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Finland is a country of endless pine forests, surreal winter landscapes, and a modern culture respectful of her nature. With nearly 75 percent of the country covered in trees and nearly 190,000 lakes, 5.5 million Finns maintain an exemplary instance of balance between man and the elements.
With the receding of massive glaciers from the last Ice Age around 8500 BC, people began populating Finland. Until the twelfth century, a separate Finnish culture—with a distinct language born around the first century—thrived with other Scandinavian peoples until conquest by Sweden through a series of religious crusades. During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the official religion of Finland became Lutheranism: Today, more than 70 percent of the population is members of the Lutheran Church.
It was during the “Wraths”—two major wars between Sweden and Russia in the 18th century—and the Finnish War in the early 19th century that eventually made Finland a territory of the Russian Empire. It’s during this time the Russian Tzar rebuilt a destroyed Helsinki, leaving his architectural footprint on Finland’s capital that exists to this day.
Since claiming independence from Russia in 1917, Finland has become a major manufacturing center as well as a mecca for music, art, and design. Yet its natural wonders—the swirling luminescence of the Northern Lights in Lapland to the north, the complex system of lakes used as transportation today, and the mythical home of Santa Claus at Korvatunturi to name a few—place Finland as both a land of wondrous nature as well as fascinating culture.
Whether enjoying a relaxing sauna or drinking a beer under the "midnight sun", Finland is a place where the sweetness of life takes center stage.
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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations
Walking through Helsinki, it’s hard not to notice a strain of Russian identity. First established in 1550, the city was nearly completely destroyed then rebuilt by Tsar Nicolas II while Finland was a duchy—a province ruled by a grand duke—of the Russian Empire. Many compare Helsinki’s architectural character to that of St. Petersburg: Senate Square was designed under the supervision of Nicolas II.
Today, Helsinki is a modern mecca for cutting-edge architecture, art, and fashion. The city has a strong tradition of young designers creating fresh styles in Helsinki’s many specialized boutiques. World-famous museums such as the Amos Anderson Art Museum and the Artsi Vantaa Art Museum that focus on contemporary and street-art styles are among many places to enjoy Finnish art and design. The Sibelius Monument, dedicated to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, is a collection of pipes forming an undulating wave suspended in air. In the Töölö neighborhood, the Temppeliaukio Kirkko—translated as “Rock Church”—was built underground into solid granite. Traditional styles are also given homage through the stoic Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral, constructed in the early 19th century using a neo-Classical approach.
A city of islands, Helsinki’s Suomenlinna—a six-island fortress built in the 18th century—is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Constructed to guard against Russian expansionism at the time, Finnish architect and field marshal Augustin Ehrensvärd envisioned an integrated fortress community, complete with fortifications and residential buildings.
A haven for winter sports including downhill and cross-country skiing, Ivalo is part of the homeland of the ancient Sami people. Nestled in a bend of the Ivalo River and with thick forests permeating throughout, Ivalo is also a great destination for hiking, mountain biking, and other warmer-weather activities as well.
The site of a gold rush in the 1870s, people today still travel to the small village to find fortune. Yet for thousands of years the Sami, an indigenous people who live all over Lapland in the north have called Ivalo home. While many Sami still live in Ivalo, the Siida Museum is dedicated to their art, history, and culture.
The Sami are an ancient indigenous people who have lived in the northern reaches of Lapland in Finland, and surrounding areas in Norway, Sweden, and Russia, for at least 10,000 years. A semi-nomadic people, the Sami existence is marked by an intimate relationship with nature.
Amid a quickly-modernizing world, the Sami way of life holds strong. Experienced reindeer and sheep herders, fur trappers, and fishermen, the Sami offer an interesting anthropological look into humanity’s past in this part of the world.
The Sami are known for the joik—pronounced “yoeek”—a singing style characterized by gentle a capella melodies dedicated to a person, place, or animal. In some cases a joik will have no words, just an inspired melody. In recent years, musical ensembles are beginning to bring joik to the world through the modern musical art forms, such as in the case of the Norwegian band Adjágas.
With only about four percent of Finland’s population and 30 percent of its landmass, Lapland offers quintessentially Scandinavian landscapes.
The midnight sun—where the sun shines for 24 hours a day for three months straight—shines over the mythical home of Santa Claus on the mountain of Korvatunturi. Especially in winter, much of Lapland is only navigable by husky or reindeer ride as roads are sparse. In Finland, Lapland is where the Sami people call home.
Lapland is also famous for the aurora borealis, which is visible more than 200 nights out of the year, most often between September and March.
Watch this video showcasing what makes this country so unforgettable
Quirky, stylish, and above all friendly—meet some of the young locals of Helsinki's Kallio neighborhood.
Produced by Shern Sharma
©2014 THE NEW YORK TIMES
Watch your fellow travelers favorite films & videos
Welcome To Helsinki
Glide above peaceful, picturesque Helskini—from its boat-filled ports to its grand cityscape.
Produced by www.skycam.ee
Sense the Silence
Escape to Finland in this film to experience the tranquility of snow-covered landscapes and night sky wonders.
