The Sámi

Sámi are the indigenous inhabitants of Lapland and are today spread across four countries from the Kola Peninsula in Russia to the southern Norwegian mountains. About half of Finnish Sámi live in the Sámi region called Sápmi. Archaeological evidence suggests this region was first settled soon after the last ice age around 9000 years ago, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the Christian era – the early Iron Age – that Finns and Sámi had become two distinct groups with diverging languages.

Traditions & Beliefs

The early inhabitants were nomadic people – hunters, fishers and food gatherers – who migrated with the seasons. Early Sámi society was based on the siida – small groups comprising a number of families who controlled particular hunting, herding and fishing grounds. Families lived in a kota, a traditional dwelling resembling the tepee or wigwam of native North Americans. Smaller tents served as temporary shelters while following the migrating reindeer herds; a ‘winter village’ system also developed, where groups came together to help survive the harsh winter months. Mechanisation in the 1950s meant reindeer herders could go out on snowmobiles and return home every night. This ended the need for nomadism and the Sámi became a settled people.

The natural environment was essential to Sámi existence: they worshipped the sun (father), earth (mother) and wind, and believed all things in nature had a soul. There were many gods, who dwelled in seita places (holy sites): fells, lakes or sacred stones. The link with the gods was through the noaidi (shaman), the most important member of the community.

Traditional legends, rules of society and fairy tales were handed down through the generations by storytelling. A unique form of storytelling was the yoik, a chant in which the singer would use words, or imitate the sounds of animals and nature to describe experiences or people. It’s still used by the Sámi today, sometimes accompanied by instruments.

Sámi Groups

More than half of the 70,000 Sámi population are in Norway, while around 9000 reside in Finland; there are close cross-border cultural ties. Five distinct Sámi groups with distinct cultural traditions live in Finland. Vuotso Sámi live around Saariselkä and are the southernmost group. Enontekiö Sámi dwell around Hetta in the west and, with Utsjoki Sámi, who settled from Finland’s northernmost tip along the Norwegian border to Karigasniemi, have the strongest reindeer-herding heritage. Inari Sámi live around the shores of Inarijärvi and have a strong fishing tradition. Skolt Sámi originally inhabited the Kola Peninsula around Petsamo, and fled to Finland when the Soviet Union took back control of that area. They number around 600, live around Sevettijärvi and Nellim, and are of Orthodox religion.

Role of the Reindeer

Reindeer have always been central to the Sámi existence. Sámi consumed the meat and milk, used the fur for clothing and bedding and made fish hooks and harpoons from the bones and antlers. Today a significant percentage of Sámi living in Sápmi are involved in reindeer husbandry. Tourism is another big employer.

Originally the Sámi hunted wild reindeer, usually trapping them in pitfalls. Hunting continued until around the 16th century, when the Sámi began to domesticate entire herds and migrate with them. Towards the end of the 19th century, Finland’s reindeer herders were organised into paliskunta cooperatives, of which there are now 56 in northern Finland. Reindeer wander free around the large natural areas within each paliskunta, which are bordered by enormous fences that cross the Lapland wilderness. Each herder is responsible for his stock and identifies them by earmarks – a series of distinctive notches cut into the ear of each animal. GPS collars now help owners to track their animals.


The colourful Sámi costumes, featuring jackets, pants or skirts embroidered with bright red, blue and yellow patterns, are now mostly worn on special occasions and during Sámi festivals.

Sámi handicrafts (including bags and boots made from reindeer hide, knitted gloves and socks, textiles, shawls, strikingly colourful Sámi hats, jewellery and silverware) are recognised as indigenous art. Genuine handicrafts carry the name 'Sámi duodji'. Inari is one of the best places to buy them.

Sámi Languages

Sámi languages are related to Finnish and other Finno-Ugric languages. There are three Sámi languages, not very mutually intelligible, used in Finland today. There are another seven Sámi languages in Norway, Sweden and Russia.

Sidebar: Sámi Resources

For more information, visit the excellent Siida museum in Inari, Samiland in Levi or the Arktikum in Rovaniemi. Hidden away via the ‘web exhibitions’ page on the Siida website (, you can access a series of excellent pages on the Inari and Skolt Sámi cultures.

