F or many Americans, Finland is one of the least understood countries in Europe. Anchoring the Scandinavian Peninsula to Russia and the continent, for decades during the Cold War it maintained a delicate balance between the Soviets and the United States, never really catering to either. Its location in the upper reaches of Europe, somewhat off the beaten path for many American tourists, also kept it out of the forefront of international tourism.
Finns are proud of the unspoiled landscape of their beautiful country, a land covered with forests, approximately 188,000 lakes, many rivers and thousands of islands. North of all of this, much of it within the Artic Circle, is the remote and wild region of Lapland, home to the indigenous Sámi, Finland’s semi-nomadic reindeer herders.
Helsinki, Finland’s capital, is strikingly different in appearance from both Stockholm and Oslo. Nicknamed the “White City of the North,” its architecture is more eastern European than western due to the white Neoclassical buildings erected in the 19th century by the country’s Russian rulers. Today it’s a youthful city with a lot of cafes and clubs, and during the summer months you’ll see many of the younger generation on the Esplanadi, among the prettiest boulevards in Europe.
Most visitors, of course, spend only a day or two in Helsinki, never venturing further afield. You should, however, visit Turku, a former European Capital of Culture, and Tampere, the country’s largest inland city. If time permits take an excursion to the Lake Region to the north, as well as Lapland, especially beautiful in the winter.
Good to Know
Architecture of Helsinki
Although much of the architecture of Helsinki gives you a sense of old Europe, the city is strikingly modern, as well. The Sibelius Monument, the nearby Temppeliaukio Underground Church and the city’s museum of contemporary art, are just three of the many stunning sites to see.
Five months a year in northern Finland the icebreaker Sampo takes travelers out into the frozen mass of sea ice in the Gulf of Bothnia.