Finland is in Nordic Europe and has borders with Russia to the East, Norway at the North and Sweden to the West and is often mistakenly referred to as a Scandinavian country. Containing approximately 188,000 lakes (about 10% of the country), Finns love to head to their summer cottages in the warmer months to enjoy all manner of relaxing pasttimes including sauna, swimming, fishing and barbecuing. Visits to the North of Finland in the winter must include a sit on Santa's knee and (if you're lucky) a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
Finland was a province and then a grand duchy under Sweden from the 12th to the 19th centuries and an autonomous grand duchy of Russia after 1809. It finally won its complete independence in 1917. During World War II, it was able to successfully defend its independence and fend off invasions by the Soviet Union and Germany. In the subsequent half century, the Finns have made a remarkable transformation from a farm/forest economy to a diversified modern industrial economy; per capita income is now on par with Western Europe. As a member of the European Union, Finland was the only Nordic state to join the euro system at its initiation in January 1999.
Finland has a cold but temperate climate, which is actually comparatively mild for the latitude because of moderating influence of the North Atlantic Current. Wintertime temperatures can still reach -30°C in the south and even dip below -50°C in the north, although these extremes are uncommon. The brief Finnish summer is considerably more pleasant, with average temperatures around 20°C, and is generally the best time of year to visit. Early spring (March-April) is when the snows start to melt and Finns like to head north for skiing and winter sports, while the transition from fall to winter in October-December — wet, rainy, dark and generally miserable — is the worst time to visit.
Due to the extreme latitude, Finland experiences the famous Midnight Sun near the summer solstice, when (if above the Arctic Circle) the sun never sets during the night and even in southern Finland it never really gets dark. The flip side of the coin is the Arctic Night (kaamos) in the winter, when the sun never comes up at all and the south daylight is limited to a few pitiful hours with the sun just barely climbing over the trees before it heads down again.
Unlike Norway and Sweden, Finland is mostly low, flat to rolling plains interspersed with lakes and low hills, with mountains (of a sort) only in the extreme north and Finland's highest point, Mount Halti, rising only to a modest 1,328 m. Finland has (according to one estimate) some 56,000 lakes, making the moniker Land of Ten Thousand Lakes actually an underestimation. Along the coast and in the lakes are (according to another estimate) some 187,880 islands, making the country an excellent boating destination as well.
Finns aren't typically very hot on big public carnivals; most holidays are spent at home with family. The most notable exception, in university cities at least, is Vappu on May 1, as thousands of students (and perhaps a few dozen Communists) fill the streets. Important holidays and similar happenings include:
Finland's main international hub is Helsinki-Vantaa Airport near Helsinki. There are limited regional services to other cities and, in the winter high season, occasional direct charters to Lapland. Ryanair flies to Tampere.
One of the best ways to travel to and from Finland is by sea. The boats to Sweden, in particular, are giant, multi-story floating palaces and department stores, with cheap prices subsidized by sales of tax-free booze: a return trip to Stockholm including a cabin for up to four people can go as low as 50€. If travelling by Interrail, you can get 50% off deck fares.
Finland's a large country and traveling is relatively expensive.
Flights are the fastest but also the most expensive way of getting around, especially after the demise of Finland's abortive low-cost carriers. It's worth booking in advance if possible: on the Helsinki-Oulu sector, the country's busiest, a fully flexible return economy ticket costs a whopping 251€ but an advance-purchase "Happy Hour" ticket can go as low as 62€. You may also be able to get free or discounted domestic tickets if you fly in on Finnair.
There are three airlines flying domestic flights:
VR (Finnish Railways), operates the pretty extensive (and unfortunately also pretty expensive) railroad network. The train is the method of choice for travel from Helsinki to Tampere and Turku, with departures at least once per hour and faster speeds than the bus. The trains are generally very comfortable, especially the express services, and amenities usually include toilets, a restaurant/cafe car and on some trains even have play rooms for children.
Matkahuolto offers long-distance coach connections to practically all parts of Finland. Fares are generally equivalent to or marginally cheaper than trains.
Car rental is possible in Finland but generally expensive and, particularly in winter, somewhat hazardous, especially for drivers unused to cold weather conditions. The most dangerous weather is in fact around the zero degree mark, when slippery but near-invisible black ice forms on the roads. Particularly in Lapland, collisions with reindeer (survivable) and moose (lethal) are common and drivers must stay very alert, particularly at dawn and dusk.
