A Slow Week in Finland

Finland has been on my wish list for years. The Nordic country that felt a little bit elusive; that little bit further away. I had been dreaming of design-focused cities, the Arctic wilderness and the Northern Lights. Last week, I got to experience this magical country firsthand. 

We spent one night & one full day in Helsinki, before boarding the night train up to Rovaniemi - the gateway to Finnish Lapland. We then spent three days exploring Rovaniemi before hopping on the night train back down south for a final morning in Helsinki. A short but sweet trip that allowed me to experience Finland while whetting my appetite for exploring this country more. 

Helsinki is an incredible city. There’s so much to see & do here - especially if you’re into architecture & design. One of my highlights of our short time in the city was touring Alvar Aalto’s house. The iconic Finnish architect & designer’s home was a Modernist’s dream; all large windows, angular lines and wood detailing. Needless to say, I took a lot of photos during our tour. 

For someone who values a slower pace of travel, it seems like I crammed a lot into our only full day in the city. Following an evening of exploring the many bars of the Kallio district (the place to head for laid-back drinks), we rose early to check out of our Airbnb and store our bags in the luggage lockers at the train station (only €6 for the day to store all our bags - a lifesaver when you have full days without accommodation!) We then headed to the Rock Church where we sat for a while listening to a pianist. I’m not religious, but there was something incredibly peaceful and soothing about the space. After I’d marveled at the architecture (bare rock walls & a copper domed ceiling) I was content to just sit and think. After the church, we headed north to visit the Sibelius monument - getting distracted on the way by wagons filled with school children throwing sweets at us; apparently a pre-graduation tradition. We stopped for lunch at Regatta cafe, right by the frozen water. I’m vegetarian, but if you eat meat you can grill your own sausages outside on the fire pit. Even if you’ve chosen another option, it’s still nice to sit by the fire with a cup of hot juice. The afternoon was spent at the Alvar Aalto house, before catching the bus back into the centre to browse the stores of the design district and enjoy a few lazy drinks followed by dinner, before eventually boarding our train at 11pm.

I found the night train the perfect mode of transport for how I like to travel: slow and steady. The journey to Rovaniemi takes 12 hours, so the time we chose was perfect. We went to bed almost immediately, tucking into our small bunks and drifting off while being pleasantly rocked by the momentum of the train. In the morning we rose to watch the snowy scenery on our approach to Rovaniemi. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights out of the window - they were apparently visible both nights we were on the train but the track is too brightly lit to be able to see anything. 

Our Airbnb in Rovaniemi was just south of the centre, in a residential neighbourhood right by the river. The centre of the town is nothing special - lots of nondescript concrete buildings and Christmas decorations bizarrely still up in February. There are a few alright bars and places to eat, but this isn’t somewhere you visit to stay indoors. I’d recommend getting out of town and closer to nature, like we did. 

 Our first day, we stuck close to our Airbnb, taking things slow. The river was completely frozen and covered in deep snow, tempting us out for a long walk across and around it’s banks. There’s no fear of thin ice here - there were plenty of locals skiing and walking on the frozen water and even a temporary road with cars driving across (only head out onto the ice if you see locals doing the same thing). We headed back to our accommodation to pick up a couple of sledges before whiling away a few hours sledging down from the woods that line the riverbank. Later that night we headed back down to the river to watch for the Northern Lights, but sadly clouds thwarted us throughout our trip.  

The next day, it was time for our eagerly awaited (and incredibly expensive) husky safari. We opted for Bearhill Husky as I’d read good things about how they treated their dogs. All the reviews I read recommended staying clear of the animal attractions at the Santa Claus Village and heading out to the farms that surrounded Rovaniemi. The dogs did appear to be treated well, and all of the other teams seemed to be led by happy and enthusiastic dogs that raced around the course. However, we were allocated Siberian huskeys (rather than the Alaskan huskeys that the other teams had) and our dogs seemed to be overheating and lethargic. When we questioned this, we were told that it was technically too hot for this long-haired breed and we had to help the dogs out by kicking behind us on the sled. Feeling sorry for the dogs, both of us took our turns at the back of the sled kicking as hard as we could - not really making us move any faster and exhausting us. Overall, it was a good experience and we could see that the workers really cared for the dogs, but our huskeys were too hot & tired and shouldn’t have been out that day. If you’re planning a husky safari, I’d recommend asking questions before you start. If we’d known prior to setting off that our huskeys were likely to overheat, we would have insisted that the Siberian huskeys sat out of the safari.

Our final day in Lapland, we headed to Ounasvaara, a nature area right by the centre. This is also where you’ll find the ski slopes and cross-country ski trails. We hiked uphill in the snow, aiming for Nakoalatorni, an observation tower and wooden lean-to with fire pits for grilling your own food. We stayed here for a while, admiring the view and warming up by the fire, before heading back down the hill on a little track we found sneaking through the woods. At the bottom of the hill, we stumbled upon a small Turkish cafe, Sweet Home, where we enjoyed a drink and shared a delicious Turkish bread. We lingered here a while as Dave enjoyed a jam on traditional Turkish musical instruments with the owner of the cafe. We then walked back into town and drank hot berry juice in a cafe before boarding the night train back to Helsinki. 

Again, I’d recommend the night train to anyone travelling the length of Finland. The trains are environmentally friendly, thus much better for your carbon footprint that hopping on another flight. The sleeper berths can be booked for 2-4 people and are really good value for money if you book in advance and secure a saver ticket. We paid around €90 each return for our private cabin, which when you factor in the two 12-hour journeys and two nights accommodation is really good value for money.

Our final morning in Helsinki we arrived at 6.30 and quickly located a cosy cafe to sit and while away a few hours. Dave had a nap and I caught up with some work and read for a while. We then briefly visited the Chapel of Silence, admiring the structure of the small building and soaking up the tranquility. Similar to the Rock Church, there was a sense of peacefulness here that I just don’t get from traditional churches. If I lived in Helsinki, I imagine that I’d enjoy coming here with a book or a notepad and pen on a regular basis. Before heading to the airport, we headed to the adjacent Amos Rex gallery. I’ve got to admit that I was slightly disappointed here. The building itself is impressive, but I didn’t realise that the gallery has no permanent collections and the two current exhibitions didn’t interest me.

I found Finland to be the perfect destination for a slow paced trip. There’s no rush to run around and tick off everything you want to do; rather, I found the country perfectly adapted to taking it slowly. We lingered for hours in cafes, restaurants and bars, slept in late most days, and clocked in huge amounts of daily steps just walking around. Like the rest of the Nordic countries that I have visited, Finland seemed perfectly adapted for a slower pace of travel. 

Yes, it isn’t cheap, but compared to previous trips to Norway and Iceland, Finland felt much more affordable. The food and drink that we consumed felt on par with prices in Manchester or London, although we didn’t find a cheap supermarket. We flew with Finnair for around £150 each return from Manchester to Helsinki, and didn’t pay more than £35 a night for accommodation. By far the largest expense of the trip was the husky safari, but that was a Christmas present from my parents. All of the excursions and activities in Lapland are expensive, so we chose to only pay for the one experience and spent the rest of our time exploring our surroundings.

Would I return to Finland? I’m already planning another trip here next winter, hopefully hiring a car and travelling further north to stay in isolated cabins, venture further into the wilderness and eventually catch a glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights.