In the seemingly constant quest to find the next, must-visit hidden gem before everyone else does, Finland is set up to gain fans in the simplest of ways: being its family-friendly self. Short of Helsinki, the typical U.S. visitor can’t pronounce the name of a single Finnish place; even finding Helsinki on a map might take a moment for some. But that sense of not knowing makes for an even better first impression.
When arriving in Finland, chances are you’ll be landing in Helsinki. (Helsinki-Vantaa Airport is the main international gateway, although it’s worth noting that five of Finland’s 27 airports have regular international flight services.) As the second-most northerly capital in the world — Reykjavík, Iceland, claims the No. 1 spot — Helsinki may have a short summer season, but the days are long. When the sun doesn’t set until well after 10p, it’s as good an excuse as any to push bedtime back.
Head to the beach. Along with plenty of warm, soft sand, Eiranranta Beach has a calm and shallow swimming area. If hunger strikes, it’s a quick stroll along the water to Löyly. Grab a tasty cinnamon roll or two, and get a seat outside to take in the seaside view.
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Helsinki is an easily walkable city, and families can comfortably see many of its highlights on foot. Set on the scenic waterfront, Market Square is arguably the city’s best-known market for traditional food, artisan goods and souvenirs. Busy but not too busy, its tents are fun to wander with kids in tow.
Vanha Kauppahalli, the Old Market Hall, dates back to 1888 and is within eyesight of many of the pop-ups at Market Square. Inside, 25 merchants call the bustling space home, offering everything from Vietnamese food to American baked goods, fish and coffee. (Finns drink more coffee than folks anywhere else — including Italy.)
Once everyone’s full, indulge in a spin on the Skywheel Helsinki. It’s most likely the first thing the kids noticed when you arrived at Market Square. This seaside Ferris wheel provides a bird’s-eye view of the city, and you’ll see things you might have missed from the ground, like the swimming pools sunk into the harbor.
There are three swimming pools at Allas Sea Pool that basically float on top of the Baltic Sea. Open year-round, the Big Pool and the Children’s Pool are heated and filled with fresh water; the Sea Pool is filled with water from the sea. It’s filtered but not heated. The location is so unique that it’s simply fun to watch for a bit, even if you have no plans to get in.
Ferries come and go within earshot of the pools. In less than 10 minutes, the JT-Line ferry will drop you on Lonna Island. You could simply stay on the boat and just enjoy the ride, but if you plan it around mealtime, the one and only restaurant on the island is worth the stop. The menu changes with the season, focusing on Finnish products along with organic and locally grown produce. As an extra bonus, tables on the terrace give kids room to move around if the need arises.
If you’ve pondered introducing the family to the Finnish sauna culture, Lonna Island is a comfortable place to do it. There are two large saunas, one for men and one for women. Traditionally, Finns use saunas naked, even with strangers. That said, they understand visitors may have inhibitions. On Lonna Island, families won’t feel uncomfortable if they give the experience a go in swimsuits.
Time in Finland shouldn’t be limited to Helsinki. Hop a flight to Joensuu and in less than an hour, you’ll touch down in the easternmost province of Finland, in an area called North Karelia. It’s home to Koli National Park (one of 40 in the country), where the scenery is credited with inspiring many Finnish artists. Hiking trails are moderate enough for a family adventure; it’s the views of Lake Pielinen from the top of Ukko-Koli hill that will leave the entire family breathless.
For a fun twist on going out to dinner, eat in a traditional Finnish hut that makes you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. While salmon cooks on an open fire outside, families can get cozy inside at tables that wrap around roaring fire. The folks at Koli Activ Oy will have everything you need, from juice for the kids to beer and wine for parents. Expect classic Finn dishes like egg butter (it’s like egg salad, but with butter), hot Karelian pastries and plenty of warm desserts for everyone.
If the kids take a liking to the funny-looking but tasty Karelian pastries, book a Karelian pastry workshop with Männikkölä Pirtti. With fabulous English and a lovely smile, instructor Ritva can teach anyone of any age how to make these delicacies. After her 30-plus years of experience in the kitchen, Ritva’s pastries are famous throughout Finland. Her kitchen and guesthouse can be a little tricky to find, so pay attention to the directions given.
North Karelia boasts about 2,000 lakes, and every trip should involve some time on the water. Unless the Ruunaan Matkailu captain really likes you, the rapids along the Lieksa River are strong enough to ensure you’ll get wet, but mild enough that even the youngest of kids can float along. (On my trip, the back of the boat was much drier than the front.)
Trips begin just three miles (5km) from the Russian border. Traditional wooden boats are recommended for families with younger kids, but families with tweens and teens can choose a rubber raft to make the journey. A scenic lunch stop provides a chance to dry off. Interested kids and parents are welcome to grab a stick and cook sausages over a campfire, or just relax and grab food from a generous buffet of Finnish cuisine and drink. At the end of the adventure, everyone gets their own rapids-shooting diploma along with bragging rights.
Originally a campsite for lumberjacks, Erä Eero offers rustic wildlife observation cabins in a stretch of forest where Finland’s wild things call home. Wolverines and bears share the same forest as woodpeckers, swans and seagulls. Evening accommodations are rustic, with sleeping bag-topped camp beds, dry toilets and minimal heat. There are no lights or electricity, just a large stretch of windows with surprisingly comfy chairs to spend hours sitting, watching and waiting for company. Listening devices bring the sounds of the outside in, and can alert you when visitors arrive.
Once in the cabin, you can’t go outside, so this is an activity best suited for older children. The quieter you are, the better the odds of visitors. Food is left outside to get critters’ attention, but noise will scare away even hungry bears. That said, when the first bear wanders by, staying quiet is nearly impossible.
Editor’s Note: Dana’s trip to Finland was sponsored by Visit Finland and Finnair. As always, our thoughts and opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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