Traffic drives on the right. Note that headlights must be kept on at all times when driving, in and outside cities, whether it's dark or not. VR's overnight car carrier trains are popular for skipping the long slog from Helsinki up to Lapland and getting a good night's sleep instead: a Helsinki-Rovaniemi trip (one way) with car and cabin for 1-3 people starts from 215€.
Finland adopted the euro (€) on January 1st 2002 and the Finnish mark (FIM) is now obsolete. Uniquely among eurozone countries, Finland does not use the 1 and 2 cent coins; instead all sums are rounded to the nearest 5 cents. The coins are, however, still legal tender and there are even small quantities of Finnish 1c and 2c coins, highly valued by collectors.
It is common to omit cents and the euro sign from prices, and use the comma as a decimal separator: "5,-" thus means 5€.
Declared the world's most expensive country in 1990, prices have since abated somewhat but are still steep by most standards. Rock-bottom traveling if staying in hostel dorms and self-catering costs at least 25€ and it's well worth doubling that amount. Even the cheapest hotels cost closer to 100€ per night.
Note that a VAT of 22% is charged for nearly everything, but by law this must be included in the displayed price. Non-EU residents can get a tax refund for purchases above 40€ at participating outlets, just look for the Tax-Free Shopping logo.
Finnish cuisine is heavily influenced by its neighbors, the main staples being potatoes and bread with various fish and meat dishes on the side. Not exactly a gourmand's paradise, some Finnish specialties worth looking out for include:
There are also regional specialties, including Eastern Finland's kalakukko (a type of giant fish pie) and Tampere's infamous blood sausage (mustamakkara). Around Easter keep an eye out for mämmi, a type of brown sweet barley porridge that looks famously unpleasant but doesn't actually taste that bad.
Places to eat
Finns tend to eat out only on special occasions, and restaurant prices are correspondingly expensive. The one exception is lunchtime, when thanks to a government-sponsored lunch coupon system nearly every restaurant in town offers set lunches for around 7€, usually consisting of a main course, salad bar, bread table and a drink. University cafeterias, many of which are open to all, are particularly cheap with meals in the 3-4€ range for students, although without local student ID you will usually need to pay more.
For dinner, you'll be limited to generic fast food (hamburgers, kebabs and such) in the 5-10€ range, or you'll have to splurge 20+€ for a meal in a "nice" restaurant. For eating on the move, look for grill kiosks (grilli), which serve sausages, hamburgers and other portable (if not terribly health-conscious) fare late into the night at reasonable prices. Hesburger is the local fast-food equivalent of McDonald's, with a similar menu. However they have a more "Finnish" interpretation of a few dishes, such as a sour-rye chicken sandwich.
The buffet table (voileipäpöytä), is the Finnish version of smorgasbord. Typically a good-sized selection of sandwiches, various meats and pastries. Though not very common in a restaurant setting, if you are fortunate enough to be invited to a Finn's home, they will likely have prepared a spread for their guest, along with plenty of coffee. Do not refuse this hospitality out of "politeness"; even if you are not hungry, eat!
If you're really on a budget, you can save a considerable amount of money by self-catering. Ready-to-eat casseroles and other basic fare that can be quickly prepared in a microwave can be bought for a euro or two in any supermarket.
Finns are reputedly the world's heaviest coffee (kahvi) drinkers, averaging an astounding nine cups per day. Finns usually drink theirs strong and black, although sugar and milk are usually available. Cardamom coffee (kardemummakahvi) is a deliciously spiced variation on the standard cuppa.
Thanks to its thousands of lakes, Finland has plenty of water supplies and tap water is always drinkable. The usual soft drinks and juices are widely available, but look out for Pommac, an unusual soda made from (according to the label) "mixed fruits" and a wide array of berry juices (marjamehu), especially in summer.
Finland is one of the few societies on earth (the other being Mongolia) where it is considered normal for adults to drink milk as an accompaniment to food. Another popular option is piimä, a type of buttermilk which resembles sour, runny yogurt in consistency and taste.
