If you’ve been bitten hard enough by the proverbial travel bug, you’ll soon be looking for a totally unique destination. Look no further than Finland, a tiny Nordic nation bordered by Norway, Russia, and Sweden. Finland has a language and culture of its own that seem to bear little influence from its neighboring societies. It’s as if the Finnish wanted to simply be themselves. Apparently, it was a good choice, because the United Nations has named Finland the World’s Happiest Country for three consecutive years.
From odd sports and holidays to strange phenomena like the midnight sun, northern lights, and the real Santa Claus, every season in Finland has surprises for adventurous travelers. Before you plan your trip, find out a little about what makes the Finnish tick by learning what Finland is famous for.
The northern lights, or Aurora Borealis, is a natural light show with colors of white, green, and purple that can be seen in parts of the world near the Arctic Circle. The phenomenon is caused by protons and electrons when solar winds go past the magnetic field towards the earth. In Finland, Rovaniemi in Lapland is a great place to witness the strange light show. You’ll only see them between September and March in this area. They may be seen in the south of Finland for a few days. Look for the lights between 5:00 p.m. and 2 a.m.
The midnight sun is another strange phenomenon to experience in Finland. It happens when the tilt of the earth’s axis causes changes in the angle of the sun’s rays from season to season. The result is different daylight hours at different latitudes. Because of Finland’s geographic proximity to the Arctic Circle, this means 19 hours of daylight in Helsinki and beyond during May, June, and July. Which, of course, means lots more time to explore all the things to see in Helsinki.
The event calls for a celebration from Finland’s long, dark winters with bonfires, dancing, midnight saunas, and the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä. Movies are shown outdoors all night for five days in June.
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Call him Father Christmas, Santa, or another name, Finland is said to be the home of Saint Nicholas, a real-life patron saint known for bestowing gifts upon children. Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi honors the saint with a magical attraction of a winter wonderland full of all things Christmas. Kids can bake cookies with Santa and Mrs. Claus, play with the elves, feed the reindeer, and much more.
Finland’s quirky traditions, natural phenomena, and dramatic landscapes have led to some fascinating offbeat accommodations. Witness the northern lights while warm and cozy inside a translucent aurora bubble or glass igloo. Have a three-course dinner in the neon-lit restaurant and sip fine Finnish vodka in the igloo bar at the Lainio Snow Village in Western Lapland before slipping into a heavy-duty sleeping bag. Or check into Lumihotelli, a romantic snow castle on Lapland’s coast.
No matter the season, you’ll find plenty of exciting outdoor adventures among Finland’s epic landscapes. There’s hiking, cycling, and kayaking in summer and skiing, dogsledding, and other winter sports in winter. Levi is Finland’s favorite ski resort and the site of the annual Alpine World Cup Race. The resort has 43 amazing slopes for varying ability levels, 124 miles of trails, and 26 ski lifts as well as a designated snowboard park.
Finland is known as The Land of a Thousand Lakes, but it’s thought that the number is closer to 2,000 all totaled in the archipelago. within the nation’s territory. That’s the most in the entire world. The pristine and peaceful lakes often have lakeside properties that make awesome summer getaways. Spend lazy days relaxing, boating, and swimming in picture-postcard settings. Some of the most impressive include Lake Haukivesi, Lake Saimaa, Lake Päijänne, and Lake Pihlajavesi.
Animal lovers will find Finland to be a great destination. The country’s 130,700 square miles leaving plenty of room for an interesting array of animals to roam. Creatures you’re likely to spot include bears near the remote frontier town of Kuusamo on a summer evening and wolverines in Leiska. Lapland has places to meet and feed reindeer, or even take on a sleigh ride. In Kuhmo, elk are kept off the road with fencing, but you can spot them by taking a safari. You may spot a rare Saimaa ringed seal while canoeing and exploring the Seal Lakes.
If you like geology and precious stones, you’ll want to visit the amethyst mine in Lampivaara. Dating back 200 million years, it’s the only surviving mind of its kind in Europe. Get to the mine by hiking or taking a snowmobile through the Pyhä-Luosto National Park. You’ll learn the history of the mine and get to dig yourself will an old technique they teach. You get to keep any amethyst you find that is smaller than fist size.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Suomenlinna is a maritime fortress from the mid-18th century. At the time, Finland was still a part of Sweden. Suomenlinna is also a suburb of Helsinki with around 800 residents. Get there by ferry leaving from Market Square any time of the year or by water taxi in the summer and fall. Expect a scenic icy water adventure in the winter. There’s no admission fee, you only pay for transportation. An informative guided tour teaches the history of the fortress, and there are six museums in the area to visit.
