I must admit, Finland was never at the top of my travel bucket list. Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark - yes. But Finland? I had never really considered it - mostly because I just didn't know much about this Nordic country, except that it's where you'd want to visit to see the Northern Lights in the winter months. Needless to say, I knew I had to jump at the opportunity to explore this enigmatic country with Finnair. And thanks to Finnair's new stopover program, my Finnish experience was a wonderful one-two punch with a two day layover in Helsinki and four days in Finland's majestic Lapland.
Just last year, Finnair launched a free stopover program so that travelers can fly through Helsinki, extending a layover, for up to five days, at no additional cost. So whether your final destination is another European city or another town in Finland, like Rovaniemi, there's no reason not to take advantage of this program. And with direct flights to Helsinki from San Francisco, it's a no-brainer!
Hotel St. George, which just opened earlier this year, is housed in a historic, 1840s landmark building and located smack dab in Helsinki's city center. The modern and light filled rooms, which are mostly painted in either a soft mint green, pearl grey, or light blush and furnished with traditional Finnish furniture, are centered around the hotel's beautifully appointed communal spaces and contemporary dining rooms. Working in collaboration with the Helsinki Art Museum and the National Gallery, Hotel St. George also boasts an incredibly impressive collection of art. A massive, suspended paper and bamboo sculpture by Ai Weiwei hangs above the entrance gallery, while over 300 pieces of art, by various international and Finnish artists, are spread throughout the hotel. I loved the simplicity, yet interesting depth, of this hotel and especially appreciated its close proximity to Helsinki's iconic Esplanade Park.
The best way to discover Helsinki is on foot. My favorite part of town is Esplanade Park, a wide, tree lined boulevard with benches and statues leading from the city center to the waterfront and market square. Whether its enjoying an ice cream cone, grabbing a drink at one of the outdoor cafes, shopping at the various surrounding boutiques or just laying in the grass to soak up the sun, you'll want an extra day in Helsinki just to spend an entire day here.
The food scene is Helsinki is booming, with tons of restaurants taking their own modern spin on Nordic cuisine. Every meal here was memorable, especially the one I had at Chapter, a modern Scandinavian restaurant dedicated to reducing their carbon footprint with sustainable sourcing and innovative ways to reduce food waste. Every cocktail and dishes was an exciting surprise to the palate. This is a spot you won't want to miss.
The Finns take sauna seriously. It's a way of life and a tradition that is rooted in Finnish culture, right up there with rye bread and vodka. After all, they say there are more saunas in Finland than there are cars! So a trip to Helsinki wouldn't be complete without experiencing Löyly, an urban co-ed sauna located right on the waterfront. Sweat it out in their traditional, and incredibly hot, smoke sauna (temps can rise up to 180 degrees!) and then take a quick dip in the icy gulf. Repeat and then relax outside with a gin & tonic. You will be in awe of how amazing your body feels after sauna. I compare the feeling to having had the best, hour long massage of your life . . . but only better.
A trip to Finland wouldn't be complete without a visit to Marimekko. Established in 1951, Finnish design house Marimekko quickly rose to international fame, in the 60s, for its bold original prints and bright colors. The heart and soul of Marimekko's iconic print design is their textile printing factory and outlet in Helsinki, where over one million meters of fabric are printed yearly. I got to tour the factory and was blown away by the precision required to silk screen each pattern.
DON'T MISS . . .
- a visit to Helsinki Cathedral
- a day cruise to Estonia’s medieval town Tallinn
- a ride on Helsinki's above ground heritage trams
- a food tour of Old Market Hall
- a swim in the Allas Sea Pool, which is open year round
- a taste of Finland's famous cardamom cinnamon roll at Regatta
- a ferry ride to Suomenlinna, is a giant maritime fortress spread across seven islands
- a walk through any of Helsinki's Wooden House Districts
- shopping in the Design District
- a cocktail at "secret" speakeasy Trillby & Chadwick, if you can find it
After my layover in Helsinki, I hopped on Finnair for a quick hour and a half flight to Rovaniemi, the unofficial capital and the gate to Finnish Lapland. Located right in the confluence of the rivers Kemijoki and Ounasjoki in the Arctic circle, Rovaniemi is known for being the "official" home town of Santa Claus, for viewing the Northern Lights in the winter and enjoying the lush wilderness in the summer.
I must say, I was skeptical about visiting Santa Claus in summer, fearful of missing the magic that must unfold during Christmas. But Rovaniemi's Santa Claus Village is the real deal - all year round. Since 1985, the village's postal office has received 15 million letters from 198 countries. And if the letters are postmarked, every letter receives a hand written respond, signed by Santa himself. I'm a believer!
If you visit Rovaniemi, you must stay at the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel. It's a unique and unforgettable way to appreciate the natural beauty of Rovaniemi. Each individual timber structure is designed as a modern, Scandanavian inspired treehouse and meant for guests to take in the Northern Lights or Midnight Sun straight from the comfort of their beds. You'll never want, or need, to leave your luxurious nest . . . that is, unless it's to spend an afternoon at the Metsäkyly Arctic Forest Spa. Inspired by its pristine surroundings and rich Finnish sauna-traditions, Metsäkyly is a private, remote sauna that allows you to feel at one with nature. An authentic smoke sauna, traditional sauna and modern infrared sauna takes you through centuries of sauna traditions and dip in an icy cold Arctic lake makes the experience that much more immersive. Your love of sauna will deepen here, guaranteed.
Visiting the home and workshop of Lappish artisans Irene and Ari Kangasniemi was, hands down, the highlight of my trip to Rovaniemi. The husband and wife duo have been making art and handicrafts, like Lapland knives, drums, spoons, salt and shaker cups and jewelry, out of local materials like reindeer antler, bones and skins, foraged hazelnuts and wood. Their charming studio is nestled in the Lappish forest, a place that constantly provides Irene and her husband inspiration for their craft - it's no wonder they consider themselves happiest amongst nature. I had to take home one of Irene's beautiful drums, inspired by indigenous Sami spiritual practices and made using natural dyed reindeer skin. After treating us to a bowl of delicious fish stew in her home and a taste of foraged cloudberries, I left feeling warmed by Irene's generous and energizing spirit.
Imagine what it might feel like to float on your back, in the middle of a freezing Arctic lake, under the Midnight sun. It's possible, y'all. Dressed in coast guard approved immersion suits, we waddled our way into an icy Arctic lake, laid on our backs and drifted throughout the lake in a moment of absolute peace and serenity. The sensation of laying weightless and warm, in the middle of a massive, icy lake, was surreal and meditative. I loved every second of it and never wanted it to end.
- an overnight stay in the city center at the Arctic Light Hotel
- learn about the history of Finland's Lapland at Arktikum
- stay inside a glass igloo hotel in the winter
- visit Ranua Wildlife Park
- hike through Oulanka National Park
- lunch at Cafe & Bar 21
- visit a husky park and reindeer farm
- go berry picking
- stand up paddle board on the river
- enjoy Lappish cuisine at the Arctic Boulevard Restaurant