Finland. There is nothing like snow laden forests of bare trees: the stark brilliant white against the almost night black trees. The snow outlines forms you never noticed before. A simplification of the world, everything becomes dark or light, lines and shapes, like a map of the tracks and roadways. The eyelets on the birch catch your eye and you suddenly feel all the trees staring.
Walking through the streets with the snow piled up in corners. Snow on top of snow and you can’t be sure if it’s old snow or hard rock or something else entirely. That distinct squeaking crunch of fresh snow underfoot: the air compressing like a song. There is only inside and outside, reverting back to survival instincts of seeking shelter.
We arrived from Copenhagen and while we thought that was cold, it was nothing compared to Finland. It was always below zero cold, cold-cold; fresh fluffy snow sparkling fiercely or white icy winds that made it challenging for us to venture outside for long. When we landed in Helsinki it was 4pm and already completely dark. The streets were slippery and we trekked gingerly in our hiking boots and witnessed a fair number of falls. We may never have come to Finland in the heart of winter on our own accord but for the generous invitation of our friend Lin.
Best things to do in Winter in Finland
Freeze among the chimes at Sibelius Park
We trudged through the park for about an hour, passing families out sledding and walking dogs. There was fresh snow glittering everywhere, even trimming the Sibelius Monument and the metal pipes glinting in the light. We couldn’t figure out how to make them sound and it was so cold without proper gloves so our fingers went numb. Families were out with their kids sledding down the hills. We wanted to check out the Regatta, a popular little cafe shack by the water, but it was too busy at the time.
Hibernate in the Chapel of Silence
There’s something about extra cosy about the Kamppi Chapel (Kampin kappeli) in the winter. The tall rounded rust colored chapel contrasts boldly against the rest of the open square and heavy wooden doors seal it from the outside. We tried our best to dry our boots on the mats before entering, but they still insist on squeaking when we step into the bright cocoon. The wooden shell is of a lighter more natural color inside and the interior could very well be a modern gallery space if not for the rows of unmistakable pews. We settle onto one of the benches and allow the quiet hush to envelop us. I glance to the side and enviously notice a man sitting on one of the few gray cushions on the floor; if it wasn’t such an ordeal to undress my winter gear, I’d much prefer the floor cushions. We stayed for about 10 minutes, but this is a great spot to meditate if you’ve the inclination.
Stay in a Cabin on the Lake
We were so fortunate that Lin took us to experience her cousin’s cabin by the lake in Tampere. Nestled out in the woods, the trees laden with snow as thick as a wall and the silence becomes dense. The snow was so deep it made an extra crunchy sound; every footstep across the porch seemed deafening!
There we partake in a typical Finnish lunch: a full spread of caprese salad, baked salmon, baked potato wedges fries, and a divine carrot and sweet potato puree soup drizzled with olive oil. Dessert followed with a yogurt mixed with berries and a kiisseli, a bright and refreshing finish. Tucked in with a dreamy view of the frozen lake, we relaxed and talked about the differences in the cultures of Finland compared to the States; sharing memories and theories.
Experience Sauna & Snow Rolling
Our very first experience of the popular winter sport (we now consider it an extreme sport) sauna was at the cabin; an ideal and luxurious introduction. The beautiful warm glow of the wooden room, sizzling rocks on the electric sauna, and the charming ubiquitous water bucket. She dips the ladle full and pours the water over the rocks: a hiss and the instant vaporization sends steam rushing to the ceiling and the eyes cannot keep up but you can feel the heat spreading across the ceiling and falling upon you with a surprising heft.
Just as I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the heat, she declared it was time, so we mustered up our courage and made our way to the porch door. Flinging open the door we all hopped out to varying exclamations as our feet began to sense the chill, I couldn’t even bother to look around me: I simply dropped onto my knees and rolled over once before cursing like a mad woman and running back into the sauna. The snow stung as if all of my skin caught on fire! Oh, but the moment you sit back in the sauna and feel the echoing tingles of the snow melting away: it completely changed the feeling in the sauna when we went back in. Exhilarating!
After the sauna, we have an evening snack, a common Finnish practice to “eat so you have energy to sleep”, of the rice rye cakes and small sandwiches. Her cousin served tea and also a shot of Captain Morgan rum, which she claimed with a wink, was for medicinal purposes so we don’t catch a cold from our roll in the snow. It was the perfect way to cap off our night and the first experience of sauna.
