You’ll never see it all in one trip – which is just as well as Finland has got enough to hook you for a lifetime.
Whether it’s the sorcery of the northern lights in the frosty wilds of Lapland, bear watching in the remote, silent forests of the east, cloudberry foraging as the midnight sun blazes, or paddling from lake to lake with nothing but the seals and sea eagles for company in Finnish Lakeland, Finland will cast a spell over you.
But don’t take our word for it: in this country of extremes and extreme otherness, every moment and memory is wholly unique. Here are 15 of the best things to do in Finland to get you started.
1. See the northern lights in Lapland
Holding your breath as the aurora borealis swoops and sways in the frozen Arctic night sky is an experience not quite of this world. No photo gets even close to conveying the moment when the heavens light up, the sky shifts in the most unsettling way, and green rays float down like strobe lights, as if the Nordic gods are having a wild party up above.
Finnish Lapland is one of the best places on earth to observe the electrifying, shape-shifting phenomenon that the Finns call revontulet, or fox fires – myth has it they were created when an Arctic fox running through the snow sent sparks flying into the sky. The Sámi have deep respect for the northern lights and remain silent in their presence, as some believe they are the dancing spirits of their ancestors.
Rovaniemi makes a cracking first base for heading out on a tour to hunt down the northern lights. Or go further north still to the snowy fells of Saariselkä, Harriniva, Levi, or Utsjoki, where the odds of seeing the lights from September to April are sky high.
2. Feel festive in Lapland’s Rovaniemi
Wish it could be Christmas every day? You’re going to love Rovaniemi, where you can cuddle up to the big, jolly, red-robed, chimney-diving dude 365 days a year. You are forever five years old as you whisper your wish list into Santa’s ear in his grotto at the Santa Claus Village, right atop the Arctic Circle. When you’re done, post letters with the Arctic Circle stamp at the post office or jump on a reindeer-driven sleigh.
And if you’re still fizzing with festive enthusiasm, nip across to the Santapark to hang out with toy-making, gingerbread-baking elves, hop on twinkly rides, chill at the ice bar, and meet – err – the other real Santa…
3. Forage for cloudberries in Ranua
The mosquitoes are after blood, and the swamps want to suck you down, but who gives a damn: with a basket, a netted hat, a forager’s eye, and mile after shimmering mile of forest and lake ahead, you feel nothing but at one with nature joy as you venture into the remote wilds in search of cloudberries. And where better to find “Lappish gold” than in Ranua, the little town just south of the Arctic Circle that bills itself as Finland’s cloudberry capital?
For a few brief weeks in late July and early August, you can channel your inner hunter-gatherer and come here to pick the tart, creamy, amber-gold berries, born of winter snows, which drive Finns crazy for their taste and super-food potency. But it isn’t just about the berries – walking alone in the cottongrass-stippled swamps, feeling the space and silence, having the time to think – this is Finnish happiness. Visit Ranua can sort you out with foraging maps and apps and help arrange guides.
4. Dive in at the sauna deep end
If you’ve never done it before, you might find the idea of stripping naked in front of a bunch of sweaty strangers in a little wooden cabin unnerving, but relax: this is Finland. Wholeheartedly embracing the sauna experience is your fast track to the country’s steam-loving soul. Leave your modesty in the changing room, bring a towel and an open mind, and feel the stress slip away as water hisses on the stove, clouds of löyly (vapor) rise, and the temperature reaches a toasty 80°C (176°F). Round out by lightly whipping yourself with a circulation-boosting vasta (birch whisk), jumping in an ice hole, and drinking a beer, and you’ve reached peak Finnishness.
Saunas are everywhere in Finland, but ones you’ll never forget include the world’s biggest underground smoke sauna, Herrankukkaro (Mama’s Pocket), on an island just south of Turku, rustic lakefront Jätkänkämppä in Kuopio, and Finland’s oldest working sauna, Rajaportin in Tampere.
