Explore Finland

Finland Travel Guide

The sun never quite sets in Finland in summer time but it also never quite rises during the winter in this scenic country of lakes, islands, forests, pristine wilderness and super-modern technology. This is because Finland extends well into the Arctic Circle.

This land of contrasts is full of plenty to delight, amuse, inform and enchant the visitor, from its forbidding castles and onion-domed Slavic churches to the reindeer herds of the indigenous Sami people in Lapland in the north. The lively, modern capital city of Helsinki is packed with galleries, museums and cafes, but beyond, in the countryside, there are miles of pristine wilderness to explore in the rare clean, clear air as 69 percent of the country is covered in forest and there are 35 national parks.

You can come in from the cold to a sauna, as Finland invented them. In fact, the country has an unbelievable 1.6 million, so you'll be hard-pressed to avoid them.

Despite its seemingly rugged nature, Finland is by no means a backward country. In fact it is regarded as being one of the most hi-tech societies in the world, with Internet connections per person surpassing that of the United States and United Kingdom.

Dine on reindeer steaks, visit Santa Claus in his northern Arctic home, ski or dog sled across miles of virgin snow, or tap your toes at one of the numerous music and folk festivals held throughout the year. It is not surprising that Finland has been described as the most underrated tourist destination in Europe.

The borderless region known as the Schengen Area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option, and which allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all the aforementioned countries. Additionally, travellers to Finland must hold sufficient funds for their duration of stay in the country, a return or onward ticket, and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination. Also note that joint passports must include a photograph of the spouse and, if issued after May 1, 2004, a photograph of each child over seven years of age and up to and including 15 years of age. Otherwise, a photo identification card showing the child's name, date of birth and nationality must be presented, together with the passport. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.

Suomenlinna Fortress

Address: Helsinki

The historically significant Suomenlinna fortress is not only a major military monument worthy of the UNESCO World Heritage List, but also home to about 900 Finns who live in the renovated barracks. The entire site is a fun, multi-faceted attraction for Helsinki residents and visitors. The fortress, built during Swedish rule in the 18th century, is situated on an island at the entrance to Helsinki's harbour.

The fortification became a strategic military shipyard with one of the biggest dry docks in the world, comparable to the fortress at Gibraltar. Apart from admiring the architecture there is plenty to experience at Suomenlinna, which contains seven museums, galleries, restaurants and cafes, several parks, beaches and nature areas. Guided walking tours are offered and there are always events taking place like exhibitions, jazz shows and theatrical performances, particularly during summer.

Senate Square

Address: Helsinki

Architecture buffs will enjoy sitting in a café admiring the buildings surrounding Helsinki's lively Senate Square, renowned for Europe's finest examples of the neoclassical style. But you don't need any knowledge of architecture to enjoy this lovely square, which has a great atmosphere and is one of the central meeting places of the city. The square is dominated by the city's main landmark, the Lutheran Cathedral, designed by Carl Ludwig Engel and consecrated in 1852.

The interior is as perfect as the exterior design, and is open to the public daily for no charge. Other buildings on the Square designed by Engel are the Palace of the Council of State, built in 1822, and the University buildings (1832), including the library, regarded as Engel's finest masterpiece. The square is a thrilling place to be on New Year's Eve as this is where the locals come to celebrate with singing, dancing and brilliant fireworks displays. There are bus and walking tours of Helsinki departing from the square, which is a good starting point for exploration of the city.

Uspenski Cathedral

Address: Unioninkatu 39 A 19, Katajanokka Helsinki

Many have compared Helsinki to the beautiful Russian city of St Petersburg (a close neighbour across a strait of water), and the exotic red-brick Orthodox cathedral Uspenski, designed by Aleksei Gornostayev of St Petersburg in the late 1800s, cements the Russian connection. The cathedral sits atop a rocky outcrop on the Katajanokka peninsula opposite the fish market, fronted by a statue of Tsar Alexander II, as a memento of Russia's occupation of Finland until 1919.

