Finland is probably not what your thinking when planning your trip to Europe. I personally love Finland as a vacation spot. There are so many things to do in Finland in any season.
I vacationed in Finland a few times over the years and had some epic adventures. You wouldn’t believe how many things there are to do in Finland during the summer. I have had the great opportunity to experience Finland in summer and winter. You can read about my epic winter adventures in Finland here.
The Best Things To Do in Finland
Cycling Eurovelo 13
This is probably the most adventurous thing I have ever done. I cycled the Eurovelo 13 trail in Finland solo and loved every second of it. The EV13 trail is anywhere between 1550km and 1742km depending on the trail that you decide on. I cycled 1300km of it. If you’re looking for one of the more unique things to do in Finland then I guarantee this is probably a good choice.
You can read a detailed account of my trip here. Cycling in Finland solo was a learning experience and took a lot of advance planning and training of course. This activity was all about making people more aware of remote places to visit and sustainable tourism which is a big part of travel culture in Europe these days.
Along the way, I stopped to visit war museums, memorials, old wooden churches, and even had a few wildlife encounters including a seal safari, and a bear and wolverine hide! It’s my mission to uncover the best of what eastern Finland has to offer and to promote sustainable tourism in the region.
Be sure to check out my adventure cycling post for the answers to all the most commonly asked questions about this particular trip.
Highlights of the Iron Curtain Trail
The Iron Curtain was the ideological divide that separated Europe for almost 50 years. Its namesake trail is a 10,000 km long cycling route that follows this divide. You can read about all the best places that I visited here.
I was surprised to learn that Finland was attacked by the USSR in 1939. The Iron Curtain Trail takes you through many of the important landmarks. The places are interesting and breathtaking at the same time. I’m admittedly not a war history buff. But when you’re actually standing in the place where battles and historical events took place, it’s different. It’s meaningful!
While I cycled 1350 km of the Iron Curtain Trail, which runs 1700 km long in Finland, it would also make for an excellent road trip during the summer. I had the opportunity to meet locals in the region of Värtsilä, visit the outdoor museum of Parppeinvaara Bardic Village in Ilomantsi and the Winter War museum Raatteen Portti near Suomussalmi. I had many more stops on my way through the Iron Curtain trail and I can say with confidence that traveling the trail or even a portion is one of the best things to do in Finland.
Bear & Wolverine Watching
Confession. Although I am Canadian and have spent more weekends in the mountains than not, I had never seen a wolverine. I’m told that it’s a good thing since they’re known for their fierceness. And in the battle of unarmed you versus the wolverine, the wolverine would win! But still, how many wolverine attacks on people have you heard of? Personally? None.
I discovered wolverine and bear watching safaris in Lentiira, Finland. I couldn’t think of a better stop than the chance to see a wolverine in the wild. They’re elusive creatures with only 130 to 200 remaining in Finland! Although I’ve seen plenty of bears in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, I had never seen a bear in Europe, and being that the brown bear is Finland’s national animal, made it extra special.
You don’t want to miss this, its one of the great things to do in Finland.
I chose the wolverine and bear overnight safari with Taiga Spirit in Lentiira. Including the unique experience of seeing wolverines in the wild, I also spent a night in a hide. Not to worry though, it was really a log cabin with large windows, bunk beds, a heater and even a separate room with a toilet. It’s an overnight safari so between the 5 guests and 3 cabins there are shifts during the night to make sure that wildlife spotting isn’t missed.
Know Before You Go a Wolverine and Bear Watching in Finland
- Lentiira is one of the best places to observe wolverines and bears in Finland. It’s closeness to the Russian border and remoteness makes it an ideal location.
- The wolverine hide at Taiga Spirit in Lentiira (43km north of Kuhmo) runs from March to October each year. You can choose a 4-hour option or an overnight option. Prices range from €80 to €130 per person and include a local guide, snacks, and sleeping bags.
- The bear hides at Taiga Spirit runs from April to October. The overnight option is the only choice since the bears often make an early morning appearance.
- Bed and breakfast accommodation is also available on-site.
