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Known as the “land of a thousand lakes” geographers now surmise that this is actually a significant understatement. Over 10% of the country is now believed to be covered by fresh water lakes. An even more surprising statistic pertains to the many islands to be found within these lakes, in addition to around the Finnish coast. A conservative estimate now puts Finland’s islands at over 170,000.
It is all too easy to think of Finland as synonymous with other Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden and Denmark. In reality, Finland is classed as Nordic rather than Scandinavian, having not only a distinct language from neighbouring countries, but also a unique geography and culture. As a result Finland is very much a unique travel destination.
The first real surprise when arriving in Finland for the first time is that much of the country lacks the high mountain peaks seen in her Scandinavian sisters. Instead, Finland benefits from rolling plains and gentle hills, dotted with numerous lakes.
This extensive wilderness represents an ideal habitat for many impressive animals; among them the moose which can grow to two and a half metres long and weight over 700kg.
The second surprise for visitors is that Finland can be surprisingly warm, benefitting as it does from the Gulf Stream and lower-lying land. Summers may be short, but they can be positively balmy with temperatures of 25’C not unheard of. It is also the summer months where one experiences the “Midnight Sun” where the sky never truly falls dark for weeks at a time.
Of course, this appealing summer climate is contrasted starkly with the long, dark winters where the sun struggles to climb over the horizon. Snow can fall for much of the year, with the coldest months offering temperatures of minus 30’C.
The Fins have learned to live with such a climate, and a range of unique services aim to make the winters as painless as possible. It is not uncommon, for example, to find electrical points in car parks, whereby one may keep ones vehicle warm while shopping or working at the office.
The Finnish culture is one of manners and respect. Punctuality is greatly admired, as is openness and honesty in business dealings. The Finnish government is considered one of the least corruptible in the world, as are the police force.
This translates into a very safe country, with very minimal levels of crime and corruption. As a result it can be seen as a very family-friendly destination.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of life in Finland is the ubiquitous sauna. There are estimated to be over one and a half million saunas in Finland, offering health-related benefits as well as an opportunity to socialize. It is not unheard of for business meetings to take place within the sauna and it is considered impolite to decline an invitation to attend such an event.
Finland recognises two national languages. The first of these, Finnish, is spoken by a large majority of the population. Just an estimated 5% of the population speak the secondary minority language; in this case Swedish.
To complicate matters further for non-speakers of these languages, maps and road signs can display place names in either language. This can make it all too easy to pass by your desired destination unaware that the two place names you have seen are actually synonymous.
While English is not an official language it is increasingly taught in schools, so a degree of understanding can be expected, especially among younger generations and in business settings.
All the same, English comprehension is far from universal, especially outside the main urban areas like Helsinki. As a result getting to grips with the language (or hiring an interpreter as necessary) can be a wise investment of your time.
A sixth of the population of Finland lives in Helsinki on the southern coast. Many expats will find their employment and accommodation based here as a result, where there are excellent transport networks.
Taxis are commonplace and can be easily recognised by their bright yellow signs. Note, however, that hailing a taxi on the street can be difficult; instead you’ll usually need to book a taxi by phone or pick up a cab from one of the many taxi ranks to be found in urban areas.
Buses are probably the most common form of public transport, especially within towns and cities. A handy option for visitors is the “Helsinki Card” which allows not only unlimited public transport in the capital city but also entry to numerous popular tourist sites.
Finland is a large country so tourists may need to investigate a wider range of options if they are to enjoy their time to the fullest and explore the less densely-populated areas of the country.
Here buses are still an option (and indeed one of the few ways to access Lapland) but increasingly trains are becoming popular. Typically more expensive than public buses, as with other Nordic and Scandinavian countries rail travel is typically clean, modern and efficient. As a result travelling by train in Finland can be a real pleasure.
Finland also offers an impressive number of internal flights which can whisk you from one end of the country to the other in a short space of time. While these internal flights are far from cheap, they can represent a worthy investment for visitors wanting to see as much of the country as possible in a limited period of time.
For those visitors wanting total freedom it is possible to hire a car – though this is far from a low-cost option. Driving in summer is unlikely to represent too many problems, though if driving in winter it is wise to seek additional training and guidance. Be certain to fully understand your hire car insurance lest you are unlucky enough to be involved in an accident.
The road network in Finland is extensive and well-maintained. Furthermore, outside of Helsinki traffic levels tend to be low, making for a thoroughly enjoyable driving experience through stunning rolling hills.
Note that keeping your headlights on at all times – even during daylight hours – is mandatory in Finland. Winter tyres are also a legal obligation as the weather starts to turn. Drivers should also remain eagle-eyed about wildlife on the road as collisions with moose rarely end well for either party.
Lastly be aware that Finland boasts a large number of ferries – both to outlying islands and across larger lakes. Typically these ferries only operate in the warmer months, as the lakes tend to freeze over as the mercury falls.
Like many Scandinavian countries Finland maintains a strong healthcare system, funded through the National Health Insurance system. That said, increasing concerns have been raised about under-funding and how this is affecting standards of care and waiting times. For this reason many expats opt to supplement their coverage with private health insurance, granting them cost-effective access to private facilities with their shorter waiting times.
Expats working in Finland are obliged to register for NHI if they have been working in the country for longer than four months. At this point deductions will be made by your employer to cover your future healthcare costs. In exchange you will be issued with a KELA card which grants access to subsidized medical care.
