Team a cultured city break in Helsinki with a magical weekend in Lapland for the perfect Finnish adventure, says Lorraine Luximon.
Finland has been named the world’s happiest country for the sixth year in a row according to the World Happiness Report, and it’s not surprising when the country is blessed with endless natural beauty, from stunning forests to incredible natural islands, that encourages people to get outdoors.
The changing seasons are part of the attraction here, and while there is plenty to see and do all year round, autumn is a particularly wonderful time to visit. And with a fantastic network of internal flights, it’s possible to visit a number of destinations in a week, to satisfy all parties – from city-break lovers to outdoor enthusiasts.
Naturally, the sauna tradition is at the heart of the culture, and Finland is home to three million saunas – pretty impressive in a population of just five and a half million. Pair this with an emphasis on sustainability, traditional pastimes such as foraging, plus a community spirit, and it’s not difficult to understand why it’s such a happy destination.
Read on to find out what the country’s capital, Helsinki, and the breathtaking Ruka-Kuusamo region have to offer in one trip...
1. Explore the city and stay in an igloo with sea views
Located in the south, Helsinki is the ideal first stop when visiting Finland. This capital city, which has been named the fourth most sustainable travel destination in the world according to the Global Destination Sustainability Index, offers the ultimate mix of classic city break sights and stunning scenery.
A day spent exploring the city should definitely include a visit to the quirky art museum Amos Rex, which is currently showing the art of Japanese composer and artist Ryoji Ikeda and is a real treat for the eyes and ears. In Helsinki you are surrounded by amazing architecture, including the Helsinki Central Library Oodi in Kansalaistori Square. Much more than a library, it's also an events venue and a stylish work hub. Designed by Finnish Architect studio ALA Architects, it was awarded the 2020 Detail Prize for its outstanding design.
When it comes to where to stay, just a 15-minute drive from Helsinki city centre in Munkkiniemi is the IGLUX Experience at Hilton Helsinki Kalastajatorppa. These incredible igloos offer an opportunity to switch off by the sea in stunning surroundings, which feel miles away from the hubbub.
There are six glass IGLUX on site, and from each, you can admire the beautiful Laajalahti Bay directly from your bed. In true Finnish style you can also take a morning dip in the sea, accessible from your own bayside stairs. The on-site restaurant Meritorppa offers both Finnish dishes and international dining options, which can all be enjoyed alongside incredible sea views.
Hilton Helsinki Kalastajatorppa’s IGLUX Experience starts from €343 (£299) per room per night, with breakfast included.
Hilton Helsinki Kalastajatorppa IGLUX Experience, Lorraine Luximon
2. Take a ferry to Suomenlinna Sea Fortress
Did you know the archipelago of Helsinki consists of around 330 islands? If you fancy hopping on a ferry you can reach Suomenlinna Sea Fortress in no time, as it's located just off the coast of Helsinki. Dating back to 1748, the UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the biggest sea fortresses in the world and is the ideal spot for enjoying a scenic coastal walk in an area packed with history.
Today Suomenlinna is also home to a number of artisans. On Fridays, they open their workshops to visitors on Art Walk afternoons, which take place from 12pm to 4pm and are free. Here you can meet the creatives who get to call this amazing island their workplace and find out more about their processes, from the craft of bag making to pottery.
If you’re in search of a warming glogi or more sustenance, you can enjoy some lunch at one of Suomenlinna's restaurants. Adlerfelt, dubbed ‘the happy place of Suomenlinna’, is housed in a magnificent 250-year-old building and serves traditional, seasonal fare such as Baltic herring and a delicious ‘chocolate with chocolate and chocolate’ dessert.
HSL tickets can be used on buses, commuter trains, trams, the metro and the Suomenlinna ferry. A two-day ticket for zones ABCD is priced at €18 (£16).
Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, Finn stock / Shutterstock
3. Sauna and swim at Loyly Helsinki
No visit to Finland should be without at least one visit to a sauna, and they're everywhere in Helsinki. The impressive Loyly sauna, which opened in 2016 and is on the southern tip of the Helsinki peninsula, is one of the most stylish choices, with great year-round views. In addition to a traditional and smoke sauna, there’s also a private sauna for group bookings.
