Written by Justin Mewse
As decorations, present shopping and Christmas music start hitting their stride over here, there is one place in the world that is undeniably the real Christmas Land: Finland. Home of Lapland, the Northern Lights and actual Santa Claus, when we think of Finland we think of a crisp blanket of snow around light-bedecked fir trees, crackling fires warming mulled wine and thick furred reindeer leading us to Santa’s grotto. And there is all of this wonderful winter charm – more than enough to satisfy even the most excited 4 (or 40-something) year old. But there is much much more besides, so here is your guide to Finland’s year-round must-sees, from the luxurious to the eco and from the exciting to the spectacular. You can city break in Helsinki, island-hop through the lakes, hike and drive the stunning coast, relax in a traditional sauna, learn to cook local cuisine and discover the most remarkable wildlife. If you’re ready, then climb aboard the sleigh and let’s go!
Helsinki – Design Central
Nowhere is the Scandinavian fascination with design more evident than in Finland’s friendly capital city. The place is awash with beautiful buildings from the ornate to the minimalist and, because the city is fairly compact, you can easily put together your own walking tour to see the main sites. At Senate Square you will find the green and gold domes of the Helsinki Cathedral, a neoclassical masterpiece from 1852 that remains an icon of the city today. You will also find the imposing red, green and gold facade of the Upenski Cathedral – the largest Orthodox church in western Europe. At the modernist end of the spectrum, check out the Oodi Library with its sleek wooden curves and stark glass upper floors, as well as the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art. The Finns don’t just build upwards. A must-visit in Helsinki is the Temppeliaukio Rock Church, a subterranean church built into the city’s bedrock and a true architectural wonder. If your interests are more in the line of interior design then visit one of the design focussed shops in town. Artek was founded in 1935 and remains a world leader in mindful design for furniture and homeware. Littlala is renowned for its glassware craftsmanship and with over a thousand secret colour recipes Littala’s glittering showroom is a testament to the team’s unique mastery of pigments. For clothes head to Nomen Nescio. Designers Niina and Timo have a constantly evolving range of simple yet stylish gender neutral garments that are black, minimalist and made for everyday wear.
Lakeland – Recharge & Reconnect
Wherever you go in this stunning country you will never be far from a lake. From north to south, Finland is awash with an amazing variety of freshwater lakes from small to massive. Lakeland is the region with the highest concentration of lakes and is actually the largest lake district in Europe, making it perfect as a summer destination so you can really make the most of those long northern European days. The best place to start is Lake Saimaa, the largest lake in Finland with an amazing array of experiences on offer. Motorists and cyclists can enjoy the Puumala Archipelago Route that winds its way along a scenic causeway between islands dotted along Lake Saimaa. For something truly unique, climb aboard the steamboat for a journey to Olavinlinna Castle, a medieval stronghold surrounded entirely by water. Julma-Ölkky Lake is an impressive canyon lake, with rock walls rising vertically from the water’s edge, and you can join a boat tour to get up close in this imposing natural feature. To taste the chic side of lakeside life head to the town of Tampere, on the rapids between 2 lakes. Here al fresco dining and boutique shops are the order of the day and the town has plenty of delightful hotels to boot. In the land of a thousand lakes, lake hopping is an absolute must so start thinking about your own lake hopping holiday now.
