Finland Tourist Information and Tips
Finland adopted the euro (ˆ) on January 1st 2002 and the Finnish mark (FIM) is now obsolete. Finland does not use the 1 and 2 cent coins; instead all sums are rounded to the nearest 5 cents. The coins are, however, still legal tender and there are even small quantities of Finnish 1c and 2c coins, highly valued by collectors. It is common to omit cents and the euro sign from prices, and use the comma as a decimal separator: "5,50" thus means five euros and fifty cents.
Declared the world's most expensive country in 1990, prices have since abated somewhat but are still steep by most standards. Rock-bottom traveling if staying in hostel dorms and self-catering costs at least ˆ25/day and it's well worth doubling that amount. The cheapest hotels cost about ˆ 50 per night and more regular hotels closer to ˆ 100. Instead of hotels or hostels, look for holiday cottages, especially when travelling in a group and off-season, you can find a full-equipped cottage for ˆ10-15 per person a night.
Note that a VAT of 22% is charged for nearly everything, but by law this must be included in the displayed price. Non-EU residents can get a tax refund for purchases above ˆ40 at participating outlets, just look for the Tax-Free Shopping logo.
As you might expect given the general price level, souvenir shopping in Finland isn't exactly cheap. Traditional buys include Finnish puukko knives, handwoven ryijy rugs and every conceivable part of a reindeer. For any Lappish handicrafts, look for the "Sami Duodji" label that certifies it as authentic.
Beware of limited Finnish shopping hours . For smaller shops, normal weekday opening hours are 9 AM to 6 PM, but most shops close early on Saturday and are closed entirely on Sundays. Larger shops and department stores are generally open until 9 PM on weekdays and 6 PM on Saturdays and Sundays. Stores are allowed to stay open until 6 PM on Sundays (9 PM around Christmas). Smaller stores have no limitations. During national holidays, almost all stores are closed.
Convenience stores like the ubiquitous R-Kioski keep somewhat longer hours, but still tend to be closed when you most need them. If in desperate need of basic supplies, gas station convenience stores are usually open on weekends and until late at night (some of the gas station convenience stores are open 24/7). Supermarkets in Helsinki 's Asematunneli, underneath the Central Railway Station), are open until 10 PM every day of the year, except on Christmas Day (December 25th).
Finnish cuisine is heavily influenced by its neighbors, the main staples being potatoes and bread with various fish and meat dishes on the side. Milk or cream is traditionally considered an important part of the diet and is often an ingredient in foods and a drink, even for adults. Various milk products such as cheeses are also produced. While traditional Finnish food is famously bland, the culinary revolution that followed joining the EU has seen a boom in classy restaurants experimenting with local ingredients, often with excellent results.
With tens of thousands of lakes and a long coastline, fish is a Finnish staple, and there's a lot more on that menu than just salmon ( lohi ). Specialities include:
- Baltic herring ( silakka ), a small, fatty and quite tasty fish available pickled, marinated, smoked, grilled and in countless other varieties
- Gravlax ("graavilohi"), a pan-Scandinavian appetizer of raw salted salmon
- Smoked salmon ( savulohi ), not just the cold, thinly sliced, semi-raw kind but also fully cooked "warm" smoked salmon
- Vendace ( muikku ), a speciality in eastern Finland, a small fish served fried, heavily salted and typically with mashed potatoes
- Karelian stew ( karjalanpaisti ), a heavy stew usually made from beef and pork (and optionally, lamb), carrots and onions, usually served with potatoes
- Liver casserole ( maksalaatikko ), consisting of chopped liver, rice and raisins cooked in an oven; it tastes rather different from what you'd expect (and not liver-y at all)
- Loop sausage ( lenkkimakkara ), a large, mildly flavored sausage; best when grilled and topped with a dab of sweet Finnish mustard ( sinappi ), and beer
- Meat balls ( lihapullat , lihapyorykat ) are as popular and tasty as in neighboring Sweden
- Reindeer ( poro ) dishes, especially sauteed reindeer shavings ( poronkaristys , served with potato mash and lingonberries), not actually a part of the everyday Finnish diet but a tourist staple and common in the frigid North
- Swedish hash ("pyttipannu"), (originally from Sweden, Swedish: "pytt i panna") a hearty dish of potatoes, onions and any meaty leftovers on hand fried up in a pan and topped with an egg
Cheese and other milk products are very popular in Finland. The most common varieties are mild hard cheeses like Edam and Emmental, but local specialities include:
- Aura cheese ( aurajuusto ), a local variety of blue cheese, also used in soups, sauces and as a pizza topping.
