The sun never quite sets in Finland, which extends well into the Arctic Circle, in summer time, but it also never quite rises during the winter in this scenic country of lakes, islands, forests, pristine wilderness and super-modern technology.
This land of contrasts is full of plenty to delight, amuse, inform and enchant the visitor, from its forbidding Swedish castles and onion-domed Russian churches to the reindeer herds of the indigenous Sami people in Lapland in the north. The lively, modern capital city of Helsinki is packed with galleries, museums and cafes, but beyond, in the countryside, there are miles of pristine wilderness to explore in the rare clean, clear air.
Despite its seemingly unspoilt nature, Finland is by no means a backward country. In fact it is regarded as being one of the most hi-tech societies in the world, with Internet connections per head of population surpassing that of the United States and United Kingdom.
Dine on reindeer steaks, visit Santa Claus in his northern Arctic home, ski or dog sled across miles of virgin snow, or tap your toes at one of the numerous music and folk festivals held throughout the year. It is not surprising that Finland has been described as the most underrated tourist destination in Europe.
Time: Local time is GMT +2 (GMT +3 from the last Saturday in March to the Saturday before the last Sunday in October).
Electricity: Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. Standard European two-pin plugs are in use.
Money: The Euro is the official currency of Finland. One Euro = 100 cents. Notes are available in denominations of €500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10 and 5. Banks, ATMs and bureaux de change are available in all cities and airports, and major credit cards are widely accepted. Travellers cheques can be cashed in Helsinki and large cities, but ATMs are the easiest and most economical way to get cash. Language: Finnish and Swedish share status as Finland’s official languages. Sami is spoken by the isolated population group in Lapland. English is taught at schools and is widely understood.
Entry requirements for Americans: United States citizens require only a valid passport to stay in Finland for up to three months in a period of six months.
Entry requirements for UK nationals: British citizens require a valid passport to enter Finland for a stay of up to three months in a period of six months.
Entry requirements for Canadians: Canadians require a valid passport to enter Finland for a stay of up to three months in any six month period.
Entry requirements for Australians: Australians require a valid passport to enter Finland for a stay of up to three months.
Entry requirements for South Africans: South African citizens require a Schengen visa to enter Finland, as well as a valid passport.
Entry requirements for Irish nationals: Irish nationals require a valid passport to stay in Finland for up to three months in any six month period.
Passport/Visa Note: The borderless region known as the Schengen area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that, in principal, allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all.
Health: There are no health risks associated with travel to Finland. Medical care is of a good standard. British, and other EU nationals, should ensure they take with them a completed E111 form, available free of charge from most UK post offices, which entitles citizens to emergency medical treatment on the same terms as Finnish citizens. Comprehensive travel insurance is advised.
Tipping: Tips are not expected in Finland because a service charge is generally added to restaurant, bar and hotel bills.
Safety: Crime levels are low in Finland and visitors can be assured of a trouble-free vacation. Drug offences and drinking and driving are dealt with very harshly. The main danger in the country is driving during the winter months, when icy roads are a hazard and cars must be fitted with snow tyres.