Short-term visitors from Europe cannot register for the National Health system, but instead can rely on an EHIC card for emergency medical care. Visitors from outside the EU are not eligible for EHIC care. In both cases private medical insurance should be considered to provide more thorough levels of care; this is especially important as medical care in Finland can be expensive, especially in private clinics.
While it is potentially possible to visit private clinics with your KELA card you should be aware of two factors. Firstly, it is generally necessary to pay for your medical expenses up front, and then to claim these back from the NHI system.
Secondly these reimbursements are distinctly different to the original fees you will have paid. The sum you will receive is generally not related to the total cost of the care you received; instead there are set guidelines for how much you may be reimbursed on a case-by-case basis. This further underlines the importance of supplementary healthcare cover if you intend to use private facilities with their English-speaking doctors.
Being an EU nation the currency in Finland is the Euro. While 1 and 2 cent coins exist, they are in reality rarely used in everyday transactions, with most prices being rounded to the nearest 5 cents.
The good news for visitors is that Finland maintains an extensive network of ATMs, each gladly accepting international cards. Just as many have the option for English onscreen instructions.
Alternatively, most well-known credit and debit card brands are widely accepted.
Children undergo nine years of compulsory education in Finland. This applies equally for Finnish nationals and expats alike. This is hardly a bad thing as Finnish schools are highly regarded, being well-funded, and with pupils benefitting from highly-trained teachers and small class sizes. Indeed, this is reflected in the grades that Finnish pupils enjoy, which are some of the very best in the world.
Schooling is free in state-funded establishments though of course for older children the Finnish language, in which lessons are taught, can present additional problems. For this reason many expats opt to make use of one of the highly-regarded international schools to be found around the country, with a particular emphasis on the capital.
Finnish food has divided critics for years. Some have rather unkindly referred to Finnish food as boring and mediocre, while others find they rapidly grow to love the hearty selection of ingredients on offer. Only by truly immersing yourself in Finland’s strong culinary heritage will you be able to decide on which side of the fence you fall!
For a nation with so much coastline, not to mention her many lakes, it should come as no surprise that seafood features prominently on many menus. Pickled herrings – known as “silakat” – are a very common ingredient. Perhaps more popular among expats and visitors is the incredible smoked salmon – often served warm and thickly sliced.
Other forms of meat are equally popular, from traditional meatballs to reindeer steaks, and can make for a mouth-watering basis to a meal.
Another popular main dish is “hernekietto” – a rich pea soup often accompanied by generous chunks of salty ham; the perfect answer to a cold winter’s day.
Alongside these main meals come a range of desserts, often based on locally-sourced fruit such as cloudberries, blueberries or lingonberries. Mustikkapiirakka, a classic blueberry pie recipe, really must be tried to be appreciated.
It is interesting to note that the Fins are some of the heaviest coffee-drinkers in the world, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that coffee shops are somewhat ubiquitous, with a huge range of different brews on offer at any time of the day.
As if the many benefits of Finland already discussed weren’t enough, the country also benefits from incredibly low rates of crime. In addition, Finland offers very few of the health risks seen in other countries; for example Finland isn’t malarial, and the tap water is as pure and safe as can be.
In general, then, you can expect high levels of safety while exploring this beautiful and unique country.
That said, there are of course a few minor risks. Of these, driving in winter weather is probably the most dangerous. Drivers are cautioned to take extra care in cold temperatures and ideally to undergo additional tuition to help them deal with icy or snowy conditions.
If you are unfortunate enough to be involved in any sort of incident an ambulance can be summoned by dialling 112, though be aware that in more rural areas (and in poor weather) it may take some time for help to arrive.
The Fins are rightly proud of both their wilderness and their history, and many of the best tourist destinations in Finland reflect these. As a good-sized country there are many, many sites worth seeing, but here are some of our top suggestions…
Just a few miles from Helsinki, Seurasaari is an open air museum. Here one can explore old buildings which have been translocated to the area in order to preserve them. Pleasantly, the buildings have been cited within dense forest, really helping to put them in context and giving an impression of what life must have been like in Finland hundreds of years ago. For visitors looking to better understand the culture and history of Finland there can be few better sites.
However don’t just visit the museum. The island as a whole is a peaceful haven for plants and animals, and is ideal for a gentle saunter on a summer’s day.
Built in the second half of the 18th Century, this fortress was built on a group of islands to protect Helsinki from ocean-bound attacks. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the fortress stretches across 200 buildings on six different islands and represents one of the most impressive military garrisons to be found anywhere in the world.
Located in the south of the country, the town of Porvoo is famed for its scenic and historic architecture. Take a leisurely stroll through the old town, admiring the old wooden houses, the cobbled streets and along the beautiful river, which seem not to have changed in centuries. This piece of “living history” also boasts an impressive selection of coffee shops, bars and shops selling local crafts, not to mention a duly famous cathedral.
At first glance this castle lacks much of the finery of other famous castles. In reality the building looks more like a brick-built prison than a Disney castle; however this is a reflection of the castle’s age, which dates back to medieval times.
Indeed it is this history which makes a visit to Hame Castle in Hameenlinna so worthwhile. Here one can almost feel the past, with guided tours on offer, not to mention numerous displays. Come here to experience the history of Finland, not to mention the stunning and peaceful location by the river.
Lemmenjoki National Park
Finland’s largest national park covers over 1,000 square miles of pristine wilderness. For nature-lovers this area is something of a mecca, with hundreds of miles of tracks and paths to explore, not to mention abundant wildlife.
For a truly memorable experience why not take one of the guided boat tours, where you’ll get to see the countryside, and undisturbed animals, from the still and crystal-clear water.
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