I didn’t have a lot of preconceptions about Finland before first traveling there, and I’d wager to bet that most people don’t. Other than Angry Birds and the amazing school system, there just isn’t a whole lot about Finnish culture that has permeated the ranks of global pop culture and knowledge. That’s not a bad thing, in fact I think it’s positive. That means I was able to go into my first travel experience there as a blank slate, open to learning and observing as much as I could. Over the course of a couple of weeks I got to know the country and its people better than I thought I ever would, and based on that admittedly brief experience, here are a few things I learned about Finland that I thought everyone should know.
1. Finns love winter
Here in the US, we have a love/hate relationship with winter. In temperate areas of the country where we have four full seasons, it’s a necessary evil that sometimes brings with it fun opportunities to make snowmen or to enjoy some time off of work. From my experience, that’s been the norm of many places I’ve visited, but not Finland. No, based on everyone I met the Finns don’t just like winter, there seems to be a sort of national pride based in the coldest season of the year. Living in Finland, cold weather is a necessary part of life, one that is not just accepted but cherished from an early age. While I was visiting Finnish Lapland, the temperatures during the day in January hovered around the -25 degree mark. No matter where you’re from, that’s cold but rather than hibernate for months on end as we here at home would do, the Finns were out and about, eager to make the most of the weather. There’s a lot to love about Finland in the winter, from skiing to snowmobiling, to admiring those pristine views that only a blank snowy canvas can provide. But it’s also the best time to properly enjoy a traditional Finnish sauna, and that may be the ultimate reason why Finns love winter so much. A crazy high percentage of Finns partake in sauna regularly, and when you add in the chance to take a dip in a frozen lake afterwards, then you’ve hit the Finnish cultural jackpot.
2. Santa Claus lives there
Thanks to a forward-thinking marketer in the 1950s, the city of Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland quickly asserted itself as the official hometown of Santa Claus. Apparently, and this is probably open to some debate, Santa Claus’ original home lies in the mysterious Korvatunturi (“Ear Fell”) in Finnish Lapland. Since the exact location is a secret only known to a chosen few, he (through creative tourism officials) decided to establish an office in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, in 1985. Rovaniemi received the status of the Official Hometown of Santa Claus in 2010. Whether or not you accept their claim that Rovaniemi truly is the hometown of Santa Claus, as soon as you arrive there’s no denying the impact he has on this small community. The airport welcomes guests with a sign proclaiming itself to be Santa’s airport, there’s a Santa Claus hotel in town, more often than not there’s a Christmas tree in the main square and of course there’s the main attraction, Santa Claus Village itself. Literally straddling the Arctic Circle, Santa Claus Village is a 365-day Christmas extravaganza; a place where the holiday spirit is alive every day of the year. No matter when you visit, carols stream through speakers, Christmas gifts are for sale and honestly, there really is an excitement for the holiday in the air – especially if you visit during the winter months when snow blankets the ground. Of course the focal point of any visit is meeting Santa Claus, who is always ready to greet new visitors. The visit with Santa is free of charge, but the photos taken come with a small fee. After chatting with Santa – everyone gets some alone time – head to one of the most popular post offices in the world, Santa Claus’ Main Post Office. This real post office on the Arctic Circle handles all of Santa’s worldwide mail traffic and since 1985, more than 17 million letters have been sent to the post office all addressed to Santa from nearly every corner of the world. It’s not everyday you can send a Santa Claus postmarked letter, so I sent a few postcards and thought about my experience in the Santa Claus Village. I’m not normally a fan of hokey tourist experiences, but this one was fun – a lot of fun actually and I quickly understood why hundreds of thousands of people make the trek to the Village every year. The Christmas spirit is a special feeling, and this is the only place in the world where it never ends.
3. Finns drink a lot of coffee
You can’t talk about Finland without mentioning the fact that Finland consumes more coffee per capita than any other nation. That’s an astounding fact if you think about it, Finland beats out coffee crazed cultures like the US, Italy, Austria and Australia to take the mantle of most caffeinated. As a big coffee fan myself, I felt the need to investigate the coffee culture in Finland and what I discovered was a little surprising. The average Finn consumes around 26 pounds of coffee a year, but nearly all of that is in the form of a light roasted filter coffee. As an American, filter coffee is my preferred way to consume the beverage, but increasingly it’s a rarity around the world. In most other countries I’ve visited, from Europe to Australia, espresso-based coffees are the norm. Long blacks, flat whites and their equivalents are typically what you find in local coffee shops. I grew up drinking filtered coffee though, and it remains my favorite and so I was thrilled to find it everywhere in Finland. Not only do I prefer the taste, but I also prefer the convenience. Ordering an espresso-based coffee is a process, usually an expensive one, whereas filtered coffees can be lugged around in giant thermoses or vats, ready to be poured.
