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Quick Facts
CapitalHelsinki
Governmentrepublic
Currencyeuro (EUR)
Areatotal: 337,030 sq km
water: 31,560 sq km
land: 305,470 sq km
Population5,219,732 (January 2004)
LanguageFinnish 93.4% (official), Swedish 5.9% (official), small S�mi- and Russian-speaking minorities
ReligionEvangelical Lutheran 89%, Russian Orthodox 1%, none 9%, other 1%

Finland is in Northern Europe and has borders with Russia to the East, Norway at the North and Sweden to the West. The country is thoroughly modern with well-planned and comfortable small towns and cities, but still offers vast areas of unspoiled nature. Finland has approximately 188,000 lakes (about 10% of the country) and a similar number of islands. In the northernmost part of the country northern lights can be seen in the winter and midnight sun in the summer. Northern Finland is also (according to the Finns) the home of Santa Claus and he can actually be visited there. Despite living in one of the most technologically developed countries in the world the Finns love to head to their summer cottages in the warmer months to enjoy all manner of relaxing pasttimes including sauna, swimming, fishing and barbecuing.

Regions

  • Southern Finland — including the top three cities of Helsinki, Tampere and Turku, where the bulk of the population lives
  • Jyv�skyl� and the technology city of Oulu
  • Finnish Lapland — tundra and reindeer above the Arctic Circle
  • The �land Islands — an autonomous and monolingually Swedish group of islands off the southwestern coast of Finland

Cities

  • Helsinki — the capital and largest city of Finland
  • Tampere — industrial town home to the Lenin Museum
  • Turku — the former capital on the western coast
  • Kuopio — largest city in eastern Finland
  • Jyv�skyl� — university town
  • Oulu — at the end of the Gulf of Bothnia
  • Rovaniemi — gateway to Lapland
  • Kokkola — harbor city on the west coast

Other destinations

  • Finnish National Parks
  • Koli National Park
  • Saariselk� — ski resort and aurora-spotting destination in Lapland

Understand

Sauna

The sauna is perhaps Finland's largest contribution to the world (and almost certainly the only word of Finnish to have taken off elsewhere). The sauna is essentially just a room heated to 70-120°C; according to an oft-quoted statistic this nation of 5 million has no less than 2 million saunas, in apartments, offices, summer cottages and even Parliament. In ancient times, saunas (being sterile) were the place to give birth and heal the sick, and the first building constructed when setting up a new household.

If invited to visit a Finnish home, you are very likely be invited to bathe in the sauna as well — and note that refusing such an invitation is considered rude. Enter the sauna naked after taking a shower, as wearing a bathing suit or any other clothing is considered a faux pas (public saunas will usully provide separate facilities or shifts for men and women.) The temperature is regulated by throwing water onto the stove (kiuas): the resulting rush of heat, known as l�yly, is considered the key to the sauna experience. Some sauna-goers also like to flagellate themselves with leafy branches of birch (vihta in western Finland, vasta in eastern Finland), which supposedly improves blood circulation.

If the heat is too much, move down to a lower level to catch your breath. After you've had your fill, you can cool off by heading outside for a dip in the lake or, in winter, a roll in the snow — and then head back in for another round. Repeat this a few times, then cork open a cold beer and enjoy total relaxation Finnish style.

These days the most common type of sauna features an electrically heated stove, which is easy to control and maintain. In more remote locations you may also encounter traditional wood-fired saunas, but purists prefer the now rare traditional chimneyless smoke saunas (savusauna), where the sauna is filled with smoke and then ventilated before entering.

History

Finland was a province and then a grand duchy under Sweden from the 12th to the 19th centuries and an autonomous grand duchy of Russia after 1809. It finally won its complete independence in 1917. During World War II, it was able to successfully defend its independence and fend off invasions by the Soviet Union and Germany. In the subsequent half century, the Finns have made a remarkable transformation from a farm/forest economy to a diversified modern industrial economy; per capita income is now on par with Western Europe. As a member of the European Union, Finland was the only Nordic state to join the euro system at its initiation in January 1999.

Climate

Finland has a cold but temperate climate, which is actually comparatively mild for the latitude because of moderating influence of the North Atlantic Current. Wintertime temperatures can still reach -30°C in the south and even dip below -50°C in the north, although these extremes are uncommon. The brief Finnish summer is considerably more pleasant, with average temperatures around 20°C, and is generally the best time of year to visit. Early spring (March-April) is when the snows start to melt and Finns like to head north for skiing and winter sports, while the transition from fall to winter in October-December — wet, rainy, dark and generally miserable — is the worst time to visit.

Due to the extreme latitude, Finland experiences the famous Midnight Sun near the summer solstice, when (if above the Arctic Circle) the sun never sets during the night and even in southern Finland it never really gets dark. The flip side of the coin is the Arctic Night (kaamos) in the winter, when the sun never comes up at all and the south daylight is limited to a few pitiful hours with the sun just barely climbing over the trees before it heads down again.

Geography

Unlike Norway and Sweden, Finland is mostly low, flat to rolling plains interspersed with lakes and low hills, with mountains (of a sort) only in the extreme north and Finland's highest point, Mount Halti, rising only to a modest 1,328 m. Finland has 187,888 lakes (about 60,000 of them are big lakes) according to Geological Survey of Finland (Geologian tutkimuskeskus), making the moniker Land of Ten Thousand Lakes actually an underestimation. Along the coast and in the lakes are (according to another estimate) 179,584 islands, making the country an excellent boating destination as well.

Holidays

Finns aren't typically very hot on big public carnivals; most holidays are spent at home with family. The most notable exception, in university cities at least, is Vappu on May 1, as thousands of students (and leftists, whose day of jubilation it traditionally is) fill the streets. Important holidays and similar happenings include:

  • New Year's Day (Uudenvuodenp�iv�), January 1.
  • Epiphany (Loppiainen), January 6.
  • Easter (P��si�inen), date varies by year. Tied to this are laskiainen 40 days before Easter, nominally a carneval that kicks off the Lent, practically a time for children and university students to go sliding down snowy slopes, and Ascension Day (helatorstai) 40 days after, just another day for the shops to be closed.
  • Walpurgis Night (Vappu), May 1 (starting with Vappuaatto on April 30). A spring festival that coincides with May Day. Originally a workers' celebration, vappu has become a festival for students, who wear colorful signature overalls and roam the streets.
  • Midsummer Festival (Juhannus), June 24. Held to celebrate the summer solstice, with plenty of bonfires, drinking and general merrymaking. Cities become almost empty as people rush to their summer cottages.
  • July is the usual month to have your summer vacation, unlike most of Europe that does it in August.
  • Night of the Arts (Taiteiden y�), in Helsinki some time near the end of August. Called "little vappu" by many as streets are full of drunk people, but the official content is performing arts through the night. Invented by bookstores in the 1990s.
  • Independence Day (Itsen�isyysp�iv�), December 6. A fairly somber celebration of Finland's independence from Russia. The President holds a ball for the important people that the less important watch on TV.
  • Little Christmas (Pikkujoulu), people go pub crawling with their workmates in December.
  • Christmas (Joulu), December 24 to 26. The biggest holiday of the year, when pretty much everything closes for three days. Santa (Joulupukki) comes on Christmas Eve on December 24, ham gets eaten and everyone goes to sauna.
  • New Year's Eve (Uudenvuodenaatto), December 31. Fireworks time!

Get in

Finnish foreign ministry has a page on Entry documents required of foreign nationals (http://formin.finland.fi/doc/eng/services/entry/main.html). Finland is signatory to the Schengen treaty, see the article on the European Union for details.

By plane

Finland's main international hub is Helsinki-Vantaa Airport near Helsinki. There are limited regional services to other cities and, in the winter high season, occasional direct charters to Lapland. Ryanair flies to Tampere.

By train

There are daily direct train services from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and Moscow in Russia.

