Have you ever thought about adding Finland to your bucket list? I must be honest – it wasn’t really on my radar. However – and this is a big however – in the summer of 2019 I was invited to visit, and I had an absolutely amazing experience! In fact – I fell completely in love with it and truth be told – I did not expect to fall in love with it as much as I did! But it happened!
I recently had the pleasure of revisiting those marvelous memories and images of the county while chatting with Heli Mendi who is the head of Visit Finland North America. Our talk focused on what to expect when you visit this beautiful country and below are some of the highlights. Speaking from experience – I must say it is everything Heli said and more – much more.
Fasten your seat belts because Finland here we come!
Background: So Heli immediately brought up a great point. Most Americans are aware of Scandinavian countries and they assume Finland is a part of them. But Finland is actually NOT part of the Scandinavian countries – which consist of Sweden, Norway and Denmark geographically – although they do share a lot culturally with the Scandinavian countries.
Truth be told they consider themselves a Nordic country. They have a totally different language, they no longer have royalty – unlike the other Scandinavia countries – and are a republic and a parliamentary democracy. (Note: Although Sweden, Norway and Denmark have royalty they are still a parliamentary democracy as well.)
Destinations: In land space Finland is the eighth largest country in Europe – however there are only 5.4 million people residing there and most of the population is located in southern part of the country in the Helsinki Region.
Finland is divided into four regions – Helsinki Region, Coast and Archipelago Area, Lakeland and Lapland.
- Helsinki Region: Helsinki is the capital of Finland and as I stated above – most of the population – 1 million out of the total 5.4 million people– reside in this area.
- Coast and Archipelago Area: Finland has one of the largest archipelago areas in the world – in other words they have a lot of islands! There are about 70,000 islands but no one knows for sure the exact number because there are so many small islands off their coastline it’s impossible to count. This is news to a lot of people! In fact – a number of the islands are very private, and your Travel Guru can arrange for you to have your own island for the day if you so choose!
- Lakeland Region: The Lakeland Region is on the eastern side of Finland and is also known as the Heart of Finland. Now, Finland is not only home to a lot of islands – but it’s home to a lot of lakes as well – 188,000 to be exact! The largest of those is Lake Saimaa at 1700 square miles and it is found in the Lakeland region of the country. Lake Saimaa is home to a very special species – the Saimaa rink seal – which is the only freshwater seal in the world!
- Lapland: Located in north Finland, Lapland is a very unique region not only in Finland but in the northern part of the Nordic countries in general. Often called “The Last Wilderness of Europe,” it’s home to more reindeer than people – 203,000 reindeer verses 183,000 inhabitants! In this stunning region you can also see the Northern Lights 200 nights out of the year – weather permitting. Also here? Lapland is known for its very unusual Midnight Sun – which means what you think – the sun does not go down at all in the summer leaving it shining brightly all through the night.
Sightseeing and Activities: Finland is country of a lot of contrasts – i.e. – in the winter there is a lot of darkness due to a long period of short days and long nights. The winter in the north – it’s darkness – is a very different experience then most will ever see. Starting in September and continuing through April the nights get longer and darker and northern lights season starts.
With snow covered lands and the opportunity to see those northern lights – also known as the Aurora Borealis – it is a wonderous sight to behold.
For you animal lovers – you can get up close and personal with some of the reindeer population in Finland. Here you have the opportunity to visit an actual reindeer farm where you can walk with – and feed – the reindeer and learn all about this mysterious creature. And where there are reindeer – there must be…Santa! That’s right folks – Santa Claus lives in Finland! You can find him in his hometown at the Artic Circle in the town of Rovaniemi in the Lapland Region.
Finland is known in general for design and architecture – getting its influences from Russia in the east as well as western European countries and Sweden (Note: Finland was actually a part of Sweden for a while who then lost them to a war and Russia took over). They are home to a lot of new modern architecture as well and one of the masterpieces is the public library Oodi in Helsinki. Per Heli it was a “birthday present from us to us” as Finland turned 100 years old in 2017. Oodi was voted the Best Public Library in the world in 2019 by Time Magazine as well as one of the 100 Best Places to Visit in the World. Finish people love to read so if you can’t find them out in nature – they are probably reading!
Wellness: Nature is one of Finland’s biggest secrets and is very deep rooted in the lives of the Finish. Seventy percent of Finland is covered by forest and there are many green areas and parks throughout the country – even in Helsinki. From the time they are very small children Fins are dressed appropriately and taken – or sent – outdoors to play. Subsequently, they grow up spending a lot of time in nature playing year-round. As Heli said – “no bad weather here – just bad clothing!”
It’s very calming to be in a forest and to listen to sound of nature and Finland has shared those sounds, putting out an entire album on Spotify called Scapes that contains the sounds of Finnish Lapland. Did you know that just being in a forest for 15 minutes calms your pulse and your body starts to rest? Translation? Being in a green environment for that small amount of time is good for the blood pressure!
And finally – the air and water in Finland are both clean and serene. In fact, the water is so clean you can actually drink out of the rivers!
Saunas: Saunas are such a huge part of Finland that they get their own category! Finland is
well known for its saunas. In fact, sauna is a Finish word. Saunas were invented for practical reasons – as a warm place to wash – around 10,000 years ago and now are widely utilized for relaxation purposes.
There are an estimated three million saunas in the country. So, in addition to every single house having a sauna – there is also one in every summer house at the lake or on the coast (everyone in Finland has a summer home in addition to their home). As Heli said – it is a part of their Finish DNA – she even has one in her apartment in Helsinki!
One popular type of sauna is called a Smokey Sauna. They are actually modeled after ancient saunas which were originally constructed as earth pits where people could build a fire for heat when they washed. Eventually they realized that they could build a cottage or hut in this space and heat the room to wash in. The very first ones had no chimneys, so they built very small windows to release the smoke when they were ready to wash up – hence the name Smokey Sauna. You can still find this type of sauna in the countryside today.
Public saunas are quite popular as well in the cities in Finland – where life is very different. They are quite modern and often have bars and restaurants and even outdoor pools attached to them. Note – unlike the private saunas you do need to wear a bathing suit!
Another very Finish thing they do is combining a sauna with icy water in the winter. Basically, this means you would jump into the cold lake then go back to the sauna and repeat several times. Of course, they don’t stay long in the freezing water – just enough to get their blood moving. As soon as you as you are out of the cold water your circulation kicks in and your body starts to warm up and makes you feel happy. That’s your body is producing the mood balancing hormones serotonin with dopamine. Stress literally starts to melt away after just a couple minutes and it makes a great way to start the day. Try it yourself with a cold shower!
Gastronomy: Finland is one of the biggest coffee consumers in the world and one thing they like with their coffee is pastries – in particular cinnamon buns. The cinnamon bun is one of their local, traditional pastries and in Finland it is called korvapuusti – translation – slapped ears! You can find many cafes where you can sit, enjoy a cup of coffee and try a local cinnamon bun. According to Heli, Fins are pretty obsessed with these cinnamon rolls and call coffee and korvapuusti together pullakahvit – which literally means bun coffee.
Miscellaneous: Did you know…Finland was ranked as the “Happiest Country in the World” by the United Nations three times in a row? It’s true – and that ranking was measured on how happy their citizens were which was based on life expectancy, healthiness, perception of corruption and generosity – or – how much people give to charity and help others. Not only that but there also an index called unexplained happiness that Finland ranks high on as well!
Language and Currency: The currency in Finland is the Euro and they have been a member of the EU for a long, long time. Most locals speak English as they all learn English in school usually starting around age seven or so. You will find to be very friendly although a bit more shy and reserved than say…your typical American. (Note: No visa required for US or Canada residents.)
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing they recommend a 10-day self-quarantine if traveling from the United States and Canada. However – if the person has a negative coronavirus test certificate that is less than 72 hours old at the time of arrival in Finland and will stay in the country for less than 72 hours, a second test and voluntary quarantine are not required.
So, I know we usually talk about Hidden Gems in these overviews – but in reality – Finland is actually one destination that is truly an entire hidden gem in Northern Europe! And as always this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg as far as things to see and do and eat in this amazing destination. For more details on things to see and do, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!