Finland is a large country – the fifth-largest in the European Union, in fact – with a lot of history, culture and natural beauty to explore. It would take at least several weeks to see and experience the entire country. However, if a long weekend is all the time you have to spend in Finland, you can still see a lot of it with some forward planning.
Friday – a day in Helsinki
Landing in Helsinki Vantaa airport puts you right in the heart of the most popular tourist city. There’s enough to see and do in and around the capital that you could easily spend a week or two there without getting bored, but there’s also a lot that can be seen in only a day.
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For a general tour you can buy a day travel pass and take the number 3 or 4 tram, which circles the city and passes some marvellous sites such as the pristine white Lutheran cathedral and the opulent Presidential Palace. If you’re interested in history and culture, take the ferry from the south harbour to the Suomenlinna military fortress, a Unesco World Heritage site, or hop between the museums in the city centre. If you want the best view of the city, take one of the ferry tours from the harbour to see the city and the surrounding Baltic Sea archipelago from the water. There are more than enough restaurants and cafes throughout to stop and eat at, as well as hotels for any budget.
Saturday – a day in Rovaniemi
For your second day, head north to the city of Rovaniemi in Lapland. It’s a 700km (434mi) from Helsinki, yet the flight from Helsinki Vantaa airport takes only 75 minutes and costs around 50€ if booked in advance. You’ll have to get up a little early to make the 7.40am flight, but you’ll land in Rovaniemi by 9am.
The main attraction in Rovaniemi is the Santa Claus Village. Here, you can meet and get a photo taken with Santa himself, ride in a reindeer sleigh, and send a Christmas card from the elves’ post office. There are also some quality Lappish restaurants and cafes in the resort.
If this isn’t to your taste then there are plenty of Arctic activities around Rovaniemi, no matter the time of year. There is husky sledging, hiking, fat biking, ice waterfall climbing and a lot more. Arktikum Museum has exhibits on the natural and human history of the Arctic housed in a stunning tube-shaped glass building.
By staying overnight in Rovaniemi you can see either the Midnight Sun during the summer or hope for a glance of the Northern Lights during the winter. The best place to do this is in one of the glass igloos at the Arctic SnowHotel. These are private hotel rooms built into individual igloos with glass ceilings for falling asleep underneath the night sky. At between 400€ and 800€ per night they are expensive, but worth it for such a unique experience. If this is beyond your budget then there are plenty of other hotel rooms or Airbnbs in Rovaniemi as well.
Alternatively, you may want to skip Helsinki and head straight for Rovaniemi on Culture Trip’s five-day Arctic Wilderness Adventure – packed full of thrilling activities like snowmobiling and husky sledding, the trip also gives you the chance to stay on a private Finnish island.
Sunday – national park
No trip to Finland is complete without delving into the amazing wilderness at one of the 40 national parks. Many of these can be reached easily from Rovaniemi airport, followed by either a rental car or coach connection. By flying to Joensuu airport, for example, you can get a shuttle to Koli National Park to climb the cliffs and find amazing natural views. Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park can be reached from Rovaniemi by train or coach and has stunning Arctic scenery and some of the freshest air in Europe.
Alternatively, you can head into the wilderness for a day of wildlife spotting. Bear-watching trips are becoming increasingly popular but you can also take trips to spot elk, wolverines and rare birds, and learn how to take pictures of them.
After a long and exhausting weekend of exploring the best of Finland, unwind the classic Finnish way: in the sauna. They aren’t difficult to find, even when you are out in the wild; after all, there are an estimated 3m saunas in Finland. Makeshift saunas can even be transported and set up in remote areas. When relaxing after the sauna with a dip in a lake or a cold Finnish beer, you can take in the scenery, think back over your weekend in Finland, and decide where to visit on your next trip.
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