Land and People
Finland is one of the world's northernmost countries, stretching 1,157 kilometers (719 mi) from its southern point to far beyond the Arctic Circle in the extreme north. It is often called the land of a thousand lakes with some 188,000 lakes, large and small. Finland is also a land of thousands of forests, covering about 70 percent of the land. The vast forests and untouched landscapes provide habitats for a multitude of wild animals and birds. You can find the world’s rarest seal, the Saimaa ringed seal, only in Lake Saimaa—Finland’s largest lake.
Lapland—The Land of the Midnight Sun and Northern Lights
In the northernmost part of Finland lies the exotic Lapland. The area reaches well beyond the Arctic Circle and covers about one third of Finland—an area larger than the whole of Portugal. The distance from Helsinki to the Arctic Circle is over 800 kilometers (500 mi), about a 10-hour drive. The range of landscapes varies from large expanses of tundra to rounded fells, and includes silent lakes, open bogs, and flowing rivers.
Another intriguing phenomenon of Lapland is the aurora borealis, or the northern lights. When the summer gives way to dark winter, the northern lights appear and light up the sky. They are created when winds of electrically charged solar particles collide with the Earth's atmosphere. The northern lights can appear up to 200 nights a year for a spectacular light show stretching across the sky for thousands of kilometers.
Lapland is the home of the indigenous Sámi people. The Sámi population is about 10,000 in Finland. Reindeer herding has been the traditional livelihood of the people. A remote translation office has been set up in the north of Finland to translate Bible-based literature into Sámi.
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One of the most memorable experiences in Lapland is the midnight sun. During the summer, the sun shines through the night. In fact, a single summer day in Lapland lasts over two months! This is an extreme contrast to Lapland's winter, the polar night. The sun remains below the horizon for over two months, and there are only a few hours of twilight around noon.
Helsinki is the second northernmost capital in the world. It has retained some of its small-town feel and the market square is still surrounded by 19th century architecture. The Helsinki metropolitan area is home to 1.4 million people. Helsinki is a vibrant seaside city of beautiful islands and large green parks.
There are four distinct seasons in Finland. Summer is short, lasting from June to August. It is warm and bright with almost 20 hours of daylight at the latitude of Helsinki. The temperature is usually near 20°C (68°F) or higher.
The longest season is winter, when frost and snow turn the scenery into picture-perfect "postcards." The usual winter temperature varies from 5°C to -20°C (41°F to -4°F). Great fluctuations in temperature are possible. Snow is frequent and brightens up the short winter days when daylight lasts only about six hours in Helsinki. The northern parts of the Baltic Sea are often covered with ice, and icebreakers with reinforced hulls must plow through frozen water to keep sea traffic moving. The temperature in northern Finland can fall as low as -40°C (-40°F).
Many enjoy escaping to the countryside or the wilderness to relax or walk in the woods. A vacation cottage is a traditional part of Finnish holidays, especially during the summer. There are over 500,000 summer cottages and cabins dotted around Finland, typically beside lakes or the sea.
Another essential Finnish tradition is the sauna. It is estimated that there are over 2 million saunas in Finland, for a population of 5.5 million. Saunas are found from summer cottages to studio apartments, and almost all Finns have access to one.
Finland is a technologically advanced nation. New technology and the latest gadgets are adopted quickly both in business and in domestic use. Wireless Internet broadband connections reach even to remote wilderness areas.
There has been complete freedom of religion in Finland since 1923. Most Finns (74 percent) belong to the Evangelical-Lutheran Church (Protestant), while one percent are members of the Orthodox Church. In spite of these figures, Finland is regarded as a very secular country. Religion is often considered a private matter not to be publicly demonstrated.
Finnish cuisine is a mixture of European, Scandinavian, and Russian elements. Traditional food culture in Finland is uncomplicated and based on ingredients that vary according to the season. Typical ingredients are meat (including game and reindeer), fish, berries, mushrooms, dairy products, bread, potatoes, herbs, and root vegetables.
Traditional Finnish dishes include: salmon soup, Baltic herring and new potatoes, pea soup, flamed or smoked salmon, rye bread, Karelian pastry, blueberry pie, and cinnamon buns.
Finns are heavy coffee-consumers: 12 kilograms (26 pounds) of beans per person per year. That comes to about five cups of coffee for every person in Finland—every day.
Both Finnish and Swedish are official languages. Some 90 percent of the population are Finnish-speaking and some 5 percent speak Swedish as their native language. Most of the Swedish speakers live on the south and west coasts of the country. Apart from loaned words, Finnish and Swedish do not resemble each other as languages. The third language having a legal status in Finland is Sámi. Many Finns also speak English.
Picture credits: Visit Finland/Juho Kuva/Thomas Kast/Pekka Lehtonen/Antero Aaltonen, Visit Helsinki/Paul Williams/Niklas Sjöblom