The magnificent Byzantine edifice is topped with a characteristic golden onion dome, and the interior is opulently decorated with valuable icons. The cathedral is beautifully situated and very eye-catching; it looks out over much of the city and from much of the city you can look back at it. There are wonderful views of Helsinki from the hill. Parts of the church are off-limits when there is not a service being conducted but there is still plenty to see in this ornate cathedral. Flash photography is not allowed inside but if you are respectful about it you can take pictures without a flash.

Market Square

Address: Helsinki

The Market Square in Helsinki is also the central meeting point of the city, sandwiched between the sea and a row of impressive historic buildings which include the City Hall, the Swedish Embassy and the Presidential Palace. Trams and waterbuses converge on the square, where visitors gather to watch the changing of the bulkily clad guard at the Palace and admire the Havis Amanda mermaid statue at the west end of the Square in front of Esplanade Park.

There is a longstanding tradition of displaying old American cars in the square on the first Friday of every month, which is fun for car enthusiasts. The square is also a departure point for the ferries that travel to Suomenlinna, and it is possible to hire private vessels for sailing trips out to other nearby islands in summer.

Every year in October the Baltic Herring Festival, the oldest recurring festival in Helsinki, sets up in the square and this is a particularly great time to visit as lots of food and craft stalls spring up and, of course, there is plenty of herring to sample.

Seagulls have become something of a menace in the Market Square, swooping down to snatch food of all kinds from the hands of unsuspecting tourists.

Temppeliaukio Church

Address: Helsinki

This awesome and unique piece of architecture, the Temppeliaukio ('Church in the rock') was designed by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and carved out of solid granite as recently as 1969. It has become one of Helsinki's most famous attractions, its rock walls roofed over with a massive concave copper ceiling, which gives it excellent acoustics and makes the roof seem like an enormous sun.

Although it is not very impressive from the outside - it still feels like part of the rock that surrounds it - the interior is magnificent and quite the opposite of the dark, cave-like place you would expect when looking at the rock-hewn building. It is an unusual place of worship but clearly a spiritual attraction and no matter what your beliefs this artistic church will surprise and perhaps inspire you. The church is often used as a venue for musical events due to its wonderful acoustics and there are sometimes piano recitals in the afternoons; if you visit during one of these performances you can leave a donation to show your appreciation. English services are conducted on Sundays at 2pm.

Seurasaari Open Air Museum

Address: Seurasaari Island Helsinki

The Seurasaari Open-Air Museum allows visitors to step back in time and glimpse the traditional way of life in the Finnish countryside, and all this in the heart of the capital city, Helsinki. Situated on a lovely green island accessed from the mainland via a footbridge, the museum consists of a collection of cottages, farmsteads, rural churches, manor houses and other old buildings, all preserved and relocated from their original sites around the provinces of Finland.

The 86 buildings currently on the museum site have been arranged to form a complete replica of a country district, reflecting what life was like in various levels of rural society between the 18th and 20th centuries.

National Museum of Finland

Address: Mannerheimintie 34 Helsinki

Visitors who enjoy getting to know the country they are exploring will enjoy the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki, which depicts Finnish life from prehistoric times to the present. Housed in an impressive Romantic style building, which looks a bit like a castle, the museum's permanent exhibition is divided into five sections, including the 'Treasure Trove', a display of coins, medals and weaponry. The archaeological section features some rare Stone Age finds.

Also interesting are the folk costumes, textiles and furniture displays that make up Finland's cultural heritage collection. Other highlights include the section on the Vikings and the exhibition on jewellery through the ages in Finland. One common criticism of this otherwise popular museum is that there is not adequate coverage of the Finnish wars, which may be a disappointment to military history lovers. The museum has regular temporary exhibitions as well as the extensive permanent collection but these usually carry an extra cover charge.

The Finnish are not a very well studied nation internationally and their rich history is usually relatively unknown to outsiders which makes this museum especially intriguing. The museum also has a café and shop.

