There are two options when you visit Finland; experience Finland like a tourist or live like a local. Option one will likely involve booking a centrally located hotel, creating a detailed itinerary, looking up restaurant reviews on Yelp, and possibly booking a bus tour to visit all the “must-see” locations throughout the city. Option one is fine. You will see the country and come home with great stories.
Now consider option two. Those who are pursuing option two will ditch the travel guides, book an Airbnb, and leave the laptop at home. They will immerse themselves in the local activities, find the hole in the wall restaurant that serves the most amazing food, and get lost (possibly literally) in the city.
If option two is what you’re looking for, read on. Though option two requires more spontaneity and less planning, a little background on the country and tips about its local specialties can help you truly maximize the local experience.
It’s important that you pack appropriately when traveling to Finland. The country can have some rather extreme weather. In Helsinki, the winters are long, running from November to March. Temperatures are cold, typically staying below freezing the entire winter. Heavy jackets are a must and warm gloves and long underwear are highly advised. If you are traveling during the summer, you can leave the parka (and long underwear) behind, but be sure to bring layers. The days are mild, typically hovering around the mid-sixties, but the nights can still get quite chilly.
One of the best ways to experience the life of a local is to live where they live. Look into renting an apartment while in the country. Not only will you surround yourself with local residents and immerse yourself in a neighborhood you may not have otherwise seen, but you will also save — A LOT. Finland is more expensive than many destinations, so avoiding the hotels and checking out Airbnb can free up funds to go explore.
Nature lovers can enjoy an escape from the city life and opt for a cottage. Staying in a cottage is a great way to experience the beauty of Finland. Take in the breathtaking views of the star-filled skies, catch a fish, or take a plunge in the frozen lake (more on that below).
While in Finland, it may be helpful to be able to talk to the locals. It’s unrealistic to expect to learn a new language before visiting a country but it can be very helpful to learn a few key phrases. Phrases like “hello”, “thank you” or certain directional words can make your stay a lot easier. Here are a few to get you started:
Thank you: Kiitos
I’m sorry, I don’t speak Finnish: Anteeksi, en puhu suomea
Where is__?: missä on__?
Bus Station: Bussiasema
Hit the Spa
Finns love to sweat — in saunas that is. To live like a local in Finland, visiting a sauna is a must. Don’t worry, you won’t be scouring the country to find one; Finland has a staggering 3.3 million saunas. That’s a lot considering its population is only slightly greater at 5 million. And while Finns like to enjoy the sauna in the buff, it’s understandable to be a little shy on your first trip. If you are looking for a sauna that provides more of a spa experience, try Löyly where swimsuits are required.
If you are looking to really get the local experience, you can’t pass up the chance to take a plunge in the frigid local waters. That’s right, the Finns often pair a trip to the sauna with a dip in ice cold water. It may seem crazy to voluntarily submerge yourself in the unbearable cold, but the people of Finland have been doing it for centuries. Avanto, as the locals call it is said to be invigorating and may even be good for your health. There are many locations throughout Finland that provide accommodations to try out this Finnish tradition.
Eat like the locals
Anthony Bourdain said of traveling abroad, “You want to go to a place where there are locals only. No photos of the food, the menu is not in English and there are people eating there that look like they go there a lot.” And it’s true. The best way to experience the local cuisine is to follow the locals, ask for recommendations, and go where the regulars go. And please, please, please, stay away from the chain burger joints and coffee shops.
With this in mind, you’ll want to try to find a few local specialties. Fried Vendace is a popular street food. A small white fish that is lightly battered and pan-fried, the crispy salty taste is balanced with a side of mayonnaise and lemon. Also be on the lookout for reindeer. Try a reindeer kabob or steak and experience a gamey flavor, similar to venison.
Local markets are always a great way to meet residents of the country you are visiting as well as get a taste for some of the freshest produce and seafood of the region. Grab a cup of coffee and a pulla (a sweet cinnamon bun) while you peruse the Old Market Hall in Helsinki. This landmark has been open for over a century. It’s a great place to meet local farmers and is open seven days a week.
Experience the country
Did you know that Finland is a great place to view the Northern Lights? While many people think of Iceland or Norway when they think of the Northern Lights, Finland has a pretty good view itself. A trek to Lapland in northern Finland will give you the opportunity to view the lights up to 200 days a year. Visit from August to April if the Northern Lights are on your bucket list.
If you are a music lover there are many options for you. Check out Flow Festival in August for a weekend full of local indie music. Make a trip to Tuska in Helsinki or Sauna Open Air in Lakeland if heavy metal is more your style. Whatever your taste there is sure to be a festival to meet your needs.
Finland is a country filled with beautiful scenery, eclectic people, great food, and an abundance of activities. Whether you choose to see the reindeer in Lapland or go hiking in Kuusamo, Finland will provide an experience that will bring you that much closer to living like a local and wanting to become a local yourself.