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Finland was an unusual destination for us—we replaced our usual tropical weather with snow and beaches with frozen lakes. After five years of avoiding winter we weren’t sure how we’d get on—even Finland’s May temperatures are far colder than we’re used to—but we loved visiting somewhere completely different. Finland is often overshadowed by its neighbours Sweden and Norway; it wasn’t a country we knew much about and only came on our radar recently because of bloggers like Hecktic Travels and Bridges and Balloons. We discovered a wild and beautiful country with a fascinating culture.
Here are some Finland facts and random observations from our nine days in Lapland and Helsinki.
1) Finland is not in Scandinavia. Finns describe it as a Nordic country.
2) Finland has only been independent since 1917—it belonged to Russia from 1809 and before that to Sweden.
3) Since independence Finland has become one of the most prosperous countries in the world—in 2014 it ranked number 8 on the Legatum Prosperity Index which takes into account both wealth and wellbeing.
4) It is very safe. In fact, Helsinki was found to be the world’s most honest city in a study by Reader’s Digest which counted how many deliberately placed wallets containing money were handed in. In Helsinki 11 of 12 wallets were returned.
5) It’s the only country we’ve been where there are no gates at metro stations. Tickets are rarely checked but almost everyone travels with one anyway.
6) Finland feels wild and empty, especially Lapland. It’s bigger than the UK (about the same size as New Mexico) but only has a population of 5.4 million vs 64 million in the UK.
7) It’s known as the land of a thousand lakes but there are actually over 187,000. The winters are so cold they freeze over and are used as roads—completely normal to Finns, amazing to us Brits.
7) Over 70% of the country is covered by forests.
9) The “Everyman’s Right” in Finland means you can walk and camp anywhere in nature without permission and forage for berries and mushrooms (a popular pastime). The government even provides cabins in National Parks where you can stay for free.
10) Finns love to be outdoors, even when temperatures drop to -40ºC in winter. Grilling sausages over an open fire is a quintessential experience—tasty and warming—as we discovered on our hike in Oulanka National Park.
11) Finns do crazy things like swim in icy lakes in the middle of winter. Nude, of course.
12) Then warm up with a sauna. There are over 3 million saunas in Finland for 5.4 million people—most people have one in their home. Even our small studio apartment in Ruka had one.
13) Sauna is the only Finnish word that has made it into everyday English.
14) In the far north the sun doesn’t rise for around a month in winter, and in summer you can experience the midnight sun where the sun doesn’t set. Even in early May we had 18.5 hours of daylight in Ruka.
15) There is so much snow that there are over 40 Finnish words for it.
16) Santa Claus lives in Rovaniemi, Lapland. Sadly we didn’t get to meet him.
17) There are as many reindeer as people in Lapland and you often see them by the side of roads. They are semi-domesticated, roaming free in the summer and rounded up to live in farms in the winter. They also appear on restaurant menus.
18) Never ask a reindeer herder how many reindeer he owns—it’s like asking someone’s bank balance.
19) There was only one thing in Finland that annoyed us: double beds are made up with two separate twin sized duvets—no good for snuggling.
20) Finns drink the most coffee per capita in the world, consuming 12 kg of coffee per person per year. Our food tour guide confirmed that drinking 6 or 7 cups a day is normal. Unsurprisingly there’s an vibrant cafe culture—we’ll write more about the excellent coffee shops we discovered in Helsinki.
21) The Finns invented Restaurant Day where anyone can set up a restaurant for the day—in their home, garden, or on the street. It has now spread around the world. We enjoyed peanut tofu noodles, tomato and tarragon soup, and chocolate cupcakes, all from different stalls in one of Helsinki’s parks.
22) The chocolate is delicious—from Fazer milk chocolate that’s found everywhere to speciality chocolate shops in Helsinki.
23) Finland was surprisingly good for vegetarians. Many Finns are vegetarian, all restaurants have at least one meat-free option, and there are lots of vegetarian restaurants in Helsinki (which we’ll be writing about soon).
24) Finland’s speeding fines are linked to income so high earners pay more—recently a millionaire was fined €54,000.
25) Finns are experts at comfortable silences. Silence is considered part of communication and they don’t feel the need to fill it with small talk. We found it both refreshing and a little difficult to get used to.
Many thanks to Visit Finland who sponsored our trip to Finland.