FINLAND TRAVEL GUIDE
If you want to thank the ingenious Finnish for inventing the steam bath, among other great innovations, the best way to do so would be to visit and explore their scenic country. The Finnish is a welcoming, confident, and cosmopolitan lot and you should feel right at home in the multi-lingual, multi-cultural aura of this country.
Finland contains some of the most densely forested parts of the Scandinavian Peninsula – it's a land of lakes, woods, and astounding Nordic beauty. In the northernmost part of the country, the Northern Lights can be seen in the winter and the midnight sun in the summer. Finns also claim the mythical mountain of Korvatunturi as the home of Santa Claus, and the booming tourist industry in Lapland caters to Santa fans.
From the rugged terrain of Lapland to the idyllic landscapes of the Swedish influenced Aland Islands and into the metropolitan city of Helsinki, Finland is truly a land where nature reigns alongside high technology and 21st-century modernity.
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FINLAND QUICK FACTS
Capital: Helsinki (moved from Turku in 1812 and Vaasa in 1918)
Currency: euro (€)
Population: 5,518 million (2019)
Language: Finnish 90.67% (official), Swedish 5.43% (official), small Sámi- and Russian-speaking minorities
Electricity: 230V/50Hz (European plug)
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FINLAND PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 6 January, Epiphany
- 1 May, May Day (Vappul)
- 2nd Sunday in May, Mother’s Day
- 23 June, Midsummer’s Eve
- 24 June, Midsummer’s Day
- 1 November, All Saints Day
- 2nd Sunday in November, Father’s Day
- 6 December, Independence Day
Also, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, and Pentecost.
FESTIVALS IN FINLAND
Helsinki Beer Festival - Finnish and guest international beers and ciders, along with DJs and bands, pull in the punters to this rollicking festival held at the Kaapelitehdas over two days during early April.
Helsinki Päivä - Celebrating the city’s anniversary on 12 June, Helsinki Day brings many free events to the city, with food stalls, concerts, theatre, and dance performances, art exhibitions, workshops, cinema screenings, sports events, and wellness activities.
Keskiaikaiset Markkinat - Held in Turku over a variable long weekend in summer (usually late June), this lively four-day event brings a Middle Ages market back to the Vanha Suurtori (Old Great Sq) near Tuomiokirkko (Turku Cathedral).
Ruisrock - Finland’s oldest and largest annual rock festival – held since 1969 and attracting 100,000-strong crowds – takes over Ruissalo island for three days during July.
Juhannus - The most important annual event for Finns, celebrating the longest day of the year. The Seurasaaren Ulkomuseo on the island of Seurasaari sees the best celebration around Helsinki, with bonfires, midsummer poles, and traditional activities.
Savonlinna Opera Festival - This internationally renowned event is Finland’s most famous festival, with an enviably dramatic setting: the covered courtyard of Olavinlinna Castle (early July - early August).
Ilosaari Rock Festival - Founded in 1971, this massive three-day rock festival has a waterside location with its own beach and attracts more than 60 Finnish and international acts on its five stages. It has received awards for its environmental record (mid-July).
QStock - Hip-hop, rock, and – this being Finland – metal acts, play over six stages during this two-day festival in late July, which attracts more than 60 different artists and 30,000 visitors. Most bands are Finnish, but past international performers have included Marilyn Manson, Megadeath, Twisted Sister, and Alice Cooper (late July).
BEST TIME TO VISIT FINLAND
Despite sitting fairly far north, Finland maintains a relatively mild climate, thanks to its many lakes and the warming Gulf Stream that flows in off the Norwegian coast. Rainfall levels are moderate and more or less constant throughout the year, with an annual average of 650mm; the coast and the northern stretches tend to receive less rain than the south and the interior. Winter can be incredibly cold in Finland, but it is also peak season for visitors seeking snow activities and a Northern Lights experience.
- March & April - There’s still plenty of snow, but enough daylight to enjoy winter sports.
- July - Everlasting daylight, countless festivals and discounted accommodation.
- September - The stunning colours of the ruska (autumn) season make this prime hiking time up north.
