Before you visit Finland, learn a bit about the history, religion, geography, climate, and local traditions so you can be fully prepared for your journey abroad. Within this article, we provide the best overview of Finland plus some first-hand travel tips along the way!
Welcome aboard to our Globally Educated Series where we focus on one nation at a time to give you the most comprehensive overview of each country before embarking on your journey. We look forward to helping you prepare for your trip to Finland, where charming, medieval cities meet a tech-savvy and digitized economy.
Imagine it: Located in Europe’s captivating region of Scandinavia in the north, Finland offers clean air, pristine natural beauty, modern cities, and an Arctic countryside. Winters are long and cold, but refuge can be found at steamy saunas and campfires by frozen lakes.The summer brings days that are long and bright, which has proven to be an especially fantastic time to explore the country's vast countryside.
A Brief History of Finland
Before you go traveling in Finland, let’s dive into a quick history lesson to give you some background on the country before you depart! Here are details on Finland’s early history all the way to the modern day.
Early History & the Medieval Period of Finland
Humans have been living in the land of Finland since the last Ice Age, but archeologists know very little about how its inhabitants lived during this time. The first written sources that mention Finland date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, with references to its oldest city Turku, meaning “place of trade”. Around that time, crusaders brought Finland into the sphere of power of the Roman Pope and into the medieval network of Hansa traders. Hansa, or the Hanseatic League, was made up of merchant guilds and market towns across parts of northern Europe during the medieval period.
Even before that, Swedes had already settled on the southwestern coast. In fact, Finns and Swedes have been intertangled since before recorded history.
Situated in the middle of the two countries, Finland became a battleground for Swedes and Russians in the 12th century. The struggle for control of the Finnish land between Sweden and Novgorod (Russia) ended with the Treaty of Nöteborg in 1323. After the treaty, most of Finland was a part of Sweden. For roughly the following 500 years, Finnish history was Swedish history. The region of Finland was Sweden’s buffer zone against its eastern rival, and the borders shifted many times in various wars.
Finland becomes part of the Russian Empire
In 1808, Russia captured the region of Finland. The Emperor of Russia, Alexander I, gave Finland the status of a Grand Duchy or an autonomous state. However, most of the laws from the time of the Swedish rule still remained in force. During Russian rule, a lot of Finland was developed. For example, Helsinki’s main center was built during Russian rule (more on Helsinki in the 'Cities' section).
Finnish independence & WWII
It was not until December 6, 1917 that Finland declared its independence. During those early years, there was a lot of unrest which inevitably broke out into a civil war between the two sides.
Then, in August of 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact, which included a secret protocol positioning Finland to the Soviet sphere of influence. However, Finland refused to allow the Soviet Union to build military bases on its territory. This led to Russia revoking the nonaggression pact of 1932 and attacking Finland on November 30, 1939.
In 1948, after WWII, Finland and the Soviet Union officially signed an Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance. The countries agreed to defend each other against external threats.
Modern Day Finland
Finland joined the European Union in 1995 and later adopted the euro in 2002. The Finnish telecommunications brand Nokia sold 40% of all mobile phones in 2007 – a big win for the Finnish economy (and fun flash back to the old days for us!).
Now Finland is mainly known for its beautifully snowy winters, northern lights, sauna culture, and Rovaniemi as the “official” hometown of Santa Claus. It’s an overall peaceful country with a high quality of life.
Languages in Finland
As you may assume, the primary language in Finland is Finnish. Similar to Estonian, Finnish is a Finnic/Uralic language, written in the Latin script that we English speakers are familiar with. However, much of its construction and letter sounds are unfamiliar to native English speakers. If Estonia intrigues you, and you would like to learn more about it, please view our Globally Educated Series on Estonia here!
However, Finland has another official language – Swedish! Yes yes, the language of its closest Scandinavian sister is also recognized in Finland. If you recall the history lesson, Sweden and Finland have had a long common history, as Finland was a part of Sweden from early medieval times until Russia attacked in 1809. In addition, there are some official minority languages in Finland including Sami, Romani, Finnish Sign Language, and Karelian.