Sidebar: Reindeer Ownership

Never ask a Sámi how many reindeer he or she owns. It’s a very personal matter, like someone’s bank balance. It’s something they wouldn’t even necessarily reveal to their closest friends.

Finnish Culture

Despite the magnificent lakescapes, enchanting forests and plethora of outdoor activities, Finland’s greatest highlight is the Finns. Isolated in this corner of Europe and inhabiting an extreme land with extended periods of light and dark, warmth and bitterly cold temperatures, they do their own thing and have developed a strongly independent, self-reliant streak, coloured by a seriously offbeat sense of humour.

Love of Nature

Finns have a deep and abiding love of their country’s forests and lakes. In July Finland is one of the world’s most relaxing, joyful places to be – a reason Finns traditionally have not been big travellers. After the long winter, why miss the best their country has to offer? Finns head en masse for the mökki (summer cottage) from midsummer until the end of the July holidays. Most Finns of any age could forage in a forest for an hour at the right time of year and emerge with a feast of fresh berries, wild mushrooms and probably a fish or two. City-dwelling Finns are far more in touch with nature than most of their European equivalents.

Feature: Summer Cottages

Tucked away in Finland’s forests and lakelands are half a million kesämökkejä (summer cottages). Part holiday house, part sacred place, the mökki is the spiritual home of the Finn and you don’t know the country until you’ve spent time in one. The average Finn spends less than two days in a hotel per year, but several weeks in a cottage.

These are places where people get back to nature. Amenities are often basic – the gloriously genuine ones have no electricity or running water – but even the highest-flying Euro-techno-executives are in their element, chopping wood, DIYing, picking chanterelles and blueberries, rowing and selecting young birch twigs for the vihta (sauna whisk). There’s no better sauna than a mökki one: the soft steam of the wood stove caresses rather than burns, and the nude dash for an invigorating spring into the chilly lake is a Finnish summer icon. As is the post-sauna can of beer, new potatoes with fresh dill, and sausages grilled over pine cones on the barbecue. It’s hard not to feel at peace when gazing out at the silent lake, trees perfectly reflected in it by the midnight sun, and anything of consequence miles away.

The best way to experience a mökki is to be invited to one by a Finnish friend, but failing that there are numerous ones you can rent, particularly in the Lakeland area.


Finland is not Scandinavia, nor is it Russia. Nevertheless, Finnish tradition owes something to both cultures. But the modern Finn is staunchly independent. The long struggle for emancipation and the battle to survive in a harsh environment have engendered an ordered society that solves its own problems in its own way. They have also given birth to the Finnish trait of sisu, often translated as ‘guts’, or the resilience to survive prolonged hardship. Even if all looks lost, a Finn with sisu will fight – or swim, or run, or work – valiantly until the final defeat. This trait is valued highly, with the country’s heroic resistance against the Red Army in the Winter War usually thought of as the ultimate example.


No matter where you are in Finland, you’ll never be far from a sauna (pronounced sah-oo-nah, not saw-nuh). With over two million in homes, hotels, summer cottages, campgrounds and numerous other unlikely places, saunas are prescribed to cure almost every ailment, used to seal business deals, or just to socialise in over a few beers.

Traditionally saunas were used as a family bathhouse as well as a place to smoke meat and even give birth. The earliest references to the Finnish sauna date from chronicles of 1113 and there are numerous mentions of their use in the Kalevala.

Most saunas are private, in Finnish homes, but public saunas are common and most hotels have one. An invitation to a family’s sauna is an honour, just as it is to be invited to a person’s home for a meal. The sauna is taken naked. While a Finnish family will often take the sauna together, in mixed gatherings it is usual for the men and women to go separately.

Public saunas are generally separated by gender and if there is just one sauna, there are usually different hours for men and women. In unisex saunas you will be given some sort of wrap or covering to wear. Finns strictly observe the nonsexual character of the sauna and this point should be respected. The sauna was originally a place to bathe and meditate.

