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Finland

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Finland

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[[File:noframe|250px|frameless|Finland]]
Location
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Flag
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Quick Facts
Capital Helsinki
Government republic
Currency euro (EUR)
Area 337,030 sq km
Population 5,255,580 (January 2006)
Language Finnish 92% (official), Swedish 5.5% (official), small Sámi- and Russian-speaking minorities
Religion Evangelical Lutheran 83%, Russian Orthodox 1%, none 9%, other 1%
Electricity 230V/50Hz (European plug)
Country code +358
Internet TLD .fi
Time Zone UTC +2

Finland (Finnish: Suomi, Swedish: Finland, [1]) is in Northern Europe and has borders with Russia to the East, Norway at the North and Sweden to the West. The country is thoroughly modern with well-planned and comfortable small towns and cities, but still offers vast areas of unspoiled nature. Finland has approximately 188,000 lakes (about 10% of the country) and a similar number of islands. In the northernmost part of the country northern lights can be seen in the winter and midnight sun in the summer. Northern Finland is also (according to the Finns) the home of Santa Claus and he can actually be visited there. Despite living in one of the most technologically developed countries in the world the 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.

Regions

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Finland is divided into the following provinces (lääni):

  1. Southern Finland — the southern stretch of coastline up to the Russian border, including the capital Helsinki
  2. Western Finland — the coastal areas, the old capital Turku and Finland's number two city Tampere
  3. Eastern Finland — forests and lakes by the Russian border, including Savonia (Savo)
  4. Oulu — the former province of Ostrobothnia (Pohjanmaa) and Kajanaland (Kainuu), named after the technology city of Oulu
  5. Finnish Lapland — tundra and reindeer above the Arctic Circle
  6. The Åland Islands — an autonomous and monolingually Swedish group of islands off the southwestern coast of Finland

While a convenient and unambiguous bureaucratic division, the provinces do not really correspond to geographical or cultural boundaries very well. Other terms you may hear include Tavastia (Häme), covering a large area of central Finland around Tampere; Uusimaa, centred on Helsinki; and Karelia (Karjala) to the east, the bulk of which was lost to the Soviet Union in World War II (still a sore topic in some circles).

Cities

  • Helsinki — the capital and the largest city in Finland
  • Porvoo — one of the oldest towns in Finland, medieval wooden houses, quite near to Helsinki
  • Turku — the former capital on the western coast. Medieval castle and cathedral.
  • Tampere — an industrial town, home to the Lenin Museum, in the middle of other big cities in Southern Finland
  • Jyväskylä — a university town located in Central Finland
  • Lappeenranta — the capital of the province of South Carelia, near Vyborg, Russia.
  • Kuopio — the largest city in eastern Finland known for its delicious fish filled bread ("kalakukko")
  • Oulu — a technology city at the end of the Gulf of Bothnia
  • Rovaniemi — gateway to Lapland

Other destinations

Understand

History

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.

Climate

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. July is the warmest month with temperatures up to +30°C. 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 in the North. In the South, daylight is limited to a few pitiful hours with the sun just barely climbing over the trees before it heads down again.

Geography

Map of Finland

Unlike craggy 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 187,888 lakes (about 60,000 of them are big lakes) according to Geological Survey of Finland (Geologian tutkimuskeskus), making the moniker Land of a Thousand Lakes actually an underestimation. Along the coast and in the lakes are (according to another estimate) 179,584 islands, making the country an excellent boating destination as well.

Holidays

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 leftists, whose day of jubilation it traditionally is) fill the streets. Important holidays and similar happenings include:

  • New Year's Day (Uudenvuodenpäivä), January 1.
  • Epiphany (Loppiainen), January 6.
  • Easter (Pääsiäinen), date varies by year. Tied to this are laskiainen 40 days before Easter, nominally a carneval that kicks off the Lent, practically a time for children and university students to go sliding down snowy slopes, and Ascension Day (helatorstai) 40 days after, just another day for the shops to be closed.
  • Walpurgis Night (Vappu), May 1 (starting with Vappuaatto on April 30). A spring festival that coincides with May Day. Originally a workers' celebration, vappu has become a festival for students, who wear colorful signature overalls and roam the streets.
  • Midsummer Festival (Juhannus), June 24. Held to celebrate the summer solstice, with plenty of bonfires, drinking and general merrymaking. Cities become almost empty as people rush to their summer cottages.
  • July is the usual month to have your summer vacation, unlike most of Europe that does it in August.
  • Night of the Arts (Taiteiden yö), in Helsinki some time near the end of August. Called "little vappu" by many as streets are full of drunk people, but the official content is performing arts through the night. Invented by bookstores in the 1990s.
  • Independence Day (Itsenäisyyspäivä), December 6. A fairly somber celebration of Finland's independence from Russia. The President holds a ball for the important people that the less important watch on TV.
  • Little Christmas (Pikkujoulu), people go pub crawling with their workmates in December.
  • Christmas (Joulu), December 24 to 26. The biggest holiday of the year, when pretty much everything closes for three days. Santa (Joulupukki) comes on Christmas Eve on December 24, ham gets eaten and everyone goes to sauna.
  • New Year's Eve (Uudenvuodenaatto), December 31. Fireworks time!

Get in

Finnish foreign ministry has a page on Entry documents required of foreign nationals. Finland is signatory to the Schengen treaty, see the article on the European Union for details.

By plane

Finland's main international hub is Helsinki-Vantaa Airport near Helsinki. Both Finnair and Blue1 use it as a hub. Around 30 foreign airlines fly to Helsinki-Vantaa.

There are limited regional services to other cities and, in the winter high season, occasional direct charters (especially in December) and seasonal scheduled flights (Dec-Mar) to Lapland. Ryanair flies to Tampere.

By train

VR [2] has several direct train services daily from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and Moscow in Russia. There are no direct trains between Sweden or Norway and Finland (the rail gauge is different), but the bus over the gap from Boden/Luleå (Sweden) to Kemi (Finland) is free with an Eurail/Inter Rail/Scanrail pass, and you can also get a 50% discount from most ferries with these passes.

By boat

One of the best ways to travel to and from Finland is by sea. The boats to Estonia and 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 Tallinn including a cabin for up to four people can go as low as 50€. If travelling by Inter Rail, you can get 50% off deck fares. The best way to arrive in Helsinki is standing on the outside deck with a view ahead.

Estonia

Helsinki - Tallinn (Estonia)

Germany

Helsinki - Travemünde (Germany)

Hanko - Rostock (Germany)

Poland

Polferries has terminated its services to Gdynia.

Russia

Scheduled services to Russia are stop-and-go, being at the moment (August 2005) stopped once again. Kristina Cruises and Silja Line still offer cruises from Helsinki.

Sweden

Helsinki - Stockholm

Turku - Stockholm

Naantali - Kapellskär

Get around

The Finnish rail network (passenger lines in red)

Finland's a large country and traveling is relatively expensive. Public transportation is mainly well organized and comfortable. The domestic Journey Planner helps to search for the best connections between any two locations covering all domestic coach and train lines.

By plane

Flights are the fastest but generally also the most expensive way of getting around. Finnair and some smaller airlines operate regional flights from Helsinki to all over the country, including Kuopio, Pori, Rovaniemi and Ivalo. 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 non-changeable one-way ticket can go as low as 39€ (from Blue1.com), less than a train ticket. You may also be able to get discounted domestic tickets if you fly into Finland on Finnair.

There are two competiting airlines selling domestic flights:

  • Finnair (the biggest by far, services to most bigger cities)
  • Blue1 (a division of SAS, formerly known as Air Botnia, competes in the busiest routes)

Also there are some smaller airlines, which fly flights for Finnair; their tickets can be bought from Finnair. FinnComm Airlines, however, also sell some seats on their own website cheaper than through Finnair.

By train

A Pendolino train, the fastest in VR's fleet

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, Turku and Lahti, 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.

The following classes of service are available, with example prices and durations for the popular Helsinki-Tampere service in parenthesis.

