Think Finland and what pops to mind? Moomins, saunas or Santa, perhaps? Prepare to push those boundaries on a week-long trip that clicks into the groove of one of Scandinavia’s quirkiest countries. Whether you’re browsing exquisite art and design in Helsinki, knee-deep in the swamps on a berry-picking mission, hanging out in a hide as brown bears grunt past, paddling silent waters in the Lakeland, or watching the Northern Lights strobe-light the sky in the Christmas card that is the Lappish winter – Finland’s rich offerings can be irresistible.
South: Helsinki hip and historic
If you’re a first-timer, you’ll of course want to kick off in Helsinki, which is doable in two days. With good-natured residents, fin-de-siècle architecture and an easy-going air, this city on the Baltic is instantly likeable, especially in summer when its outdoor cafes hum with life. Dedicate the first day to a spin of the centre, taking in the lavishly neoclassical square Senaatintori, the Greek cruciform Helsinki Cathedral and perhaps a gallery or two. Frescoes depicting the national epic Kalevala dance across the dome of the National Museum, contemporary art stars at the curvaceous Kiasma, and Marimekko textiles grace the Design Museum. Break for a coffee and korvapuusti at 1950s time-warp Café Succès. Seasonal and foraged ingredients pep up dinner menus at Juuri, winding you into an evening of killer cocktails at cool speakeasy Liberty or Death (Facebook page).
On your second day, swing across the water on a 15-minute ferry ride to Suomenlinna, the world’s biggest sea fortress. Or check out the emerging arts scene, modish cafes, boho bars and vintage boutiques in the Kallio neighbourhood.
Centre: lakeside lounging
You can barely pick up a map of Finland without your finger dipping into a lake – there are 187,000 of them for the record. The country’s southern and central Lakeland is shaped by water the way Manhattan is shaped by architecture. Indeed, ask a Finn what their idea of heaven is and they might well describe a little cottage by a forest-rimmed lake where, after a long ramble or paddle a wood-fired sauna, birch-branch lashing and icy beer awaits.
With a day or two at your disposal, you’ll have to keep it brief, so pick just one place to strike out into the lakes. Reachable by train from Helsinki, pretty Savonlinna provides a stepping-stone between islands. Its striking 15th-century castle, Olavinlinna, is its crowning glory and the backdrop for July’s world-famous opera festival. To just chill, you could choose summery lakeside town Kuopio, further north, instead, with spruce forests for quiet walks and the world’s biggest woodsmoke sauna. Or fly directly into Tampere for a mix of lakeside charm and cutting-edge urbanity. High on your list should be the Moomin Museum, for close encounters with Tove Jansson’s goofy hippo-like characters. Elsewhere old factories have been born again as edgy boutiques, museums, pubs and cafes.
If you want a total switch-off from civilisation, go hiking or kayaking in Linnansaari National Park, where ospreys wheel overhead and extremely endangered Saimaa ringed seals swim in crystal-clear lakes.
East: go down to the woods
You can’t say you’ve truly been to Finland until you’ve set a booted foot in one of its vast, beautiful forests, which spread across a whopping 76% of the country. Finns are crazy about them for their profusion of forageable berries (cloudberries, lingonberries, blueberries) in summer and mushrooms in autumn, as well as for the silence and solitude only found in the back of beyond.
With looking-glass lakes, timber cottages and resident brown bears hiding in woods of spruce, pine and birch, the country’s off-the-radar east, where Finland nudges Russia, is pure Goldilocks stuff. A day or two gives you a taster here, and you can speed things up by flying into Kajaani. With near round-the-clock daylight, midsummer is primetime viewing for Europe’s very own ‘Big Five’– brown bears, wolves, wolverine, lynx and elk. The bear watching is second to none. If hiking, snowshoeing or skiing is more your bag, head to the pristine Koli National Park, where lushly forested hills and lakes inspired many a Finnish Romantic artist to get painting. The closest airport is Joensuu (www.finavia.fi/en/joensuu).
Such remoteness does something to you, hence the reason this corner of the country hosts some of the world’s wackiest events – among them July’s Swamp Soccer World Championships (suopotkupallo.fi/)in Hyrynsalmi and the Wife-Carrying World Championships in Sonkajärvi.
West: hit the coast
It may come as news that Finland is home to one of the world’s largest archipelagos. Lighthouses blink across the remote sands of the country’s dune-fringed coast, while Finland boasts some 180,000 islands and islets that beckon escapists offshore. The Finns love to be close to water almost as much as they love trudging deep into boggy forests, and many have wooden summer cottages – complete with saunas - gazing out across the Baltic between the west coast and Sweden. Ferries from Stockholm chug across to culture-loaded Turku, where you could devote a day to Finland’s oldest city (and the former capital). Turku is divided by the Aura River and topped by a twinset medieval castle and colossal Gothic cathedral.
If you’re itching to get outdoors, however, you might want to head further north and spend a day or two at the Unesco World Heritage Kvarken Archipelago, where moraine from the last Ice Age still rises from the sea. This giant jigsaw of water and forests is great for cycling, canoeing, kayaking and fishing. Kvarken’s most accessible point is Raippaluoto, linked by Finland’s longest bridge.
North: winter wonderland
Remember the flakes falling in that holidays snowglobe you shook as a child? Lapland comes pretty darn close to that frozen wonderland fantasy. Santa’s official residence can be found here, but if you’re pushed for time with just a couple of days to hand, you might better seek out the remote wilderness of high fells, hoarfrost-clad forests and reindeer-herding Sámi people. For total enchantment go during the snow-hushed Polar Night (late November to mid-January), when temperatures dive way below zero and the Arctic north is draped in a wintry cloak of darkness. This is the best time to huddle around an open fire in a wigwam-style lavvu tent, cup of glögi (hot spiced berry juice) in hand.
If you’re lucky and skies are clear, the northern lights might come out to play. Their Finnish nickname revontulet, or 'fox fires', is steeped in the myth that they were created by an Arctic fox running through the snow, sending sparks flying into the sky. The lights can be unpredictable – winter brings the longest nights for viewing, but autumn and spring are said to increase the probability of solar flares influencing the skies. Summer brings its own beauty in the shape of the Midnight Sun, wild salmon fishing in fast-flowing rivers and hiking in national parks like Oulanka.
Lapland is huge – covering a third of Finland’s total area, so choose your base wisely. Many opt to stay in Rovaniemi, a transport hub and home to the outstanding Arktikum, where a long glass tunnel shelters exhibits spotlighting Sámi culture and crafts. Just on the fringes of town, you can go husky sledding, snowmobiling, northern lights spotting or catch a ride on a reindeer-driven sleigh.
More wilderness, you say? Well, it doesn’t get remoter than Utsjoki right at the top of Finland – the closest airport is Ivalo (www.finavia.fi/en/ivalo). Valle Holiday Village (www.holidayvillagevalle.fi/)and Nuorgam Holiday Village (www.nuorgaminlomakeskus.fi) are both fine bases for a romp in the snow, with activities from snowmobiling and reindeer excursions to night snowshoeing, husky safaris and ice fishing.