Why You Should Go to Finland

I can’t even tell you how many times I hear American travelers go on about Spain, Italy, France and England. You’ll hear about culture, history, museums and food (a little less so with England on that last one!). But I can’t say I’ve ever heard an American traveler all wound up about the idea of a trip to Finland.

And I just don’t get it.

Finland – and also Iceland and Norway – have a certain sense of community spirit that’s hard to define. But that spirit makes Finland an incredibly fun place to travel. And then you have the scenery, the events, the food, the public transit and the shopping. I’m not ordinarily a big shopper. But I always look out for things that will interest others, and I can tell you that any fashionista with an eye for one-of-a-kind items from small, independent designers will love Finland.

Let me share some information that gives you an idea of why you should go to Finland.

First Impressions

We arrived in Helsinki after a flight from Tromsö, Norway via Oslo aboard Norwegian Air Shuttle. I sat across the aisle from a young female rock band, one member of which got startled when my wife accidentally launched a gob of sanitizer directly onto her lap (pressurization, yo). Sharing a plane with young rockers reinforced my notion that Finland is a paradise for good, loud rock music; part of our reason for visiting was to go to the Ruisrock festival in Turku (the Ruisrock link includes a story about having several people convinced that I’m a rock star who performed at the festival).

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It’s early evening – soon, this park will be jammed with people on blankets hanging out.

I was a little surprised that the rail line from the airport to the city center was still under construction during our visit (it may be ready now, though). The bus ride was still pleasant, and I thought more than a few times of Minnesota as we cruised along through rolling plains and evergreen trees.

Downtown Helsinki, though, was all cool Old World architecture alongside sleek but welcoming new architecture. It’s a blend Finland wears well, just like so many other countries in the region.

First example of the community spirit I mentioned earlier – we asked a young Finnish woman for directions, and she walked us to within a few steps of our hotel and told us all about herself as we walked.

What’s So Cool About Finland?

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Helsinki could give Portland a few lessons in weird.

If American travelers knew what I do about Finland, it would be a huge, up-and-coming destination. It’s just that awesome. Let me break it down:

Absolutely Vibrant During Summer – Finland comes alive in the summer, with music festivals spanning nearly every genre practically every weekend somewhere in the country. Also, there’s a nightly tradition in the cities -- people fill up a cooler, grab a blanket, head to the nearest park and hang out with their friends and neighbors in the post-dinner hours. I imagine winter is a little less social, but I’d bet it’s still a picture-perfect scene of a holiday season.

Getting Around is Super Easy – Whether you walk, bicycle or take a train, the transit options are affordable and easy to navigate. Our two-hour trip on the VR train to Turku was a marvel of comfort and efficiency. We also used a combination of train and bus travel to enjoy a day hiking at the Nuuksion Koulu. Every leg of the trip went off without a hitch. And cyclists – be prepared for an astounding bicycle infrastructure.

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Finland has cool architecture a-plenty

History and Fun – We also took a quick boat trip out to Suomenlinna, where we spent a day enjoying the island’s history and sites -- be prepared for some gusty Baltic winds, though. I also got to try some bear sausage. Back in Helsinki, we took an evening trip out to the Linnanmaki amusement park.

Things to Know

  • You might be tempted to call Finland a Scandinavian country. Resist the urge. Refer to it as a Nordic country instead.
  • Also, Finland uses the Euro. That’s part of the reason its prices aren’t quite as high as Norway.
  • Try sahti. It’s a traditional Finnish beer that’s hard to find … and slightly hard to pronounce. Here’s everything you need to know about sahti.
  • If you’re a beer connoisseur, let’s just say Finland hasn’t quite hopped into the craft-beer movement just yet. There are a few places to get good brews, but you’ll mostly see fizzy, watery, pale-yellow lagers.
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Nuuksion National Park an easy combination of train and bus travel from Helsinki.

Finland in a Word: Liveable

I could very easily see living in Finland, even with its winters. There seems to be a work-life balance that allows the country to prosper, but it exudes a "work to live, not live to work" outlook. That’s healthy. The country’s fixation on sauna (pronounce it “sah-oo-nah”) is another healthy element, along with well-marked hiking trails serves by huts. Finland is the place to be for backpackers and cross-country skiers.

