Insider’s Guide to Finland

Estimated reading time 8 min

Finland is a dazzling Nordic country. The vast countryside is speckled with abounding lakes, and the rugged coastline is safeguarded by a legion of picturesque islands. The excitement of Helsinki is balanced by the tranquility of the Lake District, while the northernmost region provides ample opportunity for adventurous excursions to behold the wonder of the Northern Lights and the midnight sun. This insider guide to the Finland will help prepare you for the trip of a lifetime.

Insider Guide to Finland - Map

The Basics

Located in Northern Europe, Finland shares land borders with Norway to the north, Sweden to the northwest, and Russia to the east. The Gulf of Bothnia is to the west, the Baltic Sea is to the southwest and the Gulf of Finland is to the south. The Baltic country of Estonia is just on the other side of the Gulf of Finland. Finland is one of the northernmost countries in the world. The only other capital city located further north than Helsinki is Reykjavik in Iceland. Impressively, the Nordic country boasts nearly 170,000 lakes and 180,000 islands.

Finland lies between the latitudes of 60 and 70 degrees north. This puts the entire country in the boreal climate zone, which is characterized by warm summers and frigid winters. However, the climate of Finland varies dramatically throughout the country. The Baltic Sea and abounding inland lakes create unusually warm temperatures compared to other regions located in roughly the same latitudes.

Nearly a third of the country lies in the Arctic Circle. Winters here can last 200 days, with snow cover throughout most of it. The northern regions also experience the midnight sun. At Finland’s northernmost point, the sun sets permanently for about 50 days a year during the winter and rises for 73 consecutive days during the summer.

Packing for a trip to Finland largely consists on where and when you are going. No matter the season, bring a warm coat or jacket. Nights in the summer can get chilly. While the temperature in the inland regions of southern Finland can reach 95 degrees Fahrenheit in July, the coast experiences far cooler average temperatures. As always, bring comfortable walking shoes.

Language

The official languages of Finland are both Finnish and Swedish. Finnish is spoken as a native language by nearly 90 percent of the population, while Swedish is primarily heard in some coastal areas in the south and west. Interestingly, the two languages are not related. Finnish is an Uralic language more closely related to Estonian, while Swedish is North Germanic. The indigenous Sami language is recognized as an official language in Finland’s northern regions.

However, for travelers, English is the predominant foreign language taught in schools. English speakers are not hard to find, especially in urban areas and tourist hubs. No matter where you are traveling in Finland it’s always a good idea to learn a few phrases in the local language.

Money

The official currency in Finland is the euro (EUR or €). Because of this, exchanging money is incredibly easy. There are plenty of exchange kiosks throughout the country, but research the market rate to avoid wasting money on exorbitant commission fees. Often, the easiest way to exchange money in Finland is at OTTO machines. These are similar to ATMs, but they have separate slots for magnetic cards (yellow) and chip cards (blue). Always choose the “charge in local currency” option. With that said, most places in Finland do accept major debit and credit cards. Always have a little cash on hand, you never know when you’ll run into a place that doesn’t accept credit cards.

Tipping

Tipping in Finland is not customary. In restaurants, a service fee is always included. However, for exceptional service, feel free to leave a little bit extra. The same goes for hotels and taxis. Tips are often an appreciated gesture, but if your tip is declined, don’t push the issue.

 

Food

Insider Guide to Finland - Fresh Berries

Finnish cuisine is known for combining local ingredients, traditional foods and international cooking styles. Fish and meat play prominent roles in most meals. Pork, chicken and beef are the most common meats, but reindeer, horse and lamb are also widely available throughout the country. The many lakes and surrounding coastline ensure ample fish supply, with salmon, pike, perch and Baltic herring being just some of the popular choices. Other Finnish cuisine staples include mushrooms, arctic berries (lingonberries and bilberries), rye bread and potatoes.

The Finnish meal structure is much like ours. Breakfast often consists of coffee and either a savory open sandwich or porridge. Lunch is a hot meal and is often served with a salad. Dinner is another hot meal served with a variety of side dishes and dessert. Bringing a cold sack lunch to work or school is not common in Finland.