The most common sauna is the electric sauna stove, which produces a fairly dry, harsh heat compared with the much-loved chimney sauna, driven by a log fire and the staple of life at summer cottages. Even rarer is the true savusauna (smoke sauna), without a chimney. The smoke is let out just before entry and the soot-blackened walls are part of the experience. Although the top of a sauna can reach more than 120°C (248°F), many Finns consider the most satisfying temperature for a sauna to be around 80°C (178°F). At this temperature you’ll sweat and, some Finns claim, feel the wood smoke in your lungs.

Proper sauna etiquette dictates that you use a kauha (ladle) to throw water on the kiuas (sauna stove), which then gives off the löyly (sauna steam). At this point, at least in summer in the countryside, you might lightly strike yourself with the vihta (vasta in eastern Finland) – a bunch of fresh, leafy birch twigs. This improves circulation, has cleansing properties and gives your skin a pleasant smell. When you are sufficiently warmed, you’ll jump in the sea, a lake, river or pool, then return to the sauna to warm up and repeat the cycle several times. If you’re indoors, a cold shower will do. The swim and hot-cold aspect is such an integral part of the sauna experience that in the dead of winter Finns cut a hole in the ice and jump right in.


There’s a definite depressive streak in Finns, more so than in their western neighbours. While they aren’t among Europe’s biggest drinkers per capita, the incidence of alcoholism is high. The winter darkness can strain even the most optimistic soul – seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is significant here and suicide levels are higher than the comfortable standard of living would predict. The melancholic trend is reflected in Finns’ love of darkly themed music and lyrics of lost love – even the cheeriest summer Suomi-pop hits sound like the singer’s just backed over his or her dog, and Finnish tango takes lugubriousness off the chart.


While the ‘silent Finn’ concept has been exaggerated over the years, it’s certainly true that Finns believe in comfortable silences, so if a conversation dies off naturally there’s no need to jump-start it with small talk. Finns quip that they invented text messaging so they didn’t have to talk to each other, and sitting in the sauna for 20 minutes with your best friend, saying nothing, is perfectly normal. Finns generally have a quirky, dark, self-deprecating sense of humour and may just be saving their words for a well-timed jibe.

That's not to say Finns don’t talk. They do, and once they get a couple of pints of lager in them, they really do, as that reserve goes out the window to be replaced by boisterous bonhomie.


The Lutheran church dominates the religious scene here, with some 78% of Finns describing themselves as such on a census form. The next religious group, Finnish Orthodox, makes up only 1.5% of the population. Nevertheless, Finns have one of the lowest rates of church attendance in the Christian world.

Various Lutheran revivalist movements are seeking to combat this and are often in the news. The ultra-conservative Laestadian movement, many of whose members frown on such evils as dancing and earrings, has many adherents, as does the charismatic church Nokia-Missio. Almost one in 10 Finns belongs to a revivalist movement.

Feature: Drivin’ Wheels

Few countries have such an obsession with cars as Finland. The interest goes right down the scale, from watching Formula One to changing the oil in the old Datsun parked outside.

You won’t be in Finland for long before you’ll hear a baritone bellow and see a glint of fins and whitewall tyres as some American classic car rolls by, immaculately polished and tuned. You probably never knew that so many Mustangs, Chargers or Firebirds existed this side of the Atlantic. Even non-classics long since dead elsewhere are kept alive here with loyal home maintenance.

Rally driving sends Finns wild – the exploits of legends such as Tommi Mäkinen and Marcus Grönholm are the latest of a long line in a sport in which Finland has excelled. In Formula One, too, Suomi punches well above its weight, with Keke Rosberg, Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen all former world champions. In small towns, often the only entertainment for the local young is trying to emulate them by doing blockies around the kauppatori…

Finland's oldest automotive magazine, Moottori (, has extensive coverage on vehicles you might see here, and lists rallies, vintage and classic-car shows and other events.

Sidebar: Suicide

While suicide rates are a problem, it's a myth that Finns have the highest rate of it in the world. It actually only comes in ninth in Europe, between Serbia and Belgium.

