Why Finland Is the Next Great Travel Frontier

The “happiest country in the world” welcomes travelers with innovative design, immersion in nature and unforgettable experiences

Learn about Finland's Sami culture while herding reindeer at Arctic Land Adventure's Vasara Reindeer Ranch. © 2019 Arctic Land Adventure

Learn about Finland's Sami culture while herding reindeer at Arctic Land Adventure's Vasara Reindeer Ranch. © 2019 Arctic Land Adventure

Like any 21st-century travel journalist would, I dutifully shared my busy January visit to Finland in real time on social media. And, like clockwork, I awoke each morning to a slew of messages.

A few folks sheepishly admitted to mistaking reindeer as fictional characters a la Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and, most famously, red-nosed Rudolph. Others were aghast that I had voluntarily stepped into a freezing (literally) lake. But all of them, in one way or another, expressed admiration of Finland’s spectacular beauty, along with awe that I had even traveled to this faraway place at all — much less floated in its icy rivers, skied its fabulously uncrowded slopes, drove a snowmobile by its Russian border or took an Arctic dip following a steamy sauna session.

Evidently, Finland is a destination not quite on the radar. That is, not yet: The Nordic nation is rapidly gaining in-the-know travelers. In 2018, it earned the title of “happiest country” from World Happiness Report, a triumph quantified by factors including life expectancy, social support, generosity, freedom and corruption. (Most Finns, however, will tell you that they owe their happiness to their proximity to nature.) Finland also ranks No. 8 in top countries for adventure travel and No. 3 in safest developed countries, according to the 2018 Adventure Tourism Development Index, produced by the Adventure Travel Trade Association and The George Washington University.

"Traditionally, Finland has been a part of a Nordic tour for U.S. travelers, and an interest for that entire region has grown. But we’re also seeing more visitors do mono-destination holidays in Finland. And we are a country of only 5.5 million with a lot of space — so none of our destinations are crowded."
Heli Mende, head of Visit Finland for North America

Furthermore, as hot spots such as Iceland groan under an unprecedented influx of tourists, headlines shout to visit Finland instead — a lesser-known destination that also presents the opportunity to spot the elusive dance of the aurora borealis, among numerous other draws.

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Finland is attracting an increasing number of U.S. travelers. © 2019 Julia Kivela/Visit Finland

Finland is attracting an increasing number of U.S. travelers. © 2019 Julia Kivela/Visit Finland

Heli Mende, head of Visit Finland for North America, says that U.S. inbound tourism to the country is steadily rising: 2016 saw a year-over-year jump of 16 percent in overnights, followed by a more modest 6 percent in 2017, and then 7.4 percent in 2018 (not including cruises that briefly stop in Helsinki).

“Traditionally, Finland has been a part of a Nordic tour for U.S. travelers, and an interest for that entire region has grown,” Mende said. “But we’re also seeing more visitors do mono-destination holidays in Finland. And we are a country of only 5.5 million, with a lot of space — so none of our destinations are crowded.”

Here are a few Finland locales that deserve a closer look.

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Helsinki

The capital of Finland, Helsinki is renowned for its innovative design. © 2019 Helsinki Marketing

The capital of Finland, Helsinki is renowned for its innovative design. © 2019 Helsinki Marketing

The epitome of cool, Helsinki flourishes as Finland’s modern capital city and a prominent hub for innovation in design, technology and the like. Densely populated by Finnish standards — clocking in at more than 1.4 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area — it’s where devoted urbanites will find the most excitement.

Since receiving the honor of World Design Capital in 2012, the city continues to uphold its forward-thinking excellence. A recent noteworthy addition is the 185,677-square-foot Helsinki Central Library Oodi. Built to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence from Russia, the architecturally striking establishment feels like an ode to the future, offering not only some 100,000 book and magazine titles, but also robot technology, 3D printers and a cinema. During my visit — a month after the library’s Dec. 5 opening — a guide explained, “the basis of Finnish democracy lies in the fact that we are well-educated; that’s why education is free here.”

The children's section at Helsinki Central Library Oodi © 2019 Tuomas Uusheimo/Helsinki Marketing

The children's section at Helsinki Central Library Oodi © 2019 Tuomas Uusheimo/Helsinki Marketing

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With such a heavy emphasis on education, it’s par for the course that Finland has 55 art museums. Helsinki boasts its fair share as well, including the cutting-edge Amos Rex, which opened last August to admiring masses, and Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), a trailblazer in contemporary installations. HAM is currently in the process of producing the Helsinki biennial — to be held in summer 2020 — on Vallisaari island in the Helsinki archipelago; like HAM’s own collection, the exhibition will be integrated throughout the city.

“The basis of Finnish democracy lies in the fact that we are well- educated; that’s why education is free here.”

Indeed, the capital is more than just a cosmopolitan destination: There are about 330 islands in its archipelago, including the six isles of Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with an 18th- century fortress. Helsinki’s proximity to nature also includes seaside districts such as Vuosaari, where I rode a fat-tire bike amid snowy pine trees with the help of local operator Nature Viva.

Insider Tip: Channeling the creative spirit of its environs, the 153-room Hotel St. George is in vogue. A bamboo-and-silk structure by renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei greets guests upon arrival, and the airy, design-forward property also contains thoughtful touches such as in-room SodaStreams — intended to encourage guests to drink Helsinki’s extremely high-quality tap water — and holistic wellness treatments at the sleek St. George Care spa. Dishes including herring caviar, juniper-marinated charcoal-roasted lamb and made-to-order shakshuka elevate the hotel’s buffet breakfast.

A "Cozy Studio" guestroom at Hotel St. George © 2019 Mikko Ryhanen/Hotel St. George

A "Cozy Studio" guestroom at Hotel St. George © 2019 Mikko Ryhanen/Hotel St. George

www.myhelsinki.fi
www.naturaviva.com
www.stgeorgehelsinki.com

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Lapland

Thanks to Finland's "Everyman's Rights," travelers are allowed to pick and eat wild berries. © 2019 Julia Kivela

Thanks to Finland's "Everyman's Rights," travelers are allowed to pick and eat wild berries. © 2019 Julia Kivela

Bike through snowy landscapes. © 2019 Mika Viitanen/Visit Finland

Bike through snowy landscapes. © 2019 Mika Viitanen/Visit Finland

Rovaniemi is a popular travel destination for families. © 2019 Visit Rovaniemi

Rovaniemi is a popular travel destination for families. © 2019 Visit Rovaniemi

Set in Finland’s far north, Lapland is known as the land of eight seasons, which includes “Christmas” (deep winter), “Crusty Snow” (spring) and “Departure of Ice” (early summer), to name a few.

Undeterred by the enduring cold, however, Finns have captured the magic of all the seasonal stages, from sledding with huskies in winter to mountain biking in one of the Arctic region’s seven national parks come summer.

At the heart of Lapland is the oft-visited capital, Rovaniemi, where clients can find the bona fide Santa Claus and his gaggle of elves. And a trip to the whimsical Santa Claus Village is far from a dinky mall experience: Not only do travelers get to meet the big guy in person, but they can also brag that they’ve crossed the famed Arctic Circle. Tourism spikes heavily during the Christmas season; however, Santa is available for meet and greets year-round.

Lapland is also home to the Sami, the only indigenous people of the European Union. About 10,000 Sami live in Finland — with the majority occupying Lapland — and cornerstones of their traditional livelihood include reindeer herding, fishing and hunting. Clients can learn about this important culture through local operator Arctic Land Adventure’s Vasara Reindeer Ranch, which is located in a vast wilderness area and is helmed by a 12th-generation Sami reindeer herder. Guests can chase the northern lights, go ice fishing and, of course, hang out with reindeer, all before returning to a glass igloo for a good night’s sleep.

Travelers can meet Santa Clause and his reindeer year-round in Rovaniemi. © 2019 Visit Rovaniemi

Prepare for plenty of photo ops. © 2019 Visit Rovaniemi

Husky dog sledding is extremely popular. © 2019 Visit Rovaniemi

Travelers can meet Santa Clause and his reindeer year-round in Rovaniemi. © 2019 Visit Rovaniemi

Prepare for plenty of photo ops. © 2019 Visit Rovaniemi

Husky dog sledding is extremely popular. © 2019 Visit Rovaniemi

Insider Tip: The municipality of Kuusamo is one of Finland’s best-kept secrets. Though not in the administrative part of Lapland, this popular vacation spot for locals is less than a three-hour drive from Rovaniemi and offers a massive surrounding playground of five national parks and 4,000 lakes and rivers. Kuusamo also lays claim to one of Finland’s biggest ski resorts, Ruka, which provides packed powder more than 200 days per year.

And there’s no better place for apres-ski than a sauna. Saunas are an essential part of the Finnish culture; there are more than 3 million of them in Finland (keep in mind that there are about 5.5 million residents). Kuusamo has some of the most unique ones, including Isokenkaisten Klubi’s luxurious Seven Star Smoke Sauna and Pyhapiilo’s “ice sauna,” which features thick walls made of ice.

Ruka is a popular ski resort in Kuusamo. © 2019 Visit Finland

Ruka is a popular ski resort in Kuusamo. © 2019 Visit Finland

www.lapland.fi
www.visitrovaniemi.fi
www.ruka.fi

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Porvoo

Spot the famous red-painted wooden homes by the Porvoo River. © 2019 Visit Porvoo

Spot the famous red-painted wooden homes by the Porvoo River. © 2019 Visit Porvoo

For clients seeking the Finland of yesteryear, tack on a day or two in charming Porvoo. Located less than an hour’s drive from Helsinki, Porvoo officially became a town in 1380, making it Finland’s second-oldest settlement (after Turku). About one-third of the population still speaks primarily Swedish, a reminder of Finland’s almost 700 years under Swedish rule before it became an autonomous part of the Russian Empire.

Travelers are drawn to the cobblestone streets and medieval architecture, including Porvoo Cathedral, an Evangelical Lutheran church made of brick and stone. Strolling through scenic Old Porvoo is also a must; head to the shores of Porvoo River to photograph the picturesque wooden houses that were painted red in honor of Gustav III, the king of Sweden.

