Finland is one of the best places in the world for viewing Northern Lights (aurora borealis). The probability of catching them is highest in Lapland but Oulu is not far behind. According to the Finnish Meteorological Institute, we can see Northern Lights about 25% of the nights here – as long as there’s darkness and there are no clouds in the sky.
In the summer the sky doesn’t get dark enough in Finland to see auroras. At midsummer the Sun barely touches the horizon in Oulu. But in September darkness begins to overpower light, opening a window of opportunity to watch Northern Lights in Oulu all the way to April.
And what a spectacle we can enjoy here when the lights arrive, swirling and dancing. Sometimes they look like curtains, other times they’re like long trails in the sky. Most of the time they’re green, but sometimes they’re red or purple.
What causes this beautiful natural phenomenon? Here’s an explanation by Thomas Kast, a professional photographer and tour guide based in Oulu who specialises in taking photos of the Northern Lights.
“Northern Lights occur when eruptions on the Sun release charged particles into space that interact with the Earth’s atmosphere. The results of these collisions are glowing emissions that are visible on clear nights around the Arctic Circle.”
Oulu is located about 200 km south of the Arctic Circle. To residents’ and visitors’ delight, auroras have been occurring at an increasing frequency recently. What’s the reason for that?
“It’s got to do with the solar cycle,” says Thomas Kast. “The Sun has an 11-year cycle that includes passing through a Solar Maximum and a Solar Minimum. There are more Northern Lights during Solar Maximum, the next of which is in 2026. It’s a lucky coincidence that it’s the same year when Oulu is Europe’s Culture Capital. We can expect to see a lot of Northern Lights that year.
“It’s only 2023 but we have already started seeing more Northern Lights in Oulu as they tend to occur increasingly frequently at either side of the Solar Maximum.”
Thomas Kast has joined forces with Tietomaa, Oulu’s Science Centre, to create a Northern Lights project that’s part of Oulu2026’s cultural programme.
“The title of the project is Aurora Revelare and it consists of two parts: one is an interactive exhibition in Tietomaa that will cover the scientific and cultural aspects of Northern Lights. For instance, we’ll explore what Northern Lights mean in different Sami cultures, what myths and traditions are related to them. We’ll also give tips to people on how to find Northern Lights and how to interpret space weather forecasts.
“The second part of the project is to take people out to nature to hunt the lights. There will be evening tours in the Oulu area and also longer ones taking two to three days when we travel north and east of Oulu, but still stay in the Oulu2026 area.”
And what’s Thomas’ best tip for people who can’t wait for the tours in 2026 and want to see Northern Lights in Oulu now?
“Get out of the city centre. Find a place away from street lights, ideally a field or a meadow or a river, facing north. My favourite spots are places along the river where the water doesn’t freeze. I love reflections of the Northern Lights on water. They’re so beautiful.”
Arctic Food Lab is a trademark of Oulu2026 – European Capital of Culture that aims to promote northern gastronomy focussed on local food. Erika Benke has met two food industry professionals in Oulu to hear their thoughts on how Arctic Food Lab intends to take the concept of wild and locally-grown food based cuisine to the next level.
“We have totally unique ingredients here in Oulu. I hope that in five years’ time, we will be the proudest Finns of our local ingredients.”
Chef Jussi Kurkela starts our conversation with a bold statement, fit for someone whose fine-dining venue Ostroferia has made real waves in Oulu’s restaurant scene. He’s a soft-spoken man, clearly articulating his mission.
“I make food from local ingredients. I carry the feeling that I get when picking up a mushroom straight to the table. I want the customer to feel the same emotion when eating that mushroom. That’s the only way to make food.”
Sinikka Eskola has been running Sokeri-Jussin Kievari, Oulu’s much-loved traditional Finnish restaurant in Pikisaari, for over twenty years. A cheerful, seemingly inexhaustible woman, Sinikka is bursting with passion when talking about local ingredients.
“Strawberries, mushrooms, fish, new potatoes, reindeer meat… oh my God! It’s the best in the world.
Isn’t is amazing that we live so far north, just below the Arctic Circle, but still this is the best place in the world for wild berries and growing these vegetables?”
Changing attitudes to local food
Most people agree that local food in Oulu is full of flavour. But many locals view it as nothing special – just part of ordinary life in the north. Arctic Food Lab aims to change that notion by stirring emotions and making people realise that their local food is unique – and it’s something to boast about.
“It’s not just that it’s healthy and delicious. Local food is good for the environment. And not having to transport it from long distances also means that everything is fresh,” adds Sinikka to the long list of benefits.
A competitive advantage
Arctic Food Lab promotes the idea that local food can be a competitive advantage to players in the food industry.
Farmers, restaurants and supermarkets can all benefit from prioritising local food in their offerings, thereby increasing awareness about forest and locally-grown and raised food among tourists and locals alike.
“This is so good for everybody. We need to get this loud and clear,” says Jussi Kurkela.
“We need to make sure that there’s local food on everybody’s table: at home and in restaurants. Supermarkets should set up an aisle or a corner dedicated to local food,” suggests Sinikka Eskola.
Get addicted to foraging
Arctic Food Lab wants both tourists and locals to learn more about Oulu’s gastronomic heritage.
“To make that happen, how about organising tours in the forest?” asks Jussi Kurkela.
“We have to get everybody to start picking berries and mushrooms. Many people are afraid of picking mushrooms because some are poisonous, and they don’t bother to learn which ones are edible. We should teach them about mushrooms.”
Jussi is a keen mushroom picker but he points out that at the time of our interview, we’re in the middle of the cloudberry season. To prove the point, in half an hour he effortlessly fills a small box with the juicy orange fruit.
“It’s so easy to learn to appreciate local food. All you have to do is pick enough cloudberries to make a cake for your family. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be hooked. Next year when the cloudberry season starts, you’ll feel an irresistible urge to go and pick them and make that cloudberry cake again.”
If you’ve been inspired to follow Jussi’s advice, please get in touch with us and tell us about your experience. We’d love to hear from you: has a box of berries you’ve collected made you addicted to foraging?
Having lived in Oulu for eight months, I’ve met enough people to make amazing daily discoveries of how everyone is connected.
Let me give you an example: in early March I did an interview with Juha Toppi, the man who built and maintained the Hailuoto ice road. An immensely likeable character doing a brilliant job with his tractors and heavy machinery – which, as I found out a few weeks after we met, he had also used to transport a shipwreck from Hailuoto to Oulu to feature in Hylky, an immersive theatre production I wrote a review about last September. And where did the shipwreck end up after the last Hylky performance? At Ruskotunturi, of course: Oulu’s rubbish dump that’s been converted into a ski slope with a biogas plant inside the hill – a story in one of the most popular videos I’ve made this year.
It increasingly feels like Oulu is just the perfect size to know someone related to pretty much everything that’s going on in my life. It’s not too small to be boring and not too big to feel lost and disconnected.
A trip to Helsinki in February really brought this home to me. Helsinki felt crowded after Oulu: cafes, restaurants, shops and trams were all full. It’s funny how perspectives change so quickly. Before moving to Oulu, I’d lived in London for 23 years. I came to Helsinki from London four times in 2019 for work and I always thought it was a quiet city with loads of space. This last time Helsinki felt like a metropolis. Not in a soul-less way, but it was certainly more hectic and stressful than Oulu.
And the contrasts kept on coming. Soon after my trip to Helsinki I spent a blissfully relaxing weekend at a friend’s mökki in the middle of nowhere on the bank of the magnificent frozen Oulujärvi. It was a setting straight out of a fairy tale, with more snow and silence than I’d ever experienced. The nearest supermarket was 30 km away, and there were two neighbours at the safe distance of about 800 m in each direction.
And that’s where I made a very surprising discovery. I’d always thought that Finnish people went out of their way to seek solitude when going to their mökkis in the wilderness. They would even get annoyed to see a boat on the horizon, invading their personal space the size of greater London.
But here, there was more social life than I’d ever imagined: the men in the three mökkis had bought a tractor together and appeared to have the time of their lives spending the whole of Saturday fixing it. And the three families even share their saunas: they take turns heating them and they happily go and use a neighbour’s sauna two out of three evenings. And that’s not the end of it: they often stay in each other’s mökkis for snacks after sauna! This is stuff that I’ve always associated with Italy and Spain but not Finland. It just goes to show how wrong stereotypes can be.