Other Details

My total time in Finland was about nine days – enough to convince me that you should go to Finland – split between Turku and Helsinki. Turku is built around a river, and it is so incredibly relaxed and pleasant that you might never realize that many of the world’s behemoth cruise ships are built there. As for Helsinki -- I could easily use a few weeks to dive into all that it offers. I’d love a chance to learn more about its heavy metal scene and to get out into the surrounding natural areas.

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Turku is a maritime city you’ll love … if you like strolling along rivers, walking on tree-shaded paths and meeting people.

Why I Won’t Commute by Bike in Phoenix

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This is why think Helsinki is a world leader in getting people to commute by bike.

There’s no way I’ll commute by bike in present-day Arizona. A post at the Architecture Travel Writer blog made me think about why it’s not one of my transportation alternatives.

Fellow blogger Nichole talked to Phoenix city planner Joseph Perez about improving bike commuting options. His ideas (bike shares, smartphone apps, consultants and developer input, to name a few) show why Phoenix lags  in the movement to commute by bike.

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I don’t expect credible ideas that encourage people to commute by bike to come from Phoenix City Hall.

You’ll notice my lengthier-than-typical comment about an open state of war between motorists and bike commuters. My view comes from my past attempts to commute by bike. Here’s what I faced:

  • Disappearing bike lanes – I’d be in a great lane for a mile or two. And then it would disappear. Transportation alternatives need routes users can count on.
  • Debris-strewn bike lanes – Dirtiness and grit that love puncturing tubes.
  • Openly hostile motorists – I’ve had people throw stuff at me, yell at me, cut in front of me and try to bump me with their mirror. Other cyclists will say the same.
  • Clueless motorists – Some motorists think it’s a good idea to blare their horn as they approach cyclists from behind (hint: we can hear their engines). Then there are others who get to a four-way stop first, hesitate and give the "after you" wave. Guess what? The safest place for cyclists is behind you. Obey the law and the four-way stop protocol – your misguided "politeness" doesn’t help.
  • Other bicyclists – The "don’t give a shit about rules or good sense" variety puttering against traffic, ignoring traffic flow and just general being self-centered jerks. These riders deserve a special place in hell – they make drivers paint all of us with the same brush. They make cycling lose political clout among the transportation alternatives.

Too many near misses put me back in my car. Not the heat, not the lack of bike parking, not the scarcity of showers in most commercial buildings. It was the motorists – the antagonism, or just the casual disregard for a cyclist’s safety over their convenience.

English: Picture shows a bike path or ciclorut...
Phoenix also lags behind Bogota, Columbia, in bicycle infrastructure  En detalle la cicloruta. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What would get me to commute by bike as one of my  transportation alternatives again? Physically separating bike lanes from roadways as much as possible. The canal bike paths are a great start – Step One would be to widen them. Next, get some physically separated connectors to the canal.

The bike infrastructure in Helsinki, Finland, and its below-grade bike superhighways provide the perfect example. The U.S. is decades away from Finland’s harmonious relationship between motorists and cyclists -- but we can at least separate bike lanes.

Apps and consultants are half-measures to make it look like Phoenix city officials take seriously the need to commute by bike. None will make a true difference – and they’re not meant to. Phoenix revolves around car culture and sprawl – and looking like it’s trying to change while not actually doing so. City officials seem to have no clue about one fairly easy change that could make its streets more pedestrian friendly – how can we count on them to be any better with bike commuting if they can’t implement scramble crosswalks? I offer a vote of no confidence on bike commuting to current and past administrations.

I expect naysayers to sputter “but, but, we can’t.” People, this is nothing next to light rail. It would take a fraction of the time and money. It could happen … if we approach it with a “how?” attitude. There’s a way to do it if we can overcome the lack of political will.

If you want to see other interesting ideas to make it more feasible to commute by bike, check out the Copenhagenize blog.

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Where to Drink Sahti

The moment I arrived in Finland, I was trying to find out where to find sahti, a traditional local beer.

Just about every bartender looked at me like I’m a mental patient on the lam because I asked for sahti. I struck out everywhere.

At Panimoravintola Koulu in Turku, my question riled the barkeep the most. Then the expat Italian barkeeper at Alvar clued me in.

Looking for Sahti in All the Wrong Places

First, I mispronounced “sahti.” The right pronunciation sounds like “sock tea,” as in tea brewed in a sock. But you give the “ck” a bit of gravel to it, a kind of Hebrew slant on the syllable.