Sidebar: Not Scandinavia

Despite its proximity, Finland is generally considered not to be part of Scandinavia, culturally or geographically. Many Finnish-speaking Finns are insistent on this point, and prefer the less specific term ‘Nordic countries’ to describe Finland and its western neighbours.

Sidebar: Finnish Dancing

Traditional ballroom-style dancing is popular in Finland in dedicated dance bar/restaurants or in summer dance pavilions. The website encourages visitors to participate in a night of Finnish dancing (no Finnish required) and has a detailed English page explaining the etiquette.

Sidebar: 'Little Saturday'

Finns love the weekend, when they head to the summer cottage, play sport, or party in the evening. But the working week also has a high point. On Wednesday nights restaurants are busy, music is playing at all the nightspots, and bars are full – Finns are celebrating pikku lauantai: ‘little Saturday’.

Sidebar: Dining with Locals

Cosy Finland ( offers an interesting chance to meet Finns in their own habitat. It will set you up with a dinner invitation at a multilingual host’s home, where you’ll try local specialities and get to know Finland away from the tourist beat.

Sidebar: Speeding Fines

Finland hits the headlines every now and then for the fact that its speeding fines are based on income. You're a multimillionaire doing 80km/h in a 50km/h zone? Expect a fine of €100,000 or more…

Finnish Design

The rustle of the birch or waterbird's splash on a lake are never far below the surface of a Finn's soul and they have taken this closeness to nature and melded it to a solid Nordic practicality to create a unique design tradition. Finnish designers evoke both the colourful optimism of summer and winter's austere minimalism in work that ranges from traditional Suomi design icons to avant-garde modern creations testing the limits of 3D printing.

The Roots of Creativity

Its inhabitants’ almost mystical closeness to nature has always underpinned design in Finland, and it’s rarely been a self-conscious art. However high Finland may climb on the lifestyle indexes these days, its design still has its roots in practicality. Indeed, it is a practicality originally born of poverty: the inventiveness of a hand-to-mouth rural population made life easier in very small steps.

Finland’s location and its historical role as a pawn in a long-running Russia-Sweden chess game have given it a variety of influences and a certain flexibility. As a meeting point between East and West, it has traditionally been a place of trade, a point of tension and, therefore, a point of change and innovation. Its climate, too, is a key factor, as it has meant that efficiency has always been the primary requisite for design of everyday objects. In bald terms, if that axe didn’t chop enough wood for the winter, you wouldn’t survive it.

The forest is ever-present in Finnish life, so it’s no surprise to find that nature is the dominant and enduring motif in the country’s designs, from Lapland’s sheath knives to the seasonal flower-and-forest colours of Marimekko’s palette. Timber remains an important material, and reassuringly chunky wooden objects adorn almost every Finnish home and summer cottage.

Alvar Aalto

Alvar Aalto was for many the 20th century’s number-one architect. In an era of increasing urbanisation, postwar rebuilding and immense housing pressure, Aalto found elegant solutions for public and private edifices that embraced functionalism, but never at the expense of humanity. Viewed from the next century, his work still more than holds its own, and his huge contributions in other areas of art and design make him a mighty figure indeed.

Aalto had a democratic, practical view of his field. He saw his task as ‘a question of making architecture serve the wellbeing and prosperity of millions of citizens, where it had previously been the preserve of a wealthy few. But he was no utilitarian. Beauty was always a concern, and he was adamant that a proper studio environment was essential for the creativity of the architect to flower.

Born in 1898 in Kuortane near Seinäjoki, Aalto worked in Jyväskylä, Turku and Helsinki before gaining an international reputation for his pavilions at the World Fairs of the late 1930s. His 1925 marriage to Aino Marsio created a dynamic team that pushed boundaries in several fields, including glassware and furniture design. Their work on bending and laminating wood revolutionised the furniture industry, and the classic forms they produced for their company, Artek, are still Finnish staples. Aalto’s use of rod-shaped ceramic tiles, undulated wood, woven cane, brick and marble was particularly distinctive.