In the south of Finland, spring usually begins around mid-April, though it can remain chilly in a number of places until at least May, especially in Lapland, where it’s not unheard of to find snow hanging around until the beginning of summer.
Generally speaking, the best time to visit Finland is during the summer months of June, July and August, when the climate is warmest, the days are longest and the blossoming landscape at its prettiest - this is also when tourist facilities and transport services operate at full steam. However, all this goodness comes at a price and you must take into account that August is vacation month for Finns, who tend to head en-masse to the countryside or the coast just after midsummer. That said, even then, only the most popular areas will get uncomfortably crowded.
Summer is almost always sunny and clear, with temperatures rarely stifling - you will find the warmest month to be July, which averages 17°C though highs of 26°C are not unheard of, especially in the interior. The best times to visit Helsinki are May, early June and September – though you’ll find plenty going on throughout the year.
Visually, autumn is a wonderful time to visit Finland, especially in Lapland during ruska-aika (russeting) when the lower fells become bathed in golds and oranges, bracken and beech glow bronze, poplars cloak the hills in yellow and the higher hills turn a deep crimson. Most sights and attractions will have reduced hours outside of high season, from mid-September onwards.
Long, dark and cold, Finnish winters are nevertheless far from inordinately severe or intolerable. However, the best part about the chillier months is the incredible variety of outdoor activities, including cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, ice diving and – of course – that most quintessentially Finnish of pastimes: broiling in a rural sauna before cooling off in the frigid waters of a nearby lake.
FINLAND WEATHER SYNOPSIS
The climate of Finland displays features of both maritime and continental climates, depending on the direction of air flow. Potentially Subarctic But Comparatively Mild Because Of Moderating Influence Of The North Atlantic Current, Baltic Sea, And More Than 60,000 Lakes. Winter can be incredibly cold in Finland, but it is also peak season for visitors seeking snow activities and a Northern Lights experience.
FINLAND TOURIST SEASONS
Most destinations have different times of the year when they’re more or less popular with tourists.
Off Peak Season
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN FINLAND
The snow sports season in Finland can start as early as October and last until May. The busiest period is from mid December through to February.
HIKING & CYCLING IN FINLAND
The best time for outdoor activities in Finland is from June to September. Åland is the sunniest spot in northern Europe and its sweeping white-sand beaches and flat, scenic cycling routes attract crowds of holidaymakers during summer.
BEACH OPTIONS IN FINLAND
Finland has many beautiful beaches and wonderfully long summer daylight hours. The moderate temperatures also mean that you can easily enjoy a whole day in the sun on the beach - just don't be fooled, remember that sunscreen!
SURFING IN FINLAND
The surf season in Finland is anytime from March to November, but don't expect pleasant conditions. Early spring and late autumn bring the best surfing conditions even though they are also the colder months.
KITESURF IN FINLAND
Finland can have good winds for both windsurfing and kitesurfing from May to October, with the best winds in August & September. In winter, you can also try snow kiting!
For more details on kite surfing in Finland expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN FINLAND
Be aware of possible health risks in
Yellow fever - The yellow fever virus is found in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and South America. The virus is spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. There is no medicine to treat or cure an infection. To prevent getting sick from yellow fever, use insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and get vaccinated.
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
FINLAND TRAVEL COSTS
Finland isn’t cheap – no matter what time of the year you visit. Accommodation and food will be some of your biggest expenses. Alcohol is heavily taxed and is best avoided if you want to contain your budget. Some tips to save when visiting Finland include:
Eat at lunch buffets – Many restaurants offer lunchtime buffets for as little as €12 where you can eat as much as you want. You also get the opportunity to try some local cuisine!
Drink tap water – Tap water is perfectly safe to drink in Finland and will save you from buying bottled water all the time (as well as cut down on waste).
Take free city tours – Free city tours can be a great way to see the city attractions, absorb some history, and get your bearings without spending any money. Freetours.com offers one in Helsinki, or you can ask the front desk of your hostel or hotel for the ones that they recommend.
