If you like majestic open spaces, fine architecture, and courteous locals, Finland is for you. Mother Nature dictates life in this Nordic land, where winter brings perpetual darkness, and summer, perpetual light. Crystal clear streams run through vast forests lighted by the midnight sun, and reindeer roam free. Even the arts mimic nature: witness the music of Jean Sibelius, Finland’s most famous son, which can swing from a somber nocturne of midwinter darkness to the tremolo of sunlight slanting through pine and birch, or from the crescendo of a blazing sunset to the pianissimo of the next day’s dawn. The architecture of Alvar Aalto and the Saarinens—Eliel and son Eero, visible in many US cities, also demonstrates the Finnish affinity with nature, with soaring spaces evocative of Finland’s moss-floored forests.
Until 1917, Finland was under the domination of its nearest neighbors, Sweden and Russia, who fought over it for centuries. After more than 600 years under the Swedish crown and 100 under the Russian czars, the country inevitably bears many traces of the two cultures, including a small (just under 6%) but influential Swedish-speaking population and a scattering of Orthodox churches.
There is a tough, resilient quality to the Finns, descended from wandering tribes who probably migrated from the south and southwest before the Christian era. Finland is one of the few countries that shared a border with the Soviet Union in 1939 and retained its independence. Indeed, no country fought the Soviets to a standstill as the Finns did in the grueling 105-day Winter War of 1939–40. This resilience stems from the turbulence of the country’s past and from the people’s determination to work the land and survive the long, dark winters.
The country’s role as a crossroads between East and West is vibrantly reflected in Helsinki, from which it has become increasingly convenient to arrange brief tours to Tallinn (the capital of Estonia), and St. Petersburg, Russia. The architectural echoes of St. Petersburg in Helsinki are particularly striking in the “white night” light of June. Tallinn, with its medieval Old Town and bargain shopping, is a popular trip that can be done in a day. Traveling there takes an hour and a half by hydrofoil, three and a half by ferry.
“The strength of a small nation lies in its culture,” noted Finland’s leading 19th-century statesman and philosopher, Johan Vilhelm Snellman. As though inspired by this thought, Finns—who are among the world’s top readers—continue to nurture a rich cultural climate, as is illustrated by the 900 museums and numerous festivals throughout Finland that continue to attract top performers in jazz (Pori), big bands (Imatra), opera (Savonlinna), folk music (Kaustinen), and rock (Ruisrock in Turku).
The average Finn volunteers little information, but that’s a result of reserve, not indifference. Make the first approach and you may have a friend for life. Finns like their silent spaces, though, and won’t appreciate backslapping familiarity—least of all in the sauna, still regarded by many as a spiritual as well as a cleansing experience.
Finnair offers domestic and international flights, with daily direct service from New York (JFK) and twice-weekly service from Boston in summer, and flights six times a week from New York during the rest of the year. Scandinavian Airlines operates two flights a day from both Newark and Chicago, one to Stockholm and one to Copenhagen, with connections on to Helsinki. It also offers service from Seattle and Washington DC to Copenhagen. Flying time from New York to Helsinki is eight hours, nine hours for the return trip. All international flights arrive at Helsinki–Vantaa International Airport (HEL), 12 miles north of the city center.
From Stockholm, Silja and Viking Line ships cross to the Finnish Åland Islands (7 hours), Turku (11 hours), and Helsinki (15 hours), generally with one departure daily in each direction.
Finland is still a major shipbuilding nation, and the ferries that cruise the Baltic to the Finnish Åland Islands and Sweden seem more like luxury liners. Facilities might include saunas, children’s playrooms, casinos, a host of bars and cafés, and superb restaurants. There are storage boxes for luggage in the Helsinki and Stockholm terminals if you are planning a day of sightseeing in either city.
In Helsinki, the Tallink Silja Line terminal for ships arriving from Stockholm is at Olympialaituri (Olympic Harbor), on the west side of the South Harbor. The Viking Line terminal for ships arriving from Stockholm is at Katajanokkanlaituri (Katajanokka Harbor), on the east side of the South Harbor. Both Silja and Viking have downtown agencies where information and tickets are available. Ask about half-price fares for bus and train travel in conjunction with ferry trips.
The Finnish bus network, Matkahuolto, is extensive, and the fares reasonable. You can travel the network between Finland and Norway, Sweden, or Russia.
Driving is pleasant on Finland’s relatively uncongested roads. That said, car rental here isn’t cheap: regular daily rates range from about €80 to €160. Unlimited mileage rates are the norm.