Aalto’s notable buildings are dotted throughout Finland. A comparison of the Aalto Centre in Seinäjoki with the Ristinkirkko in Lahti highlights the range of his work. Charmingly, Aalto’s favourite design was his own wooden boat (on show at his summer house near Jyväskylä), which he planned and built with great love, but little knowledge of boatbuilding. It was barely seaworthy at the best of times, and regularly capsized and sank.

The Classics

If the early 21st century is a new golden age for Finnish design, the original one was in the 1950s and 1960s. The freelance designers producing marvels in glass for Iittala, ceramics for Arabia, cookware for Hackman and furniture for Artek won international recognition and numerous prestigious awards, particularly at the Triennale di Milano shows. Though times were still tough after the war, and the country was struggling to house refugees from occupied Karelia, the successes of these firms, together with the Helsinki Olympic Games of 1952, helped put a still-young nation on the map and build confidence and national pride, which had been weakened after the gruelling battles with Russia and Germany.

The story of the Iittala glass company could be a metaphor for the story of Finnish design. Still producing from models imported from Sweden in the early 20th century, the company began to explore more home-grown options. Glass design competitions were an outward-looking source of ideas: from one of these came Alvar Aalto’s famous Iittala vase, which he described as ‘an Eskimo woman’s leather trousers’. Then two giants of postwar design, Tapio Wirkkala (1915–85) and Timo Sarpaneva (1926–2006), began to explore textures and forms gleaned from Finnish lakescapes. Coloured glass fell from use and the classic Iittala ranges were born, with sand-scouring creating the appearance of cut ice, and Wirkkala’s impossibly fluid forms seemingly melting away. The opaque look, which resembled ceramics, was a later creation as a new generation took to the field. Harri Koskinen (b 1970) and Annaleena Hakatie (b 1965) were among the leading lights, though the company has never been afraid to commission foreign designers. Iittala is today under the same ownership as Hackman, the long-established cutlery and cookware producers, and Arabia, which roughly paralleled Iittala’s glassware trajectory with ceramics.

Clothing has been another area of success. Finland, unlike its Nordic neighbours, has tended to beat its own fashion path. It’s traditionally been a place where teenagers can wear a jumper knitted by granny to school, and though new and exciting ideas are constantly created here, they tend to be built on solid, traditional foundations.

The godfather of Finnish design, Kaj Franck (1911–89), took ideas from traditional rustic clothing for his pared-back creations, but it was the birth and rapid rise to prominence of Marimekko, founded in 1951, that made an international impact. Optimistic, colourful and well made, it bucked contemporary trends, focusing on a simple and unashamed beauty. Though the company went through a difficult period, it’s back at the top these days, as the retro appeal of its classic shirts, bags, curtains and fabrics fills wardrobes with flowers once again.

Other well-established Finnish names include Aarikka, with its wooden jewellery and other accessories that have always had a cheerily reassuring solidity and honesty, and Kalevala Koru, a byword for quality silver and gold jewellery. Pentik’s wide range of interior-design and homeware products includes the recent Saaga range, inspired by the designs of Sámi shaman drums.

The Newcomers

A strong design tradition tends to produce good young designers and Finland’s education system is strong on fostering creativity, so Suomi is churning them out at a fair rate. New names, ranges and shops crop up in Helsinki’s Design District like mushrooms overnight, and exciting contemporary design is being produced on all fronts. Fennofolk is the name for one broad movement that seeks, like the original giants of Finnish design, to take inspiration from Suomi’s natural and cultural heritage, adding a typically Finnish injection of weirdness along the way.

There are exciting things continuing to happen across all fields of design. Paola Suhonen’s IVANAhelsinki clothing label combines innovation with practicality and sustainability, while Hanna Sarén’s clothing continues to go from strength to strength since being referenced in Sex and the City. Julia Lundsten and Minna Parikka are head-turning young stars of the footwear world.

In industrial design, Harri Koskinen is a giant. His clean-lined minimalism produces objects that are always reassuringly practical, but quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Helsinki bristles with high-quality graphic-design studios that are leading lights in their field.

