The people of Finland will tell you that although they’re Nordic, like their Swedish, Norwegian and Danish neighbours, they are not Scandinavian. Their language has its roots in the Finno-Ugric group, which is closer to Estonian and Hungarian. The Finns enjoy unusual and spectacular geography; vast forests of pine, birch and spruce are embedded with a sprinkling of over 1,80,000 lakes, and there are over 300 islands in the Baltic Sea off Helsinki alone with nature trails overlooking sea views.
Much wildlife is sheltered in the woods, such as lynx and wolverines, and Sami folks in the north raise herds of reindeer. Finland is one of Europe’s wealthiest countries, with the top educational system. Fins tend to be quiet and introverted and they partake vast amounts of coffee and alcohol. They’ve embraced the idea of enduring long, dark winters indoors by making their homes beautiful.
Stoking the sauna and reading to the kids about the adventures of Moomintroll by the fireside are some simple pleasures they enjoy. Timo Salli, a designer and professor, has an amusing description of his people: “We’re stranger than we think we are. We’re isolated, with a strange language and we still have a foot in the forest.”
While skiing, ice fishing, sighting the Northern lights and visiting Santa may entice some visitors to Finland in the winter, Helsinki is best enjoyed in the height of summer when the sun moves in, and the elongated, golden evenings draw people out to the waterside cafes and bars. Lovers of modern architecture and design are especially drawn to Helsinki.
While Alvar Alto made his name in the 1930s by pioneering the technique of bending wood to make furniture, Marimekko’s colourful printed fabrics, Iittala’s glass collectables and Arabia’s ceramics are some of the best known Finnish products that can be sourced within walking distance of Helsinki’s Design District.
We explored the exceptional, contemporary spaces that give Helsinki its architectural lustre. Our sprightly and knowledgeable guide, Maria Hanninen, walked us around the city, to the music-filled Rock Church, a beautiful place of worship set amid granite rocks with a copper wire and glass dome.
In the Kamppi Chapel, also known as the Place of Silence, we were engulfed in an exquisitely crafted, oval sweep of wood with a halo of daylight from above. The Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum’s space was just as uplifting as the installations within. Wandering through the Katajanokka neighbourhood took us back to the Art Nouveau period.
The turrets, Juliet balconies and colourful facades are a contrast to the contemporary Finnish edifices. It’s steps away from a sprawling harbour that is dotted with bars and cafes, where seagulls dive-bomb unsuspecting people enjoying a bite, especially at the lively Market Square.
The Finns are lovers of ice-cream, and following the long lineup at the Helsingin Jaatelotehdas kiosk, we tried black liquorice flavour and developed an addiction. Ferries plying the Baltic lured us with quick access to Stockholm, St Petersburg and Tallin. Instead, we boarded a small one for the picturesque Suomenlinna Island, and in 15 minutes, we too had one foot in the Finnish forest.