Finland Travel Guide
The most easterly of the Nordic countries, Finland is a land with incredible nature, pragmatic and good hearted people, and a surprisingly robust history stretching back almost 1,000 years. With castles dating back to the 13th century and having one of the world’s most northerly medieval fortresses, Finland has a backstory that proves that there is more to this place than reindeer and suicide sauna runs to the ice cold lake and back.
Indeed, those two things figure greatly in this countries’ appeal, as the cuisine offers up some tasty reindeer stew (you may want to cover your children’s eyes when you get to that part), and 10% of the entire landmass here is made up of lakes.
But as you will see in the coming paragraphs, the Finnish people have a land that they have largely kept to themselves for so long – and they are eager to show it off to anybody who wishes to discover it for what it really is.
Languages: Finnish, English, Swedish
What To Do
The first place that you’ll be urged to see upon arrival in Helsinki is Suomenlinna, an island fortress that was intended to defend the city from a land invasion that was feared by Russia during the 18th century. As it turned out, it wasn’t enough, as the Russians took it and Finland as a whole away from Sweden, which controlled this part of Scandinavia, in 1808.
After breaking away from Russia during the Communist Revolution in the early 20th century, it fell back under Finnish control, where it has remained to this day. The common use in the present is for picnics by the locals, but it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it will be of paramount interest to foreign travelers for its historic value.
One of the best examples of how Finland was back during medieval times can be found at Turku Castle, one of the oldest and best remaining remnants of that period. Built in the 13th century by the Swedish that had recently conquered that part of Finland, it has endured many sieges over the years, mainly from Russian incursions, from the 14th century straight through to World War II, when it was hit by a Russian fire bomb.
These days, it is wonderfully restored, from the stately courtyard, to the decadent dining room, which has an ultra-long table where guests of royalty regularly broke bread together.
That isn’t it for castles in Finland though, as this country has one of the most northerly medival period fortifications in the world … its name is Olavinlinna. During the political chaos following the conquest of the Novgorod Republic by Ivan III, this castle was built to re-define the border between the two kingdoms, in a much more liberal manner for the Finns.
It held all the way until the 18th century, thanks to geographic advantages that allowed the Finns to repel invaders over that period. The Russians finally took it in 1743, and Finland had to wait until the Russian Revolution to get it back.
If you enjoy winter, Lapland is an excellent place to check out during that time, as it offers many ways to enjoy the colder, darker parts of the Finnish calendar. Cross-country skiing is widely practiced on many hundreds of kilometres of trails, both groomed and ungroomed, which is a choice way to exercise and connect with the wilds of this remote country.
Finnish saunas allow one to experience the bliss of sweating out all of one’s troubles, only to be shocked back to your senses after being cajoled to jump in a lake where the water hits sub-zero temperatures. The practice of running back into the hot air of the sauna is said to encourage circulation through your body, improving one’s vitality.
Finally, with long hours of darkness and more favourable stratospheric conditions at this high latitude, getting in a viewing of the Northern Lights is virtually guaranteed at this time of year. The mystifying green glow will be a trippy experience that will remind you that nature and space is a force with powers that we can only begin to comprehend.
What To Eat
As the Finns traditionally could only grow green foods for three months out of the year, the backbones of Finn cuisine tend to be dominated by the heartier root vegetables, such as potatoes, with bread and various meat and fish dishes rounding out dinner plates across the nation over the years.
Karelian pasty is considered to be the national dish of Finland, which is typically eaten for breakfast. It is made with rye dough and is filled with rice in the centre. Before serving, many will top it with a mixture of butter and boiled egg before digging in.
For those with adventuruous taste buds consider the astringent Finnish salty licorice known as Salmiakki.
With the Lapland frontier teeming with Santa’s favourite ungulate, reindeer stew has long been a favourite lunch/dinner time meal for many Finns. Simmered with butter and beer for up to three hours, it is then served alongside lingonberries and potatoes, the former of which is also a common side in meals here.
With countless waterways where one can catch dinner via a rod and a reel, it should not be a big surprise perhaps that Finns really enjoy a good feed of salmon from time to time. Smoked, cooked and served with cucumbers, mushrooms, and potatoes, in a creamy soup, or even raw, Finns love salmon anyway they can get it, it seems!