  • Pendolino tilting trains, the fastest option (30€, 1:23)
  • InterCity and InterCity2 express trains, with IC surcharge (24.60€, 1:48)
  • Ordinary express (pikajuna), with express surcharge (23€, 1:53-2:16)
  • Local (lähiliikennejuna or taajamajuna), no surcharge, quite slow (20€, 2:12-2:25)

Pendoline and IC trains have restaurant cars, family cars (with a playpen for children), power sockets and smoking sections. Other trains, including some short-distance IC2 services, do not. Additional surcharges apply for travel in first class, branded "Business" on some trains, which gets you more spacious seating, newspapers and possibly a snack.

Overnight sleepers are available for long-haul routes and very good value at 11/21/43€ for a bed in a three/two/one-bed compartment; note that one-bed compartments are only available in first class.

Finland is a participant in the Interrail system, and is located in Zone B along with Scandinavia (see [3]).

By bus

Matkahuolto offers long-distance coach connections to practically all parts of Finland. Fares are generally slightly higher than trains. Speeds are usually slower than trains, sometimes very slow (from Helsinki to Oulu), sometimes even faster (from Helsinki to Kotka and Pori).

By car

Car rental is possible in Finland but generally expensive and, particularly in winter, somewhat hazardous, especially for drivers unused to cold weather conditions. Winter tires (M+S) are mandatory from 1 December through the end of February. The most dangerous weather is in fact around the zero degree mark (C), when slippery but near-invisible black ice forms on the roads.

Drivers must stay very alert, particularly at dawn and dusk, for wild animals. Collisions with moose (lethal) are common countrywide, deer (survivable) cause numerous collisions in South and South West parts of the country and half-domesticated reindeer are a common cause of accidents in Lapland.

Finnish speeding tickets are based on your income, so be careful. A Nokia VP who'd cashed in some stock options the previous year was once hit for $204,000!

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€.

By thumb

Hitchhiking is possible albeit unusual in Finland, as the harsh climate and sparse traffic don't exactly encourage standing around waiting for cars. The most difficult task is getting out of Helsinki. Summer offers long light hours, but in the fall/spring you should plan your time. The highway between Helsinki and St. Petersburg (Russia) has very high percentage of Russian drivers. See Hitchhiking Club Finland for further details if interested.

Buy

Finland adopted the euro (€) on January 1st 2002 and the Finnish mark (FIM) is now obsolete. 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.

Getting or exchanging money is rarely a problem, as ATMs are very common. Currencies other than the euro are generally not accepted, although pre-2002 Finnish mark notes may be accepted on an ad-hoc basis and can be exchanged into euros at Bank of Finland branches until 2012. Money changers are common in the bigger cities (the Forex chain is ubiquitous) and typically give better rates and better service than banks. Credit cards are widely accepted but you must show your ID for purchases above 50€.

Costs

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 €/day and it's well worth doubling that amount. Even the cheapest hotels cost closer to 100€ per night. Instead of hotels or hostels, look for holiday cottages, especially when travelling in a group and off-season, you can find a full-equipped cottage for 10-15 € per person and 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.

Shopping

As you might expect given the general price level, souvenir shopping in Finland isn't exactly cheap. Traditional buys include the Finnish traditional knife known as the puukko, handwoven ryijy rugs and every conceivable part of a reindeer. For any Lappish handicrafts, look for the "Sámi Duodji" label that certifies it as authentic.

Popular brands for modern (or timeless) Finnish design include Marimekko [4] clothing, Iittala [5] glass, Arabia [6] ceramics, Kalevala Koru [7] jewelry, Pentik [8] interior design and, if you don't mind the shipping costs, Artek [9] furniture by renowned architect and designer Alvar Aalto.

Beware of limited Finnish shopping hours. For smaller shops, normal weekday opening hours are 9 AM to 6 PM, but most shops close by 2 PM on Saturday and are closed entirely on Sundays. Larger shops and department stores are generally open until 9 PM in the weekdays and 6 PM on saturdays. During the summer months and the month before Christmas, stores are allowed to be kept open on Sundays until as late as 9 PM.

If in desperate need of basic supplies, gas station convenience stores are usually open on weekends and until late at night, as are the supermarkets in Helsinki's Asematunneli (underneath the Central Railway Station). In Asematunneli, stores are open until 10 PM every day of the year.

