Finland in December is freezing cold, usually below freezing temperature (-4 to -10°C). I’m usually in Finland at the end of the year and spend 3 weeks here to celebrate Christmas. After a 12-hour direct flight on Finnair, we finally landed in Helsinki. The Finnish capital is fabulous in the winter – city lights wrap across buildings in a fairy tale stupor. The snow piles up and sometimes you might be ankle-deep in snow.
I was very fortunate to know some Finnish friends here and his family took me in. Thus, the bulk of my time was spent in Savonlinna and I got to wake up everyday to the breathtaking frozen beauty that encapsulates most Finnish scenery. Finnish lifestyle is relaxed, slow-paced and quiet.
Winter Essentials In Finland
My experience in the icy Nordics on how to travel lightweight, stay warm and look good are all listed here in this packing guide. But for the basic rundown on must-have essentials:
- 1 winter parka
- 3 wool tights and thermal leggings
- 4-5 mohair, cashmere and knitted sweaters
- arctic hat with ear flaps
- winter scarf
- 1 bottle of mineral water, Nivea chapstick and coconut moisturiser
What To Do
#1 Immerse in Finnish Culture
Finland is home to over 1,000 lakes, forests and unadulterated wilderness. Known for being the home of santa claus, tourists often visit in December to experience the magical winter wonderland of Lapland and Northern Lights. Without a doubt Finland will take your breath away.
But there’s more to Finnish culture than the aurora borealis and husky rides.
Wonder what do the Finns do during Christmas? Finnish people are quite traditional and family-oriented. Christmas is a very special time of the year and Finns take great care to celebrate and be close to their loved ones. It is a joyous time of togetherness and gifting.
The finnish word for Christmas is “joulu”.
Christmas Feast in Finland
Finns begin the celebration on Christmas Eve which is the most special day of the season. It is customary to send Christmas wishes via postcards, instead of email/sms/Facebook posts.
Most homes are decorated with a Christmas tree and candle-lit dinners. Families gather around the fireplace and enjoy each others company over chocolates, coffee, baked ham, and Finnish pastries (Joulutorttu).
In the evening around 5:30pm, we start with traditional Christmas porridge followed by a huge christmas feast.
Rice porridge (Riisipuuro) is a festive dish in Nordic countries made especially for Christmas.
Having lived in Singapore all my life, I’ve never tasted porridge that is cooked with milk. So it took me some time to get used to its exquisite taste – not my favourite but still worth a try!
- Christmas Rice Porridge: rice slowly simmered in milk. It’s topped with sugar, cinnamon and a pat of butter. Children love this rice porridge especially with fruit jam or bilberry compote.
- Parma Ham: Dry cured ham thats thinly sliced.
- Smoked Salmon: Cold smoked salmon with sea salt. It tastes fantastic on its own but can be mixed with mayo and herbs.
- Rutabaga casserole: Baked rutabaga (turnips) mashed with carrots, butter and sugar. An incredibly delicious dish with a nutty and sweet flavour.
- Karjalanpiirakka: made of thin rye crust and rice filling. Also known as Karelian pastry.
Winter Photography in Finland
In the winter, Finland is a picturesque wonderland covered in pure white snow. Sometimes the lakes are not frozen yet and the soft flowing waters juxtaposed against the suburban forests almost seem like a fairytale.
- The days are shorter during winter, the sun rises at around 9am and sets around 2:30pm. You may have to factor that in during outdoor shooting.
- Temperatures can go below -5 degrees and the air is dry and cold. Pack the right gear to make the most of your photography trips. I fancy the arctic hat with ear flaps and cashmere winter scarf for keeping warm.
#1 Olavinlinna Castle
Olavinlinna Castle is a popular tourist attraction in Savonlinna, Eastern Finland. Olavinlinna Castle hosts the famous Opera festival held in July every year. In the winter, where days are short and the sky darkens in mid-day, Olavinlinna Castle stands majestically amidst a dreamy winterland.
#2 Uspenski Cathedral
The Uspenski Cathedral is on Katajanokka hill, near the harbour and Old Market. There are several staircases up to the Cathedral, but you won’t break a sweat with the cold weather. Be careful as the snow might make the pathway slippery. The interior is quite spectacular, with orthodox designs and huge chandeliers decorate it’s dome ceilings.
Every Finnish home has a sauna and there are some public saunas as well. In Helsinki, the Rauhaniemi National Park is a popular choice amongst tourists for outdoor sauna. Remember to bring your bikini/swim suit.
What To Eat
If you’re in Finland, try some local Finnish food by visiting any city market. There’s a huge variety of fresh produce and packed foods that you can bring home.
Finnish meals often comprises of wholemeal such as rye and oats, berries such as cloudberries, sea buckthorn and lingonberries (also used in juices), potatoes and rice, meat and fish, and blue cheese.
Blue cheese has now become one of my favourite foods and snacking on them with crackers make the best combo.
Coffee, Chocolates, Gingerbread
Finnish people love to drink coffee. They drink about 3-4 cups of freshly brewed coffee every day.
A household favourite Juhkla Mokka brand and each packet costs 4 euros.
Restaurants in Finland
Eating out in Finland is moderately expensive. A restaurant meal for 2 people cost about 70-80 euros. In Helsinki, there are a number of cruise dinners and Toripojat is a nice cafe located in the market square by the harbour for a coffee break.
Finnish cuisine is known for their seafood and cold cuts. My usual menu picks are pan-fried salmon, dory and a platter of mixed salami.
In Savonlinna, we frequented this nice Finnish restaurant, Majakka. The atmosphere was really romantic, dimly lit and we got a table next to the window. What really stood out was the customer service and food quality. The waiter who attended to us was very friendly and helpful – we ended up ordering more than we could finish!
- Moomin Cups and Plates
- Finnish food:
- Juhkla Mokka Coffee
- Karl Fazer Milk Chocolates, Toffee
- Winter Clothing – huge discounts at H&M during late December. Jackets go as low as 20 euros.
- Knitted gloves, socks and beanie
Shopping and Food
There are a number of shopping malls in Helsinki, but the best one is Kamppi Shopping Centre. There are 5 levels in the mall and there are many varieties of cafes, restaurants, designer shops and everything else. You will find an exquisite selection of dinning options on the 5th floor.
Sokos is another popular destination for cosmetics, fashion and premium goods.
It was a 4-hour drive from Helsinki to Savonlinna, but the conventional route is by train or domestic flight.
Trains run everyday and cost around €20 – 60. Book them in advance to enjoy cheaper fares. Tickets can be found here.
Taking the plane is 3x the price but if you have the budget, then it’s the fastest way. I tried to book a flight back to Helsinki on a weekend but no luck, as the flights only serve weekdays.
If you plan on staying around Helsinki then travelling by public commute is the easiest and cheapest option. I really would not recommend taking the taxi (Taksi) as it’s crazy expensive and fares start at € 5.90.
The Helsinki Central railway station is conveniently located and connected to many Finnish cities and airports.
Walking on foot in this weather was no easy feat. So the best way was to knock down as many places as possible within a close proximity. My next stop was near Helsinki’s main market square by the harbour. Other attractions nearby: