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Despite sharing its eastern border with Russia, Finland lasted the Cold War period without losing its independence to the Soviets. It sustained some considerable economic blows from the downfall of the Soviet Union, but Finland has emerged as a competitive modern economy.
Finnish culture and tradition remains strikingly unique, however. Finns are renowned for their silence; ironically, one of music's finest composers, Jean Sibelius was a Finn. Nature's habit of granting Finland the midnight sun during summer and robbing it of day during winter has a profound effect on national morale. Winter is commonly accompanied by depression; summer brings a time of relief and pleasure-seeking. It is then that many trek through the rugged northern interior, enjoying Europe's largest unspoilt wilderness. Others favour the capital, Helsinki, where Finland's finest art collections are held. Still others simply head for a relaxing sauna.
The first evidence of settlements in Finland date from around 8,500 B.C. Sweden 'colonised' Finland from 1249 until 1809. It resulted in Turku becoming the first capital of Finland. This also was the place where the first Cathedral of the country was built. During the reformation most of the Finns were converted to Lutherism. 1640 saw the opening of the first university in Turku.
In the 18th century Finland was captured twice by Russia. In 1809 when Finland was captured by Russia for the third time, Finland became an autonomous region inside Russia. In the second half of the 19th century Finnish nationalism grew stronger, which resulted in Finland declaring it's independence in 1917 when the Russian Empire fell. This resulted in a civil war between communisists backed by Russia, and the conservatists backed by Germany. The war was won by the conservatists, and Finland became a constitutional democracy. During the second world war Finland was attacked by the Sovjet Union twice, but Finland remained an independent country, but the attacks meant the loss of most of the Karelia territory.
Finnish politics during the cold war has been hugely influenced by the Sovjet Union, without Finland becoming a satellite state. After the downfall of the Sovjet Union, Finland quickly joined the European Union in 1995, and in 2002 replaced the Markka for the Euro (€).
Finland shares international borders with Sweden, Norway and Russia. Lying approximately between latitudes 60° and 70° N, and longitudes 20° and 32° E, Finland is one of the world's northernmost countries. Of world capitals, only Reykjavík lies more to the north than Helsinki. The distance from the southernmost - Hanko - to the northernmost point in the country - Nuorgam - is 1,160 kilometres.
Finland is a country of thousands of lakes and islands - about 188,000 lakes (larger than 500 m2) and 179,000 islands. Its largest lake, Saimaa, is the fourth largest in Europe. The area with most lakes is called Finnish Lakeland. The greatest concentration of islands is found in the southwest in the Archipelago Sea between continental Finland and the main island of Åland. Much of the geography of Finland is explained by the Ice Age. The glaciers were thicker and lasted longer in Fennoscandia compared to the rest of Europe. Their eroding effects have left the Finnish landscape mostly flat with few hills and fewer mountains. The highest points can be found in the north at the borders with Sweden and Norway.Its highest point, the Halti at 1,324 metres, is found in the extreme north of Lapland at the border between Finland and Norway. The highest mountain whose peak is entirely in Finland is Ridnitsohkka at 1,316 metres.
Finland is divided into these six administrative provinces (lääni):
Although not cheap, the nightlife in Helsinki is one of the best in Europe. Start off with drinking some street beers with a few locals at a major street intersection. Then progress to an amazing dance club were there are more beautiful blonde men and women than the eyes can handle. After that duck out and hit up a few more street drinks before heading to another dance club. In the summer time since the sun never sets one can just dance the sunlight away!
Take the trip above the arctic circle to the Lapland. In the summertime there is 24 hours of daylight, while in the winter time there is 24 hours of darkness. This location is the traditional home to the Sami, a minority group that lives in northern Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia. The Sami were traditional reindeer herders and some still do it to this day. Also in the Lapland there is some great skiing and hiking.
Rauma is a town along Finland's western coastline, roughly 90 kilometres from Turku and 50 kilometres from Pori. It's old town centre (called Vanha Rauma) is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because of its many original wooden buildings. It is also known for high quality lace. The town can easily be reached by bus from Pori or Turku in about 1 to 1.5 hours.
The Finns love their saunas. All older Finnish apartment buildings were built with large group saunas in the basement, while in newer buildings each unit has their own little private sauna. The modern sauna or wood sauna can be lots of fun, especially in the country side next to lake that traveller can jump into to cool off, the more traditional smoke sauna is the true Finnish experience.