Get the Helsinki Card – If you are planning on doing a lot of sightseeing around Helsinki, this card might be worth getting. The Helsinki includes public transportation, entry to the top attractions, and panorama bus sightseeing tours. A 24-hour card starts from €51 including city travel.
Get a HSL card – By far the cheapest way to get around, the HSL card is valid on all public transportation in most of Finland’s cities. It’s €5 for a new card (either personal or multi-user), and you can either buy a season ticket or pay for your journeys with the amount you’ve topped up your card with (loading your card is the best option if you’re not visiting Finland for long).
FINLAND TRAVEL TIPS
GETTING AROUND HELSINKI
Helsinki's shared-bike scheme City Bikes has some 1500 bikes at 150 stations citywide. Buy a daily (€5), weekly (€10), or season (€30) pass by debit/credit card and make as many 30-minute bike rides as you like.
The city’s public transport system, HSL, operates buses, metro and local trains, trams, and local ferries. Depending on the zone, 80-minute flat-fare tickets for any HSL transport starts at €4 when purchased on-board, or €3.20 when purchased in advance. The ticket allows unlimited transfers but must be validated at the machine on-board on first use. Day or multiday tickets can be worthwhile and start from as little as €8.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF FINLAND
Helsinki - Immerse yourself in this harbourside creative melting pot for the latest in Finnish design and nightlife.
Savonlinna - Marvel at the shimmering lakes of this handsome town and seeing top-quality opera in its medieval castle.
Kuopio - Cruise Lakeland waterways, gorge on tiny fish and sweat it out in the huge smoke sauna.
Rovaniemi - Cross the Arctic Circle, hit the awesome Arktikum museum, and visit Santa in his official grotto.
Inari - Learn about Sami culture and husky-sledding, and meet reindeer.
Åland Archipelago - Cycle these picturesque islands.
Turku - Take an unusual pub crawl around the offbeat watering holes.
Kemi - Crunch out a shipping lane aboard an ice-breaker and spend a night in the ethereal Snow Castle.
Much of what is lovable in Helsinki is older. Its understated yet glorious art-nouveau buildings, the spacious elegance of its centenarian cafes, dozens of museums carefully preserving Finnish heritage, restaurants that have changed neither menu nor furnishings since the 1930s: all part of the city’s quirky charm. Helsinki has more than 50 museums and galleries, including many special-interest museums that will appeal to enthusiasts. For a full list, check the tourist office website or pick up its free Museums booklet.
Trams are a great way to tour Helsinki on a budget. Three key routes – trams 2, 4, and 6 – pass through areas of interest. Accompanying guides to the sights can be downloaded from the tourist office website.
Kiasma - This curvaceous and quirky metallic building, designed by Steven Holl and finished in 1998, is a symbol of the city’s modernization. It exhibits an eclectic collection of Finnish and international contemporary art, including digital art, and has excellent facilities for kids. Its outstanding success is that it’s been embraced by the people of Helsinki, with a theatre and a hugely popular glass-sided cafe and terrace.
Uspenskin Katedraali - This eye-catching red-brick cathedral towers above Katajanokka island. Built as a Russian Orthodox church in 1868, it features classic golden onion domes and now serves the Finnish Orthodox congregation.
Kajsaniemi - Spanning over 4 hectares in the city center alongside the north harbor, Töölönlahti, Helsinki's botanic gardens are filled with plants from Finland and other countries on the same latitude, with some 3600 species all up. The gardens' 10 interconnected greenhouses shelter 800 species from all latitudes and are a wonderfully warm refuge for visitors in the chillier months.
Tuomiokirkko - This chalk-white neoclassical Lutheran cathedral which presides over Senaatintori was created to serve as an eternal reminder of godly supremacy, its high flight of stairs is now a popular meeting place. Zinc statues of the 12 Apostles guard the city from the roof of the church.
Temppeliaukion Kirkko - Hewn into solid stone, the Temppeliaukio church, designed by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in 1969, feels close to a Finnish ideal of spirituality in nature – you could be in a rocky glade were it not for the stunning 24m-diameter roof covered in 22km of copper stripping.