5. Hit the water in Finnish Lakeland
All is green and blue as far as the eye can see in Finnish Lakeland in the country’s east. Here you can’t pick a map up without sploshing straight into the water. The exact number of lakes is uncertain, but estimates weigh in at 55,000. Days here have their own mellow rhythm and simplicity that comes with the rising and setting of the sun over the forest and mirror-like lake.
For a true sense of back-to-nature freedom, nothing beats grabbing a paddle and taking to the waters in a kayak or canoe. With the world’s longest lake coastline, forest-blanketed Lake Saimaa is a fabulous base to rent a canoe or join a guided tour. As you weave in and out of a maze of deserted islands, inlets, and bays, you might get lucky and spot the rare Saimaa ringed seal (endemic to this region), otters, reindeer, and elk. Nights are spent by the crackle of a campfire under a canopy of stars. Bliss.
6. Rewind to medieval times in Old Rauma
With its lopsided wooden buildings in ice-cream pastels, flower boxes, and cobbles, UNESCO World Heritage Old Rauma is a pleasure to explore on foot. The largest wooden medieval old town in the Nordic countries might look like a theater set, but it’s very much a thriving little community, with its cluster of low-key cafes, shops, museums, and artisans’ workshops. Rauman giäl, an old sailor’s dialect, is still spoken here.
The Rauma Museum takes you back to the roots, with snapshots of local history and insights into craft traditions. Stay the night at Hotelli Vanha Rauma, lodged in a warehouse in the old fish market, to go even deeper.
7. Go deep into the wild in Urho Kekkonen National Park
This is the big one. With its off-the-map location and off-the-charts beauty, Urho Kekkonen National Park in Lapland is Finland’s largest national park, covering a whopping 2550 sq km (1548 sq miles) of forest and fell as it ripples east of Saariselkä to the Russian border. If you’re into long-distance hiking or cross-country skiing, it doesn’t get better than here, where you can pad for miles in utter solitude through old-growth forests of pine, spruce, and birch, crossing fast-flowing brooks and clambering up fells of myth, including 486m (1594ft) Korvatunturi, the spiritual home of Santa.
The wildlife is as phenomenal as you might expect. While the big predators (bears, wolverines, wolves, and lynx) keep a low profile, you can expect to see reindeer, moose, and plenty of birdlife, including eagles. But just as special is the kind of silence you only find this far north. Bring a backpack and sleep in a hiker’s hut or wild camp under the midnight sun.
8. Spend a very cool night in an igloo or snow hotel
If ever you’ve nurtured a dream of snuggling down on a reindeer hide in an igloo as the flakes fall thick and fast or the northern lights come out to play, Lapland delivers with its flurry of snow hotels and glass-roofed domes. The temperatures plummet well below zero, but don’t worry – expedition-grade sleeping bags or thermal duvets keep you toasty, and at the luxe end of the spectrum, there are saunas, hot tubs, and ice bars serving hot grog to keep you warm.
Frosty favorites where you can sleep on an artistically made bed of ice include the Lumihotelli in Kemi and the lakefront Arctic Snow Hotel in Rovaniemi. If you fancy gazing at the northern lights from your bed instead, try the laser-heated, glass-roofed cabins at Wilderness Hotel Inari or the aurora bubbles at Wilderness Hotel Nellim.
9. Delve into Helsinki’s design scene
Finland moves to an alternative beat when it comes to design, and in Helsinki you can dive in at the deep end. Swinging from outrageously bold to slick and functional in the classic Scandi mold, the capital harbors a line-up of excellent design shops. Pin down the best with a wander in the Punavuori backstreets in the heart of its Design District. If 20th-century design rocks your boat, you can easily spend an entire morning absorbed in prints that pop at Marimekko, modernist lines at Artek, and eye-catching glassware at Iittala.
For more insight into the origins of Finnish design and its cutting-edge, visit the Design Museum; the website has details of its free guided tours in English.