Ancient castles are common in Europe, and Finland is no exception. The Olavinlinna is a castle in Savonlinna that dates back to the 15th century. Famous for its three magnificent towers, the castle was built atop a huge rock in the middle of a glassy lake to better protect it from enemies. You must cross a series of creaky bridges to get to the castle. One there, a guided tour teaches about the daily life and history of the castle long ago.
Towns of long ago in Finland features rows of picturesque wooden houses. In 1827, a huge urban fire burned many of them down, but a few examples still exist in Porvoo, less than an hour outside Helsinki. And the town of Rauma has an intriguing wooded district in Vanha Rauma, the old town.
Modern architecture and design is a hallmark of Finland. In Helsinki, you can’t miss the Temppeliaukion, a stunning church built into a hill of solid rock. Be sure to visit the Musiikitalo, also in Helsinki, a music center built from copper and glass.
Art Aficionados will find a trove of great art all around Finland from the cities and towns to the wilderness. In Helsinki, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art is part of the Finnish National Gallery. Mänttä has an awesome gallery for a small town. The Gösta Museum here houses art from Claude Monet and Olga Ehrstron as part of its permanent collection. Admire traditional Finnish landscapes and modern art at the Turku Art Museum in Turku. Out in Paateri in Southeastern Finland, visit the unique and beloved Paateri Wilderness church with animals and flowers carved into the beams and a tree root altar.
For the Finnish, heading out to a sauna is almost as commonplace as stopping off at the local pub. It’s where they go to unwind and chat with friends. You’ll find a variety of saunas all across Finland from the traditional wood-heated ones to a cable car in Yllas that completes a 20-minute circuit, and even infrared saunas. Altogether, the country has around three million of them. Don’t leave Finland without visiting one or two.
The Finns are famous for their weird sense of humor and eccentric pastimes. Finland hosts several esoteric sports such as mosquito hunting, swamp football, mobile phone throwing, and the better-known Air Guitar World Championship held every year in Oula since 1996. Every October 13th, Finland celebrates the annual Day for Failure, a day to recognize ill fortune as a way of preparing for the future. But the strangest event of all in Finland is the annual Wife Carrying World Championship held every July in Sonkajärvi.
Locally sourced and seasonal ingredients have long been a staple for Finnish food. Dishes are mostly simple and delicious made from fresh sausage, elk, reindeer, smoked fish, and potatoes. Lenin sara is a mutton roast cooked on a birch tray. Mustamakkara is a black sausage served with lingonberry jam. And in the Aland archipelago, semolina pudding with stewed prunes is a favorite dish.
If you want to start a friendly argument with a Finn, just mention that Russian vodka is top dog. Finnish vodka is strong and flavorful. Rather than water it down with mixers in a cocktail, they prefer to drink their vodka as a single shot or on the rocks. Drink with caution. Finnish vodka is usually 40 percent alcohol.
The Finns love music of any variety and host a plethora of summer music festivals across the nation. Heavy metal is their favorite genre, and they have the most heavy metal bands per capita of any nation. Former American President Barack Obama once jovially pointed out that heavy metals bands must somehow be “linked to good governance.” Ruisrock in Turku is the oldest and biggest rock music festival in Finland. Rock out to bands like Apocalyptica, Nightwish, and Children of Bodom. The Pori Jazz Festival heats up the west coast port city, and folk music is the highlight at the Karestinen Music Festival.
Finland’s education system consistently ranks as one of the best in the world. Each student is required to take at least two foreign languages, and most Finns are fluent in Engish by adulthood. All of Finland’s teachers must have at least a master’s degree before beginning their teacher training. This ensures that best practices are implemented in all educational programs from primary to secondary schools.
Angry Birds, the game that seemed to infiltrate the digital world overnight was created by Rovio Entertainment in Helsinki. But the tech talent doesn’t stop with games. Erwise, led by three Finnish technology students launched the first Internet browser with user interface back in 1994. Unfortunately, they couldn’t procure funding for the project before Mosaic and Internet Explorer came along.
The world loves cute make-believe creatures to plaster on anything. Japan gave us Hello Kitty, English author A. A. Milne created Winnie the Pooh, and toymakers in the U.S. and Germany developed the teddy bear in honor of President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. For Finland, it’s the Moomins, adorable hippo-like creatures that became “a thing” in the 1990s. You’ll find Moomins on clothing, cups, coasters, and more, and Finland has its own Moomins theme park.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.