Suomenlinna - The ‘fortress of Finland’, straddling a cluster of car-free islands connected by bridges, is a UNESCO World Heritage site originally built by the Swedes as Sveaborg in the mid-18th century. Several museums, former bunkers, and fortress walls, as well as Finland's only remaining WWII submarine, makes for fun exploration.
Sky Wheel - Rising above the harbor, this popular wheel offers a fantastic panorama over central Helsinki from a height of up to 40m during the 10-minute ride.
TURKU & FINALAND SOUTH COAST
Anchoring the country's southwest is Finland's former capital, Turku. This striking seafaring city stretches along the broad Aurajoki from its Gothic cathedral to its medieval castle and vibrant harbor. Throughout the south, the coastline is strung with characterful little towns. The Swedish and Russian empires fought for centuries over the area's ports, and today they’re commandeered by castles and fortresses that seem at odds with the sunshine and sailing boats. Inland, charming bruk (ironworks) villages offer an insight into the area's industrial past.
Finland’s second-oldest town is a popular day or weekend trip from Helsinki. Porvoo officially became a town in 1380, but even before that, it was an important trading post. Its historic center includes oft-photographed riverside warehouses that once stored goods bound for destinations across Europe. Away from the river, the cobblestone streets are lined with charming wooden houses of every colour. Birthplace of national poet Johan Runeberg, the town is peppered with signs commemorating his whereabouts on various occasions.
On a long, sandy peninsula, Hanko grew up as a well-to-do Russian spa town in the late 19th century. Summertime visitors flock to Hanko for sun and sand, and there are several attractive beaches. There's a party atmosphere throughout summer, especially around the huge Hanko Regatta in July. For island hoppers, Hanko's a good jumping-off point for the southern archipelago.
Turku is Finland's second city – or first, by some accounts, as it was the capital until 1812. The majestic Turun Linna (Turku Castle) and ancient Tuomiokirkko (cathedral) – both dating from the 13th century – are a testament to the city's long and storied past. Contemporary Turku is even more enticing, a hotbed of experimental art and vibrant music festivals, designer boutiques, and innovative restaurants. University students populate the cafes and clubs, keeping the place buzzing. Through the age-old network of bustling streets and squares, the Aurajoki river meanders picturesquely, heading out to sea. For nature-lovers, Turku is the gateway to the glorious Turku Archipelago. As one of the country's main ports of entry (as many visitors arrive by ferry from Sweden and Åland), it's a wonderful introduction to mainland Finland.
Most visitors to charming Naantali are summer day-trippers from Turku, 18km east. They come to meet their friends at Muumimaailma (Moominworld) or to browse the shops and galleries in the quaint Old Town. Out of season, Muumimaailma closes its gates and the Old Town acquires the melancholic air of an abandoned film set. But Naantali continues to work hard behind the scenes, with Finland’s third-busiest port, an oil refinery, and an electricity plant. Surrounding the harbor, Naantali’s photogenic Old Town is made up of narrow cobbled streets and wooden houses, many of which now house handicraft shops, art galleries, antique shops, and cafes.
Åland Archipelago is a geopolitical anomaly: it is Finnish owned and Swedish speaking, but it has its own parliament, flies its own blue, gold and red flag, issues its own stamps and uses its own web suffix: ‘dot ax’. Its ‘special relationship' with the EU means it can sell duty-free and make its own gambling laws. Åland is the sunniest spot in northern Europe and its sweeping white-sand beaches and flat, scenic cycling routes attract crowds of holidaymakers during summer. Yet outside the lively capital, Mariehamn, a sleepy haze hangs over the islands’ tiny villages: finding your own remote beach among the 6500 skerries (rocky islets) is surprisingly easy. A lattice of bridges and free cable ferries connects the central islands, while larger car ferries run to the archipelago’s outer reaches.