Go Winter Hiking at Seitseminen National Park
While we wouldn’t claim to be trekkers, we do enjoy a good hike, so when Lin and her friend Tomas offered to take us winter hiking, we were game. Winter hiking was a completely different game so it was a good thing we had experienced guides: we don’t recommend this adventure if you don’t have the proper gear and experience. The biggest challenge, other than navigation, is regulating your temperature; layering and adjusting so you stay warm enough but don’t sweat too much. It’s much easier said than done, especially when you’re hiking in knee deep snow.
The Seitseminen National Park stretched like an endless untouched carpet of snow, trees lining the edges, melding into the gray dusky sky. The snow was so thick here, I finally understood the phrase “laden with snow” looking at all the bowed trees. We blindly followed Tomas and Lin, turning surprising curves along the unseen path; our crunching boots were the only signs of energy out in the quiet fields of white. Snow crystalized on the branches and yet those sprawling mounds of soft fresh snow, everything felt so pristine and delicate, so delicate that some impish part of me was tempted to plow through it all. Break the stillness, test the form! There was something so spectacular about being on in the wintry wilderness and experiencing this magical element of snow: natural, pure, harsh, cold, soft, round, sparkling, sharp, opaque, clear.
We hiked to a campfire where I attempted to chop wood for the first time, there were a number of failed attempts: the key is clearing the way and then letting gravity do the work. Tomas builds the fire in a nest shape, attempts to light some paper and twigs, but when it fails he pulls out his secret weapon: lighter fluid. When the fire finally catches, it’s like color roaring to life, an angry saturation rebelling against the white and blacks of the winter around us. Huddling around it we cook sausages, eat sandwiches and drink our hot cocoa. After our lunch, we pack up the little camp and head back out.
We trudge through almost knee deep snow, single file as I pull up the rear. Besides not knowing the way, I figure being in the back is easier, but I’m not sure if I’m just confusing that with birds flying in formation. I try not to fall behind as I snap photos with my phone, but I cannot capture the feeling correctly. All I can hear is the crunching of our footsteps and my breathing. I try to remember to also look up and not just at my feet but I fear falling although the snow is so inviting. There’s a mystery of what might be underneath all that snow. How far down? Is there a wrong step I might take?
We hiked past a swamp and the sudden openness after all the trees is breathtaking. Further along and we reach the old trees, you can actually see the spiral in the trunk as it grew. As our journey comes to an end, we visit the historical farm village area, the faded reds and yellows add to the rustic charm. We spot some tiny tracks and follow them into the old barn, where an old machine sits idle. A single bird flits past us to a nearby bush and drinks some of the snow, its bright yellow striking in the muted scene. With that picturesque moment we wrap up our winter hike and head back home.
Experience Sauna & Avanto
After a long day of winter hiking, sauna is the perfect way to recover. This time we were taken to a public sauna, Kaupinojan Sauna. We went a couple hours before closing and it was packed! We split up girls and guys and go through the locker rooms to change and rinse off. When we exit the locker rooms and reach the sauna “lobby” I’m greeted with the smell of sweat and bodies and heat. We grab some sitting boards and file into the sauna. Just as we reach the door I feel it. The heat smacks me in the face, I look into the dark room and there’s rows of seats like a little amphitheater; the higher up you sit the hotter it gets. I can barely stand sitting at the second level, the air is so hot I no longer smell anything and it feels like I’m breathing in fire, a complete opposite of being outside and feeling my nose hairs freeze. They’re constantly pouring water onto the rocks and the room floods with steam over and over again – I feel like a baby but I don’t last long.
Just when I’m beginning to feel as if I’ll implode, we escape the sauna and head outside. The air is rejuvenating, but as we step towards the stairs into the lake I have second thoughts. The group begins to head down the stairs, so I obligingly follow, planning to jump in and out as quickly as I possibly can. Unfortunately that’s not an easy task, the stairs are short and many until you can actually submerge the body, so it takes too long to get in: as soon as my feet go into the water I feel the chill and I’m pushing just to get myself past thigh-deep water, at which point I’m just yelping and running back up the stairs. I receive some knowing laughs, and so we attempt another round and head back into the sauna. This time, we sit out in the lobby space a little while before going into the lake. Tomas advises a calmer state of mind helps you bear the two extremes better. We hydrate and chat, surrounded by lobster red bodies, everyone except Carl (who just stayed brown).
I found waiting between sauna and avanto more difficult as you’re more sensitive to the cold air when you step out. I am able to fully dunk my body though on the second try. Despite telling myself to stay calm, the cold was so engulfing I don’t remember breathing at all. It was a very different experience from snow rolling and I can’t say which was better or worse. By the time we left the sauna, the temperatures read 96-99 C, the water was 2.5 C, and the air outside was -6.8 C.