And finally an admission: I didn’t survive a night in a laavu. And it wasn’t even very cold: only minus 6. I tried and tried to go to sleep, tossing and turning, but it was too cold for me. Despite my military-grade sleeping bag, I could feel the cold radiating from the ground and by two in the morning my nose was turning into ice. At that point I gave up and retreated into the mökki.
I love winter but my first attempt at sleeping outdoors was a failure. Astonishingly, my 72-year old laavu companion declared it was “too hot” as she was unearthing herself from her sleeping bag at 8 am. I promised her I’d give it another try next winter. Only five more months to wait.
Erika Benke, journalist born in Hungary. Moved to London (-97) to work for the BBC. Now lives in Oulu and works for the Oulu2026 project
We’re having an amazingly beautiful winter in Oulu. For two months now, the city has looked like a Christmas postcard, buried under extreme amounts of snow. On some days it’s like a frosty scene from a fairy tale. The moment I leave the house, I have to stop to take photos. The views are stunning and they are different every day, especially now that the light is increasing dramatically.
I love winter so this is my kind of heaven. Some of my Finnish friends have had enough of snow work by now and there’s even one who refuses to go outside in -25. I’m just the opposite. I’m actually a bit sad that it’s already March and winter is scheduled to end in a few weeks.
There’s only one activity related to snow and ice that I don’t like: ice-fishing. I understand that spending hours in a huge white space above the frozen sea can be a meditative experience that’s good for mental health. But it’s very cold as there’s very little action.
I love being out skiing, running or cycling as I feel warm while exercising, no matter how cold it is. But I didn’t enjoy loitering on the ice while doing an interview with a fisherman in late January. There’s not much fun in standing on the ice in one place, with the wind picking up. After an hour and a half I thought I was turning into a block of ice, freezing from the inside. I’d never ever felt colder in my life and it was only -7 degrees. Thank goodness for saunas: I managed to defrost without any damage but even editing the interview pictures on my laptop a few weeks later made me shiver in a perfectly warm house. See the video of the Ice fishing.
On the plus side, I’ve made two snowy discoveries that I love: one is villasukkajuoksu. It’s a very natural, soft feeling to run in tons of fresh snow without shoes and I don’t feel the cold at all. To be fair, I didn’t do more than 600 metres on my first run. I was running with a friend’s dog who was clearly against the concept. He kept trying to take off my socks and when he failed, he almost tripped me up by running in between my legs. But even that was fun, adding to the excitement.
Nevertheless I liked the experience so much that I did another villasukka run, this time without a dog, in a forest about five hours’ drive to the south from Oulu. I got a bit further than 600 metres and I was really enjoying it until I heard a sound that I didn’t recognise but found a bit unnerving. It certainly disrupted the euphoria of running in the snow and I decided to turn back.
When I was back in the house, my host casually informed me that there was a pack of wolves living in the forest. About 40 of them. “But don’t worry, there hasn’t been an attack on humans in Finland in 100 years”, he added. I’d heard that before but somehow didn’t find it reassuring. Especially not in a pair of snow-covered socks. And why do Finnish people not tell you about wolves before you go on a run in the forest in the first place?
Wolves aside, my most exciting new experience in the last two months was jumping into a meter and a half of fresh snow in Rokua, and almost disappearing in it. I’ve always wanted to jump into a pile of snow from a rooftop but never had a chance before. So this was a dream come true. Totally exhilarating, almost intoxicating. Definitely one to repeat before winter is over.
And there’s one more winter experience to come: next weekend I’ll be spending a night in a laavu in Oijärvi. That will be quite an adventure. I’ve never slept outdoors in the winter so I’m very excited. I’ve been told it will feel cosy and warm in the sleeping bag but I have my doubts. We’ll see. At least there are no wolves or bears nearby. Or so they say.
Erika Benke, journalist. born in Hungary. Moved to London (-97) to work for the BBC. Now lives in Oulu and works for the Oulu2026 project.
When I decided to move to Oulu from London without my family for a year, I made a deal with my children that we wouldn’t be away from each other for more than 50% of the time.