- Food allergies can be accommodated, but notify Sabrina in advance.
- Contact Taiga Spirit for further information.
Saimaa Ringed Seal Spotting in Finland
Few things make me giddier than the chance to catch a glimpse at an endangered species! On Lake Saimaa, the largest lake in Finland, and the fourth largest natural lake in Europe, it would be the elusive Saimaa ringed seal. Savonlinna is a few hundred kilometers away from the start of the Iron Crown Trail. I loved having the opportunity to see and experience the nature and wildlife of Finland. Searching for the Saimaa ringed seal was a great way to do that.
The Saimaa ringed seal is one of the most endangered seals in the world. There are only 310 remaining in the world. It’s only found in Lake Saimaa and is a protected species. It is unique in several ways; it’s one of the few freshwater seals found on the entire planet for starters. They are also solitary which means that they are really difficult to spot. I didn’t actually spot one during my trip but I had a great time anyway.
I took a seal safari with Captain Janne Leinonen. He offers multiple seal safaris daily aboard his original Finnish handmade steamships, a tribute to the days when waterways were the main roadways. He knows all the best places to spot the Saimaa ringed seal and has eyes sharper than knives.
A bonus for me was seeing St. Olaf’s Castle which dates back to 1475. I would recommend making this a priority when visiting Finland. Considering that there are so few left, their future is uncertain. While you’re there make sure to get some licorice ice cream. It was my favorite summer treat in Finland.
Travel Guide to Savonlinna
- Book your own seal safari. Rates at the time of writing were €12 and up, depending on the cruise.
- Check out St. Olaf’s Castle. If you’re there in July, be sure to check out the month-long famous Opera Festival!
- Eat waterfront at brewery restaurant Huvila on the shores of Lake Saimaa. The building dates back to 1912 and was formerly a mental hospital! They even have live music several times a week! I thoroughly enjoyed my meal there (pictured below)!
- Stay at the Original Sokos Hotel Seurahuone Savonlinna for waterfront views:
Liminka Bay: Finland’s Best Bird Spotting
I had a great experiencing bird watching in Liminka Bay with our guide Jari Peltomäki, one of Finland’s top wildlife photographers. He’s won the Finnish Wildlife Photographer award multiple times. You can find over 200 species of birds in Liminka Bay, the largest bay in the Gulf of Bothnia. An impressive number of bird species nest in the brackish waters.
I visited in late August, which this far north the Finns consider being autumn. Birds had already started migrating south trying to beat the cold. In just over an hour, I saw a flock of 200 geese, 500 starlings, and a Caspian tern, the largest tern in the world.
The highlight of the day was spotting a white-tailed eagle! My birding group had planned to keep track of the number of different species. However, we got distracted and lost count somewhere around eleven. I know the bird count had we continued it, would have been much higher.
There is no wrong time for birding in Liminka Bay between April and October. Every year in May there is a bird counting day. The record was 110 species spotted in a single day! In fall, you can witness up to 10,000 common cranes migrating!
Regardless of when you visit Liminka Bay, you’ll want your first stop to be the entrepreneur owned and operated Liminganlahti Bay Visitor Centre. They have a fantastic interactive exhibition about birds in the area. It’s worth checking out before you start your actual bird watching.
There’s also a restaurant and hostel-style accommodation in large, clean rooms. If you’re planning on bird watching for more than a day, this is the place to stay for its location.
Know Before You Go To Liminka Bay
- Liminganlahti Visitor Centre is the only accommodation nearby. Otherwise, you could stay in Oulu, approximately 30km north of Liminka Bay.
- Oulu is the nearest airport. You will need to drive as this area is minimally developed for tourism (yeah!!!). Plus, there are five watchtowers around Liminka Bay. You need to drive to get between them, so I highly recommend renting a car.
