Four Days in Finland

April 6-10, 2023

After being repeatedly thwarted during our five-day trip to Norway earlier this year, I became even more determined to find a way to see the aurora borealis in person this year. The northern lights are only visible during winter (late September to early April) when the Arctic sky is dark enough, so time was not on my side. Luckily, I managed to find the perfect place for us to try to catch a glimpse of the elusive aurora over the four-day Easter holiday weekend: Finland.

Lapland, Finland’s northernmost region, is one of the best places for aurora activity at the later end of the season. It’s also known for its ski resorts and a ski season that lasts well into May, which made it even more ideal for convincing Andy to give the northern lights another chance. Neither of us had been to Finland before, so we decided to fly into Helsinki on Thursday afternoon and explore the capital city before making our way up to Lapland.

Helsinki was a surprisingly lovely little city, but it was very different than I had expected. Perhaps the most unusual thing about it was just how new everything was—even compared to most major cities in the U.S. Although it was officially founded by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550, Helsinki was little more than a trading post until Russia defeated Sweden in the Finnish War of 1808–1809 and annexed Finland as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. When Tsar Alexander I moved the capital from Turku to Helsinki a few years later to reduce Swedish influence, the renowned German architect Carl Ludvig Engel was commissioned to develop a master plan for the city, which had also been heavily damaged by several fires in recent years. As a result, Helsinki was completely reconstructed in the same neoclassical style as Saint Petersburg, and the city is impeccably laid out with large, tree-lined streets and all its most important buildings clustered together.

After dropping off our bags at Hotel Marski by Scandic our first stop was at an excellent fishmonger stall at a recently renovated food hall on the waterfront. Helsinki is located on the southern tip of Finland on a peninsula and a chain of ~315 islands on the Gulf of Finland, the easternmost arm of the Baltic Sea, so the seafood was just about as fresh as it gets. We attempted to walk through Esplanadi, a popular “park” (it’s so narrow that it’s really more of a promenade), but it was absolutely freezing outside. We stopped at the iconic Hotel Kämp to warm up with a cocktail or two before making our way to our hotel to get ready for a fantastic dinner at Natura. The next morning, we had plenty of time for sightseeing…but Helsinki is so small and compact that we ended up not really needing more than a few hours to see all of the major sights before heading back to the airport.

Despite being a relatively large and busy international airport, particularly for long-haul flights between Europe and Asia, the Helsinki airport was honestly one of my favorites to date. We also had phenomenal experiences on all four of the flights we took with Finnair, which was by far the nicest European airline we’ve flown. Our above-average travel experience continued once we landed in Kittilä, where we seamlessly picked up our rental car and made the 15-minute drive (!!!) to Levi Ski Resort.

We stayed at a hotel within the resort, which was incredibly convenient for getting out on the mountain—especially after I injured my knee on the first day and Andy had to ski by himself the rest of the trip. The town of Levi was extremely small and we really wouldn’t have needed a car if we were only focused on skiing, but I’m sure glad we had one because we successfully witnessed the aurora borealis on our final night in Finland! We simply drove ~15 minutes outside of the town to a small lake and were able to see the lights after waiting for just a few minutes. The northern lights actually look much brighter and more beautiful in pictures than they do in real life, which is an interesting juxtaposition from how I normally feel about pictures not being able to do something justice. Nonetheless, it was incredible (and very satisfying) to finally see this natural phenomenon in person. It was the perfect way to end an absolutely wonderful trip.

If you’re planning a trip to Helsinki or Levi, click here to access and download my Google Maps list of saved locations in Norway and Finland.