The capital of Åland, Mariehamn was named by Alexander II after Empress Maria, and its broad streets lined with linden trees recall its Russian heritage. Nowadays it's a lively, touristy place and during summer, visitors flood the bike paths, tour boats and pavement cafes. The summer calendar is jam-packed with music festivals and cultural fairs, and people stay out all night soaking up the midnight sun. Although two out of every five Ålanders live and work in Mariehamn, in summer, this workaday world fades into the background as holidaymakers take over the town.
Sund is situated 30km from Mariehamn, just east of the main island group. It's connected to Saltvik by a bridge, but it's still a long haul from the capital. It's worth the trip, however, as Sund is home to Åland's highlight attractions: the muscular medieval castle Kastelholm and the battle-scarred ruins of the Russian stronghold at Bomarsund.
On the far-western edge of mainland Åland, Eckerö is the archipelago's closest point to mainland Sweden – just a two-hour ferry ride from Grisslehamn. While the island maintains an off-the-beaten-track atmosphere, it does contain a handful of excellent accommodation options and some offbeat but interesting sights. Eckerö is also home to Åland's loveliest stretch of sand at Degersand beach.
Set between two vast lakes, scenic Tampere has a down-to-earth vitality and pronounced cultural focus that make it a favourite for many visitors. The Tammerkoski rapids churn through the centre, flanked by grassy banks that stand in contrast with the red brick of the imposing fabric mills that once drove the city's economy. Regenerated industrial buildings now house quirky museums, enticing shops, pubs, cinemas and cafes.
Dominated by its namesake castle, Hämeenlinna is Finland's oldest inland town, founded in 1649, though a trading post had existed here since the 9th century. The Swedes built the castle in the 13th century, and Hämeenlinna developed into an administrative, educational and garrison town around it. The town is quiet but picturesque, and its wealth of museums will keep you busy for a day or two. It makes a good stop between Helsinki and Tampere.
Centred on its lively kauppatori (market square), Rauma’s Old Town district, Vanha Rauma, is the largest preserved wooden town in the Nordic countries. The main pleasure here is simply meandering the quaint streets of this Unesco World Heritage site. In the Middle Ages, Rauma’s lacemakers ignored King Gustav Wasa’s order to move to Helsinki to boost the capital’s industry. By the 18th century, Rauma was a thriving trade centre, thanks to the European fashion for lace-trimmed bonnets. Locals still turn out the delicate material and celebrate their lacemaking heritage with an annual festival. There are more than 600 18th- and 19th-century wooden buildings here, each with its own name – look for small oval nameplates near the door.
Just 45 nautical miles from Sweden, the city of Vaasa has a significant Swedophone population, with a quarter of residents speaking Swedish as a first language. Vaasa has long been a family-holiday playground, with plenty of outdoor recreation and easy access to the Kvarken Archipelago. It's a cultural centre as well, with three universities and a thriving arts scene, exemplified by its excellent museums.
In 1652, war widow Ebba Braha founded the town of Jakobstad in honour of her husband, Swedish war hero Jacob de la Gardie. The site was previously the harbour of the parish of the Pedersöre Kyrka. The church still stands today, lending its name to the town's Finnish name, Pietarsaari. But the Swedish identity runs deep, as more than half the population are Swedophone. Jakobstad's main attraction is its Skata (Old Town), which stretches for several blocks north of the centre. It contains some 300 of the best-preserved wooden houses in Finland, with the picturesque Gamla Hamn (Old Port) beyond.
LAKELAND & KARELIA
Most of Finland could be probably be dubbed as 'lakeland', but around the area it seems there’s even MORE water than land. When exploring this region, it's almost mandatory to get waterborne, whether it be while practising your paddling skills in a canoe or by hopping aboard a historic steamboat for leisurely progress down canals and across lakes.
On the banks of Lake Saimaa – Finland’s largest lake – Lappeenranta has encountered dramatic swings of fortune. Once famous for its scarlet-clad garrison, the 17th-century ‘Cavalry City’ was a humming trade port at the edge of the Swedish empire. In 1743 it came under Russian control, where it remained for the next 68 years, becoming an exclusive spa town. Much of the town was destroyed during the Winter and Continuation Wars, but its massive fortress and spa endure.
The historic frontier settlement of Savonlinna is one of Finland's prettiest towns and most compelling tourist destinations. Scattered across a garland of small islands strung between Haukivesi and Pihlajavesi lakes, its major attraction is the visually dramatic Olavinlinna Castle, constructed in the 15th century and now the spectacular venue of July’s world-famous Savonlinna Opera Festival. In summer, when the lakes shimmer in the sun and operatic arias waft through the forest-scented air, the place is quite magical. In winter it's blanketed in fairy-tale-like snow, and its friendly locals can be relied upon to offer visitors a warm welcome. Punkaharju, the famous pine-covered esker (sand or gravel ridge) on the shore of Lake Saimaa, is touted in tourist brochures as ‘Finland’s national landscape’. The unspoiled landscape is extremely picturesque and great for walking, cycling and cross-country skiing. It can be reached on an easy day trip from Savonlinna, but is also an appealing place to stay.
Vivacious and modern, Jyväskylä, western Lakeland’s main town has a wonderful waterside location, an optimistic feel and an impeccable architectural pedigree. Thanks to the work of Alvar Aalto, who started his career here, Jyväskylä (yoo-vah-skoo-lah) is of global architectural interest. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, petrolheads around the world know it as a legendary World Rally Championships venue. The large student population and lively arts scenes give the town plenty of energy and nightlife.
Kuopio is the quintessential summery lakeside town, offering pleasure cruises on the azure water, hikes in spruce forests, tasty local fish specialities and plenty of terraces and beer gardens where you can enjoy a drink. Those visitors who are more interested in cultural diversions than the great outdoors will enjoy visiting the town's portfolio of museums; note that all of these are closed on Mondays.
At the egress of the Pielisjoki (Joensuu means ‘river mouth’ in Finnish), North Karelia's capital is a spirited university town, with students making up almost a third of the population. Joensuu was founded by Tsar Nikolai I and became an important trading port following the 1850s completion of the Saimaa Canal. During the Winter and Continuation Wars, 23 bombing raids flattened many of its older buildings, and today most of its architecture is modern. It’s a lively place to spend some time before heading into the Karelian wilderness.
The magnificent 347m-high Koli inspired Finland’s artistic National Romantic era and Koli was declared a national park in 1991 after an intense debate between environmentalists and landowners. The area remains relatively pristine with more than 90km of marked walking tracks and superb cross-country and downhill skiing. Summer walking and winter skiing are the twin highlights here. Myriad other activities range from boating to horse riding and dog-sledging.
Surrounded by wilderness, Kuhmo makes a natural base for hiking and wildlife-watching. Vast taiga forests run from here right across Siberia and harbour wolves, bears and lynx. Kuhmo is also the unofficial capital of Vienan Karjala, the Karelian heartland now in Russia, explored by artists in the movement that was crucial to the development of Finnish national identity. Most of their expeditions set off from Kuhmo, as did one of Elias Lönnrot’s, when he headed into ‘Songland’ to record the verses of bards that he later wove into the Kalevala epic. There’s a fine Kalevala resource centre in town. Hiking is the big drawcard in Kuhmo – the eastern ‘branch line’ of the UKK route passes through here – but there are plenty of other ways to get active.
Oulu (Swedish: Uleåborg) is one of Finland’s most enjoyable cities to visit. In summer angled sunshine bathes the kauppatori (market square) in light and all seems well with the world. Locals, who appreciate daylight when they get it, crowd the terraces, and market stalls groan under the weight of Arctic berries. The city centre is spread across several islands, connected by pedestrian bridges and cycleways. Oulu is also a significant technology city; the university turns out top-notch IT graduates and the corporate parks on the city’s outskirts employ people from all over the globe. A good 3km walk or ride is from the kauppatori, across the bridge to Pikisaari and across another bridge to Nallikari, where there’s a lovely beach facing the Gulf of Bothnia and activities including kitesurfing.
The Kuusamo/Ruka area is probably Finland’s best equipped for outdoor activities. Kuusamo is a remote frontier town 217km northeast of Oulu and close to the Russian border, while Ruka is its buzzy ski resort 30km north. Both make great activity bases. In summer, there's great walking and birdwatching as well as good mountain-biking trails. In winter it's a centre for skiing, husky-sledging, snowmobiling and more. The Ruka [webpage](http://www.ruka.fi/), is a useful place to look for activity ideas.
Lapland casts a powerful spell: there's something lonely and intangible here that makes it almost supernatural. The midnight sun, the Sami peoples, the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) and roaming reindeer are all components of this sense of magic. Spanning 30% of Finland’s land area, Lapland is home to just 3% of its population. Its vast wilderness is ripe for exploring on foot, skis or sledge. The sense of space, pure air and big skies are what's most memorable here, more so than the towns.
Situated right by the Arctic Circle, Rovaniemi is the ‘official’ terrestrial residence of Santa Claus and the capital of Finnish Lappland as well as a tourism boomtown. Its wonderful Arktikum museum is the perfect introduction to these latitudes, and Rovaniemi is a fantastic base from which to organise activities. Thoroughly destroyed by the retreating Wehrmacht in 1944, the town was rebuilt to a plan by Alvar Aalto, with the major streets in the shape of a reindeer’s head and antlers (the stadium near the bus station is the eye). Its utilitarian buildings are compensated for by its marvellous riverside location. A Culture Pass combination ticket - offering unlimited access to the three major sights – the Arktikum, Pilke Tiedekeskus and Rovaniemen Taidemuseo – is valid for a week.
Kemi is an important deep-water harbour and heavy-industry town. It's home to two of Finland’s blockbuster winter attractions – a snow castle and an ice-breaker cruise – while summer diversions include a gem museum and a wide waterfront where you'll find a handful of kid-friendly activities at Santa's Seaside Office.
Situated on the impressive Tornionjoki, northern Europe's longest free-flowing river, Tornio is joined to its Swedish counterpart Haparanda by short bridges. After Russia claimed the Finnish trading centre in 1809, Haparanda was founded in 1821 across the river. Upon joining the EU, the twin towns reunited as a 'Eurocity'. Cross-border shopping has boomed here in recent years, with a vast Ikea on the Swedish side and new malls on the Finnish side. Finland is an hour ahead of Sweden (meaning double celebrations on New Year's Eve).
One of Finland's most popular ski resorts, Levi has a compact centre, top-shelf modern facilities and a large accommodation capacity. It hosts many high-profile winter events and is also a very popular destination for hiking during the ruska (autumn leaves) season. There’s enough going on here in summer that it’s not moribund, and great deals on smart modern apartments make it an excellent base for exploring western Lappland, particularly for families. Levi is actually the name of the fell, while Sirkka is the village, but most people refer to the whole place as Levi. The ski season runs from around late October to early May, depending on conditions; in December overseas charter flights descend at nearby Kittilä, bringing families in search of reindeer and a white Christmas.
The last significant stop on Rd 21 before Kilpisjärvi and Norway, Muonio sits on the scenic Muonionjoki that forms the border between Finland and Sweden. It's a fine base for summer and winter activities, including low-key skiing at nearby Olos. Most of the town was razed during WWII, but the 1817 wooden church escaped that fate.
Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park - Finland’s third-largest national park - forms a long, thin area running from Hetta in the north to the Ylläs ski area in the south. There is 350km of hiking trails, 80km of mountain-bike trails and 500km of cross-country-skiing trails. The main attraction is the excellent 55km trekking route from the village of Hetta to Pallastunturi in the middle of the park, where there’s a hotel, the Pallastunturi Luontokeskus nature centre and transport connections. You can continue from here to Ylläs, although there are few facilities on that section. In winter Pallastunturi Fell is a small but popular place for both cross-country and downhill skiing.
The remote village of Kilpisjärvi, the northernmost settlement in the ‘arm’ of Finland, sits on the doorstep of both Norway and Sweden. At 480m above sea level, this small border post, wedged between the lake of Kilpisjärvi and the magnificent surrounding fells, is also the highest village in Finland. The main reason to venture out here is for brilliant summer and ruska (autumn colour) trekking or spring cross-country skiing. Kilpisjärvi consists of two small settlements 5km apart – the main (southern) centre has most services; the northern knot has the hiking centre and trailheads.