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Sahti – the taste of the forest in a metal cup.

Second, I expected Finland was proud of its traditional brew. It’s made out of cool stuff like juniper and rye. It hits pretty hard. What’s not to love?

Well, Finland isn’t rooted in the past. They favor a good kebab, apparently, to a reindeer repast. And they prefer large amounts of whiz-colored lager to earthy-brown brews served in a small silver cup. It’s the stuff a Finn’s mothball-scented grandpa drinks, not the young and hip.

I don’t qualify as young, and I am too metal to be hip. But a guy my age asking where to drink sahti is an oddity. It’s also a bit of an under-the-radar quaff, almost like a moonshine. It tends to be small-batch stuff that the big brewers eschew.

I Finally Found Where to Drink Sahti

Back in Helsinki, I found sahti – the Lammin Sahti Oy brand – in a kitschy farm setting at Zetor near the city center. And my order  yet again surprised the bartender: I explained that trying local/regional food and drink is part of the reason I travel. I guess not many foreigners know about sahti.

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A glimpse of the beer menu at Alvar in Turku – some fine selections, but no sahti.

A few moments later, I had a small silver vessel – a cross between a ladle and a cup. The sahti was dark brown and opaque. I took a sip.

And found that sahti tastes exactly like the forest smells. It reminded me of pine trees, wind, cool air. It’s strong, but not absurdly so – probably 8-10 percent ABV. There’s little carbonation, but I didn’t mind the flatness.

Why Isn’t Sahti a Big Deal?

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Brewing a traditional sahti (photo from distantmirror.wordpress.com).

The sahti-influenced ales – Samuel Adams Norse Legend or Dogfish Head Sah’Tea, to name a few – are not even in the ballpark. They’re alright, but they are far different from what you’ll get in Finland. You’ll probably like the real stuff better.

If you’re an exotic beer fan, don’t show up in Finland unprepared like I did. I assumed sahti would flow like wine. Do your research. Google “sahti in Finland” in a bunch of different ways. And make your game plan, and figure out what else to do while you search for sahti.

The late beer legend Michael Jackson (the un-gloved one) has a nice write-up about sahti, but some of it is outdated.

And pronounce it right!

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Linnanmäki Amusement Park – 6 Things to Know

Getting some spin on the Salama spinning roller coaster.

When it comes to theme parks, Helsinki is no Orlando. It offers just one amusement park called Linnanmäki (“Castle Hill,” in English). About 1.2 million visited Linnanmäki in 2007 – that’s roughly the number of people in line for Space Mountain at any given time. But an amusement park doesn’t need to be a sprawling city-state to be fun. Here’s what you need to know about Linnanmäki amusement park and why I think it’s so cool.

1. It’s walking distance from the Helsinki central train station. Call it a nice 30-minute walk along a pedestrian/bike path that runs alongside the train tracks (don’t worry, Finnish trains are very quiet).

Some fire makes every roller coaster better!

2. You can ride until you’re dizzy for less than 24 Euros. Just get there after 7 p.m. for an evening pass that includes unlimited rides. You might score an even better deal if Linnanmäki still offers discounts if you sign up for a loyalty card (the employees hooked us up with this advice).

3. The lines are short, so you can walk from ride to ride, just hopping between roller coasters at will. And this was in summertime, which should be high season.

4. There are six roller coasters among its 43 rides. You’ll find some splashy water rides, so beware on a chilly day! My favorite ride was Salama, a bizarre spinning roller coaster. I’d never been on roller coasters where you might face backward or sideways by spinning vertically, no matter where the coaster was pointed.

5. Linnanmäki has the best amusement park food ever. We found Cuisine World Kattila, which had six cuisines from around the world. But it seems Linnanmäki put a Finnish spin on much of it: For instance, I can’t imagine my late Grandpa Tony making his meatballs out of reindeer – but that’s what I had. They were delicious sprinkled with mint. And the server cracked me up by repeatedly calling them reindeer balls (now that, my friends, is the difference between speaking English very well and being fluent!).

6. The nonprofit organization Lasten Päivän Säätiö (Children’s Day Foundation) owns Linnanmäki. Adds a nice bit of feel-good to your plunge down the log flume, doesn’t it?