Our Finland Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Finland or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
"First you build a sauna, then you build a house."
Finland is a country of vast forests and extensive lakes interrupted by small towns and settlements. Even the chic capital Helsinki, positioned on a rocky headland surrounded by the Baltic Sea, is sparsely populated compared with other European capitals. In the far north, the sun doesn't set for ten weeks in summer, while in winter it stays below the horizon for almost eight weeks.
Helsinki is a design and shopping hub with a great choice of restaurants and a lively nightlife. After a devastating fire at the beginning of the 19th century, the city was completely rebuilt on a grid of wide streets and neoclassical buildings modelled on St Petersburg, and today those neoclassical buildings are the backdrop to many interesting art nouveau, modernist and contemporary additions. Turku, to the east of Helsinki at the mouth of the Aura River is the gateway to a stunning archipelago reaching into the Baltic Sea towards the autonomous Swedish-speaking Åland Islands. The Turku archipelago can be explored by kayak, or even by bike via a network of bridges and short-hop ferries, while thickly forested Åland includes some of the quietest and most remote islands in the whole of Scandinavia, accessible from the laidback capital Mariehamm. Turku is also a great family destination, with the low-kitsch Moominworld theme park and Väski Adventure Island in easy striking distance. Finland's second city Tampere in western Lakeland is a starting point for sailing, salmon fishing and skating tours; and home to idiosyncratic attractions including the Spy Museum and the only permanent museum in the world dedicated to Lenin.
Finnish Lapland rivals Helsinki as the top winter destination, where activities include skiing, snowmobiling, reindeer or husky safaris, ice hotels and ice parks, Northern Lights viewing - and the opportunity to visit Santa and his helpers.
Some two million saunas are spread among the five million-strong population, and the national pastime of broiling in a sauna then jumping into the nearest body of icy water is an experience not to be missed. You will burn off calories, relieve stress, keep colds and flu at bay - and make a deep connection with Finnish nature and culture.
Finland's heavy spending on education, training and research over the last half-century has been a key factor in the development of a modern, competitive economy in which an advanced telecommunications sector - led by Nokia - has added to the traditional timber and metals industries. The country ranks consistently high in quality-of-life indices and polls, and this lively, engaging and fiercely independent country is attracting a growing number of travellers.
Culture & etiquette
"How do you spot a Finnish extrovert? He looks down at your shoes when he speaks."
The notion of sisu spread around the world during the Finnish resistance to the Soviet invasion of 1939-40 when a white-clad Finnish soldier on skis appeared in the Western press who was seen to stand for the national values of courage, determination and perseverance against the odds. Sisu means to decide on a course of action and stick to it, no matter how grim the consequences - and is integral to understanding the stoical side of Finnish culture.
Finland is an egalitarian society, and this is reflected in the gender-neutral language. Finns are generally modest and courteous, and believe there is a proper way to behave in all situations. To identify all Finns as reserved and taciturn is wide of the mark, but they are often happier to listen than to talk, and interrupting the flow of a conversation is considered impolite.
Once they feel they know a person reasonably well, Finns will discuss any topic openly and frankly, and can become voluble when it comes to national identity and sporting prowess. On the flipside is an almost chronic insecurity about whether the wider world truly understands the achievements and merits of this proud nation.
The urbanisation of Finland is a post-war phenomenon, and it is ingrained in many Finns to yearn for the countryside. There are around 400,000 summerhouses, usually in the region of the old family home, dotted beside lakes, on islands or beside the sea. Many city dwellers spend their weekends on the country plot or allotment to stay in touch with nature.
More than anywhere, the sauna is a place free of cares and grudges - and of course clothes. It is considered natural to be naked in the sauna with people of the same sex and within families, and the subsequent skinnydip in an icy lake is de rigeur, but other displays of public nudity are frowned upon except on designated beaches.
Though nominally an Evangelical Lutheran society, Finns are typically secular and relaxed in their views on divorce, single parenthood and informal civil relationships, while remaining respectful of the Church. A relatively small, but increasing flow of immigrants in recent years has increased contact with a wider range of religions, but alternative belief systems are still sometimes met with intolerance or incomprehension.