- Breadcheese ( leipajuusto or juustoleipa ), a type of very mild-flavored grilled curd that squeaks when you eat it, best enjoyed warm with a dab of cloudberry jam
- Piima , a type of buttermilk beverage, thick and sour
- Viili , a gelatinous, stretchy and sour variant of yoghurt
- Pea soup ( hernekeitto ), usually but not always with ham, traditionally eaten with a dab of mustard and served on Thursdays; just watch out for the flatulence!
- Karelian pies ( karjalanpiirakka ), an oval 7 by 10 cm baked pastry, traditionally baked with rye flour, containing rice porridge or mashed potato, ideally eaten topped with butter and chopped egg
- Porridge ( puuro ), usually made from oats ( kaura ), barley ( ohra ), rice ( riisi ) and rye ( ruis ) and most often served for breakfast
Bread ( leipa ) is served with every meal in Finland, and comes in a vast array of varieties. Rye bread is the most popular bread in Finland. Typically Finnish ones include:
- hapankorppu , dry, crispy and slightly sour flatbread, occasionally sold overseas as "Finncrisp"
- limppu , catch-all term for big loaves of fresh bread
- nakkileipa , another type of dark, dried, crispy rye flatbread
- ruisleipa (rye bread), can be up to 100% rye and much darker, heavier and chewier than American-style rye bread; unlike in Swedish tradition, Finnish rye bread is typically unsweetened and thus sour and even bitter.
- rieska , unleavened bread made from wheat or potatoes, eaten fresh
Seasonal and regional specialities
From the end of July until early September it's worthwhile to ask for crayfish ( rapu ) menus and prices at better restaurants. It's not cheap, you don't get full from the crayfish alone and there are many rituals involved, most of which involve large quantities of ice-cold vodka, but it should be tried at least once. Or try to sneak onto a corporate crayfish party guestlist, places are extremely coveted at some. Around Christmas, baked ham is the traditional star of the dinner table, with a constellation of casseroles around it.
For dessert or just as a snack, Finnish pastries abound and are often taken with coffee after a meal. Look for cardamom coffee bread ( pulla ), a wide variety of tarts ( torttu ), and donuts ( munkki ). In summer, a wide range of fresh berries are available, including the delectable but expensive cloudberry ( lakka ), and berry products are available throughout the year as jam ( hillo ), soup ( keitto ) and a type of gooey pudding or porridge known as kiisseli .
Finnish chocolate is also rather good, with Fazer products including their iconic Sininen ("Blue") bar exported around the world. A more Finnish speciality is licorice ( lakritsi ), particularly the strong, salty kind known as salmiakki , which gets its unique (and acquired) taste from ammonium chloride.
Places to eat
Finns tend to eat out only on special occasions, and restaurant prices are correspondingly expensive. The one exception is lunchtime , when thanks to a government-sponsored lunch coupon system company cafeterias and nearly every restaurant in town offers set lunches for around ˆ8-9, usually consisting of a main course, salad bar, bread table and a drink. University cafeterias, many of which are open to all, are particularly cheap with meals in the ˆ2-4 range for students, although without local student ID you will usually need to pay about ˆ 5-7.
For dinner, you'll be limited to generic fast food (pizza, hamburgers, kebabs and such) in the ˆ5-10 range, or you'll have to splurge over ˆ20 for a meal in a "nice" restaurant. For eating on the move, look for grill kiosks ( grilli ), which serve sausages, hamburgers and other portable if not terribly health-conscious fare late into the night at reasonable prices. In addition to the usual hamburgers and hot dogs, look for meat pies ( lihapiirakka ), akin to a giant savoury doughnut stuffed with minced meat and your choice of sausage, fried eggs and condiments. Hesburger is the local fast-food equivalent of McDonald's, with a similar menu. They have a "Finnish" interpretation of a few dishes, such as a sour-rye chicken sandwich. Of course most international fast food chains are present, especially McDonald's, which offers many of their sandwich buns substituted with a sour-rye bun on request.
The Finnish word for buffet is seisova poyta ("standing table"), and while increasingly used to refer to all-you-can-eat Chinese or Italian restaurants, the traditional meaning is akin to Sweden's smorgasbord : a good-sized selection of sandwiches, fish, meats and pastries. It's traditionally eaten in three rounds — first the fish, then the cold meats, and finally warm dishes — and it's usually the first that is the star of the show. Though expensive and not very common in a restaurant setting, if you are fortunate enough to be formally invited to a Finn's home, they will likely have prepared a spread for their guest, along with plenty of coffee. Breakfast at better hotels is also along these lines and it's easy to eat enough to cover lunch as well!
If you're really on a budget, you can save a considerable amount of money by self-catering . Ready-to-eat casseroles and other basic fare that can be quickly prepared in a microwave can be bought for a few euros in any supermarket. Note that you're usually expected to weigh and label any fruits or vegetables yourself (bag it, place it on the scale and press the numbered button. The correct number can be found from the price sign), and green signs mean possibly tastier but certainly more expensive organic ( luomu ) produce.
