As I stood there, air guitar in one hand, virtual plectrum in the other, riffing to Rockin’ in the Free World, I couldn’t help but think of how I would be able to explain what a unique place Finland was.
While many nations brand themselves as a unique destination, Finland is one of the first that I can genuinely say has opened my eyes to new experiences I would not have thought possible.
The Finnish capital of Helsinki has long flirted with the tourism spotlight, and it is easy to see why. With a host of fantastic cultural offerings and attractions, the city is ideal for either weekend breaks or longer stays.
However, if you truly want to experience and understand Finnish culture, then there is only one place to start. The sauna. Our first venture from our city centre hotel was to Lonna Island. Their public sauna is just a short boat trip from Helsinki and offers a log-built cabin with lofts for both men and women. While each cabin is separate, there is a public area for those who wish to cool off (a dip in the sea is suggested by locals), and it is the perfect way to take the edge off your flight and unwind.
This year Finland has been celebrating 100 years of independence, and like many forward-thinking nations, the country is not only embracing the past but also building for the future, with significant investment in the arts. From popular tourist attraction Helsinki Cathedral to the latest passion for street art, Helsinki’s cultural sector is thriving.
While the proposed street art tour is not yet available, a good substitute might be the Tom of Finland experience – which gives an insight into the life of the Finnish artist and local hero Touko Valio Laaksonen whose homoerotic fetish art greatly influenced late twentieth century gay culture.
During our trip we got the chance to experience Night of the Arts, an evening in which public areas, shops and parks opened up their doors to the arts, welcoming live bands, magic shows and choirs to celebrate the culture of the city. There were hundreds of events of all kinds held in venues which ranged in grandeur from a spot beneath the cathedral to inside a department store, after hours.
A passion for food and drink is also apparent in Helsinki and a must do during your stay is an excursion to the Tislaamo Distillery, home to the Helsinki Distilling Company. Founded in 2013, the distillery is where the exceptionally popular Helsinki Dry Gin is made. You can arrange a behind the scenes tour and the distillery also caters to guests with some fantastic food. Although it mainly focuses on gin production, the company is branching out and hopes to create a whisky. The company also has plans to build a sauna which could be heated using the excess energy from the distillery, effectively meaning that it could be close to inventing the world’s first whisky powered sauna. If that isn’t appealing, then frankly, I don’t know what is.
While city breaks to Helsinki are growing in popularity, visitors who want to explore more of the country are also on the rise. Finland is known for its outlandish sporting and cultural challenges, including swamp football. Another of its unusual competitions is the World Air Guitar Championships, held in Oulu every year. Taking a break from Helsinki, we travelled to Oulu to experience not only the north of the country but to get a feel for the event. While it sounds bizarre, it is only when watching the competitors, that you realise the skill and ability of those taking part. It’s open to all and rather refreshingly doesn’t take itself too seriously. As an initial sceptic, it was hard to resist the infectious nature of the event, and before I knew it, I was rocking out with the rest of them.
From the opportunity to experience a country’s commitment to champion the world’s oddest passions, to the chance to experience nature at its purest, there’s something for everyone in Finland. ■
Flights from Glasgow-Amsterdam/Amsterdam-Helsinki with KLM (www.klm.com) start from £109.
Rooms at the Scandic Hotel Paasi (www.scandichotels.com, +358 9 2311700), start from £87 per night.
Lonna Island Sauna (www.lonna.fi/en) offers a two hour session for e16 with a e5 charge for towels. The seasonal restaurant on the island must be pre-booked, see www.lonna.fi/en/restaurant
The Helsinki Distilling Company (https://hdco.fi/) located on the outskirts of the city centre offers tours, tastings and food.
For more information see Visit Finland, www.visitfinland.com