Kalajoki and Maakalla
Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of them either until recently, but that’s what draws me in. Remote can be difficult to find in our ever-connected world – especially in Europe but that’s what I found in Maakalla. I really enjoyed my time in both places. Kalajoki is located just under 200km north from Vaasa, where I had spent the previous day exploring the Kvarken Archipelago, Finland’s only natural UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kalajoki is on the mainland and is famous for its sand dunes! Yep, you read that right, sand dunes in Finland. And not just any sand dunes mind you, but the highest ones in all of Finland. I was also thrilled to see there was a frisbee golf course there as well. I didn’t have time to play, but I can’t think of a more serene setting.
If you’re in Kalajoki, then you’ll definitely want to visit the historic island of Maakalla. Maakalla hits the spot, when it comes to remote places – without being too far – they’re just 17km away!
Maakalla has been a base for fishermen since the 1400s where at its peak, 200 fishermen lived here during the summer months catching herring and hunting seals. It’s a truly unique place. Admittedly, there’s not much to do there. You can visit Finland’s smallest parsonage, and walk around the 40 fishing huts. It’s one of those places that you go to experience. There is no restaurant, no store.
Hiking Along The Siiponjoki, near Kalajoki was one of the highlights of this trip. You won’t stay longer than an hour or two on the island and you can get in a good hike. The trails are well-marked, but you’ll either need a guide or a helpful local to point you in the right direction. While hiking you’ll find berries near the trail, we had fun picking and eating them as we walked.
Know Before You Go to Kalajoki and Maakalla:
- I stayed in the Spa Hotel Sani which sits right at the top of the dunes in Kalajoki. The views are gorgeous. There are no accommodations in Maakalla available for tourists.
- Pihuitupa Steak House, which is a cozy steak cottage as it calls itself. The service is second to none and the log cabin and fireplace make for a great place to warm up. I highly recommend it!
- We went with Kaisa-Leena a very knowledgeable guide. You can book your trip with her here.
- The nearest airport, if you’re flying in, is in Oulu, which is ~130km to the north.
If you’re an outdoors or nature lover, you’ll soon realize that its obscurity is part of what makes Kvarken Archipelago so special! And you’ll definitely want to include it in your travel plans to Finland! Just don’t tell anyone else about it! I was surprised I hadn’t heard of Kvarken since I love UNESCO World Heritage Sites, especially natural ones, but then again, I find that some of my favorite places on earth are ones that I haven’t heard of.
Located along the west coast of Finland near the city of Vaasa, the Kvarken Archipelago, together with the High Coast of Sweden forms a transboundary site. It is one of only 46 marine World Heritage Sites! Not only that, but it’s also one of the best places in the world to witness land uplift! The land is rising so fast, that you’ll be able to walk to Sweden….well in 2000 years that is!
Before visiting the Kvarken Archipelago, the best place to start is the Terranova Nature Centre located in nearby Vaasa. Here, you’ll get further geological information about the area and see which animals and birds you might be able to see on your visit.
From there you’ll cross over the Replot Bridge, the longest bridge in Finland and you’ll visit Björköby, a harbor where boat rides to the other islands start. There’s also a viewing tower which is worth climbing which gives you a great overview of part of the area. There are activities here include bird watching, hiking, and cycling. There are also an whopping 5600 islands to explore.
Try a private boat tour and make sure to book in advance to ensure they arent full when you get there. You can also try fishing from a kayak. You’ll have to make sure to have a fishing license though, which is easy to get.
Know Before You Go to Kvarken Archipelago:
- Check out Vaasa, a nearby seaside city known for its sun and 7 beaches within 3km! It’s worth renting a bike and checking them out.
- I enjoyed my stay at the Original Sokos Hotel Vaasa Vaakuna. It’s very centrally located.
- You could either drive from Helsinki to Vaasa, it’s just over 400km, or fly as I did. While you don’t need a car within Vaasa, it’s definitely worth renting a car to get between Vaasa and Björköby and some of the other places you’ll likely want to explore.
- It really depends on what activities you want to do and how long you want to spend doing them, but I would recommend at least one day of kayaking and bird watching/fishing.
- Make sure to have protective and waterproof clothing. While the area is known for its sunshine, it can get windy.
- Check the official Kvarken Archipelago site for specific tours, accommodation and suggestions.