Visiting Finland; Cultural insights and things to see.
Ah, Finland…what a wonder this country is. Located in the Arctic North and bordering Russia, this country with a population of approximately 5,5 million has many things that work in its favour as far as a travel and life destination. I have spent much time here there and everywhere in Finland, so feel confident in sharing my experiences.
Finland prides itself on having all four seasons. This true, without a doubt.
Spring is a time of celebration for many Finns. Once the snow begins to melt, the sun is shining and temps are warming, smiles on peoples’ faces become more prominent. When the flowers begin to bloom it is truly an incredible experience. And you will not see a happier woman than when the winter boots are thrown into the closet and her heels come front and centre. The May Day celebration, known as Vappu is a huge celebration in Finland. It is generally celebrated with outdoor parties, parades, and late nights. If you are there during ‘Vappu’, do not be surprised if you see a million people all wearing the same hat. These are the hats of achievement, of scholarly success and graduation. It’s a tradition.
Summer in Finland is amazing. The sun rarely sets for more than an hour or so, the days are hot, everything is growing and Finns are out en masse. Nature is prominent in Finland and the Finns love it. If you speak to a Finn about their plans during the summer, 90% of the time you will hear it said that they are visiting a cottage. With 188,000 lakes in the country, who can blame them? Most Finns have either their own or a family summer cottage where most of the free time is spent during the season. Summer cottages are not chateau’s. They are cottages on or near a lake, always containing a sauna, access to the beach, the usual amenities and everyone loves to go there. Mid-summer festival or ‘Juhannus’ is almost always celebrated at the summer cottage. Huge bonfires are lit on the lake and the party begins!
Autumn in finland is beautiful. The foliage is changing into gorgeous, almost surreal colors, people are out and about enjoying the ever shortening days and one can almost watch the transitions of the seasons happening in the populace mindset before your very eyes. ‘Pyhäinpäivä’, or All Saints Day is celebrated on or the day following the 31st of October. This is usually celebrated by placing burning candles at the grave sites of loved ones. Halloween is also celebrated in Finland, but mostly in the larger cities and on a much smaller scale than in North America or Ireland. Also popular in late November is ‘Pikku Joulu’ or little Christmas. These parties are prominent around the country. For the Americans, these parties are much like Thanksgiving. But because Christmas is usually celebrated with immediate family only, this is when the work parties and get togethers happen before the Christmas holiday.
The winters are long and with low sub zero temperatures, one would think that people would be hiding in their homes for the duration. This is untrue. The Finns have an uncanny knack to make the most out of any weather conditions (unless perhaps it is just too hot). During the winter, Finns are quite active in sports. Any school you happen to pass by with have an outdoor skating area where you can ice skate, or practice your ice hockey skills. (Be warned, the Finnish children who play like pro’s will giggle at your utter incompetence by comparison) Skiing and Snow boarding or even snow tubing are commonplace sports, as well as long distance skiing which is usually done on one of the many nature trails once it has iced over. Ice fishing is also common but must only be done in certain temperatures. House and shop fronts are adorned with what I like to call ice art (flowers or other objects frozen into an ice mould and then placed around burning candles), candles are burning and trees are lit. The winter solstice is a good day, falling on the 21st of December this year, as the daylight will begin to show itself a few minutes more each day even though the temperature will continue to drop for some time further. Christmas is the holiday of the season. Santa Klaus or ‘Joulupukki’ is said to live in Lapland, in the far North of Finland and it is a common trip to make to rent a cabin and go to Lapland to see Santa and the reindeer.
As Finnish culture goes, there are a few things that any visitor should keep in mind when visiting. Finns are used to their space. A Finns personal space is much larger than say in Asia or Italy. This is due to the immense land area per populace in the country. Hugging is not done unless you are a close friend or family member, or after a long night at the pub. Finns are quiet. This is not an attempt to be rude, it is merely a culture of few words. The good thing is, when a Finn is speaking to you, you know that what they are saying is important and genuine. Finland has unique design tastes, one of the most famous and popular being Marimekko and you will see it everywhere.
Finns love coffee. Finland is said to be one of, if not the top in coffee consumption worldwide. Finns are not ignorant. Finland has the top educational system in the world…and it shows. In business, Finland is at a strategic geographic disadvantage. This has been overcoming by the many forms of R&D, higher education specialties, and social policies in place in order to encourage productivity. It works. Finland has a very high percentage of trade and tourism with Russia, Sweden and the Baltics.
If a Finn invites you for coffee, or to their summer cottage, or even in health and wellness places, ALWAYS remove your shoes at the door. Walking into a Finns home with your shoes on is a social faux-pas that will in all cases annoy your host(s).
Going to the sauna is a deeply embedded tradition. Most Finnish homes have their own sauna’s, as do summer cottages, gyms, swimming halls and many restaurants and community buildings. If a flat does not contain its own, you can bet the building has one in the basement. The sauna is considered a clean place, and there are rules. For instance, Finns attend the sauna in social settings, en masse and nude. Do not stare and never ever comment on anyones’ body! Prepare to be looked at like you have 8 heads if you arrive cheerily in a bikini. You should at the very least rinse in the shower before going in, and usually have a paper or towel on which to sit. In some cases, your host(s) will have a cold alcoholic beverage awaiting your arrival. Although I have also been told that traditionally this is seen as a no-no and that you should only consume your drink once out of the sauna. I guess it is solely determined by the company you are in. Personally, a sauna beer suits me just fine. Birch whips: Some Finns are fans, many tourists are terrified. This is something that is done only on occasion (but as many tourists know, sometimes you ARE the occasion). Birch whips are made from tying a certain kind of small birch branches with the leaves in tact, together and drying. Before use in the sauna, it is soaked in the water bucket (this water is thrown on the hot rocks to make steam and it smells so good!) and then used to kind of, well, whip yourself with. Your legs, arms, shoulders and back. The birch whips can also be used a form of soap. Using the birch to scrub your skin by bundling the leafy part in your hand and scrubbing your skin is said to have cleansing and exfoliating properties. Trust me, it’s not as horrifying as it sounds. There is something in the birch which opens your pores and once you have finished the sauna and shower, your skin will be positively glowing. Not to mention the fact that your host(s) will be proud of you for not running away screaming (which they expected that you would do). Even in the winter, if you are by a lake, sauna is followed by a dip in the lake albeit quickly (Bbbbrrrr!) and a return to the heat.
There are countless things to see and do in Finland. Many have already been mentioned. If you are strictly a city person, Helsinki is the place for you. Shopping, sightseeing, upscale cafe’s, spa’s and the harbour to name a few. Parks and nature trails abound in Finland, and history is endless. Finnish history goes back a very long time, it is still fresh in the collective memory.
Historical towns like Porvoo with churches, old town and many opportunities to shop hand made crafts and products.
industrial cities such as Tampere have sightseeing opportunities everywhere such as Aleksanderin kirrko in Aleksanterinpuisto.
If castles are your thing, visit Hämeenlinna or Savonlinna. In Savo, there is an annual opera festival held during the summer months. But if you plan to attend the opera, make sure to purchase tickets far in advance.
In Finland there are also many viewing towers with which to climb and get an amazing ariel view of the area. If you’re in good shape, go for it! And while you’re at it, check out one of the local amusement parks 🙂
I hope that you have enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoy sharing it. I would love to hear your insights and experiences, please share! I will be posting more blogs on more travels, including Finland.
Thank you for reading!