  • VR (http://www.vr.fi/heo/eng/ita/ita.htm)

By boat

One of the best ways to travel to and from Finland is by sea. The boats to Sweden, in particular, are giant, multi-story floating palaces and department stores, with cheap prices subsidized by sales of tax-free booze: a return trip to Stockholm including a cabin for up to four people can go as low as 50€. If travelling by Inter Rail, you can get 50% off deck fares. The best way to arrive in Helsinki is standing on the outside deck with a view ahead.

To Estonia

Helsinki - Tallinn (Estonia)

  • Silja Line (http://www.siljaline.fi/?ChangeLang=english) (not during winter)
  • Viking Line (http://www.vikingline.fi/index.asp?lang=en)
  • Ecker� Line (http://www.eckeroline.fi/en/)
  • Tallink (http://www.tallink.fi/en/)
  • Linda Line (http://195.222.18.13/lindaline/index.php?ll=eng) (not during winter)
  • Nordic Jet Line (http://www-eng.njl.fi/) (not during winter)
To Germany

Helsinki - Germany)

  • Rostock (Germany)

    To Russia

    Scheduled services to Russia are stop-and-go, being at the moment (August 2005) stopped once again. Kristina Cruises (http://www.kristinacruises.com/list.php?&listname=risteilyt&lang=en) and Silja Line (http://www.silja.fi/ROUTES/Helsinki%20-%20St%20Petersburg/) still offer cruises from Helsinki.

    To Sweden

    Helsinki - Stockholm (Sweden)

    • Silja Line (http://www.siljaline.fi/?ChangeLang=english)
    • Viking Line (http://www.vikingline.fi/index.asp?lang=en)

    Turku - Stockholm (Sweden)

    • Silja Line (http://www.siljaline.fi/?ChangeLang=english)
    • Viking Line (http://www.vikingline.fi/index.asp?lang=en)
    • Seawind Line (http://www.seawind.fi/switchlang.php?l=eng)

    Get around

    Finland's a large country and traveling is relatively expensive. Public transportation is mainly well organized and comfortable. The domestic Journey Planner (http://www.journey.fi/) helps to search for the best connections between any two locations covering all domestic coach and train lines.

    By plane

    Flights are the fastest but generally also the most expensive way of getting around. It's worth booking in advance if possible: on the Helsinki-Oulu sector, the country's busiest, a fully flexible return economy ticket costs a whopping 251€ but an advance-purchase the ticket can go as low as 74€. You may also be able to get discounted domestic tickets if you fly in on Finnair.

    There are two competiting airlines selling domestic flights:

    • Finnair (http://www.finnair.com) (the biggest by far, services to most bigger cities)
    • Blue1 (http://www.blue1.com) (a division of SAS, formerly known as Air Botnia, competes in the busiest routes)

    Also there are some smaller airlines, which fly flights for Finnair, their tickets can be bought from Finnair.

    By train

    VR (http://www.vr.fi/heo/eng/index.html) (Finnish Railways), operates the pretty extensive (and unfortunately also pretty expensive) railroad network. The train is the method of choice for travel from Helsinki to Tampere and Turku, with departures at least once per hour and faster speeds than the bus. The trains are generally very comfortable, especially the express services, and amenities usually include toilets, a restaurant/cafe car and on some trains even have play rooms for children.

    The following classes of service are available, with example prices and durations for the popular Helsinki-Tampere service in parenthesis:

    • Pendolino tilting trains, the fastest option (29.40€, 1:27)
    • InterCity and InterCity2 express trains, with surcharge (24.90€, 1:48)
    • Ordinary express (pikajuna), no surcharge (22.80€, 1:53-2:16)
    • Local (l�hiliikennejuna or taajamajuna), no surcharge, quite slow (19.40€, 2:12-2:25)

    Additional surcharges apply for travel in first class. Overnight sleepers are also available for long-haul routes and very good value at 11/21/43€ for a bed in a three/two/one-bed compartment; note that one-bed compartments are only available in first class.