Produced by Riku Karjalainen
Quirky, stylish, and above all friendly—meet some of the young locals of Helsinki's Kallio neighborhood.
Immerse yourself in Finland with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Learn about the evolving roles of Scandinavia’s Sami women
Discover the influences and innovators that established Finland’s capital as a global design destination.
by Pamela Schweppe, for Grand Circle
As they are assimilated into modern society, the Sami are becoming more involved in world politics.
In the language of the Sami people, the word gaba means “capable and independent woman.” For the northernmost indigenous population of Europe, hardy self-reliance and the ability to thrive in an inconsiderate environment are germane to the Sami identity. Consciously living off nature is simply an environmental and economic necessity.
The Sami, who number around 75,000, make their homes in the remote areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia. Fishing and fur trapping are vital to the economy, as is their most distinctive livelihood: reindeer herding. But this long-cherished practice—and much of the culture that surrounds it—is slowly being phased out by assimilation and modernization.
With global connectedness slowly replacing collective family units (known as siida), and with small-scale reindeer herding becoming less viable economically in the modern age, fewer and fewer Sami engage in this traditional practice. Currently, approximately 10% of Sami are active herders. As elements of their indigenous language, culture, and history are lost, gender roles and norms slowly disappear as well.
For centuries, women’s domain as primary caretakers was imparting indigenous cultural knowledge, in addition to crafting warm fur clothing so crucial for surviving Scandinavian winters. The post-World War II policy of rationalization put pressure on the Sami to adopt mainstream Norwegian culture, which marginalized many indigenous practices. In addition, the increasing availability of consumer goods has nearly erased the need for hand-sewn fur clothing, creating an empty space where women once made significant contributions.
Today, many young, educated Sami women are leaving their close-knit rural communities to live and work in urban areas. To counteract this trend, Sami leaders are taking measures to increase the desirability of rural work, including job placement assistance, entrepreneurial training, and small business financing. However, larger and more ambitious reforms, such as Norway’s “High North” policy, still focus predominantly on traditionally male-dominated industries such as construction and mining, providing fewer outlets for traditionally female career paths.
Older generations of Sami looked to a number of female deities for comfort and guidance. Mattarahkko, the primeval mother, and her three daughters—Sarahkka, Juksahkka, and Uksahkka—once helped women through different stages of their lives. In this spirit, Sami women have organized a group called Sarahkka to bring their plight to the national stage. It’s indicative of a growing trend of political activism to protect and preserve Sami culture.
A burgeoning feminist movement was sparked in the 1970s in an attempt to equalize the rights shared by male and female reindeer herders. The World Council for Indigenous People (WCIP), founded in 1975 in part by Sami people, has also helped bring an international perspective to the plight of the Sami. Additionally, the Norwegian Council for Cultural Affairs has established programs to preserve and celebrate Sami culture.
The identity of Sami women still exists at a crossroads. No longer required to maintain traditional reindeer-herding practices, they are tasked with finding more modern means of contributing. Existing outside the boundaries of what you’ve known for centuries, however, is never an easy transition. Half of the Sami people now live in urban areas such as Oslo, Norway (you can visit this scenic city during our Norwegian Coastal Voyage & Lapland Small Ship Cruise Tour). As they are assimilated into modern society, the Sami are becoming more involved in world politics. With greater access to resources and media, previously out of reach because of geographic constraints, they are better poised to assume more power and control over their representation—and therefore their identities.
The Lappekodicillen Peace Treaty of 1751 established legal boundaries for sustainable reindeer herding, granting exclusive rights in many areas to the Sami. Though they are no longer reliant on this practice to survive, their “capable and independent” spirit will surely guide them as they create a space for themselves in the 21st century.
by Danielle Ossher
Finland is home to vast expanses of awe-inspiringly pure landscapes, where water infuses its way into any and all scenes and quietly reflects the imposing mountains and thick towering forests that surround. In a land of such famed beauty, it’s only fitting that its cutting-edge capital is at one with the Baltic, effortlessly melding its cityscape to its harborside location, curving around bays and sprawling across islands.
Helsinki is a singular European capital, considered both Scandinavian and the embodiment of Nordic country—and a humble destination that’s rightfully earned the titles of 2012 World Design Capital and UNESCO City of Design.
Within the city’s architecture lies a living tale of its past and future. Helsinki’s Swedish and Russian influences remain evident in the facades that line its streets, and the conscientious city plan is credited to its relatively late designation as a capital (Finland's previous capital, Turku, was changed to Helsinki in 1812).
Standing in perfect harmony with these enduring nods to history are champions of modernity—world-class designs that are so more than just how they appear. This of-the-century architecture brings to fruition a deeply held regional ethos that good design should be practical, collaborative, and above all, available to everyone. Thoughtful design can improve lives, after all.
At the core of Helsinki’s superlative design are two iconic names—Saarinen and Aalto. These Finnish architects pioneered and inspired, and between the two of them, are responsible for many of the city’s notable sites.