A smoke sauna is always built in the countryside next to a lake and looks similar to a little hut. A fire it lit under rocks inside the hut for several hours then the coals are left on the rocks to slowly let the heat diffuse into the stones. After this the group of people climb into the little hut the inside is covered in soot and ash. In the centre of the hut there is a little tub with water that has fresh birch branches resting in it. The people in the smoke sauna take turns hitting themselves and each other while cooking sausages over the rocks. Water is constantly poured onto the rocks making the room hotter and hotter. Finally, after the first person cracks and runs out in the lake, everyone follows to cool off. The biggest smoke sauna in the world, The Jätkänkämppä, can be found in Kuopio in the centre of the country. Strangely enough, Hotel Kakslauttanen in Saariselkä claims the same.
Savonlinna is one of the more popular places to visit in the southeast of the country and certainly its location in the lake region is striking and the town is situated on several islands in those lakes. The Olavinlinna Castle and the popular Opera Festival which is held at the castle are the main attractions here. The town is on a branch line from the main eastern railway from Helsinki via Lappeenranta to the north. You have to change trains in Pieksämäki or Parikkala.
The building of Sveaborg started in 1748 under an order from the Swedish King Fredrik I. During that time the frontline between Sweden and Russia had moved close to from Helsinki. Sveaborg was to protect the shipping channels to Helsinki and act as a landing place for troops arriving from Sweden. After Finland's independence the Swedish name Sveaborg, was changed to Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nowadays the island is a popular getaway from Helsinki, and can be reached by the ferry service which leave at the market square. If you have bought a day ticket for the public transport, the ferry is free of charge. On the island the Suomenlinna Museum tells you about the history of the place.
Turku is the original capital and oldest city in Finland with the beautiful river Aura flowing though it. There is a lot of history in Turku, you can visit places like the cathedral, castle, archeology museum, and the outdoor folk museum. Turku is also a university town, and has a lot of café’s and unique pubs that are worth a visit.
Mid Summer's Eve also known as the summer solstice and is one of the biggest holidays in Finland and is on June 24 every year. With very long nights during the winters the Fins known when the celebrate the sunlight and boy do they do it in style. Most families go to their summer cottages get the sauna going, the meat cooks, the booze flowing and the bonfire burning. In the traditional Finnish celebration of Mid Summers Eve is to build a large bonfire by the lake and let the thing burn. In the more Swedish areas of Finland there might be some maypoles but must Fins always want a bonfire.
Mayday is a big deal for the Finns. It is a festival of spring, workers and drinking. On April 30th, there are festivities in every town, and every secondary school graduate wears their old school cap (That's why there are so many people walking around with funny white hats). You can buy a sweet, sugary bun, munkki, and a glass of sima, a sweet, brown drink with lemons and raisins. There are usually music and singing, people buy balloons and everyone has a good time. Young people stay out drinking until late, and usually the 1st of May is more or less an official hangover day in the whole of the country. On the 1st of May, actual Mayday, there are often large markets and concerts around the town centres. Note that usually buses and suchlike get diverted to alternative routes due to parades and suchlike.
During the summer, Finland is full of music festivals, featuring both Finnish favourites, as well as foreign artists. It is recommended you bring your own tent, a lot of warm clothes (the Finnish summers are unpredictable) and wellies (gumboots) as it does tend to get very muddy. Finns don't much worry about their appearance at such events, so leave the nice things home. Thefts from tents are not uncommon. The big festivals include Provinssirock in Seinäjoki in mid-June, and Ruisrock in Turku in early July. Tickets can be bought in advance by credit card from www.lippu.fi
For opera fans, the Savonlinnan oopperajuhlat is a fantastic experience with world-class productions taking place throughout the summer.
Finns have a ton of very odd competitions, the most famous being a Wife-Carrying contest, where men literally race to carry their wives to the finishing line. The style is free, and girlfriends are also accepted. The event is held in early July in Sonkajärvi, in central Finland, and tickets usually cost around €20.
Another odd competition is the Air Guitar World Championships, which take places in the northern town of Oulu each year. Hopeful national winners from countries such as the UK, US and New Zealand among many others arrive to Oulu in early August.
Although jazz is not often linked to Finland, this fantastic world-class jazz festival is organised in July each year in Kirjurinluoto, Pori. The three-day event brings artists from around the world, and unlike most rock festivals, the mood is mellow and relaxed. Pori is within an easy reach by public transport from Helsinki, Tampere and Turku.
The Finns are known for their weird competitions, and the Swamp Soccer is quickly gaining popularity. In 2010, the games will be held on July 16, and snow soccer is usually held in January - providing there is enough snow!
The Midnight Sun Film Festival is a fantastic alternative film festival with independent films from around the globe, taking place each June around Midsummer's night in Sodankylä, just above the Arctic Circle.