When traveling in Finland, you will notice that many locals can easily converse in English with beautiful fluency. Finland has a very high level of English fluency, making visiting Finland a breeze for the Western world and all who speak the English language. You are unlikely to have any language barrier issues with the locals.
Here’s a tiny Finnish lesson: Saying “Hello!'' in Finnish is easy. All you have to say is say “hay” but it’s written like “Hei!” And if you want to say “thank you”, you can say “Kiitos” (keey-tos).
Demographics of Finland
The population of Finland is around 5.5 million. In terms of landmass, it’s the 8th largest country in Europe, but it has a relatively low population density. Its population is similar to that of Denmark and Slovakia, but Finland’s landmass is about eight times larger.
However, most of the inhabitants of Finland live in the south, below the Arctic Circle. A majority of the population (86%) live in urban settings like Helsinki and Tampere.
Overall, Finland is very ethnically homogenous. Only about 3.5% of the population is made up of foreign citizens. The main foreign nationalities in Finland include citizens from Estonia, Russia, and Sweden. This is mostly thanks to Finland’s proximity to all three of these countries.
So, when traveling in Finland, expect to mostly converse with Finnish nationals with a sprinkling of foreigners here and there – especially in Helsink where there is the largest foreigner population.
Cities in Finland
One of the best ways to explore a new country is to visit some of its' cities. They are shining examples of culture, as these typically make up the majority of a country’s population. See the ins and outs of daily life in Finland by visiting cities like Helsinki, Tampere, Espoo, Vantaa, Oulu, and Turku.
First up, Helsinki is the nation’s capital and largest city. It’s beautifully located by the Gulf of Finland which stretches out into the Baltic Sea. During the winter months, squares of ice gather along the coastline, and in the summer the water gleams and sparkles. Traveling in Finland, you will find that Helsinki is a very modern city. Trams are efficient, impressive architecture is around every corner, and the shopping is some of the best in Scandinavia. To get to Finland, you will most likely fly into Helsinki or take a ferry from Sweden or Estonia. There are also some airports in the north for those visiting the Arctic.
Espoo is just west of Helsinki. Looking at a map, it can be difficult to tell where Helsinki ends and Espoo begins. Besides, it’s just a short 25-minute tram ride from the center of Helsinki to Espoo. This may be Finland’s second-largest city, but with all the nature you’d hardly guess it! The city offers quite a bit for tourists from beautiful shorelines and lakes to islands and museums. It’s one of the best cities for the outdoorsy adventurers.
Tampere is the third-largest city in Finland and it’s located more inland than most other cities in the country. Despite being further from the coast, numerous lakes and rivers are surrounding the city. Tampere is celebrated as the “Theater Capital” of Finland thanks to its many music venues and festivals.
Vantaa is the fourth largest city in Finland, and it is also located very close to Helsinki. It’s located more toward the east. Vantaa offers museums, medieval churches, the country’s largest leisure center, and plenty of greenery.
Oulu is the most populated city in northern Finland with around 129,000 residents. The charm of Oulu is that you can seamlessly go from city life to pristine nature, while enjoying the experiences of life in the north. It’s also just over 80 miles to the Swedish border.
Lastly, Turku is the oldest city in Finland, dating back to at least the 13th century. It straddles the lovely Aura River in the south and is known for historic Turku Castle and its cobbled riverside streets. If you’re a history person traveling in Finland, explore Turku to get a beautiful glimpse at Finland in the past.
Geography of Finland
We have already delved into geography a bit, but let’s take a closer look. Finland lies in the region of Scandinavia in the north of Europe. It’s bordered by two countries. Sweden hugs a piece of the northern part and Russia lies to the east. From there, the rest of Finland rests along the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland, and the Gulf of Bothnia.
Finland’s landscape is mostly flat, although the snow-capped Scandinavian Mountains sweep into the northwestern portion of the country. One of the best things about Finland is its fresh air. This is largely because it’s land is heavily forested, with over 70 percent of the country covered in thick, lush woodlands. Lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water make up the majority of the remaining portion of Finland. Actually, the country has more bodies of water than any other country in the world. Noted as the “land of a thousand lakes,” Finland actually has nearly 188,000 of them.
