I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. Venture into unchartered waters, if you will. Take the untrodden path. You get the picture…
I am going to dish out advice. Yes, you read that right — you may call me Aunty Akanksha from now on if it makes you feel better (read: please don’t).
Now, truth be told, this isn’t just any sort of advice — I’m the last person to tell you what to do if you think your goldfish Goldie is having a stroke (though I should think mouth to mouth is a no-no); or if you think your celebrity crush is cheating on you with someone else (I’ve been there, medicate with Ben and Jerry’s and wine, repeat when needed). This is travel specific advice — what not to do when you’re in the middle of an East African conservation with carnivorous creatures running free (do not ask the driver to use the restroom, for example – yes, that’s happened). Or what to wear when you’re headed to a temple in Thailand (when in doubt, cover up is always best in Asia, I’ve found). Or what to do when your credit card has been stolen (yes, that also happened).
So, without further ado, I give you part one to my travel tips series (sorry, that was actually a lot of ‘ado’ before), but here you go:
10 Essential travel tips for visiting Finland
When in doubt, use your birthday suit. Also, it’s pronounced ‘sowna’ – ‘ow’ like ‘Ow, I stubbed my toe’
Finns are typically really relaxed about nudity. Most Finnish houses, if not all have saunas in them. Unless otherwise stated, be sure to not wear your bathing suit into the sauna (Finns believe them to be unclean, and to be quite honest, you’d be harbouring way more sweat in your swimmers than if you were starkers). If you’re uncomfortable, wrapping a towel is your next best bet, or if you’re visiting a Finnish household, simply ask your host if they would mind you wearing your bathing suit.
Obviously take off all jewellery, watches, etc. and shower before entering the sauna. Since higher benches within the sauna are hotter, if you’re a first timer, I’d suggest staying on lower benches, showering in cold water when you’re feeling uncomfortable or if your heart rate is up there, and avoid sauna-ing alone.
Hydrate well after the sauna, especially if ‘sauna beers’ were involved (see my post ‘The Cows Wear Bras in Finland‘ for more details).
Finnish, English, and Swedish are commonly spoken in Finland.
Finns, like most Scandinavians, have a fairly good grasp of English. In bigger cities like Helsinki you should have no problem communicating with people. However, smaller, more rural areas are an entirely different deal. I would recommend picking up a translation dictionary if you plan a trip into the remote parts of the country, for caution’s sake. I came across a really handy app (available for iOS and Android) called Learn Finnish while I was there and I found it invaluable in smaller towns in Central Finland. You could also use Finnish Dictionary +, which is now a much better alternative.
3 Pre-paid SIM Cards
R-Kiosks (dépanneur-type stores) keep pre-paid SIM cards. I picked up a Saunalahti one for under €10 (including credit) and you can upgrade to a data plan if you want to. I thought it had excellent coverage and since it could also be topped up online, it was fairly hassle free. To the best of my knowledge, there were few, if any, telephone booths in Helsinki and I rarely saw one in the country towns.
4 Rail Transport
You can book tickets, check rates, and look up routes at www.vr.fi/en
Finland has an excellent railway system. Most trains in Finland have dining carts, and although they’re overpriced, they do serve stellar brews! Be sure to keep to yourself and not disrupt passengers on the train. Finns are extremely careful, courteous people by nature and they consider what we might take for harmless actions, like talking on the phone, to be rather rude, especially when the cart is fairly quiet.
5 Souvenir Shopping
Jewellery, woodcarvings, glasswork, and
coffee chocolate more.
Finnish souvenirs are fairly diverse depending on where you visit. Spectrolite jewellery is a popular choice, found in Roveniemi or at the Helsinki Harbour Markets, and amber, which is especially outstanding in quality in Tallinn. Angry Birds, and Moomin are also Finnish-born, and everything from themed candies to coffees are available. Personally, I’ve found woodcarvings from the Lapland area to be exceptionally unique, alongside iittala glasswork
To tip or not to tip?
Most restaurants and bars include a service fee in their bill, so tipping is not necessary, and quite frankly, not the ‘Finnish way’ of acknowledging your satisfaction. However, smaller, family-run establishments might not agree, so it’s always worth asking. Also, taxi drivers and most hotel staff do not expect tips either. That said, it is deemed polite to round up a bill in smallest possible denominations, especially if you, as a customer, have inconvenienced anyone serving you.
7 Cultural Differences
Although few Finns I know take offence to it, smiling at strangers or making eye contact when you’re passing someone on the street is considered impolite. Why? Simply because they believe that 9 times out of 10 your smile is faux and insincere. As alien a concept as it might seem, elderly Finns in particular do not take well to a grin when passed on the street. I speak from experience here. Your grin will be returned with a frown and if you’re exceptionally unlucky, a concise but slightly dispiriting speech on why smiling at strangers is a no-no!
Finnish mosquitoes are no joke. Seriously, take it from someone who has lived in Tropical and Equatorial climes – Arctic mosquitoes are a whole new level of evil. Having been bitten through shirts, and once through a pair of jeans, I can wholeheartedly say Arctic mosquitoes work for their blood. I thoroughly recommend stocking up on local mosquito repellent. I experimented with several (none of the sprays work, so you want to look for something in liquid form that’s ‘not suitable for children’) and I found the ‘Off!’ brand to be the most effective for keeping the buzzing vampires away.
Camp (almost) anywhere, and help yourself to some home-grown edibles in the forest.
Under a ‘right to roam’ clause (jokamiehenoikeus), anyone can camp on Finnish land for free, as long as it’s not a residential area. Berries, mushrooms and caught fish are also free for all to enjoy under a similar clause. Be sure to know what you’re picking though (especially when it comes to ‘shrooms and berries), here are a couple of good resources for mushroom pickers and berry pickers.
10 Whether the weather matters
Having visited from Canada, I found the summer to be best suited for someone like me. Someone who enjoys the odd (read: frequent) drink and festivities which accompany the summer months, namely Juhannus, the midsummer festival. That said, a younger version of me, who’d have visited from somewhere in the Emirates, probably would have said the winter was more worth my while.
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