    Finland is a participant in the Interrail system, and is located in Zone B along with Scandinavia (see [1] (http://www.vr.fi/heo/eng/lansi/finterail.htm)).

    By bus

    Matkahuolto (http://www.matkahuolto.fi/english/) offers long-distance coach connections to practically all parts of Finland. Fares are generally equivalent to or marginally cheaper than trains.

    By car

    Car rental is possible in Finland but generally expensive and, particularly in winter, somewhat hazardous, especially for drivers unused to cold weather conditions. The most dangerous weather is in fact around the zero degree mark (C), when slippery but near-invisible black ice forms on the roads. Particularly in Lapland, collisions with reindeer (survivable) and moose (lethal) are common and drivers must stay very alert, particularly at dawn and dusk.

    Traffic drives on the right. Note that headlights must be kept on at all times when driving, in and outside cities, whether it's dark or not. VR's overnight car carrier trains (http://www.vr.fi/heo/eng/aika/fautojuna.htm) are popular for skipping the long slog from Helsinki up to Lapland and getting a good night's sleep instead: a Helsinki-Rovaniemi trip (one way) with car and cabin for 1-3 people starts from 215€.

    By thumb

    Hitchhiking is possible albeit unusual in Finland, as the harsh climate and sparse traffic don't exactly encourage standing around waiting for cars. See Tampere's infamous blood sausage (mustamakkara). Around Easter keep an eye out for m�mmi, a type of brown sweet rye pudding which is eaten with cream and sugar. It looks famously unpleasant but doesn't actually taste that bad.

    Places to eat

    Finns tend to eat out only on special occasions, and restaurant prices are correspondingly expensive. The one exception is lunchtime, when thanks to a government-sponsored lunch coupon system nearly every restaurant in town offers set lunches for around 7€, usually consisting of a main course, salad bar, bread table and a drink. University cafeterias, many of which are open to all, are particularly cheap with meals in the 3-4€ range for students, although without local student ID you will usually need to pay more.

    For dinner, you'll be limited to generic fast food (hamburgers, kebabs and such) in the 5-10€ range, or you'll have to splurge 20+€ for a meal in a "nice" restaurant. For eating on the move, look for grill kiosks (grilli), which serve sausages, hamburgers and other portable (if not terribly health-conscious) fare late into the night at reasonable prices. Hesburger is the local fast-food equivalent of McDonald's, with a similar menu. However they have a more "Finnish" interpretation of a few dishes, such as a sour-rye chicken sandwich.

    The buffet table (voileip�p�yt�), is the Finnish version of smorgasbord. Typically a good-sized selection of sandwiches, various meats and pastries. Though not very common in a restaurant setting, if you are fortunate enough to be invited to a Finn's home, they will likely have prepared a spread for their guest, along with plenty of coffee. Do not refuse this hospitality out of "politeness"; even if you are not hungry, eat!

    If you're really on a budget, you can save a considerable amount of money by self-catering. Ready-to-eat casseroles and other basic fare that can be quickly prepared in a microwave can be bought for a euro or two in any supermarket.

    Drink

    Finns are reputedly the world's heaviest coffee (kahvi) drinkers, averaging an astounding nine cups per day. Finns usually drink theirs strong and black, although sugar and milk are usually available. Cardamom coffee (kardemummakahvi) is a deliciously spiced variation on the standard cuppa.

    Thanks to its thousands of lakes, Finland has plenty of water supplies and tap water is always drinkable. The usual soft drinks and juices are widely available, but look out for Pommac, an unusual soda made from (according to the label) "mixed fruits" and a wide array of berry juices (marjamehu), especially in summer.

    Dairy

    Finland is one of the few societies on earth (the other being Mongolia) where it is considered normal for adults to drink milk as an accompaniment to food. Another popular option is piim�, a type of buttermilk which resembles sour, runny yogurt in consistency and taste.

