Fortuned with immensely beautiful lakes, stunning landscapes and some of the cleanest air in the world, perhaps it is no surprise that Finland is ranked number one in the 2018 World Happiness Report. Finland is also a country offering a great diversity of holiday activities, which makes for happy holidaymakers too.
As much as 70 per cent of the land in Finland is covered in forests and it is estimated that Finnish woodlands hold ten trees for every person in the world - not just every person in Finland, but the world! At around the same size as the UK, but with a population of just 5.5 million (60 million less than the UK), Finland is a salubrious and spacious playground for those who love to explore. But where do you start?
The well connected coach and rail networks in Finland allow travellers to enjoy the wonderful landscape as they journey across the country. Routes can be planned out easily, and booked online in advance, even allowing you to select options such as family carriages, seats for passengers with allergies or seating next to a playroom. Trains from Helsinki airport to Tampere take approximately two hours and cost around €18. For longer journeys there are trains with sleeping carriages. If you like to hire a car when you holiday but don't want to be behind the wheel for hours, there are car transporter trains too.
All major car rental companies operate in Finland. The roads themselves are in good condition, congestion free and easy to drive along during the summer months. However, err on the side of caution during the winter, particularly if you do not have experience of driving in extreme wintry conditions. You may be taken by surprise by wandering elk, moose or reindeer, all of which often roam into the road at dusk.
If you don’t have the time or inclination for rail, coach or car travel, there are 27 airports across Finland with four main airlines operating domestic flights: Finnair, Flybe, Norwegian and SAS. From around €70 return with a flight time of just one hour, you can day trip from Helsinki in the south to Oulu in the north. In Oulu you will find the quite charming Ainolan Puisto, a park full of colourful flowers, fountains and pretty white bridges. A short walk from here is Tähtitorni Café. Established in 1912, the café sits aloft the cellars of Oulu Castle’s ruins, which now house a small exhibition detailing the history of the castle.
There are many city walking tours, some of which are conducted by local students or retired residents - and they are free of charge. However, you are welcome to leave your guide a tip if you were impressed with your tour. Wouldn’t you feel guilty if you had a fantastic, educational and informative tour and didn’t compensate your wonderful guide for their time and knowledge?
A guided walking tour gives you the opportunity to take in the sights and ask questions along the way. Some tours are historical, with a focus on landmarks and monuments, while others specialise in local culinary experiences, deliver murder mystery talks or take you on a discovery of quirky and unique Finnish design.
Most tours are between 1.5 and 3.5 hours in duration. Prices vary wildly, from being free of charge to €50 for small group walking tours, €85 for food tasting, and going right up to €300 for a private walking tour.
Hop-on hop-off bus tours
I’m a big fan of hop-on hop-off bus tours. It is so disappointing being trapped on a coach and watching something of interest disappear into the distance as you are transported away from it. With hop-on hop-off tours, most tickets are valid for 24 or 48 hours, allowing you to disembark, explore at your leisure, and then re-join a tour with the same company within your timeframe.
Hop-off at the major sights of Helsinki, such as Senate Square, Kaivopuisto Park and the Sibelius Monument. Or why not take a break from sightseeing and call in at one of the many markets or department stores showcasing Finnish fashion and design?
Another key attraction is Temppeliaukio Church, also known as Rock Church. No, Lordi or The Rasmus are not going to jump out with their guitars at the ready; the church is built directly into solid rock. Only the dome of the church roof is visible from the outside. Inside the church, the impressive dome structure is lined with copper and supported by concrete beams. A somewhat controversial design at the time of its completion in 1969, today the church is extremely popular and is even used as a concert venue.
The various bus tours of the spectacular city of Helsinki are priced at around €30.
Boat tours of Helsinki's archipelago
Sightseeing from the water can be relaxing in itself, but how about a Bossa Nova boat trip? Appreciate the archipelago of Helsinki sipping sparkling wine and listening to live jazz music performances. During a two-hour glide along the waters of the Baltic Sea you can take in superb views of Helsinki’s coastline. Prices are around €35 per person for two hours, for evening departures only.
If jazz isn’t your thing, you may prefer to make a meal of it and partake in a lunch or dinner cruise of the islands. Enjoy Nordic specialities, such as grilled salmon with lobster sauce and potato salad, or for the more adventurous, rolls of smoked reindeer. Live tour commentary keeps you informed along the way. Prices range from €29 to €58, depending on the tour booked.
If you are looking for something much simpler altogether, the islands can be accessed with ease by waterbus or ferry. An island hopping waterbus ticket costs as little as €8 for adults and €4 for children, and bookings can be made in advance, online.
We have explored the informative and relaxing, now let’s have some fun! A snowmobile safari is an unforgettable and rather more unusual touring alternative. Various options are available, including safaris for beginners, so don’t let lack of experience put you off. This exhilarating expedition may leave your knuckles as white as the snow as you head off in convoy at full throttle, led by an experienced guide.
In the north, safaris are available from Rovaniemi - the official home of Santa Claus - and Levi. From here you can explore magical Lapland and, with a bit of luck, witness the unique experience of the Aurora Borealis. In the south, snowmobile safaris in Helsinki also explore the archipelago but in a totally different way to boat trips. Drive along the frozen Gulf of Finland, squirrelling off along forest trails, taking breaks as your guide gives an overview of the area and provides you with a welcome warm beverage.
Equipment and clothing is supplied on all trips. Prices range from €80 to €200 but, with so many of them available, it is worth shopping around for what best suits your needs.
Overplaying the myth of being reserved and withdrawn, the Finnish have a well-known, typically self-deprecating joke: “An introverted Finn looks at his shoes when talking to you; an extroverted Finn looks at your shoes”. Fascinating Finland has so much more to inspire and engage your eyes than looking at shoes... Unless you are in one of Helsinki’s fashionable shoe shops, of course.
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