Drinking is a popular pastime in Finland, despite the relatively high cost. Light, lager style beer is the most common mild drink, but dark brews are growing in popularity too. Micro-breweries are on the rise, and produce both.
Vodka and the almost identical viina are firm favourites too, perhaps as a result of Finland's close proximity to Russia. The best known Finnish brand Finlandia is generally exported, with Finns drinking the local brand Koskenkorva. Schnapps style liquers are just as popular, as they are in other Scandinavian countries. While in Finland it's certainly worth trying two very distinctive varieties: lakka, made from cloudberries, and mesimarja, made from Arctic brambleberries. The versions made from tar drops and salty-liquorice drops are more of an acquired taste.
While beer and cider are available in supermarkets, wine and spirits can only be bought through the state owned monopoly Alko. Most travellers find more than enough choice and combinations of the above in the local bars and restaurants, albeit at a price.
Midsummer is the main event in the Finnish festive calendar. Named Juhannus (for John the Baptist), the main parties - when people head for their summer cottages, make lakeside fires, swim, row, have a sauna, light a barbecue and raise a glass or several - take place on the Friday nearest the Summer Solstice, leaving the rest of the weekend to relax and recover. The midsummer parties have a wistful echo throughout August when Crayfish parties are convened under the moonlight to say farewell to the short summer. Other notable festivals include:
March - Tampere Film Festival. Including national and international screenings and competitions.
March - Lahti Ski Games. Annual three-day event featuring ski jumping, cross-country and Nordic combined competitions.
April - Funky Elephant Festival, Helsinki. Four-day festival of modern rhythm music from soul and funk to hip-hop, reggae and afrobeat.
April - April Jazz, Espoo. Five days of the best Finnish and international jazz artists.
September - Manifesti Factory Festival, Turku. Art exhibitions and performance in Manilla, a 20th-century factory building-turned cultural centre.
September - Love & Anarchy: Helsinki International Film Festival. Finland's biggest film festival, promoting inventive, controversial and visually stunning new films that would otherwise not be seen in Finnish cinemas.
The summer months welcome many smaller quirky festivals all over the country, with annual favourites including the Wife Carrying World Championships (Sonkajärvi, early July), the Sauna World Championships (Metsäkansa, mid-July) and the World Mobile Phone Throwing Championships (Savolinna, late August).
Food & drink
Unsurprisingly given the shared borders, Finnish food shares elements of both Swedish and Russian cuisines, seen clearly in the Finnish cold buffet, influenced by the smorgasbord served in Sweden and the Russian zakuska table. On the whole however, meals are unfussy affairs, as the emphasis is firmly on the quality of the local produce. Given the purity of the environment, this is generally excellent, and more often than not, organic. The wild spaces - numerous lakes and forests - mean that game, fish, wild mushrooms and berries characterise Finnish food culture.
Traditionally, Finnish meals were designed to sustain people working outside in cold weather, so dishes were on the hearty side, with plenty of filling soups, meat based stews, with rye bread and potatoes for additional ballast and energy. Many restaurants still serve 'home-made' style robust dishes, but more modern Finnish cooking has a lighter touch, and many restaurants serve outstanding and inventive dishes. There's certainly plenty of creative cooking in Helsinki, which now boasts six Michelin stars.
Whatever the style of cooking, the focus in most places remains on the freshness and purity of produce; and seasonal eating has always been the norm here, not a recent modern fad. This is typified in the crayfish parties of late summer, long an intrinsic part of the culinary calendar, with people gathering by lakesides to celebrate the fresh catches with enthusiasm and ice-cold schnapps.
The early months are when burbot and roe are served with blinis, followed by pea soups and lamb dishes in the spring, while summer sees new potatoes, salmon, herring , strawberries and cloudberries on many menus. Autumn is the time for root vegetables, wild duck, crayfish, hare and Baltic herring, and elk, reindeer, goose and ham feature in comforting winter dishes.