Finland has a moderate continental climate with generally warm summers and cold winters. During summer, temperatures average around 20 °C during the day, a bit more in the south and somewhat cooler in the north. Sometimes, days of more than 30 °C are possible, even in the north. Winters are cold to very cold, with temperatures in the south of between -5 °C and -10 °C on average and in the north between -10 °C and -20 °C. Nights below -40 °C are not unheard of in the northern parts of Finland. Precipitation in winter is mostly snow and on average there are about 3 to 4 months with a layer of snow. Finland is not particularly wet though and days of sunny conditions with stable weather can last for weeks, especially during winter.
The major airport in Finland is the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport (IATA: HEL; ICAO: EFHK), located about 20 kilometres from Helsinki. The main airlines that fly in and out of Helsinki are Finnair, Scandinavian Airlines, and Blue1. Quite a few other regional airlines and budget airlines also have service to Helsinki airport, which makes it possible to travel to many places in the world to and from Helsinki with relative ease.
To/from the airport
There are other options to fly to Finland, with quite a few budget flights to airports in Turku and Lappeenranta. Especially in winter, towns and cities in the north of Finland might have direct (charter) flights as well.
The only direct train links to and from Finland are the ones to Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia.
Between Helsinki and Moscow, there are direct daily overnight trains with 'The Tolstoi', taking roughly 13 hours to cover the routes. Trains are fast and comfortable. There are two daily trains ('The Sibelius' and 'The Repin') between Helsinki and St. Petersburg, both travelling during the day and evening. One train is Russian, the other one is Finnish. Both trains take about 6 hours to cover the route.
Trains also stop in Lahti, Kouvola and Vainikkala in Finland and in Vyborg in Russia.
Finland shares borders with Norway, Sweden and Russia. To the latter, there are quite a few border crossings, but be sure to have all your papers (including your Russian visa) in order, otherwise you won't be able to cross into Russia.
Crossings to Norway and Sweden are plentiful and easy.
About 10 border crossings exist between northern Sweden and northern Finland across Tornionjoki and Muonionjoki. The main highway in both countries runs parallel to the border from Tornio/Haparanda to Kaaresuvanto/Karesuando. There are no border controls or other formalities so you can choose to cross as much as you like.
Between Norway and Finland, there are also about six border crossings. The main route to the North Cape goes from Rovaniemi via Inari and Kaamanen to Karigasniemi and there's also a crossing further west at Kilpisjärvi.
There are eight border crossings between Finland and Russia. The main ones are along the Helsinki-Vyborg-St Petersburg route, where there are two: Nuijamaa (Russian side: Brusnichnoe) and Vaalimaa (Russian side: Torfyanovka).
Eurolines provides services to and from Russian cities like St. Petersburg, connecting with Helsinki.
Two daily buses provide services to Vyborg and St Petersburg from Helsinki, one of which originates in Turku. There's also one daily bus from Tampere and three weekly buses from Lappeenranta. Check Matkahuolto for more information about prices and schedules. In the north, Goldlines has buses three times a week between Rovaniemi via Ivalo to Murmansk. There are also Russian buses, which are much cheaper, that depart from Helsinki every day around 11am. These can be found from in front of the Hotel President in Helsinki, a few blocks from the railway station. You will frequently see touts with cyrillic notes standing close by.
To and from Norway, there are quite a few bus companies which provide services, though services are way less during the wintermonths and some of them only have buses during summer. Eskelisen Lapin Linjat is the main operator. Main routes are from Rovaniemi and continue via Sodankylä and Ivalo or Inari. They then travel further to the Norwegian cities/towns of Karasjok, Lakselv, Tanabru or Kirkenes. In summer, there is one daily bus Oulu to the North Cape via Rovaniemi, Inari and Karasjok. To the west, a daily bus travels from Oulu to Rovaniemi and Muonio before continuing to Kilpisjärvi and Tromsø, but only during summer. The total trip to Tromsø takes roughly 12 hours.
Finland has very good boat connections with several neighbouring countries.
Finnish Railways operates an extensive network of trains in the country. The main lines include Helsinki to Turku, Helsinki to Tampere and Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä to Kuopio and Helsinki to Seinäjoki, Oulu and up north to Rovaniemi, the most northern point to be reached by train in Finland. Sleeping berths are available as well as railpasses valid for 3,5 and 10 days of unlimited travel within a month.
Finland has a well maintained network of roads. There aren't that many highways, but even the other primary and secondary roads are in a good condition, even in winter. There are numerous car rental agencies at airports and cities but it is not really cheap. This also applies to petrol and be especially careful regarding speeding. Speeding tickets are related to income! Traffic drives on the right, you have to use headlights 24 hours a day, and watch out for reindeer and other animals crossing roads. You have to be 20 to 25 years of age (depending on company) and one year of driving experience. Please note that parking anywhere in the big cities is expensive.