Santa Claus Village

Address: Helsinki

Many people choose to take an excursion out of Helsinki to visit Santa's Village, which is a popular daytrip encouraged by trains to Rovaniemi where it is located. It's Christmas every day of the year in the rather commercialised (but quaint) 'Santa's secret hideaway' in Lapland, northern Finland, where the redoubtable Mr Claus spends his time preparing gifts for the world's children, and meeting and greeting an estimated 500,000 delighted visitors a year.

Co-incidentally the valley inside the Arctic Circle where Santa's Village is set is shaped like an ear, so, it is said, Santa can listen to all the children of the world. At the village all sorts of activities are on offer at Santa's office, the reindeer park and the Santa Park theme park, and of course you can use Santa's personal post office to mail a letter or card home with the coveted postmark. The highlight of any visit, though, is of course meeting the great man himself, and whispering your wishes into his friendly ear.

There are beautiful Christmas decorations on sale here as well and plenty of opportunities for present shopping. Santa's Village and Santa Park are located just a mile from the international airport of Rovaniemi (capital of Lapland), and is also accessible by bus or train from Helsinki.

Helsinki Zoo

Address: Mustikkamaanpolku 12, Korkeasaari Helsinki

Situated on the popular island of Korkeasaari, the Helsinki Zoo is one of the best family attractions in Helsinki and can be reached by ferry or car. Home to more than 200 different animal species and five times that many varieties of plant life, the zoo makes a great stop for anyone travelling with children in Helsinki. The place is arranged in different habitats so that visitors move from one world to another through tundra, rainforest, mountains, wetlands, deserts and tropics.

Visitors can see Finnish wildlife like musk ox, reindeer and snowy owls, or more exotic flora and fauna from all over the world, including really rare animals like the majestic snow leopard. As part of its mission to preserve and protect biodiversity the Helsinki zoo, which was founded 120 years ago, breeds and raises endangered animals. The zoo also offers rest areas, restaurants, and souvenir shops and you can bring your own picnic and enjoy it sitting on the cliff tops with lovely views.

Chez Dominique

Address: Rikhardinkatu 4 Helsinki

Food Type: French

Pride of Helsinki's very worthy cuisine scene is the Michelin-starred restaurant Chez Dominique, imbued with elegance through and through - from the inventive signature dishes to the minimalist décor. The ever-changing menu blends traditional Scandinavian with French gourmet touches to produce items like pigeon stuffed with foie gras or roasted lamb from the Pyrenees. The beautifully prepared dishes are prepared under the direction of top Finnish chef, Hans Välimäki. Open for dinner Monday to Saturday, and lunch Tuesday to Friday.

Sundmans

Address: Eteläranta 16 Helsinki

Food Type: Local

For many years Sundmans has set the standard for Helsinki fine dining and can be consistently relied on for high-class cuisine, a beautiful setting and elegant atmosphere, top class service and the best desserts in Finland. The landmark restaurant is housed in five rooms in a 19th-century empire house designed by Finnish architect Carl Ludwig Engel, offering a great view across the Market Square. Only the finest ingredients are used to create the dishes on the menu, which are modernised Finnish, including the specialty Baltic Herring Fillet. Another plus for this restaurant is its extensive wine cellar, the selection housed in a magnificent vaulted chamber, which can be hired for private functions. Open for dinner Monday to Friday. The wine cellar is open Monday to Friday from 11:30am and Saturday from 6pm. Closed Sundays. Reservations are essential.

Bellevue

Address: Rahapajankatu 3 Helsinki

Food Type: Russian

Helsinki is renowned for its Russian restaurants, and probably the best of the bunch is Bellevue, which is reputedly the oldest Russian restaurant outside of Russia. It also claims to produce Russian favourites that are better than you will taste in the home country, and many gourmets tend to agree. Characteristics of Russian cooking are soups, black bread, pastries, caviar and fish dishes. Bellevue's menu contains all these, for example a set menu featuring beetroot soup, Chicken Kiev and Baked Alaska, or try post-roasted bear steak or roast fillet of reindeer off the à la carte menu. The ambience is pleasant, the décor unpretentious but classy, and the service friendly and efficient. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner, and Saturday for dinner only.