Feature: Finnish Design Classics

  • Artek’s Aalto chairs. To think that we take bent wood for granted in our furniture these days.
  • The Iittala vase (also known as the Savoy vase or Aalto vase). Yes, Aalto again. Whether or not it actually resembles an Inuit woman’s leather pants, it’s undeniably a classic.
  • An Unikko bed sheet from Marimekko. Who doesn’t dream better under those upbeat red poppies?
  • 1930s ringed tumblers designed by Aino Aalto, inspired by the circles created by throwing rocks in the water – you’ll drink your breakfast juice out of one of them within a couple of days of your arrival.
  • Marttiini knives, first made at Rovaniemi in Lapland in 1928 and still the first choice for outdoors folk.

Feature: Suitcase-friendly Souvenirs

  • One of Sami Rinne’s engagingly quirky ceramics – maybe that mug with a handle like a reindeer’s antlers?
  • A set of Verso's colourful, original felt mats and coasters to brighten up your dinner table.
  • A pair of Minna Parikka’s shoes – 21st-century style straight from a smoky 1930s nightclub.
  • One of Jani Martikainen’s birch trivets (pot-plant bases) from his Majamoo company. The only trouble is that the plant hides it.
  • Whatever the versatile Harri Koskinen has just designed – from lighting to glassware.
  • Edgy, humorous streetwear from Daniel Palillo.
  • Cushion covers, duvet sets and more by Aino-Maija Metsola.

Sidebar: Top Aalto Buildings

  • Finlandia Talo, Helsinki
  • Otaniemi University, Espoo
  • Workers’ Club Building, Jyväskylä
  • Aalto Centre, Seinäjoki
  • Villa Mairea, Pori

Sidebar: Design Resources

The website mostly sticks to the well-established names, but it’s a good introduction. Design Forum Finland’s webpage has useful links; its awards are another good way to keep tabs on the scene. Helsinki's Design Museum is also a superb source of information.

Sidebar: Stefan Lindfors

One of the biggest and most versatile names on the Finnish design scene is Stefan Lindfors, whose reptile- and insect-inspired work has been described as a warped update of Aalto’s own nature-influenced work.

The Arts

Finland has a flourishing cultural scene and puts a high priority on the arts, especially music, in its education system. Writers and artists typically looked to the Finnish wilderness for their inspiration, and their creations went on to evoke a strong sense of pride in Finland that became an important part of the movement that eventually led to Finnish independence in 1917.


Finland had a rich oral tradition of folklore, but written Finnish was created by the Reformation figure Mikael Agricola (1510–57), who wrote the first alphabet. Although written Finnish was emerging in schools, the earliest fiction was written in Swedish.

All that changed in the early 19th century with the penning of the Kalevala and the beginning of a nationalistic renaissance. Poet JL Runeberg wrote Tales of the Ensign Stål, capturing Finland at war with Russia, while Aleksis Kivi wrote Seven Brothers, the nation’s first novel, about brothers escaping conventional life in the forest, allegorising the birth of Finnish national consciousness.

This theme continued in the 1970s with The Year of the Hare, a look at a journalist’s escape into the wilds by the prolific, popular and bizarre Arto Paasilinna. Other 20th-century novelists include Mika Waltari, who gained international fame with The Egyptian, and FE Sillanpää, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1939. The national bestseller during the postwar period was The Unknown Soldier by Väinö Linna. The seemingly endless series of autobiographical novels by Kalle Päätalo and the witty short stories by Veikko Huovinen are also very popular. Finland’s most internationally famous author is Tove Jansson, whose books about the fantastic Moomin family have long captured the imagination.

Along with Paasilinna, notable living writers include the versatile Leena Krohn, Mikko Rimminen, who has attracted attention for both novels and poetry, and Leena Lehtolainen, the author of prize-winning crime novels.

Finland’s National Epic

It’s hard to overestimate the influence on Finland of the Kalevala, an epic tale compiled from the songs of bards that tells everything from the history of the world to how to make decent home brew. Intrepid country doctor Elias Lönnrot trekked eastern Finland during the first half of the 19th century in order to collect traditional poems, oral runes, legends, lore and folk stories. Over 11 long tours, he compiled this material with his own writing to form what came to be regarded as the national epic of Finland.

