Finland's fusion of wild beauty, contemporary design and culinary excellence is a beguiling mix. Throw in winter magic and irresistible summers, and you've one cool country.
Call of the Wild
The Finland you encounter will depend on the season of your visit, but whatever the month, there’s something pure in the Finnish air and spirit that’s vital and exciting. With towering forests speckled by picture-perfect lakes, as if an artist had flicked a blue-dipped paintbrush at the map, Suomi (the Finns' word for their country) offers some of Europe’s best hiking, kayaking and canoeing. A fabulous network of national parks has well-marked routes and regularly spaced huts for overnighting, and you can observe bears and elk deep in the forests on nature-watching trips.
Finland’s short but sparkling sunny season sees the country burst into life. Finns seem to want to suck every last golden drop out of the summer in the hope that it will sustain them through the long, dark winter months, and there’s an explosion of good cheer and optimism. With surprisingly high temperatures for these latitudes, summer is a time for music festivals, art exhibitions, lake cruises, midnight sunshine on convivial beer terraces, idyllic days at remote waterside cottages and bountiful market produce.
After the Snowfall
Winter has its own charm as snow blankets the pines and lakes freeze over. The best way to banish the frosty subzero temperatures is to get active. Skiing is great through to May. Other pursuits include chartering a team of dogs, a posse of reindeer, or a snowmobile for a trek across snowy solitudes, lit by a beautiful, pale winter sun; catching the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) after your wood-fired sauna; drilling a hole for ice fishing; and spending a night in a glittering, iridescent ice hotel.
Finland isn't just vast expanses of pristine wilderness. Vibrant cities stock the country's southern areas, headlined by the capital, Helsinki, an electrifying urban space with world-renowned design and music scenes. Embraced by the Baltic, it’s a spectacular ensemble of modern and stately architecture, island restaurants and stylish and quirky bars. And the ‘new Suomi’ epicurean scene is flourishing, with locally foraged flavours to the fore. Beyond Helsinki, Tampere and Turku in particular are lively, engaging cities with spirited university-student populations.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Finland.
Suomenlinna, the ‘fortress of Finland’, straddles a cluster of car-free islands connected by bridges. This Unesco World Heritage site was originally built by the Swedes, as Sveaborg, in the mid-18th century. Visually striking and historically evocative, it offers at least a day's diversions: several museums, bunkers and fortress walls, and Finland's only remaining WWII submarine. Cafes and picnic spots are plentiful. Ferries (www.hsl.fi; day ticket €5, 15 minutes, four hourly, fewer in winter) depart from the passenger quay at Kauppatori.
Once the private home of Gösta Serlachius, this world-class art gallery is one of Finland's premier cultural attractions. Situated 2km east of Mänttä's town centre in an exquisitely maintained garden, it comprises two buildings: a spectacular 2014 wooden pavilion designed by Spanish architectural firm MX_SI showcasing Finnish and international temporary exhibitions of contemporary art; and the original 1935 manor housing an excellent collection of Finnish golden-age works and European masterpieces, including works by Claude Monet, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and Camille Pissarro.
Founded in 2017 to commemorate Finland's centenary of independence, the country's 40th national park stretches over 11,000 hectares of glittering lakes and dense forests. Highlights include Julma Ölkky, a 3km-long lake-filled canyon that narrows to just 10m wide; Öllön, a 40m-deep lake where scuba-diving will be possible; and Värikallio, a river canyon where 4000-year-old rock paintings can be viewed from a metal platform. Criss-crossing the park are canoeing and cross-country skiing routes, plus mountain-bike and hiking trails.
This fantastic villa is considered one of the 20th century's architectural masterpieces and the pinnacle of Alvar Aalto's career. It is the former home of industrialists Harry and Maire Gullichsen, who were avid art collectors and tireless supporters of modern culture and social change. The house still contains the couple's museum-like collection of modern art.
This museum complex spreads over five buildings from different eras, including Sederholmin talo, Helsinki’s oldest central building (dating from 1757 and built by a wealthy merchant). They're linked by a contemporary structure, along with four other museums at separate locations. The must-see of the bunch is the main museum. Its collection of 450,000 historical artefacts and more than one million photographs is backed up by entertaining information piecing together Helsinki’s transition from Swedish to Russian hands and on into independence.
Occupying a palatial 1887 neo-Renaissance building, Finland’s premier art gallery offers a crash course in the nation’s art. It houses Finnish paintings and sculptures from the ‘golden age’ of the late 19th century through to the 1950s, including works by Albert Edelfelt, Hugo Simberg, Helene Schjerfbeck, Pekka Halonen and the von Wright brothers. Pride of place goes to the prolific Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s triptych from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, depicting Väinämöinen’s pursuit of the maiden Aino.
An unmissable stop for Finnish design aficionados, Helsinki's Design Museum has a permanent collection that looks at the roots of Finnish design in the nation’s traditions and nature. Changing exhibitions focus on contemporary design – everything from clothing to household furniture. From June to August, 30-minute tours in English take place at 2pm on Saturday and are included in admission. Combination tickets with the nearby Museum of Finnish Architecture are a great-value way to see the two museums.
Built in National Romantic art nouveau style and opened in 1916, Finland’s premier historical museum looks a bit like a Gothic church with its heavy stonework and tall, square tower. It was given a major renovation in 2019, and its highlights include the exceptional prehistory exhibition and the Realm, covering the 13th to the 19th century. You'll also find a fantastic hands-on area for kids, Workshop Vintti.
Towering 52m above the waves 25km offshore from Hanko, the Nordic countries' tallest lighthouse was built in 1906 to protect ships from the perilous archipelago waters. It was damaged extensively during the Continuation War by the departing Red Army but has been refurbished. There are historical exhibits downstairs and fabulous views from the top.