Lappi

Address: Annankatu 22 Helsinki

Food Type: Local

For a taste of traditional Lapland cuisine in the heart of Helsinki, Lappi should be a definite dining experience on any visitor's itinerary. Finnish dishes, including reindeer of course, are served up on the rustic wooden tables in a warm, friendly 'log cabin' atmosphere. If you want to just pop in for a drink the attached Kelonkolo bar will give a sample of the ambience to be enjoyed in the restaurant itself, where specialities include dishes like reindeer tongue and liver, grilled breast of snow grouse, or grilled fillet of elk with turnip and red wine sauce. Reservations are essential at Lappi, so popular with tourists that its menu is printed in eleven languages. The restaurant opens daily for lunch and dinner.

Kynsilaukka Garlic Restaurant

Address: Fredrikinkatu 22 Helsinki

Food Type: Modern Eclectic

If the pervasive scent of garlic tickles your taste buds, Kynsilaukka Restaurant in Helsinki is a must, particularly in a country where this renowned root is a rarity in local cuisine. The atmosphere is intimate, and the quality of the fascinating dishes excellent. The menu includes items like hot goat's cheese as a starter, salmon loaf, lamb stew or noisettes of pork as a main, all imbued with garlic. Side items like garlic jam and garlic beer spice up the experience. Snails sizzling in garlic sauce are, of course, a hot favourite. The restaurant opens at 11am on weekdays and 1pm on weekends.

Papa Giovanni

Address: World Trade Centre, Keskuskatu 7 Helsinki

Food Type: Italian

The far north has not been left out of the worldwide penchant for Italian food, and Helsinki boasts its fair share of Italian restaurants, from fast-food pizzerias to top-notch gourmet establishments. Papa Giovanni's in the city's World Trade Centre is rated one of the best. This is not a spot for the ubiquitous pizza, but the small, quality menu does offer several meat and fish dishes, and various pastas, at a comparatively reasonable price. The restaurant is very proud of its lobster pool from which diners can pick out their chosen lobster for immediate preparation. A handy touch is that each item on the menu is listed with a recommended wine. The restaurant opens Monday to Saturday until late, and for lunch on weekdays.

Gran Delicato

Address: Kalevankatu 34 Helsinki

Food Type: Café

Whether you're after a quick bite or a relaxed cup of coffee, Gran Delicato is one of the most popular delicatessens in Helsinki. The scent of fresh-roasted coffee pervades the air as customers linger over the stuffed ciabatta and baguette sandwiches as well as pastas, salads and other light meals. The restaurant is a bit of a walk from the city centre, but worth it for the great food and cosy atmosphere.

Nuevo

Address: Sofiankatu 4 Helsinki

The décor, clientele and menu at Nuevo Restaurant and bar are upmarket and trendy, but fortunately the prices, along with the setting in an alleyway off Helsinki's Market Square, remain more historic. This restaurant is particularly attractive in summertime when diners can sit on the sidewalk terrace with a view of the harbour. Inside, stainless steel and glassware gleams as guests enjoy a varied menu and affordable wine list. Fish dishes are the favourite here, but the menu includes some hearty and eclectic meat offerings like almond-roasted lamb or beef fillet. Open daily for lunch and dinner (from 2pm on Sundays).

There are no health risks associated with travel to Finland. Visitors to the Aland Islands in the summer months should be cautious of tick-borne encephalitis. A tetanus-diphtheria vaccine is recommended for all travellers who have not received one within the last 10 years. Tap water is safe to drink in Finland. Medical care is of a good standard and medication is easy to find. British, and other EU nationals, should ensure they take a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which entitles citizens to emergency medical treatment on the same terms as Finnish citizens. Comprehensive travel insurance is advised.

A Finnish way of life, the sauna is a popular activity in Finland, so expect to encounter one. Words are taken seriously in Finland and people are held to what they say, so think before you speak.

Tips are not expected in Finland because a service charge is generally added to restaurant, bar and hotel bills, but customers often choose to round up the bill when paying in cash. Taxi drivers also appreciate any small change or coins that are added to round up the fare.

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