Best things to eat in Finland
Food markets are one of our favorite things to visit around the world, like Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, the Time Out Market in Lisbon, Torvehallerne in Copenhagen, so we were a bit bummed that the Hakaniemi Market was closed for renovations at the time. However, the Old Market Hall of Helsinki was open and we had one of the tastiest roasted garlic soups from Soppakeittiö.
Some Finnish specialties to try, most of which you can just pick up from a local grocery store or cafe:
- Karelian pasties/pies/pirogs – savory pastry filled with mashed potatoes or rice.
- Kiisseli (fruit soup) – used as a drink, soup, or even a topping for oatmeal, consider it something between juice and jam.
- Ruisleipä (rye bread) – not your typical rye bread, in Finland you’ll find tons of options and often in a thin sandwich slice option which is great for snacking.
- Valkosipulikeitto (garlic soup) – one of the best things to have during the cold winter!
- Graavilohi (salt-cured salmon) – special way to experience raw salmon.
- Laskiaispulla* – cardamom bun, usually with whipped cream and jam.
- Runebergin torttu/Mr. Runeberg´s tart* – torte with a ring of icing and jam.
Some other delicious foods we had that were not Finnish traditions were the Fazer cranberry walnut bread we picked up from Prisma, kebabs and the falafel pizza from Evins, and the inventive vegan friendly dishes like turmeric coconut soup from Muusa.
Where We Stayed
In Helsinki we stayed at this “Cute vintage apartment in downtown Helsinki”. The cozy apartment had a great vibe with lots of plants but that also did mean some small bugs. The heater is on all the way up for the plants, but that was fine with us. There was a weird high pitched ringing sound in the bedroom the whole time, but it wasn’t enough to disturb us. There was a full kitchen and we made use of it, just downstairs there are a handful of Asian supermarkets. Our first night there was a shoveler on the roof getting rid of the snow at 6am, which woke us up but that was only once.
Note that you have to put on and take off your own sheets.
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In Tampere we stayed with a friend in the Kaleva neighborhood, which was just east of city center and easy to get to.
The latter half of January in Finland was always below zero and deep in snow. We had a few light snowy days but also plenty of sunny clear days. During the winter, Finland sees very short hours of daylight, but on the other hand, sunrises and sunsets are easier to catch, though they also go by quickly. Don’t miss out on sauna, a favorite winter past-time for the Finnish, it’s almost an extreme sport. Keep your plans flexible as traveling in winter season can be unpredictable!
Finnish and Swedish are the main languages and most signs will be written in those languages, though many Finnish speak English.
Though Finnish food tends to be simple, there’s a surprising number of specialty foods unique to the country. Due to the cold, local produce consists mostly of potatoes, mushrooms and a great variety of berries, such as cloud berry. We were told to return during the spring or fall when one could forage for mushrooms or berries. At the time of our visit, the Hakaniemi Food Hall in Helsinki was closed for renovations.
Vaccinations: Routine Vaccinations
Mosquito problems: None while there
Problems for tattoos: None
Traveling as a woman: Standard Precautions
Getting Around in Finland
Impressively we found that there were still plenty of bikers in the middle of January in both Helsinki and Tampere. We preferred to stick to the buses while in Tampere and the metro while in Helsinki.
You can save the most on public transportation in Finland by buying in advanced online or the iOS apps, minimally at ticket machines. If you wait to purchase your fare on the bus it will be the most expensive and is cash only. Ticket machines are only available in metro stations not at bus stations.
Getting from Helsinki to Tampere
You can either take a bus or train between Helsinki and Tampere, the trip duration is not that different depending on traffic. Keep in mind that the weather can affect both modes. The biggest factor will depend on whether the bus stations or metro stations are closer to your final destinations. Other than that, the prices for either will vary depending on when you book.
We took Onnibus from Helsinki to Tampere but took the train back to Helsinki airport, as it was cheaper that way. When taking the bus, make sure you arrive well before departure time as they are strict about leaving on time: we arrived on the dot and the bus was already closing the door and getting ready to depart (and we got a bit of a scolding).
Our train back to Helsinki was delayed by 2 hours due to a track problem and we had just it to the airport in time to board our plane (but we missed our check in baggage slot), so one way or the other is no guarantee especially during the winter months.
Currency: 1 EUR = 1.15 USD
Credit cards are widely accepted here and we had no issues using our Chase card, the one exception was the on the bus: the driver accepted cash only.