Communications: The international country dialling code for Finland is +358. The outgoing code is 00, 990, 994 or 999, followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 99944 for the United Kingdom). Mobile phone networks cover much of the country; the network operators use GSM networks, which are compatible with most international mobile operators. Besides public telephone booths and hotels, calls can be made from post and tele offices. Internet cafes are available in major towns and cities. For international telephone enquires visitors should call 020202, and for local enquiries dial 020208
Finnish Tourist Board, Helsinki: +358 (0)9 417 6911 or www.visitfinland.com
Embassy of Finland, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 298 5800
Embassy of Finland, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7838 6200
Embassy of Finland, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 288 2233
Embassy of Finland, Canberra, Australia: +61 (0)2 6273 3800
Embassy of Finland, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 343 0275
Embassy of Finland, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 478 1344
The Embassy of the United States of America, Helsinki: +358 (0)9 616 250
British Embassy, Helsinki: +358 (0)9 2286 5100
Canadian Embassy, Helsinki: +358 (0)9 228 530
Australian Embassy, Berlin, Germany (responsible for Finland): +49 (0)30 8800 880
South African Embassy, Helsinki: +358 (0)9 6860 3100
Irish Embassy, Helsinki: +358 (0)9 646 006
Helsinki Vantaa International Airport (HEL)
Location: The airport is situated about 12 miles (20km) from Helsinki city centre. Time: Local time is GMT +2. Contacts: Tel: +358 (0)9 82 771. Transfer to the city: Finnair runs a bus to and from the Helsinki city centre with departures approximately every 20 minutes from 5am to midnight. The airport is also served by regular public buses, number 615 and 61. Bus travel takes about half an hour. Taxis are available at ranks outside the terminals. Car rental: Avis, Budget, Hertz and Europcar are represented at the airport. Facilities: The airport has several banks with exchange facilities, and there are ATMs throughout the airport. Numerous restaurants and cafes are available in the terminals, as well as duty-free shops and various other retail outlets. Website: www.helsinki-vantaa.fi
HELSINKI: The mean annual temperature in efficient, elegant Helsinki hovers around 43°F (6°C), but this does not mean visitors need expect a chilly welcome. The funky Finns, known for their hip and happening sense of style, design and association with high technology, know how to warm hearts and minds in their modern, cosmopolitan capital.
The city, spread across a cluster of promontories and peninsulas, is 450 years old, its clean, wide avenues lined with buildings echoing centuries of architectural excellence from Gothic through to art deco and cutting-edge contemporary. It all fits together in total harmony with nature, which invades the urban environment with green spaces, when it is not blanketed in snow. Trees, flowers, hares, squirrels, pheasants and even the odd elk are often spied in the myriad parks in the centre of the city, the whole surrounded with crisp, unpolluted air and the bright blue Baltic waters.
Despite the cold climate, the invigorating outdoors beckons in Helsinki even in the middle of winter. Recreation takes the form of skating, skiing, ice-fishing, sailing, cycling, soaking in saunas, or, during the short-lived summer, sunbathing. After action, sit tucked in a rug outside one of the many street-side bars sipping hot ‘gloggi’ (spiced wine) and watch the wintry world go by. The city is also ideal for walking, the sights all concentrated in the central area beneath the towering cathedrals.
The great outdoors is also the setting for Helsinki’s numerous festivals and fairs, like the May Day Carnival, October Herring Festival, the Helsinki City Marathon, annual Samba carnival and the midsummer festival, to name but a few. Events do move indoors when it comes to the city’s rich cultural life, featuring some of the world’s finest orchestras and choirs, rock concerts, film festivals, the Finnish National Opera and Ballet performances, and the output of countless theatre and dance troupes.
Whether visited as a snowy winter wonderland or scenic sun-splashed cityscape with almost permanent daylight, Helsinki is a unique destination that will delight the heart of any traveller.
The historically significant Suomenlinna fortress is not only a major military monument worthy of the Unesco World Heritage List, but also home to about 900 Finns who live in the renovated barracks. The entire site is a fun, multi-faceted attraction for Helsinki residents and visitors. The fortress, built during Swedish rule in the 18th century, is situated on an island at the entrance to Helsinki’s harbour, reached by a 15-minute ferry ride from the city’s Market Square. The fortification became a strategic military shipyard with one of the biggest dry docks in the world, comparable to the fortress at Gibraltar. Apart from admiring the architecture there is plenty to experience at Suomenlinna, which contains seven museums, galleries, restaurants and cafes, several parks, beaches and nature areas. Guided walking tours are offered and there are always events taking place like exhibitions, jazz shows and theatrical performances, particularly during summer.
Address: The Visitor’s Centre is at Suomenlinna C 74, situated in the middle of the fortress at Tykistölahti bay; Telephone: Visitor’s Centre: (0)9 684 1880; Website: www.suomenlinna.fi; Transport: Ferries run regularly from Market Square, from the early morning hours until 2am. During summer a water bus also operates. Private boats can moor at the Suomenlinna visitor’s marina; Opening time: The various museums usually open between 11am and 4pm daily. For information regarding the various events and exhibitions contact the Visitor’s Centre which opens between 11am and 4pm, and up to 6pm during the summer months
Architecture buffs enjoy sitting in a café admiring the buildings surrounding Helsinki’s lively Senate Square, renowned as Europe’s finest examples of the neoclassical style. The square is dominated by the city’s main landmark, the Lutheran Cathedral, designed by Carl Ludwig Engel and consecrated in 1852. The interior is as perfect as the exterior design, and is open to the public daily for no charge. Other buildings on the Square designed by Engel are the Palace of the Council of State, built in 1822, and the University buildings (1832), including the library, regarded as Engel’s finest masterpiece.