The mythology of the book blends creation stories, wedding poems and classic struggles between good and evil. Although there are heroes and villains, there are also more nuanced characters that are not so simply described. The main storyline concentrates on the events in two imaginary countries, Kalevala (characterised as ‘our country’) and Pohjola (‘the other place’, or the north). Many commentators feel that the epic echoes ancient territorial conflicts between the Finns and the Sámi. Although impossible to accurately reproduce the Finnish original, the memorable characters are particularly well brought to life in poet Keith Bosley’s English translation of the Kalevala, which is a fantastic, lyrical read.

The first version of Kalevala appeared in 1833, with another following in 1835 and yet another, the final version, Uusi-Kalevala (New Kalevala), in 1849. Its influence on generations of Finnish artists, writers and composers was and is immense, particularly on painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela and composer Jean Sibelius, who repeatedly returned to the work for inspiration.

Beyond Finland the epic has influenced the Estonian epic Kalevipoeg and American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Indeed, JRR Tolkien based significant parts of his mythos on the Kalevala.


Finland’s music scene is one of the world’s richest and the output of quality musicians per capita is amazingly high, whether a polished symphony orchestra violinist or a headbanging bassist for the next big death-metal band.

Summer here is all about music festivals of all conceivable types.

Classical Music

Composer Jean Sibelius’ work dominates Finland’s music, but some contemporary composers are also turning heads. Partly thanks to Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, Finnish musical education is among the best in the world, with Finnish conductors, singers and musicians performing with some of the world’s top orchestras. There are some excellent classical-music festivals in Finland.

Popular Music

Finland has one of the most storming metal scenes around. The biggest exports are HIM with their ‘love metal’ and darkly atmospheric Nightwish, whose former vocalist Tarja Turunen is also pursuing a solo career. Catchy light-metal rockers the Rasmus continue to be successful. All genres of metal, as well as a few made-up ones, are represented, including Finntroll’s folk metal (blending metal and humppa), the 69 Eyes’ Gothic metal, Apocalyptica’s classical metal, Children of Bodom’s melodic death metal, Sonata Arctica’s and Stratovarius’ power metal, Eternal Tears of Sorrow’s symphonic metal and Impaled Nazarene’s black metal.

Local hip-hop, known as Suomirap, also has a dedicated following, thanks to artists such as Elastinen and Pyhimys, and there's always some new underground project.

Lighter music includes surf-rockers French Films, pop-rockers Sunrise Avenue, the Von Hertzen Brothers, indie band Disco Ensemble, emo-punks Poets of the Fall and melodic Husky Rescue. Past legends (still going in some cases) include Hanoi Rocks, the Hurriganes and the unicorn-quiffed Leningrad Cowboys. While singing in English appeals to an international audience, several groups sing in Finnish, including Eppu Normaali, Zen Café, Kotiteollisuus, Apulanta and mellow folk rockers Scandinavian Music Group. There’s also a huge number of staggeringly popular solo artists – you’ll hear their lovelorn tunes at karaoke sessions in bars and pubs around the country.

Jazz is also very big in Finland, with huge festivals at Pori and Espoo, among other places. Finns have created humppa, a jazz-based music that’s synonymous with social dances. One of the biggest names in humppa are the Eläkeläiset, whose regular albums are dotted with tongue-in-cheek covers of famous rock songs.

Modern Sámi Music

Several Finnish Sámi groups and artists have created excellent modern music with the traditional yoik (chant; also joiks or juoiggus) form. The yoik is traditionally sung a capella, often invoking a person or place with immense spiritual importance in Sámi culture. Wimme is a big name in this sphere, and Angelit produce popular, dance-floor-style Sámi music. One of their former members, Ulla Pirttijärvi, releases particularly haunting solo albums, while Vilddas are on the trancey side of Sámi music, combining it with other influences. Look out too for rockier offerings from SomBy and Tiina Sanila, Sámi hip-hop artist Ailu Valle and electro-acoustic compositions from Niko Valkeapää.