Traditional Finnish cuisine relies heavily on meat and fish, but vegetarianism ( kasvissyonti ) is increasingly popular and well-understood, and will rarely pose a problem for travellers. Practically all restaurants offer vegetarian options, often marked with a "V" on menus.
Two ailments commonly found among Finns themselves are lactose intolerance ( laktoosi-intoleranssi , inability to digest the milk sugar lactose) and coeliac disease ( keliakia , inability to digest gluten). In restaurants, lactose-free selections are often tagged "L" (low-lactose products are sometimes called "Hyla"), while gluten-free options are marked with "G". However, hydrolyzed lactose (HYLA brand) milk for the lactose intolerant is widely available, which also means that a lactose-free dish is not necessarily milk-free. Allergies are quite common among Finnish people, too, so restaurant workers are usually quite knowledgeable on what goes into each dish and often it is possible to get the dish without certain ingredients if specified.
Kosher and halal food are rare in Finland and generally not available outside very limited speciality shops and restaurants catering to the tiny Jewish and Islamic communities. Watch out for minced meat dishes like meatballs, which very commonly use a mix of beef and pork. The Jewish Community of Helsinki runs a small kosher deli in Helsinki.
Thanks to its thousands of lakes, Finland has plenty of water supplies and tap water is always potable. The usual soft drinks and juices are widely available, but look out for a wide array of berry juices ( marjamehu ), especially in summer, as well as Pommac , an unusual soda made from (according to the label) "mixed fruits", which you'll either love or hate.
Coffee and tea
Finns are the world's heaviest coffee ( kahvi ) drinkers, averaging 3-4 cups per day. Most Finns drink it strong and black, but sugar and milk for coffee are always available and the more European variants such as espresso and cappuccino are becoming all the more common especially in the bigger cities. Oddly, Starbucks hasn't arrived in Finland yet, but all the biggest towns have had French-style fancy cafes for quite some time and modern competitors are springing up in the mix. For a quick caffeine fix, you can just pop into any convenience store, which will pour you a cuppa for ˆ2 or so. Tea hasn't quite caught on in quite the same way, although finding hot water and a bag of Lipton Yellow Label won't be a problem. For brewed tea, check out some of the finer downtown cafes or tea rooms.
In Finland it is quite common for people of all ages to drink milk ( maito ) as an accompaniment to food. Another popular option is piima , or buttermilk. Viili , a type of curd, acts like super-stretchy liquid bubble gum but is similar to plain yogurt in taste. Fermented dairy products help stabilize the digestion system, so if your system is upset, give them a try.
Alcohol is very expensive in Finland compared to most countries (though not to its Nordic neighbours Sweden and Norway ), although low-cost Estonia 's entry to the EU has forced the government to cut alcohol taxes a little. Still, a single beer will cost you closer to ˆ5 in any bar or pub, or ˆ1 and up in a supermarket. While beer and cider are available in any supermarket or convenience store (until 9 PM), the state monopoly Alko is your sole choice for wine or anything stronger. The legal drinking age is 18 for milder drinks, while to buy hard liquor from Alko you need to be 20. ID is usually requested from all young-looking clients. Some restaurants have higher age requirements, up to 30 years, but these are their own policies and are not always followed, especially at more quiet times.
Surprisingly enough, the national drink is not Finlandia Vodka, but its local brand Koskenkorva or Kossu in common speech. However, the two drinks are closely related: Kossu is 38% while Finlandia is 40%, and Kossu also has a small amount of added sugar, which makes the two drinks taste somewhat different. There are also many other vodkas ( viina ) on the market, most of which taste pretty much the same, but look out for Strom , "The Spirit of Santa", a Finnish attempt at a super-premium vodka.
Finland enjoys a comparatively low crime rate and is, generally, a very safe place to travel. Use common sense at night, particularly on Friday and Saturday when the youth of Finland hit the streets to get drunk and in some unfortunate cases look for trouble. It is statistically more likely that your home country is less safe than Finland, so heed whatever warnings you would do in your own country and you will have no worries. If you yourself run in with the law, remember that Finland is one of the world's least corrupt countries and you will not be able to buy yourself out of trouble.
Racism is a generally of minor concern, especially in the cosmopolitan major cities, but there have been a few rare but highly publicized incidents of black or Arab people getting beaten up by gangs. The average visitor, though, is highly unlikely to encounter any problems.
Pickpockets are rare, but not unheard of, especially in the busy tourist months in the summer. Most Finns carry their wallets in their pockets or purses and feel quite safe while doing it. Parents often leave their sleeping babies in a baby carriage on the street while visiting a shop, and in the countryside cars and house doors are often left unlocked. On the other hand, you have to be careful if you buy or rent a bicycle. Bicycle thieves are everywhere, never leave your bike unlocked even for a minute.