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Before we went to Finland for the first time many many years ago, we were told it was boring. Based on our experience, we think it is underrated. And with the good deals that pop up often, it is worth the pop-in. For those who want to visit multiple countries, Helsinki can get you to St. Petersburg, Russia, visa-free if you go via the ferry; alternatively, use Helsinki as a base to the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Erin, a New York based traveler, recently went to Finland to see the Northern Lights and here are her practical tips should you go visit.
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When planning a recent trip to Northern Europe, I honed in on Finland as a must-see destination for a few reasons. Finland has been a bit of a sleeper hit, slowly gaining popularity on top travel lists over the last couple of years. As 2017 marks 100 years of Finnish independence, the country made an appearance as one of the top destinations on Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel 2017 List” and Travel+Leisure’s “50 Best Places to Travel in 2017.”
According to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment in Finland, there were 5.8 million overnight stays by foreign tourists in 2016, with the strongest showing from countries such as China, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Compare this to Iceland’s tourism statistics the same year, where the United States topped the list of travelers to visit the nation via its Keflavik Airport.
If seeing the Northern Lights is hovering at the top of your bucket list, as it was on mine, and you’re looking to shake up the travel photos on your Instagram feed, Finland is the place to go. Another tick in the pro column on your “should I visit Finland list?” is that it is currently exceptionally affordable. Unlike other Aurora Borealis hot spots (like Norway or Iceland), this Nordic nation’s currency is the Euro.
With record-low airfares in market, getting to the aforementioned destinations is easier than ever; however, vacationers might not initially factor in the cost of day-to-day travel expenses like excursions or meals, once on the ground. Since the Euro is nearly on par with the U.S. dollar (about .93 USD to 1 EUR during my March trip), meals, drinks, souvenirs and activities are aligned with prices you’re accustomed to back home. I had spent a week prior in Norway, where everyday goods and meals really put a dent in my bank account; needless to say, most of the mementos I brought home for friends and family were Finnish.
As the capital, Helsinki is often the natural first stop in Finland. For a relatively small city, there’s plenty to see, do and eat over the course of several days, whether you’re on a shoestring budget or have your AMEX Black Card handy.
Helsinki was an unexpected stunner when it came to good eats. The city manages to pack in an array of culinary gems, from cheap bites to elaborate tasting menus. Prior to visiting, I knew fish stews would be prevalent, but otherwise, Finnish cuisine was one I wasn’t all too familiar with. Since Michelin-starred restaurants in America often come with hefty bills, spotting several with two-digit price points made a posh night out the highlight of my trip. If you are looking for an upscale dining experience, you may want to reserve this ahead of time like I did — as these restaurants are intimate and can fill up on weekends. Restaurant Ask happened to have a table for two — with only 24 more to spare — for a tasting menu featuring a mighty 16-20 courses and a 98€ per person price tag. (Note: Plan to block off 3-4 hours for this type of dining experience — it really does take that long.)
For those looking for a more cost-effective meal, surprisingly, another great meal took place on the top level of the Kamppi Center, a shopping and entertainment complex downtown. Bar Sandro — a Moroccan restaurant with several beloved outposts in the city — serves large, bold-flavored and affordable dishes. But if this isn’t your go-to cuisine, this complex has plenty of restaurants to suit your dining preferences.
Helsinki is also a place for history buffs to geek out. Suomelinna Fortress — a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s only a 15-minute, scenic ferry ride away from downtown — is equal parts historically intriguing and beautiful. This island has served as a fortress for Sweden, Russia and Finland since the 1700s. It also boasts its own brewery, so don’t forget to grab an IPA before you catch the boat back to the mainland.
Just steps away from the Suomelinna ferry is the Old Market Hall, a fitting name, as this center has been running since 1888. This market is perfect for stopping in for a quick bite (like Soppakeittiö for a bowl of seafood soup) or cup of coffee. And if you’re looking for some local goodies to take home — this is the place. Go for the jams and teas. Sea buckthorn and cloudberry are two local berries that are extraordinarily delicious, and more importantly, hard to procure back home.
If you’re looking for a different type of souvenir to take home, Market Square, also located in the harbor, is a year-round open-air market that hosts local craftsmen selling everything from reindeer pelts to hand-carved wooden mugs.
For art lovers, or those just looking to escape a snowy winter day, Helsinki has plenty of options when it comes to museums: the Ateneum, for more classic artwork; the Kiasma for contemporary art; and the Design Museum for everything from Finnish flatware to home decor.
