Whether you’re into scenic wintery escapades or want to explore the immense green expanses Finland is known for, there are plenty of options when it comes to tackling the northern Europe standout. Look for these highlights, must-sees, and lesser-known gems as you put together a plan for a trip to Finland.
Helsinki: Cathedrals, Fortresses, and Nordic Voyages
Whether you’re coming or going to Finland, chances are you’ll end up spending a bit of time in Helsinki at the very least. The capital and most populous city in Finland, by far, Helsinki has most of the architectural landmarks in the country to go with an assortment of popular museums and markets. Helsinki’s unique collection of different cathedrals and chapels make them natural gathering points for visitors, particularly the red-bricked Uspenskin and the neoclassical Helsinki Cathedral. Uspenskin also yields impeccable aerial views of downtown Helsinki – perfect for profile photos as well as getting oriented with the city at the beginning of a trip.
With its spot on the Gulf of Finland, which connects to the Baltic Sea, Helsinki has also been a strategically important location for centuries. Unsurprisingly, one of the top attractions within the city is a fortress, the Suomenlinna. Spread out of over six small islands in the gulf, Suomenlinna is definitely a hot spot for tourists but it’s also so scenic that it regularly draws locals for picnics and afternoon hangouts as well. For museum enthusiasts, the Ateneum Art Museum shows off mostly Finnish masterpieces and takes you deep through the country’s history via some of the best artists in Finland.
But Helsinki is also known for being the perfect jumping off point for other adventures, from day trips to longer excursions. While cruises that connect through Helsinki are good options for getting around, you can also take a two-hour ferry across the Gulf of Finland to the picturesque town of Tallinn, Estonia, a UNESCO World Heritage site that barely looks like it’s aged since the 14th century. Day trips out of Helsinki let you peruse an ageless town filled with cobblestoned streets and rows of restored medieval architecture. For those who can’t get enough medieval scenery, the famous old town area of Porvoo, Finland is only an hour by car or bus from Helsinki and is another photographer’s daydream.
Others to consider: Kamppi Chapel of Silence, Natural History Museum, Rock Church, Esplinadi Park.
Get Outside Early and Often in Finland
Even with quite a few architectural wonders throughout the country, chances are you’re not heading to Finland for the buildings. That’s because Finland has some of the most pristine land in the world and can be enjoyed at any time of the year, depending on your tolerance for cold weather. From August through April, the Lapland region in northern Finland is where you can find a full spectrum of outdoor activities during the day and have a great chance at catching Aurora Borealis at night. Although there are plenty of places to do activities like night snowmobiling under the Northern Lights, the central hub of Lapland is Rovaniemi, the regional capital and a thriving city about 10 hours by car north of Helsinki.
From Rovaniemi, you’re positioned to enjoy a variety of Finnish classics in the small villages spread out around Finnish Lapland. During the winter, snowshoeing and dogsledding are great ways to soak up the clean, crisp air the Arctic Circle and surrounding areas are known for. By summer, the icy paradise melts into a sensational blend of green hills, gently rolling streams, and tranquil lakeside hangouts perfect for disconnecting from the world for a few days (or weeks). You can also maximize your daylight in the northern region of Finland, as some areas get up to 24 hours of sunlight during the peak of summer and there are plenty of activities to do under the Midnight Sun. For those with families, Santa Claus’ Office in Rovaniemi can also be a great stop and operates year-round.
You also don’t have to make it all the way to Rovaniemi to experience the Finnish outdoors, as there is fantastic skiing and hiking all over the country. Nuuksio National Park is only 45 minutes down the road from Helsinki and is complete with blue lakes, thick forests, and friendly reindeer. You can even find a terrific little beach in Pori (Yyteri Beach) in western Finland, about two hours north of Turku.
For more daring adventurers: Sitting near the Russian-Finnish border, Hossa National Park is another gorgeously sprawling space that opened in 2017 to celebrate the centennial anniversary of independence from Russia. For those not afraid of a long car or bus trip, the town of Saariselka in the north has world-class winter sports and neighbors a couple of worthwhile national parks (Urho Kekkosen and Lemmenjoki).
Turku and Tampere
While it could be difficult to carve out time in Finland’s other most prominent cities, they’re certainly worth seeing if you have an opportunity. The oldest city in the country, Turku dates to the 13th century and was the Finnish capital for hundreds of years. Today, Turku is only the sixth most populous city in Finland, but remains a great place to dig into Finnish culture thanks to its peerless history and string of impressive landmarks. The Turku Castle is generally considered a must-see with its panoramic views of the Aura River and is one of the oldest buildings in Finland that still functions. Another popular hot spot is Turku Cathedral and history lovers tend to gravitate to the Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova, which showcases medieval ruins to go with renowned art displays.
Down the road in Tampere, it’s all about getting well above street level to see a vibrant, modern city sitting between the Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi lakes. Pyynikki Park and Observation Tower provide an unbelievable view of the Tampere cityscape, as does the Nasinneula Tower on the other side of town. At the Vapriikin Museokeskus, you can find a couple different museums in one place, covering everything from archeology and architecture to the importance of ice hockey in the region. More than just the standout sites, however, Tampere is simply a great city to get a feel for modern-day Finland.
Food and Culture
While Finland is certainly known for its outdoor activities, the Nordic country is also known for its fresh seafood, interesting cultural trends, and for being one of the best places in the world to grab a sauna. To dig into the food preferences of the country, places like the Hakaniemi Market and Old Town Hall in Helsinki will let you sample delicacies like salmon soup and are known for being particularly great during the weeks before Christmas. Though you can find plenty of terrific restaurants in the major cities and towns of Finland, perusing a thriving marketplace filled with locally caught fish and produce is the easiest way to find the pulse of the country as far as food goes.
After a long day of Finnish adventures or sightseeing, the perfect way to relax is, of course, to find a sauna and have a good steam. Saunas were originally used as a way to clean during the bleak winter months and today remain wildly popular, which is why you find them in many hotels and the president even has an official sauna. To get the full understanding of the sauna phenomenon, there isn’t a more Finnish experience than finishing a steam by literally rolling around in the snow – an old custom that cuts right to the roots of the region. Thankfully for less adventurous visitors, there isn’t a stigma on taking a shower instead.