Painting & Sculpture

Modern Finnish art and sculpture plays with disaffection with technological society (think warped Nokias) and reinterprets the ‘Finnishness’ (expect parodies of sauna, birches and blonde stereotypes). It’s a long way from the pagan prehistoric rock paintings found across Finland in places such as Hossa. Medieval churches in Åland and southern Finland have enchanting frescoes.

Although contemporary art enjoys a high profile in Finland, it is the work produced by painters and sculptors active during the National Romantic era that is thought of as Finland’s ‘golden age’ of art. The main features of these artworks are virgin forests and pastoral landscapes. Following is a list of the most well-known artists of this era. The most comprehensive collections are displayed by the Ateneum and Kansallismuseo in Helsinki, and the Turun Taidemuseo in Turku.

Fanny Churberg (1845–92) One of the most famous female painters in Finland, she created landscapes, self-portraits and still lifes using ahead-of-her-time techniques.

Albert Edelfelt (1854–1905) Among the most appreciated of Finnish artists. Was educated in Paris and a number of his paintings date from this period. Many paintings are photo-like depictions of rural life.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931) An important figure in the National Romantic movement, drinking companion of composer Jean Sibelius and perhaps Finland’s most famous painter. Had a distinguished and prolific career as creator of Kalevala-inspired paintings.

Pekka Halonen (1865–1933) A popular artist of the National Romantic era. Thought of as a ‘nature mystic’, his work, mostly devoted to ethereal winter landscapes, is largely privately owned.

Eero Järnefelt (1863–1937) A keen visitor to Koli, where he created more than 50 paintings of the ‘national landscape’. His sister married Sibelius.

Juho Rissanen (1873–1950) Depicted life among ordinary Finns, and his much-loved paintings are displayed at the Ateneum and at Turun Taidemuseo.

Tyko Sallinen (1879–1955) The greatest of the Finnish expressionists, Sallinen is often considered the last of the golden-age artists.

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946) Probably the most famous female painter of her age, she is known for her self-portraits, which reflect the situation of Finnish women more than 100 years ago. Considered Finland’s greatest artist by many contemporary observers.

Hugo Simberg (1873–1917) Most famous for his haunting work in Tampere’s cathedral, which employs his characteristic folk symbolism. Unusual and well worth investigating. Also well represented in Helsinki’s Ateneum.

Ville Vallgren (1855–1940) A notable golden-age sculptor, Vallgren is most famous for creating the Havis Amanda statue in Helsinki.

von Wright, Magnus (1805–68), Wilhelm (1810–87) and Ferdinand (1822–1902) The brothers von Wright are considered the first Finnish painters of the golden age, most famous for their paintings of birds. They worked in their home near Kuopio and in Porvoo.

Victor Westerholm (1860–1919) Most famous for his large Åland landscapes. He had his summer studio in Önningeby, but there are landscapes from other locations, too.

Emil Wickström (1864–1942) Was to sculpture what Gallen-Kallela was to painting, and he sculpted the memorial to Elias Lönnrot in Helsinki. Many of his works are at his studio in Visavuori.

Sidebar: Best Rock Festivals

  • Ruisrock, Turku
  • Provinssirock, Seinäjoki
  • Ilosaari Rock Festival, Joensuu
  • Tammerfest, Tampere
  • Tuska Festival, Helsinki

Sidebar: Best Painted Churches

  • Pyhän Ristin Kirkko, Hattula
  • Keuruun Vanha Kirkko, Keuruu
  • Pyhän Laurin Kirkko, Lohja
  • Sankta Maria Kyrka, Kvarnbo
  • Sankt Mikael Kyrka, Finström
  • Paltaniemen kuvakirkko, Paltaniemi

Sidebar: Written Finnish

As well as compiling and writing the Kalevala, Elias Lönnrot’s work in creating a standard Finnish grammar and vocabulary by adopting words and expressions from various dialects was of great importance. Finnish has remained very much the same ever since, at least in written form.

Sidebar: Music Finland Website

The website Music Finland ( is a fantastic resource for Finnish music across all genres, with articles, information on artists and event listings.