Late autumn and spring are the most hazardous times to drive. Roads are often icy in autumn (kelivaroitus is the slippery road warning), and the spring thaw can make for kelirikko (heaves). Driving is on the right-hand side of the road. You must use headlights at all times, and seat belts are compulsory for everyone. Yield to cars coming from the right at most intersections. The use of cell phones while driving is not permitted. There are strict drinking-and-driving laws in Finland, and remember to watch out for elk and reindeer signs, placed where they are known to cross the road.
Outside urban areas, speed limits vary between 60 kph and 100 kph (37 mph and 62 mph), with a general speed limit of about 80 kph (50 mph). In towns the limit is 40 kph to 60 kph (25 mph to 37 mph) and on motorways it’s 100 kph to 120 kph (62 mph to 75 mph).
Gasoline costs about €1.50 per liter. Nearly all gas stations are self-service. Those in Helsinki and on major roadways are open 24 hours.
You can usually park on the right-hand side of the road. In town, you’ll find meters everywhere; metered parking can cost up to €2 per hour. There are also a few pay-by-the-hour garages. In winter, signs in Finnish posted a week in advance will announce snow plowing.
Helsinki is a busy cruise destination and sees many ships throughout the season. Ships dock at one of three distinct areas.
Katajanokka Quay has a terminal with souvenir shop, toilets, and taxi station. From Katajanokka Terminal, local bus 13 or tram T4 will take you to Helsinki city center, but this is also reachable on foot. If you want to ride, tram numbers 4 and 4T stop here.
South Harbour has a terminal at Olympia Quay with shopping, information, a taxi rank, currency exchange, and internet access and a second quay called Makasiini Quay. It’s a 15-minute walk into downtown from the South Harbour port entrance. Trams 1A, 3B, and 3T run from the port into town.
Hernasaari Harbour has two quays with access to the dedicated cruise terminal with shops, information desk, taxi rank, and Internet access. It’s a longer walk into Helsinki from here, but the terminal is served by bus routes 14B and 16.
Taxis wait at all terminals to take visitors downtown, and this may be the most convenient way to travel if you don’t want to take the cruise shuttle service. Journey times are short from all the terminals, the longest being around 15 minutes. Taxis are plentiful (albeit expensive) and make a convenient way to link attractions. Taxis take credit cards. A 5-km (3-mile) trip is currently €10.30, while a 10-km (6-mile) trip is €16.10. A car rental is not a sensible option if you intend to explore the city, as parking is difficult. Expect to pay €76 per day for a compact manual vehicle.
Tickets for the Helsinki public transport system cost €2.50 from the driver, or €2 from a ticket machine. Day tickets are €6.80—these are valid on trams, buses, the metro and the ferry to Soumenlinna. Ticket machines sell one-day tickets. Tram services 3B and 3T link many of the most important city attractions so in conjunction with a day ticket could be used as hop-on hop-off services.
Taxis go everywhere in Finland. The meter starts at about €5 daytime and about €7.70 evenings and weekends. The price per-kilometer increases with the number of passengers. In cities people generally go to one of the numerous taxi stands and take the first one available. You can hail a cab, but most are on radio call. Most taxi drivers take credit cards. Tipping is unnecessary; if you want to leave something, round up to the nearest euro. A receipt is a kuitti.
Passenger trains leave Helsinki twice daily for St. Petersburg, a roughly 3-hour trip, and once daily on an overnighter to Moscow (13 hours). Remember that you need a visa to travel to Russia. To get to northern Sweden or Norway, you must combine train–bus or train–boat travel.
The Finnish State Railways, or VR, serve southern Finland well, but connections in the central and northern sections are scarcer and are supplemented by buses. Helsinki is the main junction, with Riihimäki to the north a major hub. You can get as far north as Rovaniemi and Kemijärvi by rail, but to penetrate farther into Lapland, you’ll need to rely on buses, domestic flights, or local taxis.
Note that all train travelers in Finland must have a reserved seat, but it is possible to buy a seat ticket on the train. Special fast trains (Intercity and the Helsinki-Turku Pendolino) are more expensive but also more comfortable. First- and second-class seats are available on all express trains.
Most tri-band and quad-band GSM phones work in Finland, but the Finnish mobile system is not 3G-compatible. You can buy prepaid phone cards at telecom shops, news vendors and tobacconists in all towns and cities. Phone cards can be used for local or international calls. Major companies include Elisa and Finnish 2G.