Most cities lie in the south of the country because of the more tolerable climate, waterways for trade, and proximity to the rest of Europe. However, one-third of Finland lies above the Arctic Circle. This area is known as the Finnish Lapland, or Sápmi as the native inhabitants would say. It's one of the best places in Europe for seeing the northern lights from November to March.
Let’s talk about Finland’s climate.
If you know anything about Finland’s climate, it’s probably that the country is freezing and rather dark in winter. The country is known to have long, cold winters and rather short, mild, and moderately rainy summers. This is because Finland has a predominately continental subarctic climate.
Below, I will break down the two climates of Finland. First is Helsinki, which has comfortable, partly cloudy summers and freezing, snowy, windy, and mostly cloudy winters. The second climate is North of the Article Circle and well...I think the name speaks for itself.
Summers stagger around 64°F (17.8°C) to 72°F (22.2°C) during the day in Helsinki, with an average of around 62°F (16.7°C).
In summer, Helsinki can get up to 19 hours of sunlight, with the sun rising around 4 a.m. and setting after 10 p.m.
Winter temperatures typically stay within the 20’s (or -7 to -1°C), though occasionally fall lower or just above. Helsinki also has a humid climate, so wearing base layers that wick away moisture is essential for extended periods out in the elements.
North of the Arctic Circle
During the short but beautiful summer months, from May to July, temperatures can reach as high as 80 °F (27 °C). Plus, northern Finland has about two months of midnight sun. This means the sun does not set at all!
Temperatures can fall as low as −22 °F (−30 °C) in the north of the country. In these places, the snow never melts from the north-facing mountains. Winter is long and the landscape faces extreme Winter conditions.
Religion in Finland
When it comes to religion in Finland, most Finns identify as Christian. About 68% of the population belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. The second-largest religious community – which is only slightly over 1%, to put it in perspective – is the Orthodox Church.
Despite a large number of Christians in Finland, there are also thousands of Muslims who live in the country. This is followed by approximately 2,000 Jews. As such, there are synagogues in both Helsinki and Turku. There are many other religions practiced in Finland, but most are branches of Christianity.
Economy & Major Exports in Finland
Finland is overall a very advanced, savvy, and business-centric country in Europe. The economy is based primarily on private ownership and free enterprise. However, the government exercises a monopoly or a leading role in some sectors such as forestry and transport infrastructure.
Historically, Finland is competitive in manufacturing, especially industries like wood, metals, engineering, telecommunications, and electronics. Finland also excels in the export of technology and promotes startups in sectors such as communications technology, gaming, and biotechnology. With that, the Finnish government actively takes steps to attract investment from abroad.
Except for timber and several minerals – thanks to its massive tree population – Finland depends on imports of raw materials, energy, and some components for manufactured goods. Because of the subarctic climate, agricultural development is limited. Forestry, an important export industry, provides a secondary occupation for the rural populations in Finland.
What is Finland known for?
When traveling in Finland, acquaint yourself with some of its most famous items and cultural experiences. Expect lots of chocolates, impressive glassware, patterned fabrics, and sauna time. Here’s a few of the things Finland is known for.
Finland’s most famous chocolatier, Fazer has been making confections and other treats since 1891. They are most known for their chocolate, which includes everything from dark chocolate to unique bars like milk chocolate with gingerbread.
Also, one of the best places to visit in Finland is a Fazer Cafe. You’ll find a range of chocolate bars along with fresh pastries, cakes, lunch bites, and coffee drinks. It’s a great spot to get away from the old weather. There are locations in Helsinki, Espoo, Turku, and Tampere.
Finns are the masters of all things sauna. In fact, they invented the word! Visiting a sauna is one of the best travel tips for Finland. You’ll be immersing yourself in one of Finland’s most important cultural activities. Many Finns have saunas in their homes and others gather at local or private saunas for parties, catching up with friends, or relaxing.