Much of this produce ends up in mouth watering combinations, smoked perch with chervil sauce for instance, and pumpkin flower stuffed with salmon, elk fillet stuffed with spinach, or reindeer meat filled with mushrooms, served with a red wine sauce. Of course, even in Finland, there are fast food stalls and roadside stands, and some, especially those serving sausages or hot dogs, are rather good, but the restaurants are varied enough to suit most needs.
Finland borders the northeastern part of the Baltic Sea, cradled by the Gulf of Bothnia to the east and the Gulf of Finland to the south, as well as northern Sweden, Norway, and the western border of Russia. The nearest capital city to Helsinki is Tallin in Estonia, a 2-hour ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland.
Finland's landmass is the most northerly on the European continent. Although other countries have points extending further north, virtually all of Finland is north of 60 degrees latitude, and nearly a quarter of its land lies north of the Arctic Circle. At 338,145 sq km, Finland is the fifth largest country in Europe after Russia, Spain, Sweden and Germany.
Two-thirds of Finland is covered in forest and about a tenth by water. The landscape was defined by retreating glaciers that scoured the country's surface 10,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. The force of the moving ice gouged almost 200,000 lake beds, and meltwaters helped to fill them. A third of Finland's southern Lake District is taken up by water, where numberless bays, inlets and islands are interspersed with dense forest.
The northern province of Finnish Lapland is the size of Portugal, but home to just 190,000 people (and 210,000 reindeer). Its three main settlements - Rovaniemi, Muonio and Inari - are surrounded by a vast wilderness of barren tundra and dense forest.
Car rental is expensive, but can be a cost-effective option if travelling as a group, and driving is a great way to explore the lakes with freedom. Roads are generally in good condition in the summer months, when you're likeliest to embark on a road trip. Domestic flights are a time-saver over long distances such as the 900km journey from Helsinki to Rovaniemi.
Finland's public transport network is reliable and reasonably priced. Trains offer the fastest north-south links between the major cities, but buses can be quicker when travelling east-west. The bike-friendly Archipelago Trail is a fabulous way to explore the Baltic islands off Turku, where picturesque islands are interconnected by a network of bridges and free or low-cost ferry crossings. The full 250km trail can be comfortably completed in a week.
"In Finland, we learned quite a lot from our own civil war. The wounds were visible when I was a boy, but my generation went into the Second World War and it united the Finnish nation, so I do not see any more wounds."
Harri Holkeri, former Prime Minister and statesman
Relics from the first human settlements in modern-day Finland have been dated to around 8000 BC, as tribes from eastern Europe came in search of bear and reindeer and to fish the well-stocked rivers and lakes. Ethnic Finns from central Siberia ventured west and mixed with Latgals, Lithuanians and Germans, finally crossing the Baltic around 400 AD, absorbing the indigenous Sami and forming settlements chiefly on the west coast facing Sweden, with which they began to trade. At the time of the Vikings, coastal areas came under siege and many Finns moved inland and eastwards.
Since medieval times the Finnish land and people have been buffeted by strong neighbours Sweden and Russia, and the country today displays distinctive elements of the Swedish and Russian legacy.
In the 12th century, the Swedish crusades subjugated the pagan Finns, colonising the land and forcibly converting a 50,000-strong local population to Christianity. By the early 17th century the Swedes had advanced into Estonia and parts of present-day Denmark, Germany, Latvia and Russia. As tension with Russia grew, a chain of castle defences was built to protect Finland's eastern border from attack, but the Great Northern War of 1700-1721 saw Peter the Great seize Finnish territory, laying much of Åland and western Finland to waste. Then in 1808-09, the Russian invasion of Swedish territories, backed by Napoleon, saw Finland formally ceded to Russia.
A period of uneasy stability followed, with the Finns allowed to keep their religious and legal systems, and exempt from Russian military service. Then in 1899 Tsar Nicholas II instigated a policy of Russification, which was met by protests and a campaign of civil disobedience.
The Russian revolution 1917 enabled the Finnish senate to declare independence, but the Russian-armed Finnish Reds attacked the civil guard in Vyborg the following year, sparking the Finnish Civil War against the nationalist Whites, backed by Germany. In 108 days of heavy fighting, 30,000 Finns were killed. Friedrich Karl, Prince of Hessen, was elected king of Finland on 9 October 1918, but the German monarchy collapsed one month later in the wake of Germany's defeat in World War I.
