Finland

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Introduction to Finland

Finland is for the most part a quiet land, where a ramshackle cottage by a lake and a properly stoked sauna is all that's required for happiness. It's a vast expanse of forests and lakes and more forests, punctuated by towns full of people who are genuinely surprised to see tourists.

During the months of the midnight sun, coastal regions are a sailing and fishing paradise. Inland, the largest unspoilt wilderness in Europe attracts thousands of trekkers every year. In the south, the capital Helsinki is a paradise for lovers of art and architecture.

When the nights are long in Finland (and they can be very, very long) there's much more to do than huddle inside with a vodka or two. You can ski across vast frozen lakes or relax in a sauna, beating yourself ever so gently with a fragrant branch of birch leaves to loosen the travel grime. During the months of the midnight sun, coastal regions, including the Turku archipelago and Åland Islands, are a sailing and fishing paradise. Inland, the largest unspoilt wilderness in Europe attracts thousands of trekkers every year.

In the south the capital Helsinki has over 30 art galleries and museums, while in the north Santa Claus kicks back 364 days a year. Where else in the world can you take a reindeer tour or an icebreaker cruise then hit the green for some midnight golf?

Full country name: Republic of Finland

Area: 338,000 sq km sq km

Population: 5.19 million

Capital City: Helsinki (pop: 891,000)

People: Finns, minorities of Swedes, Sami, Roma

Language: Swedish, English, Finnish

Religion: Lutheran & Orthodox

Government: presidential republic

Head of Government: President Tarja Halonen

GDP: US$133.5 billion

GDP per capita: US$25,800

Annual Growth: 5%

Inflation: 2.6%

Major Industries: Metals and engineering equipment, telecommunications, timber and paper products

Major Trading Partners: EU (Germany, Sweden, UK), Russia, USA

Member of EU: Yes

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Citizens of EU countries and the USA, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, Malaysians, Singaporeans and most South Americans do not need a visa for stays of less than three months.

Health risks: hypothermia (This occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it and the core temperature of the body falls. It is frighteningly easy to progress from very cold to dangerously cold due to a combination of wind, wet clothing, fatigue and hunger, even if the air temperature is above freezing. If the weather deteriorates, put on extra layers of warm clothing immediately: a windproof and/or waterproof jacket, plus wool or fleece hat and gloves, are all essential. Have something energy-giving to eat and ensure that everyone in your group is fit, and feeling well and alert. Symptoms of hypothermia are exhaustion, numb skin (particularly toes and fingers), shivering, slurred speech, irrational or violent behaviour, lethargy, stumbling, dizzy spells, muscle cramps and violent bursts of energy. Irrationality may take the form of sufferers claiming they are warm and trying to take off their clothes. To treat mild hypothermia, first get the person out of the wind and/or rain, remove their clothing if it's wet and replace it with dry, warm clothing. Give them hot liquids – not alcohol – and some high-energy, easily digestible food. Do not rub victims: instead, allow them to slowly warm themselves. This should be enough to treat the early stages of hypothermia. The early recognition and treatment of mild hypothermia is the only way to prevent severe hypothermia, which is a critical condition)

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +2

Dialling Code: 358

Electricity: 230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

Midsummer's Day (Juhannus) is the most important annual event for Finns. People leave cities and towns for summer cottages to celebrate the longest day of the year. Bonfires are lit and lakeside merrymakers swim and row boats. Enthusiastic alcohol consumption is a key feature of midsummer partying. The Pori Jazz Festival in July is one of the country's most popular festivals, but the Savonlinna Opera Festival, held at medieval Olavinnlinna Castle, is the most famous. Some of the best (and the most international) festivals are the most remote: check out chamber music in Kuhmo, or folk music in Kaustinen (near Kokkola). There are big rock festivals during the Midsummer weekend, and big annual events, such as Ruisrock, the longest-running of rock festivals, at Turku in July. On the lighter side, check out the Sleepyhead Day, where on 27 July the laziest person in the towns of Naantali and Hanko is thrown into the sea. Finland's strangest event is the annual wife-carrying championship held every July in tiny Sonkajärvi.

