First Impressions Of Finland: A Friendly But Puzzling Land

Finland is amazing. The country is gorgeous, its food delicious and its people polite and friendly. In many ways the entire country runs so smoothly (often solely on the honor system) that we can all learn from Finnish people. Things here just work. Flawlessly….Except for those few puzzling times when they don’t and you just want to scream out “WTF Finland, you’ve got it all figured out, you’ve got the best education system in the world, but why oh why do you __________?”

I’ll get into the “What The….Finland” portion further down. But first:

My First Impressions Of Finland

So Finland is amazing. (Maybe you’ll believe me more now that I’ve said it twice.) Not since Japan in 2008 has any country impressed me so much, so fast. Arriving in the frozen capital city was not quite love at first sight like with Tokyo — Helsinki can be a harsh mistress before you get to know her, especially during the winter — but within 48 hours I was hooked on Finland.

Oulanka National Park is one of the most photogenic parks close enough to Helsinki to be a day-trip
Oulanka National Park — video embedded below 😉

Lapland in Northern Finland is a true winter wonderland — and the home of Santa Claus 🎅

Lapland in Northern Finland is a true winter wonderland -- and reportedly the home of Santa Claus
Welcome to Lapland in Northern Finland, a frozen winter wonderland famous for its skiing and other winter activities

  Arriving in Helsinki airport

The first thing I noticed after landing in Helsinki airport is that they have different baggage claim areas for each terminal and these are not located anywhere near each other. “I’m new to the Finnish way, please, teach me more.” Turns out if you are like me and mistakenly go to the 2B baggage claim instead of 2A, there is no way to get back. Instead I had to wait outside a secure door for 5 minutes until some airline employee finally responded to the buzzer, let me in, escorted me through the employee-only section of the airport and out another door into the 2A baggage claim. This happens often enough that they have a sign over the buzzer explaining its purpose. Of course you will still need an airport employee to point you towards the buzzer in the first place. WTF Finland? Seriously?

After eventually being reuniting with my suitcase I hit the airport shop and picked up a DNA SIM card with talk/text + unlimited 4G data for a week. Only 3,90 €, not bad.
(Update: After extending my stay I discovered that you can top-up your SIM at any R-Kiosk. The minimum top-up amount is 10 €.)

Finland travel tip: DNA sim card is the best to get....used it all over the country without any signal issues
Finland travel tip: DNA sim card is the best to get….used it all over the country without any signal issues

  Getting from Helsinki airport to the city

The train is the easiest, fastest and cheapest way to get from Helsinki airport into the city center — therefore it is the only way you should even consider taking. Unless you happen to need a lift in between midnight and 5am, when the train is not running….then you’ll have to consider alternatives. FYI, Uber is illegal here in Finland. You can still find Uber drivers in Helsinki (and they are dirt cheap) but as my local buddy says, it’s a weird gray area and plenty of drivers have been arrested here. Never the customers though, so everyone reading this article should be safe.

  5€ + 30 minutes of your life is all it will cost you to get from Helsinki-Vantaa Airport to the city center by train.

Helsinki Central Railway Station (Helsingin Päärautatieasema) is located right in the center of downtown near the Helsinki Art Museum
Helsinki Central Railway Station, right in the heart of Helsinki

  Did you know that the trains in Finland are separated into “ticket” and “no ticket” carriages? I didn’t until leaving the Helsinki airport. Hop in one set of cars if you already paid for a ticket or the other set if you still need to pay. Honor system at its finest. Do not screw with the system and fuck it up for the rest of us. Purchase your ticket at the platform machine using your card or pay cash aboard one of the “no ticket” cars. The train attendant will be clearly visible thanks to a large coin belt that perfectly compliments their stylish HSL uniform.

The ice-skating rink in front of the Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki city center makes a great mirror for a few seconds after the Zamboni smooths the surface
Finnish National Theatre

  Wandering around Helsinki

Helsinki has a beautiful yet eclectic taste in architecture, where Art Nouveau meets modern minimalism, with many historic buildings reminiscent of Swedish and Russian styles of architecture — for obvious reasons, of course. Trams and buses crisscross the city. You can purchase a multiple-day transit card that works on everything. Just hop on, hop off. Most of the places an average tourist would go are within only a few minutes journey. Well done, Finland.