For bus tickets contact Matkahuolto. Finland has an extensive network and most routes, even those to smaller towns and villages, have at least daily services, except weekends and holidays. Trains usually are faster but don't cover most areas of the country.
Transport on inland rivers and lakes is served by regular waterbuses and ferries. One of the options is the Silver Line between Hämeenlinna and Tampere. There is also a connection between Tampere and Virrat.
Saimaa Ferries operates boats from Lieksa, Nurmes, Koli and Joensuu across the lakes. Lake Paijanne Cruises runs boatservices from Lahti, Heinola and Jyväskylä while Roll Cruises has ferries from Kuopio and Savonlinna. Lake Pielinen has frequent services for both passengers and cars.
Visit the Finnish Tourist Board for complete schedules, prices and services regarding boats, ferries, cruises and other options on boat travel.
Finns cycle a lot, and most of Finland is very cyclist-friendly. As petrol is expensive, it is a good idea to get to know the cities by bike- parking your car for the day, and getting on the saddle. Note that in Finland, cyclists ride on the pavement with the pedestrians. Sometimes the larger roads have a cyclist section, and a pedestrian section.
If you are a European Union (EU) citizen, you may enter without any restriction as per your EU citizenship rights. If you are not an EU citizen, you will need to obtain a Schengen Visa. This visa is valid for any country in the Schengen zone.
See also: Money Matters
Finland has adopted the Euro (ISO code: EUR, symbol: €) as its official currency. One Euro is divided into 100 cents, which is sometimes referred to as eurocents, especially when distinguishing them with the US cents.
Euro banknotes come in denominations of €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200, €500. The highest three denominations are rarely used in everyday transactions. All Euro banknotes have a common design for each denomination on both sides throughout the Eurozone.
The Euro coins are 1 cent, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, €1 and €2. Some countries in the Eurozone have law which requires cash transactions to be rounded to the nearest 5 cents. All Euro coins have a common design on the denomination (value) side, while the opposite side of the 1 cent, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents coins has the image of the heraldic lion on it, as it can also be found on the coat of arms of Finland. On the €1 coin, two swans fly above a typical Finnish lanscape, and on the €2 coin an image of the fruit and the leaves of the cloudberry is printed. Although the image side is different from other countries, all Euro coins remain legal tender throughout the Eurozone.
Finland also printed many gold and silver euro coins, to mark special occasions. These coins are rare and most of them have ended up in the hands of collectors. Although uncommon and for collectors having a higher value than the number that is printed on them, they are legal currency and can be used to buy things.
Finland nowadays is leaning on service industry, more or less. Manufacturing and refining are still hanging on, but primary production is no longer much of an employer. Jobs are more easily available for Finns and other people from the 'first world' than for people from the 'third world'. The easiest way to get a job, if one comes from places such as Africa, Asia etc, is to establish one's own company or start from the bottom despite your degree.
Finland offers loads of study opportunities from pre-school to university and everything in between. Most of the Finnish studies are free at the moment but some study fees are being planned, mainly for students from outside EU and on university level. Probably the most known study place or institution is Helsinki University, followed by Tampere University and Turku University. Other quite respected universities are Oulu University (technology) and Vaasa University (business). All of the major cities also have polytechnics that in the hopes of a little face lift have started to call themselves 'university of applied sciences'. Other education is widely available.
The Finnish school system is known outside Finland mainly due to good PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test results in the past.
The two official languages in Finland are Finnish and Swedish. Swedish is spoken by only 5.4% of the population and the number is dropping. Other languages, less spoken yet worth mentioning, are Russian (~1%), Estonian (~0,5%), (English) ~0,2%, Somali (~0,2), Arabic (~0,2%), Kurdish (~0,1%) and Chinese (~0,1%). Lapland people's original language Sami is only spoken by some 0,03% of the total population nowadays (percentages as of late 2009). Almost everyone knows enough English as a second language in order to be conversational.
Traditional Finnish food is quite simple and heavily relying on potatoes and bread. Pork, chicken and beef are the most common meats used. Vegetables are plentiful enough and generally so clean that you can eat them cold after just a short wash under the tap. There are not many restaurants that are offering traditional Finnish food or Finnish food at all for that matter. More common are the restaurants offering mixed kitchen and the ones started by immigrants. Commonly found restaurants include Chinese, Turkish kebab, Thai, pizza places, burger joints, pasta and other Italian food.
Price examples (1 dish):
Chinese and Thai run restaurants commonly have cheaper dishes than Finnish run ones.