Finland then adopted a republican state model, and installed Kaarlo Stahlberg as its first president. Civil War skirmishes resumed, however, along with rising tensions between Finnish and Swedish speakers.
Geopolitical muscle-flexing in the 1930s left Finland with the difficult choice of taking sides with Nazi Germany or an expansionist Soviet Union. A non-aggression pact between the two major powers left Finland vulnerable to attack from the east once more. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Finland declared its neutrality, but by November the Soviet Union had invaded, and the Winter War began. Finnish troops mounted a vigorous response and stalled the Soviet advance, but the country was eventually forced to cede the Karelian isthmus, the eastern Salla and Kuusamo regions, and the Kola peninsula - and even to pay extensive war reparations to Moscow in the form of machinery and ships. Many Finns remain bitter about the loss of those territories, but are justifiably proud of the nation's resistance efforts.
The five decades after the Second World War saw Finland turn from a war-ravaged agrarian society into one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, with a sophisticated market economy and high standard of living. Much of Finnish policy was shaped by National Coalition Party President Juho Kusti Paasikivi (1946-56), and his Agrarian League/Centre Party successor Urho Kekkonen, who served twice as Prime Minister between 1950 and 1956 before being elected President - a position he held until 1982.
Through the Cold War years Finland's neutrality depended on a de-facto Soviet veto on its foreign and defence policies, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s finally allowed Finland to step out of the Cold War shadow. Applying for membership of the EU soon after its friendship treaty with the Soviet Union became void in 1991, it became a full member in 1995, and is today the only Scandinavian nation to have adopted the Euro as its currency.
Since an economic blip in 1991-93, Finland's GDP has shown continued growth, largely fuelled by a booming communications and technology sector.
In 2000, Finland elected its first woman president, Tarja Halonen, who proved a popular figure and was voted in for a second term in 2006. She was succeeded by Sauli Niinistö, who won the presidential election of February 2012 to become the country's first president from the conservative National Coalition Party since 1956, and the first in 30 years from a party other than the Social Democrats.
The National Coalition Party, in the shape of Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, has also led Finnish parliament in a 'grand coalition' of six other parties from the left and centre since 2011, leaving the eurosceptic and nationalist True Finns party as the main opposition.
Finland can be a pricy place to shop for souvenirs, but if you travel to Lapland and want to bring home genuine Sami handicrafts, look out for the Sámi Duodji label as a guarantee of authenticity. Products range from colourful woollen clothing and mittens, rugs, to knives, household goods, jewellery and curios made from wood, reindeer skin and antler.
Helsinki and Tampere are as design-conscious as other Scandinavian cities, and options abound to discover stylish but functional clothing, textiles, glassware and ceramics. Classic and contemporary Finnish design offer greater value and interest than the ubiquitous international brands. The Arabia factory outlet in northern Helsinki is worth a visit for good deals on discounted or remaindered glassware and ceramics.
Indoor and outdoor markets (kauppahalli and kauppatori) are good places to shop for local delicacies and picnic goods such as Tampere's mustamakkara (blood sausage) with lingonberry jam, or Savonia's kalakukko, whitefish (or sometimes salmon) baked in a ryebread crust.
Tipping is not expected, as service charges are included in all hotel room rates, restaurant and taxi prices, though bills paid in cash may be rounded up to the nearest convenient number, and you may choose to recognise superior service. Restaurant, club or hotel cloakroom fees of about €2 are normally clearly indicated.
Where to eat
Formal restaurants in Finland are known as ravintola, and serve more refined dishes, while khavilas serve fairly inexpensive lunches. There are plenty of old-school restaurants serving traditional dishes too, strong on hash and herring. A baari is the place to go for light food and mild beer, while numerous fast food stands offer speedy alternatives. If possible, it's worth searching out a country farm that serves food, to enjoy the very freshest of the stunning local produce, or do as so many Finns do, and fish for a lakeside supper.