The Helsinki Cathedral on a beautiful blue day without a cloud in sight....great first impression of Finland!
Helsinki Cathedral

Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral in Helsinki, Finland
Uspenski Cathedral

  If you cannot figure out how to use the card machine inside of the Helsinki public transportation, maybe consider walking instead to stimulate blood flow. Helsinki is a very pedestrian-friendly city. (Oh and FYI it’s #1 if you are riding in town and #2 if you are going to the airport. You will probably never need #3 or #0.)

Actually in all honesty, some of these machines can be a bit tricky. I’ve even seen the occasional Finn fight with one. Of course by “fight” I clearly mean “patiently swipe their card again and again until it finally worked.” Gotta appreciate Finnish patience 😉

Ticket reader aboard a tram in Helsinki, Finland
Ticket reader aboard a tram in Helsinki

  Flying up to Northern Finland

Helsinki is fun and all, but no one comes to Finland just for Helsinki. They come for the airport   stay one night in Helsinki for the food and drinks   then take off somewhere more remote   like Kuusamo in Northern Finland, our next destination!

  Even the amazing StopOver Finland campaign is centered around making the most of your Helsinki layover by letting you extend it for several days (for free!) so that you can get out of Helsinki and experience the true wonder of Finland!

3pm winter sunset in Northern Finland
Ever seen a 3pm sunset? It will be one of your first impressions of Finland if you visit during the winter.

Experienced a beautiful 3pm Finnish winter sunset through an airplane window, but unfortunately it was snowing by the time we landed in Kuusamo and that meant no opportunity to see the northern lights that night.

5pm in Northern Finland, pitch black and snowing and we are flying down the icy roads
5pm in Lapland yet might as well be midnight

  Exploring Oulanka National Park Video

Oulanka National Park has several breathtaking hiking trails and is apparently one of the most popular parks in the country, however I’m pretty sure we had the entire place to ourselves the first day. Never saw anyone else, not even with the drone. Oh, did your ears perk up a little bit at the sound of the word “drone”? Yes, we had a drone with us.

Both of my drones are currently out for repair (yes, both, that is not a typo, and no, neither of which was my fault….yes, seriously, neither one) but thankfully my new buddy Hendrik of Hiking In Finland was gracious enough to hand over the remote and let me take his new Mavic for a twirl. And yes, pretty sure this was after he had found out that my drones were been victims of two separate, unrelated incidents. Again, neither of which was my fault.

Using Hendrik’s drone, my phone and the always sexy technique of strapping a GoPro to your forehead, I put together a quick little video on exploring Oulanka. It even includes a few travel blogger cameos, including David of David’s Been Here, Tara of Where Is Tara? and several other friends. However my favorite part is the music. It is by this crazy talented teenage composer from Finland, Joona Lätti. (If you remember the Rickshaw Run trailer, he’s the one to thank for the music.) Seemed only fitting when doing videos on Finland to use locally sourced music as well.

The Perfect Country?

All in all, Finland is a very impressive country. Their educational system is the envy of the world. The honesty and patience of everything and everyone here is unbelievably refreshing. It’s a type of harmony, a symbiotic relationship of sorts, where everything works together and everyone benefits enough so that no one gets greedy. Things run on time, people queue, toilets flush and you never have to worry about traffic or being robbed or walking the streets alone late at night.

Is Finland really that perfect? Or am I just looking at it through outsider eyes? Places you visit are always nicer than the places you live. Sure, that tropical island seems like a perfect paradise to you, but to locals who have never seen the big city lights that island is a prison. Paradise is relative. Is perfection also relative?

“Oh ladies and gentleman that buzzer brings us to our game of the day…”

What The….Finland?!?

I love Finland. But there are a few things here that confuse/amuse me, so perhaps you will find a couple of these interesting:

1   I’m all for being unique, but next time you build a new airport in Helsinki please put all of the baggage claim carousels in the same place. More than one location is just confusing. After all, in the words of The Beatles: ♪♪ “all you need is one, one….one is all you need” ♪♪ 😉

2   Where are the ashtrays? Finland might have low numbers of smokers but because it’s illegal to smoke inside the streets are always full of smokers. However I have yet to see any ashtrays, just hoards of cigarette butts covering the sidewalks and snowdrifts. Sure, Finland is attempting to have the country tobacco-free by 2040. But how about some ashtrays for the next couple of decades? Let’s keep this city clean.