Tipping in Finland is not expected, but appreciated. Service is already included in their pricing. Our friend informed us that the restaurant-ing culture is still developing in Finland as most Finnish tend to cook their own meals. We found restaurant food to be unremarkable and fairly expensive, and happily cooked in though grocery shopping was also expensive.
$45-50/person: This was for 3 evenings in Helsinki in an apartment listed on AirBnB. We cooked almost all our meals in, shopping at the Asian supermarkets nearby. We used the subway a couple times and used both the train and the bus (depending on ticket prices) to travel to and from Tampere.
As we stayed with a friend, we were able to save on accommodations and simply spent on food. Again we primarily cooked in and spent about $20-25/person over the 10 days we were in Tampere.
Some typical costs
- Short trip on metro: 2.90 EUR
- Mocha, Hot Chocolate, and a pastry at Fazer: 14 EUR
- Dinner with drinks for 3 people at Muusa: 90 EUR
- AYCE sushi at Lempi Sushi Oy: 21 EUR pp
- AirBnB apartment in Helsinki: $45/night
Helsinki Cathedral (Helsingin tuomiokirkko), fazer.fi/fazer-cafe/kahvilat/karl-fazer-cafe, Multiple locations, $$ – Popular chain cafe of the Fazer company that makes chocolates and baked goods. Try a pastry with your coffee here!
Fazer Cafe, fazer.fi/fazer-cafe/kahvilat/karl-fazer-cafe, Multiple locations, $$ – Popular chain cafe of the Fazer company that makes chocolates and baked goods. Try a pastry with your coffee here!
Taiyaki Go, facebook.com/TaiyakiGogogo, Mannerheimintie 3, $$ – Highly rated little Taiyaki stand but when we got ours, they tasted as if they’d been sitting for a long. Not a good filling to pancake ratio. Do not recommend.
Old Market Hall (Vanha kauppahalli), vanhakauppahalli.fi, Eteläranta, $$ – A well known food market hall, check out the roasted garlic soup or seafood Seafood Bouillabaisse at Soppakeittiö.
Jiahe Asian Market, jiahe.fi, Sörnäisten rantatie 7, $-$$ – The largest of the Asian markets nearby where we got groceries, good place to pick up Asian snacks.
Hakaniemi Market (Hakaniemen tori), hel.fi/helsinki/fi/kaupunki-ja-hallinto/osallistu-ja-vaikuta/ota-yhteytta/hae-yhteystietoja/toimipistekuvaus?id=32365, Hämeentie 1 – One of the famous market halls in Helsinki, unfortunately it was closed for renovations during our visit in January 2019.
Kamppi Center (Kampin Keskus), kamppi.fi/fi, Urho Kekkosen katu 1 – A shopping mall above the Kamppi station, a convenient place to meet up friends and right next to the Chapel of Silence.
Ravintola Konnichiwa, konnichiwa.fi, Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu 21, $$ – A decent spot for some AYCE sushi at 19.50 € pp.
Sibelius Monument, Sibeliuksen puisto, Mechelininkatu – Striking monument to world famous composer Jean Sibelius by Eila Hiltunen located at the Sibelius Park.
Kamppi Chapel (Kampin kappeli) also known as the Chapel of Silence, kampinkappeli.fi, Simonkatu 7 – Almost funnel shaped little chapel wrapped in wood with a cozy and simple interior reserved for silent reflection. It goes without saying, no noise is allowed inside.
Muusa, olympiakortteli.fi/muusa_en, Satakunnankatu 10, $$-$$$ – Casual but upscale restaurant and bar that changes depending on the time and day. They use locally sourced ingredients and offer beautifully crafted vegan options.
Kotipizza, kotipizza.fi, Multiple locations, $$ – Great pizza chain that offers smoked reindeer as a topping.
Evins, evin.fi/, Sammonkatu 26, $-$$ – Super tasty kebab and pizza spot, our favorite restaurant pick of Finland!
Seitseminen National Park, nationalparks.fi/seitseminenn, Länsi-Aureentie 486, Ylöjärvi – Giant National Park north of Tampere, great for hiking no matter the season. See the Multiharju Old-growth Forest or the old heritage Kovero Crown Tenant Farm.
Prisma, prisma.fi, multiple locations, $$-$$$ – Large supermarket where we shopped for all our groceries. Try the Fazer Cashew Karpalo Ciabatta from the bread section and the Friggs brand chia and salt rice crackers.
Kaupinojan Sauna, talviuimarit.fi, Kaupinpuistonkatu 1A, $$ – Public sauna where you can dip into a hole in the frozen lake. Very popular sauna all the way until closing time!