Finland is the big surprise of the Nordic countries, a natural wonderland with more trees than people and more islands than any other nation in the world. With miles of empty wilderness, the Finns are uniquely in tune with their natural surroundings. This is a nation where people can flip from office work to foraging for wild mushrooms in a heartbeat.
The culture of the Finns has been shaped by the historic tug-of-war between Sweden and Russia, leaving dotted enclaves such as Russian-tinted Karelia, and the Swedish-speaking regions of Åland and Ostrobothnia, which culturally, still carry a flag for their former homelands. Even the Finnish language is an anomaly, more closely related to Hungarian than to any other language.
For most, the gateway to Finland is Helsinki. A friendly and surprisingly small capital city, here historic churches rise above tidy public squares and stone wharfs are crowded with market traders and ferryboats. It’s probably the best place to encounter Finland’s famous party spirit, especially during the light nights of midsummer.
Vast areas are protected by Finland's 35 national parks, providing fantastic opportunities to spot birds, reindeer, elks and bears. Around 10% of Finland is covered by water and 69% of the country is covered by forests, providing a natural adventure playground for trekkers, mountain-bikers, cross-country skiers, dog-sledders, fishermen and watersports enthusiasts. No wonder sisu (meaning “hardiness”) is seen as integral to the Finnish character.
The cosmopolitan south, with its bustling cities and sleek, modern design sensibilities (this is, after all, the home of Alvar Aalto and the Marimekko) seems a long way from rugged Lapland, where the Sámi people have been herding reindeer for millennia. For tourism purposes, Lapland is also the home of Father Christmas, ensuring a busy Christmas season at the Santa theme parks near Rovaniemi.
Perhaps Finland's most famous contribution to world culture is the sauna – the country has a staggering 1.6 million of them. A steam-bath, ideally after a bracing dip in a wilderness lake, is practically mandatory for all visitors.