Alcohol is very expensive in Finland, although low-cost Estonia's entry to the EU forced the government to cut alcohol taxes by 33% in 2004. Still, a single beer will cost you closer to 5€ in any bar or pub, or 2€ and up in a supermarket. While beer and cider are available in any supermarket or convenience store, the state monopoly Alko is your sole choice for wine or anything stronger. The legal drinking age is 18 for milder drinks and 20 for hard liquor, and ID is usually required for any purchase.
The national drink is not, as you might expect, Finlandia Vodka, but the earthier Koskenkorva (or Kossu), a vodka-like clear spirit (38%) distilled from barley. Even more lethal is Salmiakki-Kossu, prepared by mixing in black salmiakki licorice, whose taste masks the alcohol behind it fearfully well.
Beer (olut or kalja) is also very popular, particularly the ubiquitous Lapin Kulta and Karjala brands, both light lagers. Pay attention to the label when buying: beers branded "I" are cheap but very low in alcohol, while "III" and "IV" are stronger and more expensive. You may also encounter kotikalja (lit. "home beer"), a dark brown beer-like but completely non-alcoholic beverage.
The latest trend is ciders (siideri), but these artificially flavored sweet concoctions are quite different from the English or French kinds. The ever-popular gin long drink or lonkero (lit. "tentacle"), a prebottled mix of gin and grapefruit soda, tastes better than it sounds and has the additional useful property of glowing under ultraviolet light.
Finally, two traditional beverages worth looking for are mead (sima), an age-old wine-like brew made from honey and yeast and consumed particularly around May's Vappu festival, and sahti, a type of unfiltered beer often flavored with juniper berries.
Finland is officially bilingual in Finnish and Swedish, and almost all towns have alternate Finnish and Swedish names. Swedish is spoken predominately in the South and West, especially along the Gulf of Bothnia and exclusively in the autonomous province of Åland. As well, many families in the greatly less-populated East speak Russian; however, Central and Northern Finland (barring Sámi and several 'extreme' Finnish dialects) are almost completely monolingual in what we can call "Standard" Finnish.
Especially younger people in the larger cities understand English fairly well.
Accommodation in Finland is expensive. One of the few ways to limit the damage are to stay in youth hostels (retkeilymaja), which have a fairly comprehensive network throughout the country and usually cost less than 20€ per night. Another cheaper option is to take advantage of Finland's right to access, or Every Man's Right (jokamiehenoikeus), which allows camping, hiking, and berry and mushroom picking on uncultivated land.
Finland's universities offer many exchange programs.
Citizens of European Union countries can work freely in Finland. Acquiring a work permit from outside the EU is, however, a significant hassle and there is little informal work to be found.
Finland is, generally, a safe place to travel. Use common sense at night, particularly on Friday and Saturday when the youth of Finland hit the streets to drink, get drunk and in some unfortunate cases look for trouble.
There are few serious health risks in Finland. Your primary enemy especially in wintertime will be the cold, particularly if trekking Lapland. Finland is a sparsely populated country and, if heading out into the wilderness, it is imperative that you register your travel plans with the authorities so they can come looking for you if you fail to show up. Dress warmly in layers and bring along a good pair of sunglasses to prevent snow blindness, especially in the spring.
A serious nuisance in summer are mosquitoes, hordes of which inhabit Finland (particularly Lapland) in summer, especially after rains. Finnish mosquitoes make a distinctive (and highly irritating) whining sound while tracking their prey, and their bites are very itchy. As usual, mosquitoes are most active around dawn and sunset — which, in the land of the Midnight Sun, may mean most of the night in summer. Use repellent, ensure your tent has good mosquito netting and consider prophylaxis with cetirizine (brand names include Zyrtec), an anti-allergen that (if taken in advance!) will neutralize your reaction to any bites.
Finns are a famously taciturn people who have little time for small talk or social niceties, so don't expect to hear phrases like "thank you" or "you're welcome" too often. However, Finns are generally helpful and polite, and glad to help confused tourists if asked.
You are unlikely to offend Finns by accident: there is little in the way of a dress code and topless sunbathing is common in the summer, although going au naturel is generally limited to dedicated nudist beaches. One tip to note, however, is that you should always take off your shoes when entering a Finnish household.
Internet cafes are sparse on the ground in this country where everybody logs on at home and in the office, but nearly every public library in the country has free Internet access (although you will often have to register for a time slot in advance or queue).