Eat

A traditional Finnish meal: grilled sausage, mashed potatoes, mushy carrots, a squirt of mustard and a glass of buttermilk

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:

  • Karelian stew (Karjalanpaisti), a heavy stew usually made from beef, carrots and onions. Usually served with baked potatoes.
  • Breadcheese (leipäjuusto), a type of grilled curd best eaten with a dab of cloudberry jam
  • Karelian pies (karjalanpiirakka), a small baked pastry containing rice porridge, eaten topped with butter and chopped egg
  • Liver casserole (maksalaatikko), consisting of chopped liver, rice and raisins cooked in an oven; it tastes rather different from what you'd expect (and not liver-y at all), but many Finns hate the stuff anyway
  • Loop sausage (lenkkimakkara), a large, mildly flavored sausage; best when grilled and topped with a dab of sweet Finnish mustard (sinappi), and beer
  • Meat balls (lihapullat, lihapyörykät) are as popular (and tasty) as in neighboring Sweden
  • Pea soup (hernekeitto), traditionally eaten with a dab of mustard and served on Thursdays; just watch out for the flatulence!
  • Porridge (puuro), usually made from wheat (kaura), barley (ohra) and rye (ruis) and most often served for breakfast
  • Pyttipannu, a hearty dish of potatoes, onions and and any meaty leftovers on hand fried up in a pan and topped with an egg
  • Reindeer (poro) dishes, especially sauteed reindeer shavings (poronkäristys), not actually a part of the everyday Finnish diet but a tourist staple and common in the frigid North
  • Smoked salmon (savulohi), not just the cold, thinly sliced, semi-raw kind but also fully cooked "warm" smoked salmon

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 rye pudding which is eaten with cream and sugar. It looks famously unpleasant but actually tastes quite good.

From the end of July until early September it's worthwhile to ask for crayfish (rapu) menus and prices at better restaurants. It's not cheap, you don't get full from the crayfish alone and there are many rituals involved (most of which involve large quantities of ice-cold vodka) but it should be tried at least once. Or try to sneak onto a corporate crayfish party guestlist, places are extremely coveted at some.

For dessert or just as a snack, Finnish pastries abound and are often taken with coffee (see Drink) after a meal. Look for cardamom coffee bread (pulla), a wide variety of tarts (torttu), and donuts (munkki). In summer, a wide range of fresh berries are available, including the delectable and expensive cloudberry (lakka), and berry products are available throughout the year as jam (hillo), soup (keitto) and a type of pudding or porridge known as kiisseli.

Finnish chocolate is also rather good, with Fazer [10] products including their iconic Sininen ("Blue") bar exported around the world. A more Finnish speciality is licorice (lakritsi), particularly the strong, salty kind known as salmiakki, which gets its unique (and acquired) taste from ammonium chloride.

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. In addition to the usual hamburgers and hot dogs, look for meat pies (lihapiirakka), akin to a giant savoury donut stuffed with mince meat. Hesburger [11] is the local fast-food equivalent of McDonald's, with a similar menu. They have a "Finnish" interpretation of a few dishes, such as a sour-rye chicken sandwich. Of course most international fast food chains are present, especially McDonald's, which offers many of their sandwich buns substituted with a sour-rye bun on request.

The buffet table (seisovapöytä), is the Finnish version of smörgåsbord. 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. Note that you're expected to weigh and label any produce yourself (bag it, place it on the scale and press the numbered button), and green signs mean possibly tastier but certainly more expensive organic (luomu) produce.

Dietary restrictions

Traditional Finnish cuisine is rather vegetarian-hostile, but vegetarianism (kasvissyönti) is increasingly popular and well-understood, and will rarely pose a problem for travellers. Practically all restaurants offer vegetarian options, often marked with a "V" on menus.

Two ailments commonly found among Finns themselves are lactose intolerance (laktoosi-intoleranssi, inability to digest milk) and coeliac disease (keliakia, inability to digest gluten). In restaurants, lactose-free selections are often tagged "L", while gluten-free options are marked with "G".

Kosher and halal food are rare in Finland and generally not available outside very limited speciality shops and restaurants catering to the tiny Jewish and Islamic communities. The Jewish Community of Helsinki [12] runs a small Kosher deli in Helsinki.

