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Finland is the land of white summer nights and magical northern lights, the country of the social sauna and captivating fauna. Beauty extends from islands to lakes, then northwards to the Arctic, where a vast wilderness lays the platform for adventure. So much excites the imagination and so much soothes the soul, as while Finland is a land of mythical landscapes, it is also the home of solitude and stresses melting away.
Black bear cubs in the Taiga wilderness.
Finland is dominated by grand wildernesses. The country is home to the largest lake district in Europe, the world’s largest archipelago and the winter wonderland crossed by huskies and reindeer. This is an escapist land, rugged and wild as soon as you leave capital city Helsinki on the southern shore. Wind whistles past your ear then the silence continues. Stone churches stand upon deserted islands. Wooden saunas await on frozen lakes. Space and freedom are everywhere, no tracks in the snow and no standard journeys through the trees. In summer, there is nothing but the white nights keeping you company. Winter is just as white, snow blanketing the land from December through until April or May, dampening footsteps and maintaining silence in the encompassing wilderness.
Finland is where you get out into nature, in a country that is widely missed on European travel itineraries. Perhaps it is the lack of historical highlights or a famous city; maybe the reserved nature of Finnish people means the word is not out about what the country offers. Either way, it is a blissful change from destinations elsewhere in Europe, without the crowds of summer and wonderfully unique during winter. Come here for an adventure in nature that can be tailored to your energy levels, from boating between islands to multi-day snowmobile or husky rides in the Arctic Circle.
You can create your own trails here, your own paths in the virgin snow. Most of the towns you visit are located along the water, staging points for getting out onto the archipelago, into Lakeland or across snowy Lapland. Maritime charm completes the experience on the coast, while the escapism of wooden cabins makes Lakeland and Lapland places where romance can thrive. There is no standard itinerary, and that is very much part of the appeal, visitors usually flying into Helsinki then setting off on an adventure. The more time you dedicate to Finland, the more you recognize that this is a country completely distinct from what the rest of Europe has to offer. It is this inimitability that has many people wanting to return.
Helsinki and Surroundings
The capital city Helsinki is pictured above.
Compact and big on tradition, the capital city, Helsinki is quick to confirm that nature dominates Finland. Stone townhouses line the narrow streets, and after walking past them, you end up at forests and lakes. Islands are liberally sprinkled off the coast while the small city center comes alive on long summer nights. It is a relaxed city that is easy to get around on foot, a quiet place to spend a night or two before jumping off to wilder pastures. Finland’s main international airport is in Vantaa, a short drive from the center of Helsinki. It is more than likely you will start and end a vacation here.
You will find cultural attractions in the capital, not least local restaurants and traditional bars around Helsinki Market Square. Most activities involve going outdoors, to the Taiga forests and islands like Suomenlinna and Pihlajasaari. Take a day trip to the Middle Ages town of Porvoo, relax around Lake Tuusula, then do what all Finnish love to do: relax in the sauna.
The Western Archipelago
Aland islands are pictured above.
Laid-back island life dictates the tempo in the world’s largest archipelago. Vast national parks extend across ocean and forest, lighthouses peek out on rugged islands, and maritime culture mixes with empty beaches. It is rugged and unspoiled, even when you visit the villages, which have preserved their wooden buildings and slow pace of life. More than 6,500 islands make up the landscape of Aland, an autonomous island region you can explore from the old shipping village of Mariehamn.
Finland’s first capital Turku is a base for discovering the Turku Archipelago, where castles and villas make a compelling summer destination. All along the coast, you will find other summer towns, almost all offering boutique accommodation, and deserted beaches. See the manor houses of Hanko, sail, and raft from a wooden townhouse base in Kotka, or seek adventure on land and water from Pori. World Heritage Rauma is Finland’s cutest wooden town, a beautiful journey into the ambiance of yesteryear. Head further north, and you escape into really wild island landscapes, with Old Vaasa and the Kvarken Archipelago worth considering.
Cross country skiing in Finnish Lapland.