That was before any of us heard about Covid19. We had no idea that flying between Oulu and London would not be quite so easy after March 2020. Still, despite the restrictions, we managed to stick to the 50% deal all the way to November. My family could come and stay with me in Oulu on a regular basis because even in Covid times, close relatives of a person living in Finland were allowed to travel without any hassle.
That all changed with the new version of the virus, perfectly timed to make an appearance in England just before Christmas. The border was shut with immediate effect and there have been no flights from the UK to Helsinki since Dec 19.
With flights cancelled, my family couldn’t come to Oulu for Christmas. I could have probably gone to London. But if I’d done that, I would now be trapped there for weeks, or months. We thought it was best if I stayed in Finland and postpone our family Christmas to whenever we can travel again.
It’s moments like this when you realise how much we invest in Christmas emotionally. When the decision to stay apart sank in, we were all heartbroken. But what can you do when life throws lemons at you? The only sensible thing is to adapt. That’s how I ended up on a train to Turku to spend Christmas with a Finnish family I’ve known for over 35 years.
Eeva-Maria was my pen-friend when I was in primary school in communist Hungary. A few years later she came to Budapest on an inter-rail trip and stayed in my family house for a few days. I came to Turku when I was a student to visit her. Another few years later she and her parents and siblings all drove from Turku to Hungary to attend my wedding. I have lots of friends in Oulu but I haven’t got this kind of history with anyone here. So Turku was an obvious choice: they are my Finnish family.
There I was, running in a snow-less forest in Kaarina, contemplating how, just three days earlier, I had no idea I would be there for Christmas. It was a strange thought but it passed quickly: I had to concentrate on not getting lost and risk being late for the start of the festivities. I was under firm instructions to get back home in time for the Joulurauha announcement.
I think traditions are important and they’re mostly reassuring: they connect you with previous generations and create shared experiences. By the time I sat down in front of the TV to watch the declaration of Christmas peace in Turku’s great square, all was well with the world. A male choir and a military brass band performing Luther’s Battle Hymn of the Reformation was a bit unexpected but nevertheless uplifting addition to my start-of-Christmas experience.
But then came riisipuuro, It gave me a shock because it looked exactly like a sweet rice pudding, something I often ate as a child. But riisipuuro was salty! Somehow I ended up with a very large pile of it on my plate of which, I’m ashamed to report, I managed to eat only one very small spoonful. I decided that it was probably a south Finland aberration but upon my return to Oulu, I found out that it was also on everybody’s Christmas table here. What can I say? Maybe try, just once, making it with milk, honey, cream and vanilla sugar and drop in a few raisins?
The rest of Christmas food was great: a huge ham and salmon were brilliant centrepieces and I had a decent portion of each laatikko as well, unlike most other members of the family who I noticed were decidedly less enthusiastic. After my riisipuuro fiasco, I thought I’d better not comment on that. We then blissfully slipped into an eat-drink-chill-repeat routine that lasted for the better part of the next three days, all very similar to how it goes in England and Hungary. We exchanged presents, played a few games and I spent a lot of time trying to fend off the family’s huge Labrador who developed a keen interest in me. We laughed and cried – the latter mostly when I was speaking Finnish – and had a blissfully relaxing time with wonderful people who rallied around me and gave me a brilliant Christmas. I’m so lucky to have them in my life.
I’m now back in Oulu, working on four films in January. I’ve also stepped up my exercise regime in a big way. I bought a pair of skis and boots from tori.fi that fit me perfectly and I ski 5K every morning in winter wonderland. I’m improving fast and I find the whole experience of a having a new harrastus totally exhilarating. On top of that, I run 5K in the evening. I invested in a pair of running shoes with metal studs that feel safe even on ice. So I’ve effectively doubled up on exercise in the last two weeks and I feel super fit and healthy. It’s so easy: conditions to ski and run are perfect. Oulu is breathtakingly beautiful covered with tons of fresh snow. The skiing and running tracks are all lit and perfectly maintained. I enjoy the sight and feel of the city these days so much that I forget that I exercise. And if all goes well, my skis will even get a layer of fresh wax next week thanks to a friend who apparently knows what he’s doing. It has to be Oulu Tervahiihto next.
Erika Benke, journalist born in Hungary. Moved to London (-97) to work for the BBC. Now lives in Oulu and works for the Oulu2026 project.