Helsinki is a first stop to many visiting Finland. For such a small capital city, it is full of history, cultural sites, shops, restaurants, and other activities. Walking around to take in the architecture and atmosphere is an experience in itself. There are also regular guided tours around the city, or a cheaper alternative is to take a tram. Some of the most essential stops are Temppeliaukion Church, the Lutheran Cathedral, and Seurasaari Open Air Museum.
Finland has thousands of small islands of its coast, but the Turku archipelago to the south west, the largest in the world with over 20,000 islands, is by far the most impressive and offers the most attractive scenery. The Moomin World theme park is situated in Naantali and it is also home to the Kuusisto Castle Ruins. The archipelago is a great place to walk, cycle, or boat through.
Every city in Finland has at least one market hall, or kauppahalli, which can range in size from a few local businesses to a bustling marketplace selling everything from pastries to spices. In many cities, the market hall is the ideal place to pick up souvenirs, find local ingredients, or have an affordable lunch. The oldest in the country is the Old Market Hall in Helsinki’s south harbour, which has been operating since 1889. Other cities have a more modern market hall, such as Joensuu which is having its old hall demolished and renovated as a ‘living room of the city center’. Any visit to a market hall allows for a chance to meet locals and support small, local businesses.
Finland has trained some of the best globally ranked ice hockey players of all time. The best way to enjoy a game is to watch one at an arena. Even if you aren’t there as a fan of the local team, it is still fun to join in with the Finnish fan’s cheers and songs or just enjoy the sport in-person.
The island fortress of Suomenlinna (which means ‘Finnish Castle’, despite not actually being a castle) off the coast of Helsinki is the most popular tourist destination in the country, and with good reason. It is not only one of Finland’s most historically significant sites, having experienced every major conflict since the 1700’s, it also holds numerous museums of everything from toys to war memorabilia. To see everything on the island takes a whole day, and the best way to learn about the history is to take one of the walking tours. Collectively, it makes for one of the most enjoyable days out you can have in Finland.
There are multiple national parks in Finland, all of which offer their own unique sights and landscapes. But some of the best views can be found in Koli National Park in Northern Karelia, in the eastern part of Finland. Climbing the rocky trail to look over the lakes and forests is just as breathtaking as seeing the Grand Canyon. In winter, there are also opportunities for skiing through this stunning landscape.
The city of Turku offers some vastly different historical sites to Helsinki, due to it being the capital city during the time of Swedish rule. The best way to learn about this history is by visiting Turku Castle, near the harbour. The deceptively small exterior hides a huge museum detailing Finland’s medieval history and the role that the castle played in it. Its numerous rooms also hold more recent antiques, paintings, and artefacts that give a glimpse into every era of Finland’s fascinating history.
Children come from all over the world to see Santa Claus and his reindeer in the Lapland city of Rovaniemi, the official home of Santa, but it is always worth making the journey both for the childhood nostalgia and to take in the sights and culture of Lapland. Santa’s Village in Rovaniemi offers sledge rides, husky sledging, snowmobiles, and all manner of other Lapland activities.
While in Lapland during the winter, it is worth crossing seeing the Northern Lights off your bucket list. The dark Lapland winter nights, largely unspoilt by pollution, make an ideal location to spot the lights, especially with accommodation such as the igloo hotels which allow you to watch the night sky while laying in bed. There isn’t a guarantee of seeing the lights for very long, but waiting for them to appear is all part of the fun, and only adds to the mystical appeal.
The popularity of saunas may have spread worldwide, but Finland is considered the best place to try one, as it is where the sauna was invented. In the unlikely case that the place you are staying doesn’t have a sauna, you can visit a neighbourhood public sauna such as Arlan Public Sauna in Helsinki or take a luxury mini-break in a boutique sauna, such as Herrankukkaro on the Turku archipelago. There are also many unique saunas such as sauna ships or the sauna gondola, the only one of its kind in the world.
Finns are especially proud of their natural wildlife, but since most of them are only found in remote locations and many hibernate, they can be difficult to spot in the wild. One ideal way to see bears, Finland’s national animal, is to go on a bear watching trip. These excursions run between April and September and offer chances to watch and get photos of bears in their natural habitat without disturbing them or risking an attack. The borders of Eastern Finland are considered the best locations for spotting bears, although they can be found anywhere on the mainland
The Finnish tradition of escaping to a lakeside or island cottage is becoming increasingly popular with tourists as well. It not only offers a remote location to relax but a chance to enjoy fishing, swimming, nature spotting, hiking, or any other outdoor activity. The summer months, and especially midsummer, are the most popular times to visit a lake cottage, but they can be rented out at any time of year for anywhere from a few nights to several months at a time. Cottages near ski resorts or in the Arctic Circle are ideal places to stay during winter, and usually make cheaper alternatives to hotels.