Lapland is Finland’s iconic attraction, a winter wonderland in the Arctic Circle. It is vast and uncompromising, snowy and dark throughout winter, then lit up with the sun for 24 hours a day during summer. Activities include riding a slay with huskies through the forest, taking snowmobiles up to the Russian border, connecting with traditional Sami culture, and the iconic Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) display. When in Lapland, you will experience true solitude and the surreal feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the splendor of an ephemeral land.
Santa Claus has his traditional home in Rovaniemi, a gateway town for varied Lapland adventure and an excellent choice for families. There is a stunning cross-country and downhill skiing, especially if you are advanced and adventurous enough to spend more of your time off-piste. Destinations like Levi and Yllas are for going outdoors on snowmobiles and huskies, Saariselka is a northern resort town, while Enontekio is best for authentic Sami encounters. Lapland is a splendid destination to visit in every season.
A quiet cabin located in Finnish Lakeland.
South of Lapland and north of Helsinki, occupying half of the country, Finnish Lakeland is a maze of forests and waterways. It extends for thousands of square miles, with cute cottages perched on the shores of more than a thousand different lakes. Canoe down the rivers with nobody else in sight, hike and cross-country ski through the forests, go fishing and searching for bears in Kuhmo, and cruise the lakes of the Lahti Region.
Like Lapland, there are many potential destinations, all with a similar appeal. When visiting Lakeland, pay a visit to spas, lakes, wood cottages and enjoy the great outdoors. Stay in small towns that mark the region, or a romantic lakeside cottage hidden in the trees.
Witnessing the Northern Lights
Finnish Lapland is an ideal location for viewing the northern lights.
They spiral and swirl, colors twisting into each other as they illuminate the night sky. It is a phenomenon visible from across the north of the Northern Hemisphere, but Finnish Lapland is almost unrivaled as a destination for witnessing the Aurora Borealis. The spellbinding show takes place roughly every other night from September through to March, brightening the night sky with surreal and transitory movements.
Glass igloo accommodations are perfect viewing locations for the Aurora Borealis.
Where you stay is always a highlight in Finland. Standard accommodation is a romantic wooden cottage hidden from the world. The unique is open to the wild, with Lapland having its fair share of bucket-list options. Spend a night or two in an ice hotel, surrounded by extravagant sculptures, and watch the Aurora Borealis through the glass ceiling of an igloo. Across Lakeland and the Archipelago, you will find most hotels have a sauna on the water, an idyllic place to unwind after the adventure.
A Day in Porvoo
Red wooden houses along the water in Porvoo.
Ideal if your time in Finland is short, Porvoo provides a glimpse into the country’s ongoing traditions. Wooden manor houses and churches are perched above the water, colorful lanes are quick to captivate and you will get a real sense of what rural Finland is like, whatever season you choose to travel. Porvoo is a short day trip from Helsinki and combines well with one of the islands off the southern coast.
Rauma UNESCO World Heritage Site, Finland.
Rauma is the famous World Heritage wooden town. It is a charming base for exploring the archipelago region. Spend part of the day walking past pastel-colored houses and relaxing along the waterfront, the other part exploring on boat cruises. You will find maritime history, sublime landscapes, old-world culture and unique travel photos.
Outdoor Safari: Snowmobile, Skis, Huskies
Dog sledding in the Finnish Lapland.
In a wilderness land, there are many directions to travel. Cruise along on a sled, a team of huskies taking you through the forests of the Taiga. Rev across frozen lakes on a snowmobile, a one-hour ride or a multi-day adventure that harks back to a time of explorers. The cross-country skiing is superb, and there is always another slope for going off-piste.
Lapland reindeer safari, Finland.
Nature’s cycle is wonderfully represented in Finland, the rhythmic beauty of four seasons playing out on open wilderness and city streets. Summer days are long, with hardly a moment of darkness throughout June and into July. In Helsinki, there is a brief one hour lull between dawn and dusk, but travel to Lapland and you enter the land of 24-hour days. It is a time of year for ambitious, energetic itineraries; so much can be done when it does not go dark. While it is not overwhelmingly warm, endless sunshine makes the country feel much hotter than the mercury suggests. Summer is when the Finns get outside, and you will be doing the same, either in the city or in nature.