Drink

Thanks to its thousands of lakes, Finland has plenty of water supplies and tap water is always potable. The usual soft drinks and juices are widely available, but look out for a wide array of berry juices (marjamehu), especially in summer, as well as Pommac, an unusual soda made from (according to the label) "mixed fruits", which you'll either love or hate.

Coffee and tea

Finns are the world's heaviest coffee (kahvi) drinkers, averaging an astounding nine cups per day. Most Finns drink it strong and black, but sugar and milk for coffee are usually available and the more European variants such as espresso and cappuccino are becoming all the more common especially in the bigger cities. Oddly, Starbucks hasn't arrived in Finland yet, but Helsinki has had French-style fancy cafes for quite some time and modern competitors are springing up in the mix. For a quick caffeine fix, you can just pop into any convenience store, which will pour you a cuppa for €1 or so. Tea hasn't quite caught on in the same way, although finding hot water and a bag of Lipton Yellow Label is rarely a problem. For brewed tea, check out some of the finer downtown cafes or tea rooms.

Dairy

Finland is one of the few societies on earth (the other being Mongolia) where it is considered normal for adults to drink milk (maito) as an accompaniment to food. Another popular option is piimä, or buttermilk. Viili, a type of curd, acts like super-stretchy liquid bubble gum but is similar to plain yogurt in taste. Fermented dairy products help stabilize the digestion system, so if your system is upset, give them a try.

Alcohol

Chilling out at the Arctic Icebar, Helsinki

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 0.5€ 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 (to buy hard liquor from Alko, you need to be 20), ID is usually requested from all young-looking clients. Some restaurants have higher age requirements, these may be up to 30 years, but these are their own policies and are not always followed (especially at more quiet times).

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, but Finnish beers are mostly nearly identical, tasteless lagers: common brands are Lapin Kulta, Karjala, Olvi, Koff and Karhu ("bear"). Pay attention to the label when buying: beers branded "I" are inexpensive and almost alcohol-free, while "III" and "IV" are stronger and more expensive. You may also encounter kotikalja (lit. "home beer"), a dark brown beer-like but very low-alcohol beverage, which sometimes includes marinated raisins. Imported beers are available in most pubs and bars, and Czech beers in particular are popular and only slightly more expensive.

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.

During the winter don't miss glögi, a type of spiced mulled wine served with almonds and raisins which can easily be made at home. The bottled stuff in stores is usually alcohol free, although it was originally made of old wine and Finns will very often mix in some wine or spirits. Fresh, hot glögi can, for example, be found at the Helsinki Christmas market.

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 (an acquired taste). Like kotikalja, sima and sahti sometimes include marinated raisins.

Talk

Sauna
The sauna is perhaps Finland's largest contribution to the world (and the world's vocabulary). The sauna is essentially a room heated to 70-120°C; according to an oft-quoted statistic this nation of 5 million has no less than 2 million saunas, in apartments, offices, summer cottages and even Parliament. In ancient times, saunas (being sterile) were the place to give birth and heal the sick, and the first building constructed when setting up a new household.

If invited to visit a Finnish home, you may be invited to bathe in the sauna as well — this is an honor and should be treated as such, although Finns do understand that foreigners may not be keen about the idea. Enter the sauna naked after taking a shower, as wearing a bathing suit or any other clothing is considered a bit of a faux pas although if you are feeling shy, you can wrap yourself in a bath towel (When there are guests, men and women usually bathe separately.) The temperature is regulated by throwing water onto the stove (kiuas): the resulting rush of heat, known as löyly, is considered the key to the sauna experience. Some sauna-goers also like to flagellate themselves with leafy branches of birch (vihta in western Finland, vasta in eastern Finland), which creates an enjoyable aroma and improves blood circulation.

If the heat is too much, cup your hands in front of your mouth or move down to a lower level to catch your breath. After you've had your fill, you can cool off by heading outside for a dip in the lake or, in winter, a roll in the snow — and then head back in for another round. Repeat this a few times, then cork open a cold beer, roast a sausage over a fire, and enjoy total relaxation Finnish style.

