We know because we’ve been: “Out There” is a series of inspiring travel spotlights from AAA travel advisors and employees.
I’ve been catching planes and exploring the world longer than I’ve been walking. In my almost four decades of exploration, I’ve established a lengthy travel bucket list, with must-see destinations like Egypt, Greece, Croatia, Peru and the Canary Islands rounding out my top 5.
Truthfully, I’ve never given much thought to exploring the Nordic countries. So, when I was asked to spend a week visiting Finland with four of our amazing AAA travel advisors, I was excited but had a few reservations. How would Finland compare to my preferred European spots?
The answer is simple: It doesn’t. Finland is in a class of its own. After a week spent island-hopping my way through the Finnish Archipelago, exploring its vibrant cities and learning about the values at the core of its culture, consider me a convert. Finland is certainly a must-see destination worthy of its own exploration, and here’s why.
Already sold on visiting Finland? Book a tour with AAA Travel.
Sustainability Is a Way of Life
Those seeking a country that truly buys into sustainability as a way of life will feel at home in Finland. From disposable cutlery and plates made of upcycled materials and hotels built around the natural landscape – careful not to disrupt it – to the well-used bike lanes in Helsinki and the support of the farm-to-table movement between restauranteurs and local farmers and fishermen, Finland wholly embodies a sustainable way of life.
There’s a mutual respect between Finns and their environment, evident in the noticeable lack of litter and graffiti in the cities and shared pride in the beauty of their countryside, lakes and forests.
The Food Scene Is Top-Notch
In 2005, after a recent visit to Finland, then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made some unsavory comments about Finnish cuisine. The Finns, not one to hang their heads in shame, instead relied on their “sisu”(a mix of courage, resilience and grit) and resolved to create a distinct food scene that now rivals that of Italy, France and New York.
A mutual relationship between farmers and restaurants supports dishes that feature locally sourced ingredients. If you’re willing to let your tastebuds lead you, you’ll embark on a culinary journey, sampling your way through traditional dishes like tender reindeer roast, slurping up comfort food like roast cauliflower soup with truffle oil or taste-testing your way through the various stalls at the local indoor and outdoor markets. (I dare you to find a sweeter tasting summer strawberry, and if you’re feeling adventurous, try the bear salami.)
Life’s About Balance
We all strive to have a work-life balance, but Finland accomplishes this. It’s common to take a stroll along the riverwalk in Turku and find sidewalk cafes and restaurants packed with friends sitting shoulder-to-shoulder sipping a coffee in Helsinki (Finns really like their coffee). There’s no sense of urgency, no rush – just contentment in enjoying each other’s company and taking in the beauty of the bustling city.
Another integral part of Finnish daily life? Saunas. With nearly 2 million saunas across the country (including the SkySauna on the Helsinki Ferris Wheel!) and one in almost every home, Finns learn to sit, steam and relax at a young age.
Such an environment forced this on-the-go Northeast gal to slow down and really take stock of my surroundings, my health and my feelings.
Access to Nature Is a Right
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the connection between Finns and nature. Despite being the same land mass size as Germany, Finland’s population stands at 5.5 million people, compared to Germany’s 90 million. Most of the country is covered in forests, but is also boasts more than 80,000 islands and is home to nearly 200,000 lakes.
An outdoorsman’s paradise, Finland extends Everyman’s Rights to both citizens and visitors, which “… allows anyone living in or visiting Finland the freedom to roam the countryside, forage, fish with a line and rod, and enjoy the recreational use of natural areas – respectfully, of course.”
We spent a few days in Finland’s vast archipelago, ferrying through a handful of islands. A mostly untouched landscape, you’ll find yourself immersed in the wildlife and beauty of this pristine coastal region and welcomed in by the natives who are eager to share stories of a childhood and simpler way of life over a steaming pot of coffee and a slice of archipelago bread.
For six years running, Finland has been named the Happiest Country in the World by the World Happiness Report. When I agreed to trek halfway across the globe, I vowed to uncover the secret recipe behind this accomplishment.
While Finland’s sustainable efforts, sumptuous cuisine, prioritization of wellness and community with nature all certainly contribute to this title, I realized that it is the Finnish people who truly encapsulate happiness. They are warm, inviting and eager to share their pride and love for their country with temporary visitors, such as myself. But their happiness is not overt and showy – it exists in understated ways, like in the many Pride flags you’ll find flying throughout Helsinki; in the way you can safely walk the streets of Turku well past midnight, knowing there’s a mutual respect and collective responsibility for each other; or the way locals will patiently repeat a phrase numerous times, because they appreciate your attempts to learn their language, and happily to switch to English when you grow frustrated. Finland’s people are its real national treasure.
There are plenty more reasons visiting Finland is a must, but especially if you are apprehensive about traveling so far, these are two big ones.
- The majority of Finns are fluent in English, which makes communication relaxed and removes some of the anxiety surrounding international travel.
- It’s relatively easy to navigate. Drivers will find themselves on the same side of the road as in the U.S., and streets and highways are clearly labeled. If you’d rather ditch the car, you can also use the extensive public ferry or train system, which runs throughout the country. And if you’d prefer a greener option, rent one of the many bikes or scooters to zip through Helsinki or Turku.
So, how does Finland compare to its European and Scandinavian neighbors? To me, it doesn’t. And therein lies the true beauty.
Would you visit Finland? Tell us in the comments.