Finland uses the euro. There are exchange bureaus in all bank branches and major hotels; Forex booths in major cities; and at Helsinki–Vantaa Airport. Some large harbor terminals also have exchange bureaus, and international ferries have exchange desks. Local banks and Forex offices usually give the best rates and charge a minimal commission. You can also change back any unused currency (no coins) at no fee with the original receipt. An exchange cart moves through the trains to Russia.
Most restaurants open at 11 for lunch, switch to a dinner menu at 4, and close their kitchens around 11; virtually all non-hotel restaurants are closed on Sunday. Finns generally prefer to eat at 7 or 7:30 when dining out, so it’s rarely necessary to make a reservation to eat before 7 or after 9. No dress codes are stated and jackets are rarely required, however at top restaurants it is expected that patrons look sharp. Take note that restaurants in the bigger cities are often closed in July.
Finnish food emphasizes freshness rather than variety, although in keeping with European trends, restaurants are becoming more innovative and expanding on classic Finnish ingredients—from forest, lake, and sea.
The better Finnish restaurants offer some of the country’s most stunning game—pheasant, reindeer, hare, and grouse—accompanied by wild-berry compotes and exotic mushroom sauces. The chanterelle grows wild in Finland, as do dozens of other edible mushrooms, including the tasty morel. Fish is served in many ways, and is especially savored smoked. Come July 21, when crayfish season kicks in.
Other specialties are poronkäristys (sautéed reindeer), lihapullat (meatballs in sauce), uunijuusto (light, crispy baked cheese), and hiilillä paistetut silakat (charcoal-grilled Baltic herring). Seisova pöytä, the Finnish version of the smorgasbord, is a cold and hot buffet available at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and is particularly popular on cruise ships.
Local yogurt and dairy products are extremely good and ice cream is popular; an increasing number of places sell low-fat flavors or frozen yogurts. Finnish desserts and baked goods are renowned. Mämmi, a dessert made of wheat flour, malt, and orange zest and served with cream and sugar, is a treat during Easter. More filling are karjalan piirakka, thin, oval rye-bread pierogi filled with rice or mashed potatoes and served warm with munavoi, a mixture of egg and butter. Munkki (doughnuts), pulla (sweet bread), and other confections are consumed with vigor by both young and old.
Alcohol is expensive here, but beer lovers should not miss the well-made Finnish brews. More coffee is consumed per capita in Finland than in any other country, and you’ll see a staggering number of cafés and coffee bars throughout the country. Particularly in Helsinki, patrons of cafés downtown and around the waterfront spill outside onto the streets.
The electrical current in Finland is 220 volts, 50 Hz. Outlets take Continental plugs, with two round prongs. To use your North American blow-dryer, for example, you’ll need both a converter and an adapter, although most modern electronics require only an adapter.
Smaller stores are generally open weekdays from 9 to 6 and Saturday from 9 to 1; larger department stores are open until 9 weekdays and until 6 on Saturday. Stores are often open on Sunday from June through August and during December. The majority of museums are closed on Monday.
Finnish, the principal language, is a Finno-Ugric tongue related to Estonian with distant links to Hungarian. The country’s second official language is Swedish, although only about 6% of the population speaks it as their primary language. A third language, Sami, is actually a group of languages spoken by the Sami, the original dwellers of Lapland in the north, and has semiofficial status in certain northern areas. English is spoken in most cities and resorts.
Tipping is not the norm in Finland but is becoming more of a habit, so use your own discretion. Finns normally do not tip cab drivers, but if they do they round up to the nearest euro. Give one euro to train or hotel porters. Coat-check fees are usually posted, and tips above this amount are not expected.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.
WHEN TO GO
Finland’s tourist season begins in June, when the growing daylight hours herald the opening of summer restaurants and outdoor museums, and the start of boat tours and cruises. Summer is by far the best time to visit Helsinki, the Lakelands, and the Southwestern Coast and Ålands, which come out of hibernation for the long, bright, but not overly hot, summer days. A special draw in the Lakelands is the Savonlinna Opera Festival, held in late July or early August.
Finland can also be exhilarating on clear, brisk winter days. For a real treat, visit Lapland—home of Santa Claus—in December. The tourist season in the north focuses on winter events, when the snow is deep and the northern lights bright. Ski trips in Lapland in early spring are popular, and many resorts offer tourist packages. Summer weather in Lapland offers a different repertoire to the traveler when the snow and ice of the north give way to flowing rivers and greenery. The Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä offers round-the-clock screenings in tents.