Culture

The culture in Finland has been highly influenced by Scandinavia and Russia. However, Finnish people also have a strong sense of national identity. The culture is egalitarian, and the local people are highly self-sufficient and loyal. Traditions, family and the countryside are also extremely important. The sauna plays an essential role in daily Finnish life — both professionally and personally.

Greetings in Finland involve a firm handshake, a smile and eye contact. Repeat your first and last name upon shaking hands. Finns are also punctual, so arrive on time to both formal and informal gatherings. Always remove your shoes before entering homes, and avoid talking about business, unless specifically asked.

Safety

Finland is an extremely safe country, and the crime rate is low compared to other developed nations. However, petty theft and pick-pocketing do occur, as does the skimming of credit or debit card numbers at OTTO machines and stores. As always, be aware of your surroundings, and guard your PINs.

Regions

Helsinki

Helsinki - Insider Guide to Finland

The capital and largest city in Finland, Helsinki is an urban metropolis situated on a peninsula in the Gulf of Finland. The city is culturally unique, in that it is heavily influenced by both Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and Russia. The city’s design is renowned. Distinctive Neoclassical architecture is seen throughout Senate Square, and the nearby Upenski Cathedral is the largest Russian Orthodox church on the continent. To learn more about the city’s extraordinary history, visit the National Museum of Finland. The remarkable institution displays exhibits from prehistoric to modern times.

Helsinki’s wide and pedestrian-friendly streets take full advantage of the country’s fleeting summer months. During the day, residents and visitors sit back and relax at outdoor cafes and restaurants, and during the night, the streets are teeming with activity at bars and clubs. For something different, try taking a cruise around the archipelago surrounding Helsinki.

The Southwest

Turku - Insider Guide to Finland

This region encompasses the area of Finland directly west of Helsinki. The inland area is lush with dense forests and numerous lakes, while the far southwestern corner boasts thousands of islands right off of the rugged coastline.

The university town of Turku is in this region. It is a fascinating city to visit on its own, but it also serves as an ideal base to explore the rest of the Southwest region. The oldest city in Finland, Turku was the European Capital of Culture in 2011 and is also the country’s official “Christmas City”. Not surprisingly, the city is packed full of history and Finnish culture. The imposing medieval Turku Castle has been a museum since 1881, and the nearby harbor has numerous permanently moored historic ships. Outside of the city, many of the islands in the Finnish archipelago are interlinked via roadways and bridges and make scenic day trips.

Lake Region - Insider Guide to FinlandThe Lake Region

The Lake Region — or Lakeland — was formed at the end of the last Ice Age by a massive glacial melt. Because of this, the region hosts the largest lake district in all of Europe. Making up approximately a third of the country, the Lake Region is a perfect destination for those looking to unwind in the peacefulness of uninterrupted nature.

The city of Savonlinna is widely known for its annual opera festival, but the city is worthy of a visit for a multitude of other reasons. Savonlinna sits at a confluence of postcard-worthy forests, lakes and rivers. Known for its relaxed atmosphere, visitors enjoy meandering through the central square and harbor. The Savonlinna Castle is also a must-visit attraction.

Insider Guide to Finland - Igloo HotelThe North

About one third of Finland lies above the Arctic Circle, and this sparsely populated region is home to an area known as Lapland. Unlike other regions in the country, Lapland springs to life during the long winter months. Perfect for adventure tourists, Lapland is traversed by cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and dog-sledding trails. Alpine slopes can also be found at multiple ski resorts in the area. For those looking to immerse themselves in Finland’s fascinating indigenous culture, numerous museums and villages showcase the daily lives of the local Sami people. Plus, Lapland is home to Santa Claus at Santa Claus Village!

For a unique experience, stay in one of Lapland’s igloo hotels and indulge in the region’s unique cuisine consisting of reindeer, berries and smoked salmon. Perhaps most impressively, the Northern Lights are visible in this region for about 200 nights per year.

No matter what you choose to see or do in Finland, the journey is sure to leave you wanting more. From the Lake District to the jagged coastline to the historic city centers, Finland offers something for just about every type of traveler. This insider guide to Finland covers some of the basic fundamentals, so you can spend more time planning the exciting details of your upcoming vacation.

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