Some of the best souvenirs from Finland are sauna items like Finnish wooden ladles and buckets and cloth for sitting. Finns also tend to use birch leaves during sauna sessions. They slap them against their bodies to improve circulation. Give it a try on a trip to Finland and if you need help selecting a souvenir read our blog on how to select thoughtful souvenirs during your travels.
Finland is actually quite beloved for its' glassware. One of the most iconic brands is Iittala, which has been making glassware since 1881. Nearly every Finnish home flaunts at least something from Iittala. The glassware is of such a high quality that they often become heirlooms that are passed down from generation to generation. Sustainability at its finest!
No matter your style, Iittala’s designs are simple and are designed by some of Finland's best artists. They look elegant and fitted to any occasion!
Marimekko is a Finnish design house and brand that creates beautifully unique fabrics using inventive patterns and fun colors. This brand has made an impression on a global scale – so much so that their patterns can quickly be recognized, whether you’ve seen that particular fabric before or not. The brand designs wall hangings, clothing and apparel, bedding, and so much more. These make for some of the best gift items or souvenirs.
Cuisine in Finland
When it comes to traveling to a new country, trying the local cuisine is one of the best ways to immerse yourself. Here are some very quintessential foods to try in Finland.
Expect to see these everywhere! Karelian pastries are oval-shaped semi-flat pastries filled with rice, potato, or carrot and usually topped with egg butter (pictured above). They originate from the region of Karelia but can be found across Finland. You’re also likely to see them if you spend time in Estonia or Russia. They are deliciously simple and are eaten at any time of the day.
Korvapuusti (Cinnamon Buns)
These yummy treats translate to "Slapped Ears" and are essentially cinnamon buns. Korvapuusti is a type of "Pulla," a Finnish sweet bread traditionally served with coffee. A delicious and fluffy dough is made with milk using fresh yeast and lots of ground cinnamon for a superb Finnish pastry!
Graavilohi (Cured Salmon)
You heard it here folks, Finns love salmon. It’s no surprise though as Finland is home to some of the freshest salmon. Graavilohi is a Nordic dish made from fresh salmon that is then cured in salt, sugar, and dill. Thinly sliced, this Finnish dish is commonly served as an appetizer with bread, potatoes, and a dill or mustard sauce.
Leipäjuusto (Bread Cheese)
When traveling in the north of Finland, Juustoleipä, or bread cheese, is typically served as a dessert. You’ll find the cheese in grocery stores and restaurants in the north, and it is commonly served with cloudberry jam. Pair it with a cup of coffee for the best experience!
Travel Tips to Know Before Visiting Finland
Before you fly off to explore this phenomenal country, here are some must-know travel tips for Finland.
- Visiting a Finnish sauna is one of the best tips for Finland. These are deeply rooted in its' history and are part of the daily or weekly rituals for many Finns. Plus, they are the perfect escape during the colder months and provide numerous health benefits.
- It is necessary to wear a reflector when walking around in dark conditions. You need something that reflects car lights clipped onto your clothing or bag, and it needs to be around the height of a car's headlights. You can purchase one in advance or find one when you arrive. They are in most supermarkets and are about €1.
- Finland uses the euro (€) and most purchases can be made by card – even on buses. This is all thanks to the country’s digitized system.
- Layer up! A warm hat that covers your ears, mittens, and a long water-repellent coat are 'must haves' during the coldest months. Also, a base layer that wicks away moisture will help keep you warm in the brisk, humid air. These are materials like wool, nylon, polyester, and bamboo.
- Tap water is completely safe (and delicious) to drink, and it’s actually better than most water bottle brands. We recommend bringing a reusable water bottle and filling it up before you leave your accommodation and at restaurants throughout the day.
- Tipping restaurants in Finland is not very common. If your experience was exceptional and the food blew you away, you can leave a cash tip of 10 percent.
- You will need a standard EU adapter to charge your devices such as your phone, laptop, etc while visiting Finland.
- Finland is considered a more pricey country compared to many other European countries, so keep that in mind when traveling and budgeting.
- Call 112 in the case of an emergency!