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For outdoorsy families who relish fresh air and the chance to try out new open-air activities, Finland makes for a great destination for family holidays. Most of the organized trips to the Sámi territory of Lapland to see Santa go to the part of Lapland that lies in northern Finland. But the country’s far-eastern province of Karelia is another great place for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog-sledding and other winter pursuits – and, for parents and older kids, for warming up afterwards in a traditional Finnish sauna.
Don’t forget the cities, though – in southern Finland, the seaside capital Helsinki is a fine spot for a hip family city break in the balmy summer months, while Tampere to the northwest of Helsinki has attractions for children of all ages. Meanwhile, fans of the Moomins – the hippopotamus-like troll family from a Finnish forest who feature in the famous books and comic strip by Tove Jansson – can indulge their passion in a visit to one of the world’s kookiest themeparks.
Explore the Finnish area of Lapland in the northernmost part of the country: visit Santa, explore the great winter playground by husky- or reindeer- drawn sled, and marvel at the Northern Lights in winter or the Midnight Sun in summer.
The Finnish part of Lapland is has also become a major family ski holiday destination over the last few years – and one that’s much cheaper than other Nordic countries. Resorts are charming and child-friendly, on gentle slopes that have to be floodlit due to the ‘Arctic Twilight’, when the Sun never shows its face. Try Levi, the ‘Official Ski Resort of Santa Claus’. For more on skiing in Finnish Lapland, see Skiing in Scandinavia.
Discover Finland’s easternmost province, Karelia along the border with Russia – the perfect setting for an active family winter break, it’s a wilderness of pristine frozen lakes, endless forests and snow-covered hills. Adventure trips to this area include travel by snowmobile across the otherworldly landscape, husky-sledding, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing (and some downhill skiing), ice-fishing and relaxing in a Finnish sauna. While you’re here, make sure to climb Ukko Koli for the most famous view in Finland – the icy expanse of Lake Pielinen, with trees covered by a thick blanket of snow – build igloos, and indulge in a snowball fight!
Get to know Helsinki, by far Finland’s biggest city, yet one with a relaxed, small-town feel. It comes into its own in summer, when in addition to seeing the sights you can relax on its sandy beaches and visit the many islands of its surrounding archipelago. Family highlights include the UNESCO listed Suomenlinna sea fortress with its cannons and catacombs and its museums (including a submarine and a toy museum), theatres and cafés, restaurants and picnic spots. There's also Seurasaari Open Air Museum with its authentic traditional houses from around the country, craftspeople in traditional dress, and walking trails, Helsinki Zoo, the National Museum of Finland, and the Heureka Science Centre. Very popular in summer is the Uimastadion outdoor pool complex with its waterslides and the adjoining Olympic Tower with its wonderful views, plus Linnanmäki, Finland’s oldest amusement park, with a famous wooden rollercoaster, and the neighbouring Sea Life aquarium.
Go Moomin mad in Tampere, Finland’s second city, where the Moominvalley of the Tampere Art Museum displays about 2000 works, some of them originals, by author and illustrator Tove Jansson, plus some 3D tableaux built by Jansson’s partner Tuulikki Pietilä. Another big draw is Särkänniemi Adventure Park, home to a planetarium, children’s zoo, aquarium and dolphinarium, observation tower with revolving restaurant, art museum, and themepark rides including hair-raising rollercoasters. Older kids love Tampere’s Vakoilumuseo, a spy museum tracing Finland’s active role in international espionage, including spy tunnels and peep mirrors.
For a slightly Disneyfied Moomin experience, meanwhile, head to the Moomin World themepark at Naantali close to Turku on the south-west coast. Attractions include five-storey Moomin House, Hemulen’s House, Moominmama's Kitchen, the Fire Station, and Snufkin's Camp, and you can also meet Moomin characters doing the rounds, see shows, follow fantasy paths and take part in special activities. It’s only open in summer, as is the nearby Adventure Island Väski, with featuring five ‘adventure worlds’ to explore, including Pirate Harbour and the Hunter’s Camp.
Fish, especially salmon (lohi), figures prominently on most menus – hardly a surprise given that there are nearly 190,000 lakes in Finland! The salmon soup is reliably delicious. From late July to early September, crayfish (rapu) appears on many menus – it’s good, at least for mums and dads, washed down with ice-cold vodka (although alcohol is still fiendishly expensive in Finland). The Finns are also the world’s greatest consumers of coffee, which they take strong and black.
Reindeer (poro) is also popular in various guides, including sausages, while Tampere is famed for its mustamakkara blood sausage, and the meatballs are good all over the place. There’s also delicious homemade cheese, wild berries including the wonderfully named cloudberries, great fresh berry juices, rye bread, and pastries based on Swedish and Russian recipes.
On escorted family holidays, breakfast and dinner often take the form of buffets featuring lots of Western favourites, while lunch is eaten in the great outdoors.
Cities also offer cosmopolitan choices including plenty of pasta and pizza, although you’re better off eating your main meal of the day at lunch, when you can take advantage of better-value set menus.
Autumn is rainy and miserable and winter severe, especially in the far north, though Christmas is the time to visit Lapland if you want to call on Santa. Spring days are often beautifully clear and sunny. Karelia, which is usually covered in snow Dec–Apr, is at its best from February, when the days get longer and the temperature starts to rise.
In summer, especially in June around the summer solstice and corresponding Midsummer Festival, Finns head for their summer cottages in the lake country of eastern Finland to enjoy lake-swimming, canoeing, fishing, BBQs and saunas. But beware that the mosquitoes and gadflies can be a real nuisance.
You can fly from London or other UK airports to Helsinki in around three hours. For Karelia, you take a second, 45-minute flight to Joensuu. You can also fly London-Stansted to Tampere.
For getting to the far north of Finland, see our Lapland page.
Finland (currency: Euro) is generally considered an expensive country in terms of accommodation and food and drink.
A 7-day escorted family holiday to Karelia, flight included, starts at £999 for adults and £699 for kids.By Rhonda Carrier
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