Once a significant trade center for Finland, Porvoo still bustles with excitement, albeit in the form of boutiques and restaurants. If in the market for distinct keepsakes, clients should beeline for two of Finland’s oldest roads, Jokikatu and Valikatu; both are full of lovely antique and art shops. And after working up an appetite, visitors can snack on a Runeberg, an almond-flavored pastry topped with raspberry jam that is named for the late Johan Ludvig Runeberg. He is considered the national poet of Finland, and travelers can visit his 1850s bourgeois family home in town.

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Old Porvoo charms travelers. © 2019 Visit Porvoo

Old Porvoo charms travelers. © 2019 Visit Porvoo

Insider Tip: High up on the Finnish celebrity A-list — right behind ol’ St. Nick — are the Moomins: delightful, large-snouted trolls (that more resemble adorable hippopotamuses) created by Finnish-Swedish writer and artist Tove Jansson.

If clients can’t make it over to Moominworld (the Finnish equivalent of Disneyland) in Naantali, partaking in Porvoo’s first-ever “island riddle” might be the next best thing. Adults and children alike put their heads together to solve hidden messages and tasks on this roughly three-hour outdoor adventure hike inspired by Jansson’s beloved characters. The ticketed experience is available from April to October.

Moomins are beloved storybook characters created by Tove Jansson. © 2019 Olli Oilinki/Visit Finland

Moomins are beloved storybook characters created by Tove Jansson. © 2019 Olli Oilinki/Visit Finland

www.visitporvoo.fi

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Turku

The 20th-century Turku Art Museum © 2019 Patrick Selin/Visit Turku

The 20th-century Turku Art Museum © 2019 Patrick Selin/Visit Turku

One could say that Turku is where it all began for Finland. As the country’s oldest city, it was founded in the 13th century and was the capital before the reins were handed to Helsinki in 1812.

Today, much of the coastal city still proudly harks back to its storied past, thanks to tourism pillars such as the majestic Turku Castle. The largest fortress in Finland, it was erected on the banks of the Aura River in 1280 and has since lived many lives, including as a military fortress, a 19th-century prison and a present-day museum. To go beyond the typical guided tour, time a client’s visit with the Turku Castle Medieval Tournament, held each year in July. In addition to a themed market and special experiences, warriors decked in heavy armor show off medieval combat skills such as jousting.

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Enjoy long summer days in Turku. © 2019 Tommi Selander/Visit Turku

Enjoy long summer days in Turku. © 2019 Tommi Selander/Visit Turku

Turku is also known as the gateway to the Turku Archipelago — an expanse of more than 20,000 breathtaking islands and islets that stretch all the way to the autonomous, primarily Swedish-speaking Aland Islands.

Most of Turku’s islands are accessible, including by dinner cruises that bask in the radiance of the midnight sun. The most popular option is tackling the 155-mile Archipelago Trail, which begins and ends in Turku and encompasses nine ferries and 12 bridges. Travelers can island-hop by bike, foot or car, all while discovering ruins, fortresses and museums along the way.

For folks who would rather take it slow, quaint bed-and-breakfasts and swankier villas dot the archipelago’s rural parishes. But to really impress clients, book an overnight stay on the tiny rugged island of Bengtskar — where the lone accommodation is an idyllic lighthouse that has kept a watchful eye over the Baltic Sea since 1906.

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The Turku Archipelago has more than 20,000 islands and islets. © 2019 Tommi Selander/Visit Turku

The Aura River runs through Turku. © 2019 Seilo Ristimaki and Iloinen Liftari/Visit Turku

There is plenty of adventure available on and around the islands. © 2019 Visit Turku

The Turku Archipelago has more than 20,000 islands and islets. © 2019 Tommi Selander/Visit Turku

The Aura River runs through Turku. © 2019 Seilo Ristimaki and Iloinen Liftari/Visit Turku

There is plenty of adventure available on and around the islands. © 2019 Visit Turku

Insider Tip: Turku is aggressively vying for the title of Finland’s food capital with a throng of exciting restaurants and culinary events. Taste local ingredients such as foraged herbs and freshly caught pike-perch at the Michelin-recommended Ravintola Kaskis, or try a range of edible goods at the restored 1896 Turku Market Hall.

This year will also bring the eighth iteration of the city’s New Potato Festival, an event that celebrates the harvest of the Finnish staple with a cooking competition and traditional music.

www.visitturku.fi

Autumn in Finland © 2019 Asko Kuittinen/Visit Finland

Autumn in Finland © 2019 Asko Kuittinen/Visit Finland

How to Get There
Finnair, Finland's flagship carrier, will launch a new roundtrip route between Los Angeles and Helsinki starting March 31. It will fly three times per week on the new Airbus A350 aircraft.

Finnair already offers roundtrip routes from Helsinki to San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Miami. The airline also has a StopOver Finland program, which offers up to five days for travelers to discover regions beyond Helsinki.

www.finnair.com

The Details
Visit Finland
www.visitfinland.com

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