Fall brings an eruption of color, reds, browns, and yellows that make Lapland a hypnotic place. Snow starts falling from November in the north, December in the south and stays on the ground all the way till April or May. Winter days are dark and cold, ideal for the Northern Lights and certainly more appropriate for a special interest vacation rather than a wide-ranging itinerary. Spring is incredibly short, but beautiful time of year; come for just a week in April, and you will witness nature’s transition in fast-forward.
With its distinctive offerings throughout the year, there is no clear peak season, other than the busy Christmas and New Year weeks. Finland is a good place to escape Europe’s crowds in summer while also offering an inimitable change from the drab winters that mark most of the continent.
Glass igloo hotel, Finland.
Evocative and enchanting, accommodation is a real highlight of Finland. A glass igloo beneath the Aurora Borealis, an artisanal hotel sculpted exclusively from ice and snow, wood-paneled cabins ideal for romance. Down in the city, there are boutique hotels from yesteryear; out on the islands you can escape the world in stone and glass cabins; then all over the lakes, you encounter the reserved charm of traditional wooden architecture. Saunas are so integral to Finnish culture that they rarely call a hotel a spa hotel – a traditional room of wood and steam is to be expected almost everywhere you stay.
Piece together Finland’s destinations, and there is a consistency to the accommodation, whether a cabin just for two or a larger five-star hotel. It is always reserved and unassuming, focusing on efficient service and comfort rather than extravagance, even in an ice hotel. There is always space; with Lakeland and Lapland cabins, it can feel like you have many uninterrupted miles as a private playground. Also in keeping with Finland in general, where you stay has a professionalism that many people are surprised by in this piece of Scandinavia.
The profusion of wooden cottages as accommodation makes Finland a good place to travel as a family. It is easy to get your own space, with multi-room cottages that are well spread from the rest of a resort area. Most will provide you with warm weather clothing, so there is no need to worry about thick snow boots for the children: the local Finnish brands are more effective than anything you can buy in the city at home.
Hiking in the Taiga Forest, Finland.
As a member of the European Union and Schengen Area, Finland is easy to travel to for U.S. and Canadian citizens with no visa is required for a vacation to the country.
The primary consideration before you go is what to pack. Look closely at the climate for the destinations you are visiting, at the specific time of year. Finland has sharply defined seasons and a wide disparity between temperatures in the north and south. You should not underestimate how cold it can get, even in spring and fall, although note that upmarket hotels will provide you with full cold weather gear if you are visiting Lapland in winter.
Most internal travel is by plane in this vast and sparsely populated country; there is even an airport 250 kilometers into the Arctic Circle. Almost all visitors fly into Helsinki and set off from there. Long summer days and empty roads, after the snow has cleared, combine to create another unique attraction: the chance to drive through the wilderness.
Winter scenery in Old Town Helsinki, Finland.
Finland is one of Europe’s safest countries, a land where many locals do not lock their front door, and the police are conspicuous by their absence. Unlike other European capitals, Helsinki is not prone to petty crime like summer pickpockets. Instead, drop your wallet on the streets, and there is a great chance you will be reunited with it, with all your cash and cards untouched.
Medical facilities are generally of a good standard, more than adequate for the emergencies that could occur you on a Finnish vacation. Be aware that northern Finland is exceptionally rural and getting around anywhere in the country can be a challenge during the winter, so the nearest medical facility may not be close by. Always make sure your travel or health insurance is valid and make use of your Finnish guide, as English-speaking doctors may not be available.
The vast majority of visitors to Finland leave feeling energized a combination of the fresh water, sauna culture, and clean air. Even in the heart of Helsinki you can breathe clean air and feel the therapeutic sauna benefits. While the winter cold can be a shock to the system, it has been proven to benefit the body. Just make sure you bring mosquito repellent in summer. The mosquitos do not carry disease but can be a real nuisance when you are staying around the water.