You can also take a dip into the Baltic sea in between sauna sessions for the full hot and cold Finnish experience. Winter or ice swimming is another practice at the heart of Finnish culture, and it’s believed to offer a variety of mental and physical health benefits, with many Finns partaking during this season. If you're feeling brave, why not give it a go?
After your sauna session and an invigorating swim, have a bite to eat or a full dinner in the Loyly restaurant, while admiring the stunning views from the large terrace that stretches out over the sea.
The price for a two-hour sauna session is €23 (£20) per person and includes a towel, peflet, shampoo and shower soap.
Löyly Helsinki, Alexanderstock23 / Shutterstock
4. Admire beautiful architecture at The Aalto House
Love architecture? Then a visit to The Aalto House, the former home and studio of architect Alvar Aalto is a must and is located a 10-minute walk away from the Hilton Helsinki Kalastajatorppa.
In 1934, Aino and Alvar acquired the site at Riihitie in Munkkiniemi and set about designing themselves a home and workspace, using simple materials and cutting-edge design. Here you can see how they lived and worked, including Aalto’s favourite corner-view desk.
You can also see some of the incredible pieces Aalto designed, such as the Paimio Chair. His Modernist style and invention of bent plywood furniture, which is now so popular, had a profound impact on the design world, including the work of Charles and Ray Eames.
Guided tours are available from Tuesday to Sunday, priced at €30 (£26) per person.
The Aalto House, Lorraine Luximon
5. Enjoy great food in Helsinki’s Design District
Helsinki enjoys a reputation as a city of design, and the Design District is the ideal place to pick up some unusual pieces for your home or wardrobe, while soaking up some culture. The district is located in the centre of Helsinki and is home to over 200 creative businesses, including design and antique shops, fashion stores, as well as museums, art galleries and showrooms. Here you can find unique, sustainable, modern and traditional Finnish products.
After a day strolling around the Design District and visiting the Design Museum or the Museum of Finnish Architecture, visit Instagram-worthy Yes Yes Yes bar and restaurant, which offers a delicious vegetarian a la carte menu featuring everthing from halloumi fries to pumpkin risotto. Accompany your lunch with picture-perfect cocktails at the bar.
Looking for a relaxed ambience for an evening soiree? You won’t be disappointed at Mat Distrikt. The dishes are seasonal and while fish and meat dishes reign supreme, they also pride themselves on the fact that vegetarians never leave the restaurant hungry. For dessert, we recommend the sea buckthorn posset with liquorice ice cream for an authentic taste of Finland.
Yes Yes Yes, Helsinki
Now let’s explore what Finnish Lapland has to offer…
6. Spend the night in nature at Magical Pond
At Magical Pond, you can relax surrounded by nature and enjoy some really blissful moments. The beautiful and modern Scandinavian-style igloos with glass slides allow for the perfect view of nature. Keep an eye out for the local wildlife, from reindeer and elk to foxes. If you’re really lucky, you may even get to witness the Aurora Borealis on a clear night. Magical Pond is also just eight kilometres from the ski resort of Ruka, if you want to experience something a little more active by day.
When it comes to dining, head to the on-site Hut Restaurant Kataja. Here you can enjoy a seasonal menu cooked with local ingredients, in a cosy glass-sided cabin, and admire more of those amazing surroundings as the fire crackles.
Magical Pond rates start from €249 (£216) for two people per night, with breakfast included.
7. Go hiking at Oulanka National Park
After the relaxation of Magical Pond, an energetic hike at the breathtaking Oulanka National Park is a great way to explore more of the Finnish Lapland region. A guided hike here is ideal if you’d like to skip navigating to really take in the landscapes, which include river rapids, spruce trees and native wildlife.
Experienced hikers can tackle the 82-km Karhunkierros Trail (also known as The Bear's Trail or The Bear's Ring) which is the most popular hiking trail in Finland and takes you to the best places in the park. Or you can take it easier with one of the shorter trails.
Depending on the time of year, you can explore the landscape of the park on foot, by canoe, bike or on skis and snowshoes. Oulangan Taika offers some amazing nature experiences, tailored to small and medium groups. Options include a short accompanied hike, finished with a delicious lunch by the fire (recommended!) and a snowshoe hike in winter. In summer, a guided canoe experience on the Oulanka River or gravel biking are just some of the options for adventurous types.
Oulangan Taika’s Karhunkierros – Short Route hike is priced from €235 (£204) per person.
Oulanka National Park, Aliaksandr Mazurkevich / Alamy Stock Photo
8. Enjoy a traditional Finnish sauna experience
While Loyly in Helsinki offers a modern sauna experience, Pohjolan Pirtti & Kievari offers an altogether more traditional encounter, and feels like stepping back in time. Pohjolan is located in the village of Vuotunki, about half an hour away from Ruka and Kuusamo.
The experience starts with a fascinating introduction to the history of the Finnish sauna, which was seen as a sacred place where children were born and families gathered, and where the cleansing tradition of the Christmas Eve sauna still continues today. Then you can enjoy three different saunas: a steam sauna, traditional Finnish sauna and a unique timber sauna that warms up with a wood-heated sauna stove, plus there’s an outdoor hot tub to relax in. Note: your cosy sauna hat, which is provided, will come in handy during the colder months!
Tanja Pohjola is on hand to demonstrate and give traditional sauna whisk massages, where a bunch of young tree twigs, often birch, are used to give a massage in the sauna to promote better blood circulation. During the course of the massage, Tanja gently ‘lashes’ attendees with the whisk after dipping it in warm water. It feels great and the whisks release an amazing aroma in the air for a multi-sensory experience.
After the sauna, dinner is served in the Pohjola family home, which is over 100 years old. Prepare to be treated to local, traditional specialties such as moose and freshly caught fish, with vegetarian options also available, plus plenty of home-baked bread.
Pohjolan Pirtti Countryside Sauna Tour Evening is priced at €310 (£270) for two adults, including pick-up.
Pohjolan Pirtti & Kievari
9. Meet the reindeer at Kujalan Porotila Reindeer Farm
No holiday to Finnish Lapland is complete without seeing reindeer. Ideal for families and couples alike, a visit to Kujalan Porotila Reindeer Farm is a delight. During the winter months, you can experience life on an authentic reindeer farm with an early morning feed of hundreds of reindeer, serving up their favourite treat of lichen. It’s an hour of pure festive joy.
There are a number of other experiences available at the farm, from reindeer yoga to a sleigh ride, or you can go on a traditional walk with the reindeer through their natural pastures. The centre also has a farm shop, craft workshop space and cafe.
The reindeer feed is priced at €25 (£22) for adults and €15 (£13) for children.
Kujalan Porotila Reindeer Farm, Ruka-Kuusamo, Kujalan Porotila
10. Take part in some winter sports activities
Rukan Salonki is a private resort in the middle of Lappish nature, located by the Salonkijarvi lake, and is perfect for families. Here you can stay in one of the magnificent log chalets or villas and live out your Christmas dreams. There are also three restaurants (two on-site and one in Ruka village) if you fancy taking a night off from cooking during your stay.
Finland’s northernmost region is a playground for big or little kids, whether you like to ski, hike or trying something new like winter biking. If you like mountain biking, the oversized tyres of fatbikes make cycling possible even in winter conditions. Or you can make things even easier with an e-fatbike. Both of these can be rented during your stay, for some high-octane fun.
Rukan Salonki Chalet rates start from €1,988 (£1,732) for a three-night stay in a six-bedroom chalet. Fatbike rental is €40 (£34) per day and e-fatbikes are €65 (£56) per day.
Finnair flies from Heathrow to Helsinki up to five times a day, with direct flights also available from Manchester, Edinburgh and Dublin. A return flight from London Heathrow to Helsinki starts from £166 in Economy Class and £546 in Business Class. To book, visit www.finnair.com or call 0330 8081188.
Flights from Helsinki to Kuusamo in Finnish Lapland operate up to six times per day during peak travel periods and are timed to allow smooth connections with UK flights. A return flight from Helsinki to Kuusamo starts from £136 in Economy Class.
LoveEXPLORING was a guest of Visit Finland, Helsinki Partners, Visit Ruka-Kuusamo and Finnair. In Helsinki, LoveEXPLORING also stayed at the Helsinki Strand, where rates start from €175 (£152) per room per night.
Main image: Helsinki from above, Jussi Hellsten
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