Accommodation in Finland is expensive, but many large hotels are cheaper during the weekends and summer. In addition to the usual international suspects, check out local chains Cumulus, Scandic, Finlandia and Sokos. The small but fast-growing Omena chain offers cheap self-service hotels, where you book online and get a keycode for your room, with no check-in of any kind needed.
The Finnish Youth Hostel Association has a fairly comprehensive network throughout the country and a dorm bed usually costs less than €20 per night. Many hostels also have private rooms for as little as €30, which are a great deal if you want a little extra privacy. An even cheaper option is to take advantage of Finland's right to access, or Every Man's Right (jokamiehenoikeus), which allows camping, hiking, and berry and mushroom picking as well as simple (rod and hook) fishing on uncultivated land outside built-up areas or yards. Get local advice first though as you might need permission at certain places and for certain activities like creating a fire.
For a taste of the Finnish countryside, an excellent option is to stay at a cottage (mökki), thousands of which dot the lake shores. These are generally best in summer, but there are also many cottages around Lapland's ski resorts.
Finns are the world's heaviest coffee (kahvi) drinkers, averaging 3-4 cups per day. Most Finns drink it strong and black, but sugar and milk for coffee are always available and the more European variants such as espresso and cappuccino are becoming all the more common especially in the bigger cities.
Finns love their beers. A good try would be a Karhu (literally a bear beer), Olvi or Lapin Kulta, which means the gold of Lapland. A beer in pubs is not served as a pint, but rather the "euro pint" - a 0.4 litre pint - in a 0.5 litre glass. When draught of your favorite beer is not available, a bottle of 0.33 litres is emptied into a pint glass which means that the glass is never full anyway. This is normal, but it does make it expensive! There is a large variety of imported beers available as well. Try taking a beer with you to the sauna- just put it in a bucket of cold water to keep it from going hot.
Cider is also very popular in Scandinavia, and the most popular in Finland would be the Golden Cap varieties. They do tend to taste a bit like alcopops, what with the cranberry, blueberry and lingonberry flavours added, but for a more natural flavour, choose the dry apple one. It is perfectly normal to choose a cider instead of a beer in the bar.
A unique drink to Finland is Long Drink, which is a gin-based, mild drink with grapefruit flavour. It is sold in pints in pubs at about the same rate as a cider. As well as beer and cider, long drinks are popular, and can be purchased in supermarkets. Look for a turquoise label with "GIN" printed on it.
All spirits and wines must be bought from Alko, a government-owned bottle store. They have a red sign and are found even in the smallest towns, and in cities you usually find them next to a big supermarket. Alko's variety may appear a bit restricted in smaller towns, but the selection itself is probably the best in any state-controlled system anywhere. Generally, Alko's quality goes hand in hand with price, although a connoisseur may actually save some by keeping eyes open to novelties and underrated specialities.
See also: Travel Health
Finnish healthcare is quite all right. The private side usually offers more quality but this comes at a price of course. The public side has lately suffered of the lack of doctors which means longer wait to get treated. Of course, serious trauma will be treated over coughs and fevers. The best treatment on the public side tends to be available in the bigger cities. If you have the European Health Insurance Card, EHIC, you should be able to get treatment very cheap. At least in theory. There have been some problems where the medical personnel do not recognize EHIC since it's not too well known in Finland.
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Finland. It is recommended to have a vaccination against tick borne encephalitis when you go hiking and/or camping for 4 weeks or more in the period of March to November.
See also: Travel Safety
Finland is a very safe country compared to the rest of the world. Most violence is alcohol related and happens during night time. Other problems that have popped up lately are pick pocketing, minor scams (let me help you with that bag etc) and other threatening behavior mainly by certain Eastern European citizens.
Internet is usually always broadband and fast. Most libraries have a free internet connection, so look for a sign "kirjasto" for a library. Internet cafes are not hugely popular, as most Finns have internet at home. Most offices, if you need to check something quickly, they often let you use their computers, or will do a search for you.
See also: International Telephone Calls
Post is fast and reliable in Finland. You can receive mail simply by marking it Poste Restante, and the postal code of the town (check with the particular post office). First class stamps can be bought from machines or inside the office, and the fare is the same anywhere in the world up to 20 grams, so your postcards will be fine. The current rate for a stamp is €0.75. Heavier letters and postcards have different prices though, you can check them online at the Posti Website. There is also a 'track and trace' system available. Stamps are widely available and sold with the postcards, in kiosks, stationary shops and souvinier shops. Parcels abroad are expensive. You can buy all the packing from the post office, including boxes, tapes etc.
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