Food & Drink

  • Helsinki:
    • Vanha Kauppahalli: Helsinki’s Old Market Hall originally opened in 1889, but it was recently renovated into a more contemporary food hall with dozens of vendors and restaurant outposts. We sat down at Kalakauppa E. Eriksson, a fish shop that has been operating in the Old Market Hall since it opened, and had a fantastic lunch that included lohikeitto, a traditional Finnish soup made with salmon fillets, cream, boiled potatoes, carrots, leeks, and fresh dill. It was absolutely delicious, especially since it was so cold and windy outside.
    • Kämp Bar: Hotel Kämp, the most luxurious and iconic hotel in Helsinki, is located across from Esplanadi. We stopped for drinks at the hotel’s swanky “American bar” (AKA a cocktail bar) and were extremely impressed with the creative and quirky cocktail menu. The prices were a bit steep, but the experience and the drinks were worth it.
    • Natura: We had a wonderful dinner at Natura, an intimate and approachable fine-dining restaurant with a Michelin Green Star focused on Finnish game, locally grown vegetables, and sustainable seafood. Despite being a very trendy and upscale restaurant, the seven-course tasting menu was just €69 per person. The dishes were all absolutely wonderful, although the food was definitely very hearty and rich, which made it impossible for me to finish everything.
    • Johan & Nyström Café: Finnish people consume more coffee per capita than any other country in the world, so it was important for me to experience Finnish coffee culture while we were in town. After doing some sightseeing on Friday morning, we made our way to the Helsinki outpost of a Swedish specialty roaster located in a charming red-brick building on the waterfront in the Katajanokka district. The quirky and warm café had plenty of seating and better-than-average coffee, making it an ideal place to relax before heading to the airport.
  • Levi:
    • Restaurant Utsu: Levi Igloos Golden Crown, a beautiful (and very pricey) resort on the top of the Levi fell comprised of glass-roofed igloos where visitors can literally watch the northern lights from their beds, also has a popular restaurant serving some of the best food in the area. We had dinner at Restaurant Utsu on our first night in town and it was easily the best meal we had on our trip. The tasting menu was perfectly portioned and the simple dishes were thoughtfully made to perfection.
    • King Crab House: As its name suggests, King Crab House is primarily known for serving high-quality, sustainably caught, and extremely fresh king crab, along with other Arctic seafood dishes. We had a lovely dinner here on Easter Sunday and particularly enjoyed the crab cake appetizer—and, of course, an excellent pot of king crab.

Activities & Attractions

  • Helsinki:
    • Senaatintori (Senate Square): The focal point of Carl Ludvig Engel’s plans for the new capital city was a large plaza surrounded by the city’s most important buildings, most of which were designed in the neoclassical style by the architect himself. Both the square and the Helsinki skyline are dominated by Helsinki Cathedral, a gigantic and absolutely beautiful Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral with a distinctive green dome surrounded by four smaller domes. The landmark is closely associated with the monumental statue of Alexander II erected in front of the cathedral in 1894 to commemorate “the good tsar” with a huge bronze figure of Alexander II on a pedestal and four allegorical figures at its base representing law, labor, peace, and light. Other buildings in the square include the Government Palace containing the executive offices of the Council of State of Finland (including the Prime Minister); the main building of the University of Helsinki; and the oldest building in central Helsinki, a two-story stone home called Sederholm House that was built in 1757.
    • Esplanadi: Fondly referred to as “Espa” among locals, Esplanadi is a promenade-style park in the heart of Helsinki. Even at the tail end of winter, it was a beautiful area to walk through with its linden tree-lined alleys, overflowing flowerbeds, and statues of famous Finns.
    • Market Square: Helsinki’s most famous market is at the eastern end of Esplanadi on the South Harbour, one of the city’s main ports for ferries and cruise ships crossing the Baltic Sea. Vendors primarily sell traditional Finnish foods, handicrafts, and souvenirs, but there were also plenty of heated café tents to grab a warm drink or soup and escape from the bitterly cold and windy weather.
  • Levi:
    • Levi Ski Resort: Although it’s the leading ski resort in Finland, the Levi fell is only 1,742 feet above sea level and the ski area is pretty small with just over 23 miles of marked trails. It was the perfect place for novice skiers like me, but Andy was definitely not as challenged as he wanted to be on the mountain. However, the convenience of both the town and the resort being just a 15-minute drive from the airport combined with the extremely affordable lift passes (€98 per person for a two-day pass) and the incredible snow (especially so late in the season) more than made up for it. People were also very friendly and everyone spoke English, which made it even more enjoyable for us to check another country off of our ski trip list.

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