These days the most common type of sauna features an electrically heated stove, which is easy to control and maintain. In more remote locations you may also encounter traditional wood-fired saunas, but purists prefer the now rare traditional chimneyless smoke saunas (savusauna), where the sauna is heated by filling it with hot smoke and then ventilated before entering.

Inside a Finnish sauna

Finland is officially bilingual in Finnish and Swedish, but in practice Finland is largely (93%) monolingual in Finnish. Swedish is the mother tongue only for 5% of the Finns, and in continental Finland the Swedish-speaking communities are mainly in smaller rural municipalities and along the Southwest coast. Many towns and road signs on the coast use alternate Finnish and Swedish names, so one must be careful reading the road signs there. The small autonomous province of Åland is exclusively Swedish-speaking.

Most Finns also speak some English. In larger cities, nearly all people you could possibly meet as a tourist speak English very well. This is especially true with younger people even in the most rural locations. Note that Finns might be shy to speak English, even though they might understand it quite well. Reading signboards can also be difficult: Finnish has relatively few loan words from common European languages, and as a result it is very hard to guess what words in Finnish mean.

TV programs and movies are nearly always subtitled. Only children's movies get dubbed into Finnish.

Sleep

Accommodation in Finland is expensive, but many large hotels are cheaper during the summer. 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 as well as simple (rod and hook) fishing on uncultivated land.

Hostels

Learn

Finland's universities offer many exchange programs.

Work

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.

Please note, however, that for most jobs you will need to understand Finnish or English.

Stay safe

Finland enjoys a comparatively low crime rate and 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 have been rare and isolated incidents of skinheads beating up people who look too different (black, Arab, Indian), but this is becoming rarer as Finland's larger cities have become more cosmopolitan.

Pickpocket are rare, but not unheard of, in Finland. Most Finns carry their wallets in their pockets or purses and feel quite safe while doing it. Parents often leave their sleeping babies in a baby carriage on the street while visiting a shop, and in the countryside cars are often left unlocked.

In case of Emergency

112 is the national phone number for all emergency services, including police, and it does not require an area code, regardless of what kind of phone you're using. The number works on any mobile phone, whether it is keylocked or not, and with or without a SIM card.

Stay healthy

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 (hyttynen), hordes of which inhabit Finland (particularly Lapland) in summer, especially after rains. While they carry no malaria or other nasty diseases, 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. There are many different types of mosquito repellants available which can be bought from almost any shop. Another summer nuisance are gadflies (paarma), whose bites can leave a mark lasting for days. 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.

In southern Finland, especially Åland, Lappeenranta-Parikkala-Imatra-axis and areas near Turku's coast, there are ticks (punkki) which appear on summertime and can transmit Lyme's disease (borreliosis) and viral encephalitis through a bite. Although these incidents are relatively rare and all ticks don't carry the disease, it's advisable to wear dark trousers rather than shorts if you plan to walk through dense and/or tall grass areas (the usual habitat for ticks). You can buy special tick tweezers from the pharmacy (punkkipihdit) which can be used to remove a tick safely if you happen to get bitten. You should remove the tick from your skin as quickly as possible and preferably with the tick tweezers to reduce the risks of getting an infection. If the tick bite starts to form red rings on the skin around it or if you experience other symptoms relating to the bite, you should go visit a doctor as soon as possible.

There's only one type of poisonous snake in Finland, the European adder (kyy or kyykäärme), which has a distinct zig-zag type of figure on its back. The snake occurs across Finland all the way from the south to up north in Lapland. Although their bites are extremely rarely fatal (except for small children and allergic persons), one should be careful in the summertime especially when walking in the forests or on open fields at the countryside. If you are bitten by a snake, don't hesitate to seek medical assistance. If you are planning to travel in the nature on summertime, it's advisable to buy a kyypakkaus ("Adder pack", a medicine set which contains two hydrocortisone pills). It can be bought from any Finnish pharmacy. It is used to reduce the reactions after an adder bite, however it's still advisable to see a doctor even after you've taken the hydrocortisone pills. The kyypakkaus can also be used to relieve the pain, swelling and other allergic reactions caused by bee stings.

