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The ultimate Finland travel guide


The “odd one out” of the Nordic nations – by virtue of its unique and tricky-to-learn language and relatively isolated location – Finland’s prime asset is its plentiful landscape. Made up of pristine lakes and forests, it draws nature lovers to its meandering archipelagos and rugged northern wilderness. Access to all of these is served by an efficient transport infrastructure and a handy range of accommodation, spanning rustic shoreside cabins and secluded luxury hotels.

The Finns are known for their design and architecture, a fondness for saunas, their high-tech savvy (this was the birthplace of Nokia phones) and their prolonged status as “World’s Happiest Country” m they’ve won the accolade five years running. Post-pandemic, this nation is prouder than ever of its vast, unspoilt environment, with tour operators emphasising the potential for outdoor adventure travel combined with imaginative accommodation. At the same time, Finnish restaurants up and down the country are discovering exciting new ways to combine local fresh ingredients.

Travel restrictions and entry requirements

Showing proof of vaccination or taking a Covid-19 test is no longer required before or after arrival in Finland. When travelling from non-EU and non-Schengen countries, you should be aware of the post-Brexit EU passport rules.

Best time to go

Come in the brief but light-filled summer (late May to late August) to experience Finland at its most convivial, life-affirming best. This is when that “happiest nation” label is at its most convincing: sleepy small towns spring to life with top-class international festivals of jazz, opera, dance and film, while the Helsinki Festival is the zenith of the capital’s cultural calendar, supplemented by major rock festivals such as Flow and Sideways. Winters, especially in Lapland above the Arctic Circle, have their own appeal, including the prospect of seeing the Northern Lights and trying winter sports in unspoiled snowy landscapes.The country’s northern fells and forests are ideal for autumn hikes, where you’ll follow well-marked trails against a spectacular backdrop of yellow, red and orange foliage – a phenomenon known as ruska.

Top cities and regions

Helsinki

Most visitors rightly make a point of including the vibrant capital on their itinerary, finding an expanding range of cool hotels to cushion their landing. Many of the city’s attractions, including the fabulous, historic Suomenlinna sea fortress, Korkeasaari Zoo and the Seurasaari Open Air Museum, are located on easily-reached islands scattered around the coastal city centre. Some are accessible by pedestrian and road bridges, others reached on short, pleasant voyages by scenic harbour ferry and water bus excursions. This waterfront lifestyle means seaside parks and cafes abound; in summer, colourful outdoor markets and sun-kissed restaurant terraces are a highlight.

The capital’s two cathedrals – the majestic white Lutheran and the red-brick, onion-spired Orthodox – are harbourside reminders of Finland’s turbulent history as a meeting point between east and west. Its residential neighbourhoods feature well-preserved, fanciful Jugenstil and Art Nouveau architecture, while ongoing developments mean a wide network of designated cycle tracks hug the scenic coastline, also heading into the surrounding countryside. Drop in to the enormous Oodi Central Library, unveiled in 2018, an extraordinary rethink of what a library should be. Meanwhile, out-of-town day excursions might include the exquisite cobbled lanes and old wooden town of Porvoo, an hour’s drive to the east, or mushroom-picking in the woods of Nuuksio National Park, to the west.

Lapland

Lapland’s provincial capital, Rovaniemi, is a magnet for Christmas family visits (Santa’s “official” residence is just out of town, bang on the Arctic Circle). The rest of this area, the homeland of the indigenous Sámi people, offers the opposite excitements of Midnight Sun in summer and the moody enigma of the half-lit kaamos in winter, when the sun barely peeps above the horizon. Autumn and spring are best for viewing the Northern Lights, which – weather permitting – you have a good chance of seeing from your glass-roofed igloo or from a wilderness campfire on the edge of a frozen lake.

Finnish Lakeland

There are lakes everywhere in Finland, but the eastern Lakeland regions of Karelia and Savo, stretching towards the 1,300 kilometre border with Russia, are especially well-endowed. Here, seemingly endless, extremely beautiful inland waterways are linked by pine-trimmed ridges. Go in summer to enjoy a steamboat cruise or rent a lakeside cottage, where you can idle away a week of blissful sauna-bathing, boat-rowing and berry-picking. The central city of Tampere is often referred to as “Finland’s Manchester” by virtue of its redbrick mill and factory buildings, many converted imaginatively to waterside restaurants, shops and museums. It’s also home to the world’s only Moomin museum.

The Baltic archipelagos

The southwest Baltic archipelagos – including the rustic, Swedish-speaking and autonomous Åland Islands – are dotted with red-barn farms, wildflower meadows and charming guesthouses, plus restaurants serving rich, dark breads and smoked fish. Traversed by ferries and bridges, it’s ideal for island-hopping and cycling adventures, as well as birdwatching. The riverside city of Turku, with its riverboat bars, castle and 14th-century cathedral, was Finland’s capital until Russian rulers took over from Sweden here in 1809. Now it’s a port for daily ferries to and from Stockholm.

Best under the radar destinations

Hailuoto

It may be known as “shark island”, but don’t be put off visiting Hailuoto, in the Baltic’s far north – the feared, finned creatures don’t reside in these Finnish waters. What you will find are some beautiful secluded sandy beaches to stroll along, and a fine hotel and restaurant at the foot of the lighthouse on the island’s western tip. Hailuoto has its own eponymous brewery and bar housed in a barn, and twitchers are drawn here by virtue of its location on the route for migratory birds, and proximity to Liminganlahti nature reserve. Regular car and bus ferries make the short crossing from just outside the city of Oulu.

Kotka

This harbour town towards the eastern border is the home of Vellamo, the national Maritime Centre and an absorbing museum of Finland’s seafaring heritage. The town is also proud of its well-tended parks, with rhododendrons providing an explosion of early summer colour. A short bus ride from the centre of town takes you to the Langinkoski rapids on the river Kymijoki – don’t miss the handsome wooden villa, now a museum, that served as the Imperial Fishing Lodge of Tsar Alexander III in the days of Russian rule.

Mikkeli

Tertti Manor, seven kilometres east of Mikkeli, on the edge of Finland’s eastern lakes, is an elegant former country house transformed into a destination boutique hotel, with its own organic farm, restaurant, cafe and shop. It makes a pleasant stop for a few hours on the drive to the lakes or as an overnight base for regional forays. Sustainable travel fans are lured by the restaurant’s menu, using local ingredients from lake, river and forest.

Best things to do

Walk on water

The inlets in and around Helsinki’s Baltic coastline often freeze up in winter, extending the city with a surreal and dazzling “ice park”, frequented by skiers, skaters, cyclists, dog walkers, ice-hole fishermen and kite flyers. For safety reasons, always check with the locals before venturing onto the ice.

Tuck in at Helsinki’s fine-dining restaurants

The Finnish capital now has seven Michelin-starred restaurants – one of which has two stars – each mining fresh, seasonal Finnish ingredients for inspiration. But these fish, berries, mushrooms, foraged herbs and fresh vegetables, are not exclusive to the gourmet venues: you’ll find a huge choice of affordable, informal dining spots, too.

Cycle the Espoo coastal route

One of the most beautiful urban cycle routes in the world, this path takes you west from the capital, hugging the coast for more than 20km of jaw-dropping scenery as it takes you to Kivenlahti. Pick up a City Bike at one of hundreds of bike stations to take the ride.

Explore Finland’s newest National Park

Salla, on the southern edge of the Lapland province, has fell-top views across the border into Russia, and is home to snowshoeing adventures and husky safaris in winter, fat bike treks in summer, and wilderness autumn hikes.

Wildlife-watching near the Russian border

Spend the night whispering excitedly to fellow tourists as brown bears and wolves cavort in forest clearings outside your hide. You are almost guaranteed sightings of these wild animals through the spring and summer months in areas such as Wild Taiga and Kuhmo.

Getting around

Finnair provides air links to several domestic airports from Helsinki, including Rovaniemi and Ivalo in Lapland, Oulu at the northwest tip of the Baltic, and Kuopio in the northeast. The railway network extending from Helsinki includes InterCity trains to major towns and cities such as Tampere, Turku, Kuopio, Rovaniemi and Jyväskylä, which are also served by more occasional, faster Pendolino trains.

How to get there

Booking well ahead on Finnair (flying from Heathrow and Manchester), Norwegian (Gatwick) or Ryanair (Stansted) to Helsinki is usually the cheapest option, as well as fastest and most direct. You’ll need a few days in order to come overland and by sea, taking the train via Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen and Stockholm, then a ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki or Turku.

Money-saving tip

Get yourself a tourist discount card when staying in one of the cities. The Helsinki Card, for instance, gives you unlimited travel on the capital’s local trains, buses, trams, Metro and ferries, as well as free entry to some museums and attractions.

FAQs

What’s the weather like?

Finland is a great place to enjoy the four distinct seasons. Spring comes suddenly in these northern regions, with snow cover giving way to explosive foliage growth and temperatures suitable for cycling and hiking. Bring light clothing for summer days, with a jacket or jersey for sitting on those outdoor bar terraces in the evenings. Summers, which usually kick in early- to mid-May in Helsinki and the southern part of the country, are comfortably mild and conducive to outdoor activities. Autumn comes in early September, often with stormy wet weather along the southern coasts and brilliantly colourful foliage displays in the north, making this a popular time for wilderness hiking in Lapland. Permanent snow cover returns before Christmas in Lapland in the far north, while the sea might start to freeze along the southern inlets in late January, when Finns get out their skates and skis.

What time zone is it in?

Finland is two hours ahead of the UK, year-round.

Which currency do I need?

Euros.

What’s the language?

Finnish and Swedish are both official languages. Sámi is also spoken in Lapland. Tourists will find English is widely spoken, especially in urban areas.

Are there polar bears in Finland?

No! Try Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland or Svalbard, Norway.

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