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.

Turku, Finland – Scenes from a Summer Day

During my trip to Finland, I gave Turku too little time. I even stowed my big SLR camera, relying instead on a little point-and-shoot to give some impressions. If I go again, Turku gets more time … even at Helsinki’s expense. It’s a compact, walkable city – and warmer than anywhere else I’ve been in the Nordic countries.

The Aura River makes it scenic … you’ll find paths on both sides of the river (in many places). It’s an easy way to find restaurants, museums and parks.

A cool bit of public art in the Aura River.
A cool bit of public art in the Aura River.
A power plant in Turku, Finland ... a high point in the city skyline.
A power plant in Turku, Finland … a high point in the city skyline.

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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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24 Hours in Turku – A Visit to Ruisrock

Nightwish concert
Nightwish performs at Ruisrock (Photo credit: tiendan)

It’s a warm summer weekend in Turku, Finland. I just stepped off the VR train from Helsinki to check out Ruisrock. This is a swift, convenient, punctual train trip that I’ve never seen equaled in the U.S. – for some reason, we’re a nation that hasn’t grasped the benefits of high-speed rail travel.

Now, it’s time to wander Turku. We have a good eight hours to kill before we head to Ruis Salo, the island that hosts Ruisrock. Today’s lineup ranges from Nightwish – the day’s headlining band and Finland’s best-known musical export – to Children of Bodom, Apocalyptica and The Cardigans.

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