Many travellers have compared Helsinki to the beautiful Russian city of St Petersburg which is a close neighbour across a short strait of water, and the exotic red-brick Orthodox cathedral Uspenski, designed by Aleksei Gornostayev of St Petersburg in the late 1800s, cements the Russian connection. The cathedral sits atop a rocky outcrop on the Katajanokka peninsula opposite the fish market, fronted by a statue of Tsar Alexander II, as a memento of Russia’s occupation of Finland until 1919. The magnificent Byzantine edifice is topped with a characteristic golden onion dome, and the interior is opulently decorated with valuable icons.
Address: Kanuvakatu 1; Telephone: (0)9 634 267; Opening time: Tuesday to Friday 9.30am to 4pm; Saturdays 9.30am to 2pm; Sundays 12pm to 3pm
Helsinki’s bustling Market Square is not only where traders set up shop selling food and various other goods, but it is also the central meeting point of the city, sandwiched between the sea and a row of impressive historic buildings which include the City Hall, the Swedish Embassy and the Presidential Palace. Trams and waterbuses converge on the square, where visitors gather to watch the changing of the bulkily clad guard at the Palace and admire the Havis Amanda mermaid statue at the west end of the Square in front of Esplanade Park.
This awesome and unique piece of architecture, the Temppeliaukio (‘Church in the rock’) was designed by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and carved out of solid granite as recently as 1969. It has become one of Helsinki’s most famous attractions, its rock walls roofed over with a massive concave copper ceiling, which gives it excellent acoustics. The church is often used as a venue for musical events
Address: Lutherinkatu 3; Telephone: (0)9 494 698; Transport: Tram 3B, 3T; Opening time: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday and holidays 10am to 8pm; Wednesday 10am to 7pm; Saturday 10am to 6pm; Admission: Free
Seurasaari Open Air Museum
The Seurasaari open-air Museum allows visitors to step back in time and glimpse the traditional way of life in the Finnish countryside, and all this in the heart of the capital city. The museum, situated on a lovely green island accessed from the mainland via a footbridge, consists of a collection of cottages, farmsteads, parsonages, rural churches, manor houses and other old buildings, all preserved and relocated from their original sites around the provinces of Finland. The 86 buildings currently on the museum site have been arranged to form a complete replica of a country district, reflecting what life was like in various levels of rural society between the 18th and 20th centuries.
Address: Seurasaari; Telephone: (0)9 4050 9660 (summer), (0)9 4050 9574 (winter); Website: www.nba.fi/en/seurasaari_openairmuseum; Opening time: Open daily May to September. From May to September opens Monday to Friday 9am to 3pm, weekends 11am to 5pm. During June, July and August open daily 11am to 5pm, with late closing at 7pm on Wednesdays; Admission: €5. Under 18s free
The National Museum of Finland
Visitors who enjoy getting to know the country they are exploring will enjoy the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki, which depicts Finnish life from prehistoric times to the present. Housed in an impressive Romantic style building, the museum’s permanent exhibition is divided into five sections, including the ‘Treasure Trove’, a display of coins, medals and weaponry. The archaeological section features some rare Stone Age finds. Also interesting are the folk costumes, textiles and furniture displays that make up Finland’s cultural heritage collection. The museum also has a café and shop.
Address: Mannerheimintie 34; Telephone: (0)9 4050 9544 (Ticket office); Opening time: Tuesday and Wednesday 11am to 8pm; Thursday to Sunday 11am to 6pm; closed Monday; Admission: €5.50 / €3.50, free for those under 18; free admission Tuesdays from 5.30 pm to 8 pm
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