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Best time to Visit

Whatever time of year you visit Finland, there's something happening. Most museums and galleries are open year-round, and there is as much to do in the depths of winter as there is at the height of summer. Nevertheless, you'll probably have a better time if you come in the warmer months, either in summer or anytime from May to September. As well as the advantages of warm weather, summer is the time of the midnight sun. Winter north of the Arctic Circle is a chilly confluence of strange bluish light and encroaching melancholy. Despite snow falls from November, it stays pretty sludgy until late winter: skiing isn't great until February, the coldest month, and you can ski in Lapland right through to June.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Euro

Meals

Budget: €4-6

Mid-range: €6-12

High: €12-25

Deluxe: €25+

Lodging

Budget: €12-25

Mid-range: €25-65

High: €65-140

Deluxe: €140+

Finland was declared the world's most expensive country in 1990, right before it was hit by recession. Since then, prices have become much more bearable. If you're travelling on a tight budget you should be able to get by on around $25 a day. This would cover hostel accommodation, self-catering and no alcohol or bottled drinks. If you want to have a slightly more user-friendly holiday, a budget of around $50 a day should do it, and for a few more luxuries, such as your own bathroom, taxis and a restaurant meal or two a day, you'll need about US$100 a day.

Tipping is generally not necessary anywhere. Service charge is usually included in restaurants' listed price. Bargaining will get you nowhere in most shops, but could come in handy if you're after trekking equipment or used bikes, when you might get a 10% discount if you ask nicely.

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Attractions

Helsinki

Helsinki retains a small-town feel: there are no high-rise buildings and the market square is still surrounded by 19th-century architecture. Its green parks and waterways, fresh sea winds with seagulls flying over the busy market square, and many open-air cafes make it a perfect summer destination.

Helsinki is fast becoming one of Europe's hottest destinations. It's small and intimate compared to other Scandinavian capitals, and in summer walking or cycling is the best way to appreciate its parks, markets, nearby islands and countless museums.

Olavinlinna Castle

Olavinlinna Castle is in the beautiful Savonlinna lakes area, and is the best preserved medieval castle in northern Europe. Founded in 1475, it was meant to protect the Swedish-Finnish empire. Russians occupied the castle early in the 18th century, adding the jaunty red towers and a yellow house inside its walls. Take a tour for the lowdown.

Rauma

Although the old town of Rauma was recently placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, it is not a museum but a living town centre, with many artisans, lace makers and goldsmiths working in small studios, most of which were erected in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The old town is the largest wooden town preserved in the Nordic countries.There are several interesting house museums and a 15th-century Franciscan church, which used to be a Catholic monastery until Lutheran reformers kicked out the monks in 1538.

Turku

Turku, Finland's first capital, is the country's oldest city. It received a mortal blow when the capital was moved to Helsinki in 1812. Today, Turku is a substantial city with fine attractions, though locals sometimes joke that after Turku spread culture to the rest of Finland it never returned.

Luostarinmäki is the only surviving 18th-century area of this medieval town - developers have ravaged Turku every bit as much as fires - and here, in summer, artisans work inside the old wooden houses. To the north, medieval Turku Cathedral is the national shrine of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland. It dates from the 13th century, and the museum here is open daily.

Turku Castle, founded in 1280, is the most notable historic building in Finland. It houses an interesting museum, with many rooms decorated to evoke a specific decade or century. Situated on the southern coast of Finland, Turku is the most likely gateway to the country if you are coming from Sweden.

Åland

The Åland province, with its own flag and culture, comprises more than 6400 autonomous islands. It's perfect for bicycle tours, camping and cabin holidays, and for experiencing the islanders' distinctive culture, expressed in folk dancing, maypole decorating and pervasive small-town charm.

The most interesting municipality is Sund, at the eastern end of the main island, where you'll find the impressive Kastelholm Castle. Of strategic importance during the 16th and 17th centuries, its exact age is not known, but it was mentioned in writings as early as 1388.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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