously indeed.
You’ll find that most hotels and houses come complete with their own saunas, and even if you’re on a budget, there’s little chance that you will leave Oulu without having enjoyed a sauna.
Where to stay in Oulu on a Budget
As always seems to be standard across the Nordic nations, accommodation prices in Oulu are not favourable to those travelling on a budget.
The reason for this is not just the high cost of living in Finland, or the strength of the Euro – the country’s main currency – but because in Oulu there’s not much of a backpacker scene. There are almost no hostels in the city, which means you’ll need to be staying in either cheap hotels or local apartments to save money.
You could even try couchsurfing if you’re really looking to save the pennies. Locals are welcoming and will likely show you around their city too.
If you’re travelling in a small group, then you can keep costs low and visit Oulu on a smaller budget by renting out an apartment or holiday let for the duration of your stay.
Not only can you split the costs between you but you’ll be able to cook your own dinners and prepare your lunches and breakfasts if you have kitchen facilities.
If you are looking for a budget hotel however, then take a look outside the city centre where costs will be lower in the suburbs.
For the best prices across the board then avoid travelling to Oulu in peak season. That means avoiding the Christmas holidays and New Year, and avoiding travel in summer – especially when the Air Guitar Championships are taking place in the city.
Budget eats in Oulu
Like accommodation, eating out in Oulu can also be an expensive affair if you are travelling Northern Finland on a budget.
The cheapest way to eat in Oulu is to purchase your own supplies from the local supermarkets. You’ll find plenty of large supermarkets across the city. Rent an apartment to save on accommodation costs and prepare and cook your own food, for a real budget experience in Oulu.
Restaurants and bars can be expensive in the city, but if you don’t have your own cooking facilities and you want to eat on the cheap, then there are plenty of fast food outlets in Oulu, with a particular focus on pizza. It’s not the healthiest but it will be cost effective.
Pizzeria da Mario has a good reputation amongst budget travellers for their pizza and prices, while if you’re looking for good Asian food, then try Noodle Bar 9, where you’ll be served a large portion for a relatively low price – at least in comparison to more fine dining experiences in Oulu.
There are also lots of late night kebab spots in Oulu, as well as plenty of burger joints offering cheap eats. If you want to stay healthy, you will be much better off preparing your own salads than frequenting the abundance of fast food joints.
Try to visit the local markets – especially in summer, when they fill the squares and line the seafront – as you’ll find plenty of great value local produce for sale.
Cheap tours to do in Oulu on a budget
Oulu is found in northern Finland, and that means that this can be the perfect base for spotting the Northern Lights. Travel here in the dead of winter, and given Oulu’s proximity to the Arctic Circle, you’ll be in prime Northern Lights watching territory.
You’ll need to head out of the city and away from the light pollution and one of the best ways to do this is to join an organised tour.
The guides will know the most beautiful spots to take you, and you’ll be surprised at how cost effective Northern Lights Watching Tours can be in Finland.
One of the best ways to experience central Oulu is to take a walking tour of the city. Many of the major sights, including museums, the Market Square and other attractions are within walking distance of one another, and you’ll be able to enjoy the crisp fresh air and get some exercise as you sight see.
A self guided walking tour is of course the most cost effective way to see the city for a budget traveller, but if you want to learn more about the history and culture of Oulu then you can also consider joining a guided walking tour. It will be worth the added expense to immerse yourself in local life.
When you’re in Oulu, you’re edging ever closer to the Arctic, and across the wild tundra that surrounds the city you’ll find that there are huge herds of reindeer calling the Arctic wilderness home.
One of the best ways to get close to these marvellous animals and to learn more about their habits and the role they play in Finnish life, is to take a tour of a reindeer farm.
Recommended budget tours in Oulu
- Snowshoeing in Hietasaari, Oulu, Finland
- Ice fishing trip in Nallikari, Oulu, Finland
- Oulu Private Transfer from Oulu city centre to Oulu airport