As for other dangerous wildlife, there's not much more than a few extremely rare encounters with brown bears (karhu) and wolves (susi) in the wilderness. Both of these animals are listed as endagered species. Contrary to the popular belief abroad, there are no polar bears in Finland, yet alone polar bears walking on the city streets. The brown bear, which occurs across Finland has been spotted on a few very exceptional occasions even in the edges of largest Finnish cities such as central Espoo, but bear encounters are usually rare and a bear tries to avoid humans whenever possible. The brown bear hibernates during the winter. In least densely populated areas near the Russian border, there has been some rare incidents of wolf attacks - mainly lone, hungry wolves attacking domestic animals and pets. In general, one shouldn't worry about dangerous encounters with wild beasts in Finland.

Tap water is generally drinkable.

Respect

Fishing Finnish style
It was beautiful summer day, and Virtanen and Lahtinen were in a little rowboat in the middle of a lake, fishing. Two hours passed, both men sitting quietly, and then Lahtinen said "Nice weather today." Virtanen grunted and stared intently at his fishing rod.

Two more hours passed. Lahtinen said, "Gee, the fish aren't biting today." Virtanen shot back: "That's because you talk too much."


Finns generally have a relaxed attitude towards manners and dressing, and a visitor is unlikely to offend them by accident. Common sense is quite enough in most situations, but there are a couple of things one should keep in mind:

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. The Finnish language lacks a specific word for "please", so Finns sometimes forget to use it when speaking English, even when they don't mean to be rude. Also lacking in Finnish is the distinction between "he" and "she", which may lead to confusing errors. Loud speaking and laughing is not normal in Finland and may irritate some Finns. Occasional silence is considered a part of the conversation, not a sign of hostility or irritation.

All that said, Finns are generally helpful and polite, and glad to help confused tourists if asked. The lack of niceties has more to do with the fact that in Finnish culture honesty is highly regarded, and one should only open their mouths if they really mean what they are about to say. A visitor is unlikely to receive many compliments from Finns, but conversely, they can be fairly sure that the compliments they do receive are genuine.

Another highly regarded virtue in Finland is punctuality. A visitor should apologize even for being late for a few minutes. Being late for longer usually requires a short explanation. 15 minutes is usually considered the threshold between being "acceptably" late and very late. Some will leave arranged meeting points after 15 minutes or 30 minutes (maximum). Being late for a business meeting, even by 1-2 minutes, is considered bad form.

The standard greeting is a handshake. Hugs and kisses, even on the cheek, are only exchanged between family members and close friends.

If you are invited to a Finnish home, the only bad mistake a visitor can make is not to remove their shoes. For much of the year shoes will carry a lot of snow or mud, and therefore it is customary to remove them, even during the summer. Very formal occasions at private homes, such as a baptism (often conducted at home in Finland) or somebody's 50th birthday party, are an exception to these rules. In the wintertime this sometimes means that the guests bring separate clean shoes and put them on while leaving outdoor shoes to the hall. Bringing gifts such as pastry, wine, or flowers to the host is appreciated, but not required.

In Finland there is little in the way of a dress code. The general attire is casual and even in business meetings dressing is somewhat more relaxed than in some other countries. Topless sunbathing is accepted but not very common on beaches in the summer, while going au naturel is common in lake saunas and dedicated nudist beaches.

Contact

By mail

Finland's mail service, run by Posti, is fast, reliable and cheap. As of 2006, a postcard to anywhere in the world costs 0,70€.

By phone

As you'd expect from Nokia's home country, mobile phones are ubiquitous in Finland. GSM and WCDMA (3G) networks blanket most of the country, although it's still possible to find wilderness areas without coverage. The largest operators are Sonera and Elisa (a Vodafone partner), but travellers who want a local number may wish to opt for DNA's Prepaid package (17€, including 10€ call time). Links with Durkadurkastan are provided, but are more expensive.

By net

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). Wifi hotspots are also increasingly common.

Finland Travel Club (Finland Travel Club homepage) is a free internet club for everyone interested in Finland, especially travelling in Finland. You can ask questions by e-mail and you get free personal answers (free also for those people who aren't members of the club). On the homepage of the club only members can ask questions or tips from other members.



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