    Alcohol

    Alcohol is very expensive in Finland, although low-cost Estonia's entry to the EU forced the government to cut alcohol taxes by 33% in 2004. Still, a single beer will cost you closer to 5€ in any bar or pub, or 0.5€ and up in a supermarket. While beer and cider are available in any supermarket or convenience store, the state monopoly Finnish and Swedish, and almost all towns have alternate Finnish and Swedish names. Swedish is spoken predominately in the South and West, especially along the Gulf of Bothnia and exclusively in the autonomous province of �land. Eastern, Central and Northern Finland (barring S�mi and several 'extreme' Finnish dialects) are almost completely monolingual in what we can call "Standard" Finnish. In larger cities, nearly all people you could possibly meet as a tourist speak English very well. This is especially true with younger people.

    Sleep

    Accommodation in Finland is expensive. One of the few ways to limit the damage are to stay in youth hostels (retkeilymaja), which have a fairly comprehensive network throughout the country and usually cost less than 20€ per night. Another cheaper option is to take advantage of Finland's right to access, or Every Man's Right (jokamiehenoikeus), which allows camping, hiking, and berry and mushroom picking on uncultivated land.

    Hostels

    Learn

    Finland's universities offer many exchange programs.

    Work

    Citizens of European Union countries can work freely in Finland. Acquiring a work permit from outside the EU is, however, a significant hassle and there is little informal work to be found.

    Please note, however, that for most jobs you will need to understand either Finnish or Swedish.

    Stay safe

    Finland is, generally, a safe place to travel. Use common sense at night, particularly on Friday and Saturday when the youth of Finland hit the streets to drink, get drunk and in some unfortunate cases look for trouble.

    Stay healthy

    There are few serious health risks in Finland. Your primary enemy especially in wintertime will be the cold, particularly if trekking Lapland. Finland is a sparsely populated country and, if heading out into the wilderness, it is imperative that you register your travel plans with the authorities so they can come looking for you if you fail to show up. Dress warmly in layers and bring along a good pair of sunglasses to prevent snow blindness, especially in the spring.

    A serious nuisance in summer are mosquitoes, hordes of which inhabit Finland (particularly Lapland) in summer, especially after rains. While they carry no malaria or other nasty diseases, Finnish mosquitoes make a distinctive (and highly irritating) whining sound while tracking their prey, and their bites are very itchy. As usual, mosquitoes are most active around dawn and sunset — which, in the land of the Midnight Sun, may mean most of the night in summer. Use repellent, ensure your tent has good mosquito netting and consider prophylaxis with cetirizine (brand names include Zyrtec), an anti-allergen that (if taken in advance!) will neutralize your reaction to any bites.

    Respect

    Finns generally have a relaxed attitude towards manners and dressing, and a visitor is unlikely to offend them by accident. Common sense is quite enough in most situations, but there are a couple of things one should keep in mind:

    Finns are a famously taciturn people who have little time for small talk or social niceties, so don't expect to hear phrases like "thank you" or "you're welcome" too often. However, Finns are generally helpful and polite, and glad to help confused tourists if asked. The lack of niceties has more to do with the fact that in Finnish culture truthfulness is highly regarded. One should only open their mouths if they really mean what they are about to say. A visitor is unlikely to receive many compliments from Finns, but conversely, they can be fairly sure that the compliments they do receive are genuine.

    Other highly regarded virtue in Finland is punctuality. A visitor should apologize even for being late for a few minutes. Being late for longer usually requires a short explanation.

    If you are invited to a Finnish home, the only bad mistake a visitor can make is not to remove their shoes. For much of the year shoes will carry a lot of snow or mud, and therefore it is customary to remove them, even during the summer. Bringing gifts or flowers to the host is appreciated, but not strictly required.

    In Finland there is little in the way of a dress code and topless sunbathing is common in the summer, although going au naturel is generally limited to dedicated nudist beaches. The general attire is casual and even in business meetings dressing is somewhat more relaxed than in other countries.

    Contact

    Internet cafes are sparse on the ground in this country where everybody logs on at home and in the office, but nearly every public library in the country has free Internet access (although you will often have to register for a time slot in advance or queue).

    External links