10. Cycle in the Åland Islands
Sprinkled like stepping stones off the country’s southwest tip, the self-governing Åland Islands speak Swedish yet are technically Finnish. And they are beautiful. These 6700 islands – many of them just nameless specks of pink granite – have an almost dreamlike quality, with painterly light, reflecting waters, forests, and blonde-sand beaches easing ever so gently into the Baltic. Cycling is the way to go, with ferries hopping between islands and flat trails that make pedaling a breeze, zipping from castle to orchard, medieval church to windmill. Rent your wheels in the capital, Mariehamn, and set off in spring or autumn when the islands are at their quiet best.
11. Go Moomin crazy
Go on, admit it: you came to Finland for the Moomins. You are not alone. Just about everyone has a secret soft spot for the weird-looking, cute white hippo-like characters (well, apparently they are actually large-snouted trolls…) that are so magically brought to life in Tove Jansson’s tales.
Join the kids in the Moomin house, cave, workshop, and nature trail at Muumimaailma (Moomin World), which sits on its own island just off the coast of Turku. Or for more of a cultural Moomin experience, head north to the imaginatively thought-out Moomin Museum in Tampere, which is stuffed with original illustrations and dioramas.
12. Play in the snow in Lapland
Lapland in the deep freeze of winter is full-on Narnia, with its snow-blanketed fells, tundra, and forests. Some might be content to hibernate in a little cabin and watch the flakes flutter, but chances are you’ll be itching to get out and play. The options are boundless, whether you want to dogsled, snowmobile, cross-country ski, snowshoe into the icy wilds, or dash off on a reindeer-driven sleigh as the aurora flickers overhead. Levi and Ylläs come tops for crowd-free skiing and perfect powder. Or for the whole snow fun shebang, try Rovaniemi, Inari, and, farther north still, Utsjoki.
If that’s not quite intrepid enough, there’s always aurora ice floating in Rovaniemi. Kitted out in an Arctic survival suit, you’ll float on a frozen lake, peering up at the northern lights. It’s mad and magical.
13. Shop at the local food markets
If you want to see Finnish food in all its wild, wonderful bounty, get yourself over to the nearest kauppahalli (covered market). Helsinki’s glorious late 19th-century market hall is a fantastic place to stock up on everything from reindeer steaks to forest berries and herbs, artisan cheeses, and ham slowly roasted over alder logs in a traditional smoke sauna. You’ll also find a tempting array of cafes, where you can grab a coffee and korvapuusti (cinnamon bun), or a lunch special like cured salmon on homemade rye bread. Try the harbor front Story for brunch under soaring arches.
The historic covered markets in Tampere and Turku are equally great for picnic fixings or lunch on the hoof. In summer, the action spills outside to the kauppatori (market square), where stalls are laden with everything from wild mushrooms to golden cloudberries.
14. Tune into Sámi culture
It’s a much-cited fact that Lapland’s Sámi people have 200 words to describe snow, but more incredible is the 1000 words they have for reindeer. The reindeer have been their lifeblood for many centuries in the stark, dark, bitterly cold north. Spending time among the Sámi gives an astonishing insight into their nature-bound, season-driven way of life, whether it’s listening to the haunting sound of the joik (rhythmic poem) around a hissing campfire in a lavvu tent, or meeting reindeer under the flash of the northern lights.
The Sámi capital, Inari, is a great starting point. Here you can get the inside scoop on Sámi life, from their semi-nomadic past to modern times at the cutting-edge Siida museum, and immerse yourself in the wilderness of nearby Lemmenjoki National Park.
15. Hang out with brown bears
Watching a bear emerge from the dense forests of Russia to lollop across the swamps in search of a midnight snack is one of those magic moments you’ll be raving about forever more. Out on a limb and properly immersed in the wooded wilderness, Lentiira on the Finnish–Russian border is one of Europe’s most outstanding places to observe brown bears in their natural environment. Though there are never any guarantees, the odds are brilliant during the bear-watching season (April to October) at the conservation-focused Wild Brown Bear Centre. Every season works its charm – from the cubs and snows of spring to the never-dying light of midsummer and richly colored foliage of fall.
The bears here are shy but harmless. Keep quiet in your hide or – for greater privacy – a family-sized luxury lodge, and you’ll see plenty. Besides bears, you might also spot wolverines, wolves, and elk if you’re lucky.