4. They love sauna. A lot
More than 2,000 years ago, the Finns invented the concept of a sauna, at least that’s according to the president of the Finnish Sauna Society. The fact that a Finnish Sauna Society even exists should tell you everything you need to know about how very seriously the Finns take the concept of sauna. Most of us are familiar with saunas, but not in their true form. My only previous experience with them was those freakishly hot rooms in gyms and spas where old men in towels sat, heaping tons of water on hot stones. Those are electric saunas, and as I soon learned are a far cry from the real experience of a traditional smoke sauna in Finland. Not nearly as overwhelmingly hot as I had feared, I quickly understood the appeal of the sauna as I relaxed inside the small cabin in the middle of the woods, safely taking respite from the -30 degree temperatures outside. Finns say that they are born and die in saunas, which is both literally and figuratively true and it’s thanks to that phenomenon that they are such an important and ingrained part of life in the country. When you visit don’t resist, instead find the nearest Finn and have them teach you about the glories and wonders of a real Finnish sauna experience.
5. Finns don’t hug
I hug a lot, and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s an affliction or a sickness, but lately I almost always hug new people I meet, and I always hug goodbye. When I first attempted this in Finland I thought I was going to be punched. What I’m about to say is a broad generalization, but from my experience Nordic countries are not inhabited by warm and fuzzy people. They’re kind, they’re helpful and they’re generous, but they’re definitely not huggers. I actually saw a great commercial while in Finland that spoke to this proclivity from a coffee company. They maintained that Finns always have a cup of coffee in hand to prevent hugging and other bizarre displays of affection from their Continental friends. But that’s ok. We can’t all be effusive with our emotions and while it may take a little longer to become friends with a Finn, that friendship will be stronger than most others you’ll ever have.
6. Nature is everything
Thanks to the fact that the country is large and mostly comprised of trees, lakes and rivers, Finns have a natural proclivity to all things outdoors. I’ve noticed this same phenomenon in Sweden and Norway as well, the city dwellers almost feel guilty for their cosmopolitan ways and try to get outside as often as possible as a form of penance. Many have small cabins in rural outposts where they spend weeks at a time, doing little else other than commune with Mother Nature. But it’s not just societal guilt that drives this behavior, I think it’s a more basic understanding of the many benefits being outside and exploring their natural treasures can provide. It leads to people who are happier and healthier than most others around the world, people who understand and value work/life balance in a way that we’ll simply never attain here in the U.S. If that means spending a few weeks in a cabin without electricity, then so be it.
7. Their food may not be exciting, but it’s good
Just as I didn’t know a lot about Finland before my first visit, I knew even less about their culinary contributions to the global menu. Like most national cuisines, the unique history of Finland still in large part defines traditional food culture. Centuries of intensely cold winters and remote locations means that meats, hearty stews and anything preserved were the go-to staples in Finland. I had my fair share of reindeer prepared in any number of ways from stews to filets, and all were excellent. It’s simple, tummy-filling food and that’s what is most important during those freezing winter months. But to my glee, I also discovered that Finns like me have a fierce sweet tooth. However, the national candy is something I can do without – salmiakki. Salmiakki is a variety of licorice that is flavored with ammonium chloride, which gives it a salty or astringent taste. I don’t like licorice on the best of days, but I knew how important salmiakki is in Finland and so of course I decided to try it. Immediately I thought something had died in my mouth. The taste was overwhelming and downright awful. The literature all says that salmiakki is an acquired taste, but that’s being exceedingly diplomatic. I think instead that it’s a food you have to simply grow up eating, otherwise acquiring a taste for it is a long and probably arduous process. Luckily, the other Finnish specialties I tried were infinitely better than this one, poorly conceived confection.
8. Helsinki is convenient to other cities
I think an entire trip based on seeing different areas of Finland is a great idea and there is plenty to do for a week or more. However, if you don’t have the inclination or the time, Helsinki is fine for a couple of days, but that’s about it. I have to be honest, Helsinki is not my favorite Nordic capital. It’s fine, and a day or two exploring it makes sense, but then you should leave to explore other, more interesting places. Luckily, Helsinki is well located and it’s easy to visit any number of other cities, including two of my favorites. Tallinn in Estonia is a very easy 2.5-hour ferry ride from Helsinki. While I think more than a day should be spent there, if that’s all you have then it makes for a great day trip. Thanks to the Finnair hub, any number of other cities around Scandinavia and Europe are easy to reach, but especially Stockholm. The flight is less than an hour and thanks to the time change, you arrive into Stockholm the same time you left Helsinki. One of Europe’s great capitals, Stockholm demands a few days of exploration, but when paired with a visit to Helsinki is the perfect complement I think. While geographically not far away, the two cities couldn’t be more different and visiting both on the same trip provides a greater appreciation for each I think.
Have you been to Finland? What surprised you the most?