Eliel Saarinen made himself known by expressing his country’s own identity in his work, establishing the Finnish National Romantic style at the turn of the 20th century. These designs reflected the Finnish traditions—a modern interpretation of peasant and medieval architectural—rather than the neo-classical styles prevalent at the time, which felt tied to their Russian heritage.
Both the National Museum of Finland and the Helsinki Central railway station are works of Saarinen—and both remain an integral part of life in the city to this day. The National Museum was his first major success, a project he designed with his partners at the time after winning the architectural competition, and its frescoed ceilings and medieval-inspired exterior exemplify his newly coined National Romantic style.
He won the contract for the train station two years later, and its massive Finnish granite façade, soaring clock tower, and ornate detailing marks a subtle transition into Art Nouveau. Saarinen went on to have illustrious career, both in Finland and later in the United States. And his design legacy spans generations—he’s also the father of Eero Saarinen, the famed architect (Gateway Arch in St. Louis) and mid-century modern furniture designer (Knoll’s Tulip and Womb chairs).
The beginning of the 20th century saw one architectural visionary, the end of the century another—Modernist Alvar Aalto. The brilliant Finlandia Hall is undoubted his most famous work: Geometric shapes and long, sweeping lines comprise the fascinating structure, which is coated in bright-white Carrera marble. Completed in 1971, the hall seats up to 1,700 people and the epicenter features a defining sloping roof.
Lauded not only for his architecture but also his design, Aalto saw a project as a total work of art, the sum of the whole, much like Frank Lloyd Wright. This meant he immersed himself in the complete design, from the structure to the finishes, including furniture, lighting, and accessories. His creations of captured an air of simplicity and sophistication, and become so sought-after that in 1935, he and his wife opened store Artek, which is remains ever popular—and some of his most iconic work, like the ubiquitous birch three-legged stool, can be found there or at auction, for those seeking original runs.
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
With its northerly location, Finland is cold and dark during the winter months. The sun rises for only a few hours a day through January, snow falls are frequent, and bitterly cold temperatures—especially in the country’s northern Lapland region—drive most tourists away.
And yet, winter holds an important place in the Finnish national consciousness, with many Finns describing the season as a period of magical quiet and stillness. To take advantage of their country’s beautiful nature and copious snowfalls, Finns enjoy a plethora of wintertime activities designed to get them outside: Ski resorts in Lapland are very popular this time of year, as is the celebrated Finnish tradition of sitting in a sauna followed by a quick plunge into the ice water of a lake or sea.
Finland straddles the Arctic Circle, so it’s possible to see the Northern Lights—the milky green wisps that dance across the night sky—throughout the winter. But if seeing the Lights is a priority, visit Finland around the spring equinox (March 21) when they are most visible.
Watch this film to discover more about Finland
Finland’s winters are long, and extend into April—snow still covers much of the northern regions during this month. Spring begins to show its colors in May, when an abundance of wildflowers burst into bloom and warm temperatures return. The confluence of pleasant weather, sunnier days, and few crowds make May one of the best times to visit Finland.
As spring turns to early summer, the days grow increasingly longer, reaching their apex on the summer solstice (June 21). In Finland’s many towns above the Arctic Circle, the sun never fully sets on the solstice, while Finns throughout the country celebrate Midsummer with parties and bonfires.
Finland’s Midsummer Festivals operate at two speeds—rowdy or relaxing—but either way, they are the highlight of most Finns’ year. Celebrating the “Eternal Sun” of the summer solstice, Finns flock to country cottages to embrace the white night and warm weather. Many Finns host all-night bonfires, enjoy long soaks in the sauna, or swim in the country’s many pristine lakes—this is a time for connecting with nature, and with each other.
A pleasant transition from summer to fall occurs in July through September. July is considered to be the peak of summer when the temperatures are the warmest and average in the high 60s and low 70s. If you're traveling to Finland at the end of the summer, be sure to pack lighter clothes, rain gear, and bug spray. July and August experience heavy humidity and frequent rainfall, and expect a lot of bugs around forested areas and waterways in Lapland.
September marks the beginning of autumn when the temperatures begin to cool down. Other than occasional fog and cooler weather, September is ideal for hiking and soaking in the colors of fall, and on clear nights, you may witness the Northern Lights dancing overhead. But, expect larger crowds in July through August as this is a popular tourist season.
Darkness descends on Finland in the autumn months as the days grow shorter and chillier. October goes out in a blaze of colorful glory, with fall foliage of vibrant oranges and reds that rivals New England. Finns make the most of the dwindling daylight by taking to the countryside, where they hike and forage for mushrooms and wildberries.
November brings rain and even snow in Finland’s north, while December grows colder and snowier throughout the country. The first snowfalls of the season make for excellent dog sledding and snow shoeing in these months.
Tap into your inner child when you travel to Finland in December. The Arctic Circle comes alive with holiday cheer this time of year, specifically in Rovaniemi, which is considered to be Santa Claus' official home. Visit the holiday village in Rovaniemi to experience the magic of Santa, discover international Christmas traditions, enjoy shopping, and sample traditional cuisine at local restaurants.
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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