Finland is a country that’s still a mystery to many people, but it’s being tipped as a travel hot spot next year as it celebrates 100 years of independence. I’ve just returned from 10 days in this fabulous Scandinavian country and I think the tipsters are right.
Lonely Planet recently voted Finland #3 in its list of Top 10 countries to visit in 2017, and the Finnish people I met were very excited about the prospect of more visitors. There’s a lot being planned to celebrate the centenary of independent Finland (after 800 years of being ruled by Sweden and then Russia).
Every visitor will find their own things to love about Finland (and there are many), but here’s my personal view of things you should do (in no particular order) when you visit:
Eat reindeer stew
It’s tastier than you might think – and comes served with mashed potato, gherkins and lingonberries. I had it several times and if I hadn’t known what it was, wouldn’t have guessed. Rudolph and his mates might be appalled (and maybe avoid it for Christmas dinner) but it’s no worse than eating lamb or beef.
Visit Finland’s oldest city
Turku (roll the r when you say it) is Finland’s former capital and its oldest city. Set on the banks of the Aura River, it is a place of many “firsts” in Finland. Turku Castle was built in 1280, but the Great Fire of Turku in 1827 means many parts of the city date from after that time. It’s a lovely place to wander around, and if you go in summer, take a boat trip to visit some of the 20,000 islands that dot the Turku Archipelego.
Have a sauna
If you’re lucky your hotel room might have its own private sauna, but it’s a more authentic experience to head out to one of the big public saunas (or the communal one at your resort or hotel). In Helsinki, try Loyly on the waterfront. It’s a fabulous modern design, with the option of heading out the door and into the sea to cool off before your next session in the sauna.
Sleep in an igloo
The original glass igloos are at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, near Ivalo in Lapland. There are imitators now, but this incredible resort, set on two sites over 500 hectares, has 65 glass igloos and 40 kelo (wood) and glass igloos (a log cabin with an igloo extension). Perfect, at the right time of year, for viewing the Aurora Borealis from your bed! In winter, there’s also the (less comfortable) option of a real snow igloo.
Meet a husky
In Lapland, in Finland’s far north, there are several places you can visit a husky “farm” or have a sled ride (in winter). You’ll get to meet the beautiful blue-eyed Siberian huskies and Alaskan huskies – and if you’re lucky, some pups as well. I went to the husky farm at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, where I met (among many others) Kiku.
Drink the world’s best gin
Finland’s Napue gin was voted the best gin in the world at last year’s International Wine and Spirit Awards – and although I haven’t tasted every gin in the world, I’m willing to believe it. It’s flavoured with seabuckthorn, cranberries, birch leaves and meadowsweet, and is best served with tonic, a few cranberries and a twig of rosemary. I was also told that the bare bottoms on the coaster belong to the founders of the gin company. How very Scandinavian!
Go to church
There are beautiful old churches everywhere, worth popping into for a look. I was particularly intrigued to see that a common feature is often a model sailing ship suspended from the ceiling. They are called “votive ships” and are often donated by seamen or ship builders, a practice dating back to the Middle Ages and common in Scandinavia. About 74 per cent of Finns belong to the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland and about one per cent belong to the Finnish Orthodox Church (both are official state religions). People who are registered members of these two state churches have part of their taxes turned over to their church. Without being officially registered as a member of the church, you can’t get married, buried or baptised in the church – but being registered means paying 1.33 per cent of your income in tax to the church.
Check out Helsinki’s Design District
The Design District, in the heart of Helsinki, is made up of 25 streets crammed with design and antique shops, jewellers, art galleries, museums, hotels, restaurants and design studios – around 200 of them. Whether you’re after the latest in shoes, clothing, homewares, or more, you’ll find it here. One of the biggest and newest stores is TRE, which opened in August at Mikonkatu 6.