Northern Light seekers — this is the part you’ve been waiting for. Finnish Lapland has burst onto the social media scene with idyllic videos and photos of glass igloos in remote northern towns, where you can see the Aurora Borealis all while lying down, tucked under your warm blankets. The vision that comes to mind is most likely that of the Kakslauttanen Resort in Saariselkä.
As the largest territory in Finland, Lapland encompasses several ‘resort’ towns (from Ivalo to Kemi) with Instagrammable accommodations ranging from glass igloos to snow hotels. As most of Lapland sits on or above the Arctic Circle, this is ideal turf for spotting the iconic lights; VisitFinland touts that they are visible in this area around 200 nights each year.
After extensive research, I landed on Rovaniemi as my homebase in Lapland, just at the tail end of prime lights season (September-March). The capital of this territory — also known as the “Official hometown of Santa Claus” (kitschy, yet endearing) — seemed to tick all the boxes. With cheap, quick flights from Helsinki — averaging around $100 and only an hour flight time — tacking on a stop here is fairly simple. However, flights from neighboring countries can get a bit pricey and almost always require a stopover.
The hotel we chose — the Arctic Treehouse Hotel — was a 10- to 15-minute drive into downtown, but had the feel of a secluded village. The treehouse is the new igloo, if you ask me. With individual ‘treehouses’ (elevated rectangular-shaped houses) with large, floor to ceiling glass windows, you can sit with hot cocoa in hand as you await the lights. Even if you don’t see them from your room, the cozy fur chairs practically make up for it.
There are a few indispensable tips I’d pass on to future Lapland visitors:
Rent a car. A four-day rental cost me just about $50. Additionally, Finns drive on the same side of the road as the U.S. Gas was also relatively affordable and I barely needed to fill the tank with my hybrid car. It may seem daunting to drive icy, dimly lit roads where moose and reindeer might happen to stroll across the street on a whim, but I encountered none of the sort. If you’ve ever driven in the Northeast or Midwest during winter, this is a breeze. Our little Nissan Versa was well equipped with all-weather tires, so safety was never an issue. Additionally–the best night on my trip wouldn’t have occurred without this car. We drove to a frozen lake just about a mile or two past Santa’s Village, where many tour buses happen to stop as well. However, my partner and I were able to bring blankets from the hotel, grab two cups of hot tea, blast the heat, listen to music and patiently wait for the Aurora Borealis to dance across the night sky — all while those who participated in the tour had an allotted period of time and were quickly ushered back on the bus.
Bring a professional camera. Not bringing a better camera was the one regret I had after my trip. While I experienced the Aurora Borealis, the coloring was more white with a subtle green tint. After meeting a fellow tourist the next day, who saw the same lights as us, his photos were vibrant swirls of bright green (just like in travel magazines). With iPhones and even most GoPros, you can’t adjust the exposure or aperture, so the lights just won’t show up. Even if you don’t own an amazing camera, ask a good friend to loan one to you if you want to capture this awesome, yet fleeting, occurrence.
Plan several adventurous activities. Whether it’s an activity like snowmobiling or reindeer sledding, some things you might never do again and Finland is definitely the place to give these a go. There are several tour operators in Rovaniemi and I booked three through Safartica. They were exceptionally prompt with response times, answering questions and all of our guides were personable and knowledgeable. I would also suggest booking in advance, since activities and hotels often book during winter months (plenty others are also in search of the lights). While on a snowmobiling excursion, we learned how to ice fish and attempted to catch our own lunch. Albeit unsuccessful, it’s one of the coolest (pun intended) things I’ve ever done on vacation. Continuing on the adventurous front — reindeer can be quite adorable and you may feel skeptical about trying it at first — but I had some amazing reindeer-centric dishes while in town (Ravintola Roka downtown is a great place to give it a go.)
Whether Finland is your sole destination or part of an extended European vacation, it may just prove to be the highlight of your trip. A trip in winter (like mine) is ideal for chilly Arctic adventures and chasing the Northern Lights, while a summertime jaunt could be full of kayaking, hiking, fishing and biking. It looks as though I may have to make another trip.
About The Author:
Erin Oliveri is the definition of an adventurous nomad — from eating unknown street food in Bangkok to plunging off of one of the highest bungee jumps in the world — there’s nothing she won’t try on vacation. Based in New York City, Erin is a travel deal aficionado and has ventured to more than 35 countries and six continents (Antarctica, she’s coming for you next). Follow her punny food and travel adventures — with a smattering of puppy pictures — on Instagram.
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