A Reserved Personality
Most Finns are more reserved compared to Americans.
The Finns are not big on small talk. Their attitude to a conversation is almost opposite that of the U.S. Finnish people would rather enjoy the silence that spout meaningless words to strangers. The people can be loud and welcoming as well, but why ruin the beauty of solitude with mundane chitchat? Especially in comparison to traveling in some nearby countries, visitors may initially be discouraged by this quiet, serious manner. Give it time and there is a lot to learn from the Finnish mentality; making silence feel comfortable is something a lot of the world could learn from, as is the willingness to take your turn before talking.
Immersed in the Sauna
There are over 2 million saunas in Finland.
The sauna is at the heart of Finish culture and is where the people become less reserved. There are more than 2 million of them, in a country with a population of 5 million citizens. Decisions are made amid clouds of mist, a serious conversation takes place when everyone is naked, and it is unlikely you will go a day without being invited into the steam. They are very different places to what you may use at a local gym. These are Finland’s social places, and they famously say that deals are done in the sauna not, the boardroom. Expect to spend real time in the heat; the Finish sauna is a place to stay an entire evening, not just sweat out toxins for 5 minutes.
A sauna is a place to be every evening during winter, helping you recover from cold outdoor temperatures. Traditionally the Finns go at least once a week, but a dip in the sauna can be as commonplace as eating breakfast throughout summer as well. Make it more traditional in summer by hitting yourself gently with purifying birch twigs.
The custom is to be naked. Most saunas are mixed male and female, although this is implied laxly at hotel saunas exclusively for foreigners; you may also find separate male and female times for the same sauna. First shower, then stay in the sauna as long as you feel comfortable. Exit the hot room, take a cold shower or roll in the snow, perhaps even dip in a frozen lake, then return to the sauna as many times as you like. In many traditional hotels, they have kept the custom of a washing-lady, who as the name suggests, washes you down. Like the nakedness, Finnish people are not shy, but the atmosphere is welcoming and never judgmental.
An Unusual Language
Many sounds in the Finnish language do not exist in English.
The Finnish language is baffling too most, distinct from every other language in the world other than Estonian. Following such a rare and beautiful tongue is tricky but an essential part of the experience, especially when voices float over you in a musty wood-paneled bar. Simply trying to pronounce a few words will quickly win over the locals, even if Finnish is widely considered the hardest European language for English speakers to learn. Many of the sounds do not exist in English, but the alphabet is mostly based on Latin, which means you can always try.
Eating and Drinking in Finland
Delicious karjalanpiirakka pastries are pictured above.
Finland’s traditional food is mostly reserved for holiday times but can also be sampled in tourist-focused restaurants and hotels across the country. Your guide will know where to take you for delicacies like reindeer meat, karjalanpiirakka pastries, herring pie, grillimakkara (grilled sausage), and cinnamon buns. You will not be able to avoid the sourdough rye bread that is a staple for most meals. Expect some good seafood almost everywhere you go, with the menu dictated by the season; crayfish and herring are the most famous.
Despite the Scandinavian reputation, the Finnish people do not drink more alcohol than the European average. A variety of frothy pilsner style beers are served from the tap and proximity to Russia is part of the reason there is such a diverse range of vodkas to taste. The water is a perennial highlight. Finnish tap water tastes better than most water you buy in the bottle and has also been found to be purer than the majority of bottled water brands on sale in Europe.
Zicasso's travel specialists will guide you through magical Finland!
Finland comes alive when you are guided by insiders. Rather than boast about the country’s beauty, the Finnish people prefer to keep the land under wraps. It is with local guides you can fully explore what is offered, including places not feature in the guidebooks.
Zicasso will connect you with Finland’s tour specialists. They will handcraft a tour to your interests and ideas, and then lead you through this magical country in the far north of Europe.