Sodankylä is the main service centre for one of Europe’s least populated areas, with a density of just 0.75 people per square kilometre. It’s at the junction of Lapland's two main highways and makes a decent staging post between Rovaniemi and the north; even if you’re just passing through, stop to see the humble but exquisite wooden church Vanha Kirkko. A contrast is provided by the high-tech observatory Aurora House just outside town, an important collection point for data on the atmosphere and the aurora borealis.
The bustling, touristy village of Saariselkä (Sami: Suolocielgi), 250km north of the Arctic Circle, is more resort than community, as it's basically a collection of enormous hotels and holiday cottages, but it's a great spot to get active. It’s a major winter destination for Christmassy experiences, sledge safaris and skiing, and in summer it serves as the main base for trekkers heading into the awesome Saariselkä Wilderness. Saariselkä bristles with things to do year-round. Things are most active in winter, with numerous snowy excursions, such as husky- and reindeer-sledging, snowmobiling and ice-fishing trips, organised by the many companies in town.
The tiny village of Inari (Sami: Anár) is Finland's most significant Sami centre and the ideal starting point to learn something of Sami culture. Home to the wonderful Siida museum and Sajos (cultural centre and the seat of the Finnish Sami parliament), it also has a string of superb handicrafts shops. It’s a great base for forays into Lemmenjoki National Park and the Kevo Strict Nature Reserve. The village sits on Lappland’s largest lake, Inarijärvi, a spectacular body of water with more than 3000 islands in its 1084-sq-km area.
Lemmenjoki (Sami: Leammi) is Finland’s largest national park, covering a remote wilderness area between Inari and Norway. This is prime hiking territory, with desolate wilderness rivers, rough landscapes and the mystique of gold, as solitary prospectors slosh away with their pans in the middle of nowhere. Boat trips on the river allow more leisurely exploration of the park. The launchpad is Njurgulahti, an Inari Sami community by the river; it’s often simply referred to as Lemmenjoki.
WHAT TO EAT IN FINLAND
Finnish cuisine has been influenced by both Sweden and Russia and draws on what was traditionally available: fish, game, meat, milk and potatoes, with dark rye used to make bread and porridge, and few spices employed. Soups are a Finnish favourite and one common in homes and restaurants. Heavy pea, meat or cabbage soups are traditional workers' fare, while creamier fish soups have a more delicate flavour.
One light snack that you'll see everywhere is the rice-filled savoury pastry from Karelia, the karjalanpiirakka. These are tasty cold, heated, toasted or with egg butter, and have several variations.
A local speciality in Porvoo is Runeberg torte: an almond-rum cake topped with sugar icing and raspberry jam that was supposedly the favourite breakfast of national poet Johan Runeberg. Traditionally it's a treat only eaten on the poet's birthday, but in Porvoo you can sample it on any day.
With its abundance of seafood, produce and dairy products, not to mention the ingenuity of local chefs, Åland boasts some specialities:
Ålandspannkaka - They call it an Åland pancake, but it's not really a pancake at all. It's a spongy dessert made of semolina and flavoured with cardamom. Traditionally, it's topped with stewed prunes, though it's also good with jam.
Ålands svartbröd - The ubiquitous local dark bread is a malt fruit loaf that takes four days to make. It's the perfect complement to sill (pickled herring) and light local cheeses.
LGBTQ IN FINLAND
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights in Finland are some of the most accepting in the world. Same-sex marriage in Finland and joint adoption by same-sex couples were approved by the Finnish Parliament in 2014, and the law took effect on 1 March 2017. Previously, Finland had allowed registered partnerships since 2002.
Finland is often referred to as one of the world's most LGBTQ friendly countries and public acceptance of LGBTQ people and same-sex relationships are high with many Gay Pride Festivals in Finland in the cities of Helsinki, Tampere and Turku amongst others.
WHERE TO STAY IN FINLAND
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