3   Despite what Trump says, climate change exists and Finnish people will be the first to tell you that their country is one of the most impacted in the world by global warming. Yet people in Lapland say this at the same time as: “I’m going to leave it running.” Last I checked, leaving the vehicle running for several hours while we go play in the snow isn’t helping with that whole global warming thing you mentioned. I understand that engines take a few minutes to warm up if very cold (like early in the morning) but come on…you cannot complain about global warming while also leaving unattended cars and snowmobiles running all day. One or the other Finland. Not both.

4   World Sauna Championships. Just look it up. This used to be a thing until 2010 when the final two competitors were dragged unconscious from the 110°C (230°F) sauna. The Russian finalist died and the Finnish finalist (5x former WSC winner) woke up from a coma six weeks later with 70% of his skin burned and a scorched respiratory system. Prize they were competing for? A sauna stove. As if all this isn’t crazy enough, turns out that the deceased Russian was doping! Oh Russia….is there anything you won’t dope? 😀

5   After WSC suddenly the Wife Carrying World Championship doesn’t sound so strange, does it? And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. The WCWC has become quite popular too, with attendees from countries around the globe. Some couples even make it part of their honeymoon! Sadly don’t think I’ll be in Finland from June 30th – July 1st, 2017, but if you are then consider checking out the Wife Carrying World Championship. Quite possibly the most unique international sport competition you’ll ever see.

6   What happens when you combine ice and fire? No, not water. The ice sauna, pinnacle of all saunas. Frozen blocks of lake ice are assembled into a modern Finnish igloo and then furnished with wooden seats and a metal sauna stove. Absolutely no idea how you crazy Finns ever thought up this wild invention but it is definitely top-notch. Well done my friends, well done.

(And yes, for all those who are wondering, eventually the ice sauna melts and has to be rebuilt. The lifespan varies based on temperature and duration, but 40-50 sauna sessions is a safe bet according to the guy who built the ice sauna pictured above. May have forgotten his name but I did not forget that fact. 😉

7   Only in Finland. Thought my luggage had been robbed after opening it at the airport because all of the last-minute items I’d crammed into the suitcase at check-in were missing. After angrily tweeting Finnair, back at my hotel I eventually found everything buried in my luggage. Turns out Finnar did not rob my luggage — they repacked it more nicely and neatly than I did. Only in Finland ????????

8   While not unique to Finland, have to admit I really have been making use of the “Take a Book, Leave a Book” corner in Helsinki Airport. Make sure to stop by the next time you stopover in Finland 😀

My Helsinki
My Helsinki

There you have it, my first impressions of Finland. Came here for some skiing and NBE Finland and now do not want to leave. So if you’ll excuse me it is time to step away from the laptop and get back to the snow. Cheers!

Ever been to Finland? Eager to visit Finland now?

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About Derek Freal

"Some people eat, others try therapy. I travel."   Cultural enthusiast. Adrenaline junkie. Eater of strange foods. Chasing unique and offbeat adventures around the world since 2008. Derek loves going to new destinations where he does not speak a word of the local language and must communicate with hand gestures, or places where he is forced to squat awkwardly to poo -- supposedly its healthier and more efficient. For more information (about Derek, not squat pooing) including popular posts and videos, check out his bio.

8 thoughts on “First Impressions Of Finland: A Friendly But Puzzling Land”

  1. ‘Love the post Derek.

    And yes, I’ve been to Finland. Mind you, I only planned to go to Helsinki, ‘cos it was a bit last minute as I happened to be in Estonia at the time, and discovered that Helsinki was “just across the water….!”

    We spent two nights there and we would have done more but you know, Nordic country. Nordic prices! Amazingly, we were in the Baltic region in March, and everywhere was snowing except for Helsinki which was so sunny, I even wore my T-shirt on the ferry!

    • Hahaha that’s hilarious Victoria — for me it was the exact opposite direction 🙂 Was so nice to explore Estonia and escape those Scandinavian prices, even if only for a few days.

  2. Sounds like an exciting holiday filled with ups and downs. Traveling is already a feat even without a drone in tow. Thanks for sharing your experience!


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