Coast – The World’s Largest Archipelago
On Finland’s Baltic Sea coast you will find an exquisite combination of historical sites, picturesque villages and the world’s largest archipelago. With more than 50,000 islands you can rest assured you are never too far from a hidden gem when exploring this region. Throughout the area you can spot the remarkable lighthouses that have served as beacons for hundreds of years. Each has a story to tell and some, like Bengtskär Lighthouse, have overnight accommodation. Unique and boutique accommodation can be found all over the coastal region, such as sleeping in the Silverskär Islands. From simple huts to the modern hotel of Klobben Island you have plenty of choice. Or for a truly special occasion you can even hire out an entire island and stay in the cosy fishermen’s huts. Being such a densely forested country it was once common for all houses to be built entirely out of wood. Picture postcard wooden villages dot the Coast and Archipelago region so be sure to stop by a few. Old Poorvo is just 50km from Helsinki but takes you back to the Medieval era with its irregular cobblestone streets and beautifully kept buildings. Every year, on the last weekend in August, all the historical wooden houses in the town of Loviisa open their doors and gardens to the public for a one-off chance to truly step into history. All this beauty, set against the gently lapping waves of the Baltic Sea.
Saunas – A Finnish Tradition
With an estimated 3 million saunas throughout Finland, this is one local tradition you will be hard-pushed to avoid. And why would you want to? Be it after a long day of exploring in the summer months or an exhilarating day in the snow over the winter, a relaxing sauna is always a welcome and well deserved treat. Tampere, in the Lakeland, is the country’s oldest working sauna dating from 1906. Still wood fired, enjoy a relaxing steam and a massage before coming back to reality with a local craft beer and a sausage in the sauna cafe. On Helsinki’s coast is the modern take on sauna style. Löyly has 3 wood heated saunas, an outdoor swimming pool and a restaurant with an outdoor terrace – the perfect spot for a glass or two of wine on a summer’s day. For those adventuring north to Lapland then Kuurakalitio is a must visit. Surrounded by the mesmerising Lappish landscape, this is a ‘smoke sauna’, which means smoke is left in the room during the warming up phase then vented out before you step in for a particularly smooth and fragrant sauna experience. And just outside is a freshwater stream for that bracing and refreshing post-sauna dip. True sauna junkies have one last thing on their bucket list and simply have to flag down the sauna on a raft: Koivurannan saunalautta on the Oulujoki River. Watch stunning scenery pass the sauna windows as you float along the river, and then the brave can dip in the river itself – through a hole in the ice in the winter.
Food Culture – Fresh and Natural
With one foot in Scandinavia and the other foot in Russia, Finland has a unique national cuisine that relies on the strict seasonality of the long winters, its rich abundance of cereals and berries and the remarkable bounty of the seas. Fish lovers have first choice when it comes to Finnish cuisine. From the smoked fish associated with the archipelago region to fresh fillets of perch and salmon, pescatarians have it all. Fish has become an important part of Finnish culture too, with summer crayfish parties now an annual event, with everything washed down by plenty of schnapps and song. Foraging is a massive part of Finnish heritage so lingonberries, blueberries, cloudberries and sea buckthorn are always on the menu, as are an array of mushrooms. Our top tip is to join a foraging tour where you may find all sorts of forest fruits and herbs. For those with more meaty tastes, Lapland’s eponymous reindeer produce some of the tastiest and healthiest cuts out there. Low in fat and rich in B-12, Omega-3 and Omega-6, reindeer is often served with potatoes and preserved berries. With more coffee consumed per person in Finland than anywhere else in Europe, coffee culture is big news here. Enjoy yours with a Korvapuusti (‘slapped ear’) cinnamon bun. Perfect. And if you really want to discover some local flavour, why not join a cooking class held at a host’s home?
Wildlife and Nature – Find Your Forest
One of Europe’s most sparsely populated countries and boasting over 40 national parks, Finland is a nature lover’s paradise. The headline act is bear watching, and the chance to witness these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat is one not to be missed. Brown bear call these expansive forests home so join an organised tour for the best chance of spotting them in a respectful and responsible way. Finland isn’t just home to the bears though. Wolves, wolverines and lynx are among the other amazing predators here. There are also plenty of walking and hiking trails, from gentle day trips to overnight itineraries. The Lakeland region offers plenty of walks that combine dense forests with lakeside viewing, such as Tiiliijärvi trail, while those who want a little less forest and a little more water can enjoy the Bengtskär Island trail.