Ah, Finland. It is the happiest country in the world according to the World Happiness Report 2018. It’s been lauded for its stellar education system, one of the best in the world. It’s also one of the best places to watch nature’s most spectacular lightshow, the Northern Lights.
But beyond the appeal of the Aurora Borealis, it’s time we view Finland in a different light. This easy-going Nordic country offers a mixed bag of experiences that’ll satisfy everyone from design and culture cravers to adventure seekers, looking for both thrills and silent refuge.
Experience the Midnight Sun with endless summer days
The Finns say that Summer is the best time to visit. Between May and August, the days are long, with dusk quickly transitioning to dawn. It’s a lively time as the Finns are a people with love for nature etched into their DNA, and the beaches, cafes and parks are hopping with locals.
It’s also a time when you get to see the best of Helsinki and its surrounds. The summer solstice is when islands off Helsinki come alive with Midsummer dances and bonfires (“kokko”), traditionally lit to keep evil spirits away. This is also the time to witness the midnight sun – both disorientating and amazing, as the sun never sets.
Helsinki: A city that lives and breathes design
In the urban areas, the emphasis on design is instantly noticeable. The 2012 World Design Capital and UNESCO City of Design traces its strong design back at least 800 years.
You’ll see it in their churches, their forts and today in their fashion and home ’n’ décor. One of Helsinki’s most famous architectural marvels is Temppeliaukio Church, also named “Rock Church” because it is built directly into rock. Not just a visual treat, the church boasts excellent acoustics due to the exposed rough, unworked rock surfaces. Another iconic church is the Kamppi Chapel of Silence, marked as a venue for a breather and silence, poetically juxtaposed in one of the busiest districts of Helsinki, Narinkka Square.
Design District Helsinki (south Helsinki) shows off Finland’s modern design sensibilities. It is a large cluster of about 25 streets with boutique hotels, bars and about 170 design stores, featuring everything from jewellery to interior design. You can explore the best of Finnish design on a guided tour to drink in art with a local perspective.
For a bout of shopping, Galleria Esplanad is a great spot for iconic local fashion brands, like Marimekko, globally renowned for stunning fabrics and long-lasting apparel in traditional Nordic style, and even quirky shoe label Minna Parikka, known for pushing the boundaries of local design sense.
A cultural treasure not to be missed is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Suomenlinna (“Castle of Finland”), a sea fortress built in 1748. It’s an easy ferry ride from Helsinki, with museums, restaurants and watering holes for culture buffs and families alike to enjoy a day out of the city. If you enjoy the boat ride as much as the exploration, opt for an island-hopping day pass (available at Market Square) to visit the islands, Lonna (they have a sauna!) and Vallisaari (to hike its national park).
Fishing, foraging and feasting
Farm-to-table might be a trend in other parts of the world, but it is way of life in Finland. Thanks to its long coastline, the lively farmers’ markets in Helsinki’s harbourfront prominently feature seafood. For an affordable traditional meal and some real Finnish culture, wander down to Kauppatori marketplace by the Helsinki harbour and try a salmon soup or a plate of deep-fried Muikku fish. (Note: The markets are less dynamic in winter).
Where local pastries are, you’ll find many Finns. Karelian Pastry (a thin rye dough with porridge in the middle) is a popular traditional afternoon snack, typically served with egg butter on top. Fazer Café at Kluuvikatu is a great place for it, but if it’s a balmy afternoon, have it at Café Regatta by the sea.
If you fancy a fine dining experience, restaurant Nolla operates on a strictly zero-waste policy and serves food mostly from within a 200km radius of Helsinki – indicative of the Finns’ sustainable way of life.
Take advantage of “everyman’s right”, a Finnish legal concept that everyone has the right to enjoy nature, and hop on a foraging tour. It will take you through forests and lakes of parks so you can pick bilberries (north European blueberries), lingonberries, strawberries and cloudberries to your heart’s content. Towards autumn, foraging and freezing them (for winter) is popular practice all over Finland. Bilberries top the berry list here, evident from its prominence in menus. Think bilberry soups (or smoothies), pies, breakfast porridge, or even in cocktails, like at cocktail bar, A21 (Annankatu 21, Helsinki).
Another favourite: chanterelle mushrooms. It is the most highly-valued local mushroom and foraging is common practice too. The Finns don’t use much spices, but instead rely on good produce. A great local meal would be a reindeer steak with a creamy chanterelle sauce and new potatoes (another Finnish obsession).
Tick the Northern Lights off that bucket list – and visit Santa Claus
If you’re more of a winter traveller, snow season in northern Finland starts November and can last till early May.
It is the season that invites a different kind of adventure. It’s no surprise that skiing is a winter past-time here. Even if you’re not much of a sportsman or woman, ski resorts are perfect for an out-of-city retreat. The truly adventurous must check out ice swimming. The Finns strip down to their skivvies and plunge into icy watering holes. Before you poo-poo the activity, it has its benefits – it really gets your blood pumping, making you feel revitalised. You have to try it at least once.
Then head to a sauna. Yes, we couldn’t write about Finland without talking about saunas. Saunas are a way of Finnish life. There are saunas all over the country. The sauna is a place of physical and spiritual cleansing, but also a place of bonding. Even toddlers join their families in the sauna. While the popular sauna-and-swim experience can also be had in summer, there’s something extra comforting about visiting a sauna in the dead of winter.
If you’re coming for the Northern Lights, then December to February is your best bet. Aurora chasers can be spotted every evening waiting hours for the lightshow. It requires patience and staying outdoors in freezing temperatures. Skip the long stakeouts with glamping (glamour camping), a camping experience with modern amenities. See the lights in a purpose-built glass igloo, so you can “glamp” your way through the northern lights experience in comfort, warmth and definitely, style.
Getting there is an eight-hour high-speed train ride from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. Take the over-nighter to save the daylight for other activities, and don’t waste the long journey, because there’s yet another to visit Lapland. It’s Santa claus.
Rovaniemi is the official hometown of Santa Claus. Visit Santa Claus Village at Christmas (of course) and have fantastical childhood fairytales come to life. Travel in reindeer-drawn carriages or race over snow-covered hills in husky-drawn sleds. It’s the stuff of storybook dreams.
Answer the call of Finland
More than just a checklist of places, the true attraction in Finland is the Finnish way of life. From the fresh, sustainable produce in lively markets, daily routines unique to locals, or the cobblestoned alleyways lined with strategic design, this is a place for the design geek, the nature appeciator, or just someone looking to experience the Nordic warmth.
Stand to win a holiday for four to Finland!
Always wanted to meet Santa? Now you can. Win yourself a holiday for four to Finland when you take part in the #FindingFinland contest giveaway. All you have to do is to find the winning 6-digit combination hidden in a video. HINT: The timestamps when you first see Santa , a giant Christmas, and a pair of reindeer will bring you one step closer to #FindingFinland. Good luck!
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Best time to visit
For a different Nordic holiday, visit during the summer months, June to August. The best winter holidays can be had from December to February. Regardless, be sure bring a jacket when out and about as even summer evenings tend to be chilly.
When in Helsinki, walking is your best option to see the city. But you could also bike, hop on a tram, or take the metro. The local rail and ferry services will take you out of the city.
The official currency of Finland is the Euro. Finns use less physical cash in their transactions, but ATMs for cash withdrawal are common. Most major credit cards, including Visa, MasterCard and EuroCard can be used for payment in most shops and restaurants.
Fly direct to Helsinki via FinnAir. Search for airfare deals and book your tickets now!