Let’s Go Exploring! How the Finns Beat Winter

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is a world-travelling early retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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“No f*cking way am I doing that,” I thought, watching a Finnish granny leap into the frigid Baltic sea, her shrieks piercing the air.

“Well, she’s dead.” I concluded as I watched her grey locks slip beneath the surface.

But then she bobbed up from the water, smiling and splashing around like a giddy seal, puffs of her breath steaming up the air.

As I stood on the deck of the Löyly sauna, wrapping my towel tightly around myself, I decided, then and there, that when it comes to conquering winter, no one does it like the Finns.

Long-time readers of our blog know that Wanderer and I are sun-chasers. We hate the cold. That’s one of the main reasons why we left Canada to travel the world—to avoid having to see another goddamn snowflake ever again.

But it wasn’t until we got to Helsinki, Finland that we realized that sometimes the cold can be a good thing. Sometimes it can be so good, it’s even a necessity.

And that happens when the Finns have conquered the cold so hard, they’ve made winter their bitch.

Here are just some of the ingenious ways the Finns cope with their icy surroundings:

“Sisu”

“Sisu”, as depicted by the Finns in emoji form.

Sisu is a Finnish word meaning “going beyond one’s physical and mental capacity to push through difficulties against the odds”, which explains exactly how a 60-year-old woman can jump into a frozen lake like it’s a freaking jacuzzi.

The Finns have a grim determination to push through whatever bullshit life throws at them, which explains why they’ve thrived and survived, despite their country being one giant igloo.

Saunas

Outdoor patio of the Löyly sauna in Helsinki

Over our travels, I’ve made my opinion of saunas well known (huge fan), so I was delighted to learn that not only do the Finns share my love of saunas, they actually invented the word! In fact, “sauna” is a Finnish word meaning “a small room designed to make you experience dry or wet heat.” To the Finns, saunas are not only an obsession, they are a religion.

The only religious building where pants are optional. (source: http://www.loylyhelsinki.fi/en/saunas/)

Case in point. In a country of 5 million people, there are 3 million saunas! In Finland, having access to a sauna in Finland isn’t a need or a want, it’s a human right.

Finns think of saunas the same way Mormon’s think of church. Traditionally, woman gave birth in saunas—the cleanest room in the house. Families also used it for purifications, celebrations, weddings (yes, they have sauna bachelor parties), and even to clean the bodies of the loved ones before they are buried.

Which is why they say “saunas are where Finns are born and where they go to die”.

They even have a word to describe the steam that rises when you pour water over the hot coals inside the wood-panelled room: Löyly (which is the name of the most popular sauna in Helsinki)

But the Finns don’t just stop there. They take saunas to a whole new level by using this sacred tradition to tame the cold.

Because after they sweat it out in the sauna, these crazy bastards go outside, cut a hole in the ice and plunge into the freezing water. That’s how they turn cold weather from an enemy into an amenity.

Kotivalo [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

I had no idea what they meant, until I finally tried it for myself.

“AHHHHH!” I screamed, plunging into the freezing cold Baltic ocean.

I could hardly breathe as every cell in my body screamed in agony. And as I bolted out of the water, feeling like every nerve cell was on fire, a curious thing happened.

Every cell lit up like a Christmas tree, and for the first time ever, I felt more alive than ever. Exhilarating doesn’t even begin to describe it. I was reborn.

If you’ve never taken a polar bear plunge after melting in a sauna, do it at least once. You will be transformed.

Reindeer Burgers

If sisu and saunas aren’t your thing, you can brave the cold by heading to a Finnish market and indulging in a Reindeer burger.

While I wasn’t crazy about the idea of eating Rudolf, Wanderer said it was even tastier than beef (for me it tasted gamey and pungent, like lamb).

There’s nothing like passing the time in sub-zero temperatures, and long periods of darkness by eating weird ass shit.

In addition to reindeer burgers, the Finns also have Salmiakki, a candy that tastes like the bastard child of salt and black licorice, and Tyrkisk Peber, which tastes like what a candy scientist would make if she lost her mind and turned hot and sour soup into a lollipop. I’m not sure how exactly these candies are supposed to placate their kids, but it sure amuses the hell out of them to watch tourists hold back their puke just to be polite.

Tastebuds? Who needs tastebuds? (photo credit: Tiia Monto [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons)

If all else fails, go with their best tried and tested method:

Booze

When it comes to drinking yourself into oblivion to chase away the wintry blues, the Finns take this to the next level. They even invented the word:

“Kalsarikännit”

Which literally means: “The feeling when you are going to get drunk home alone in your underwear – with no intention of going out.”

They even created their own emoji to describe this:

And finally, you can combat the cold by building a good old-fashioned:

Bonfire

After a long hard day of roasting and then freezing ourselves in the Löyly smoke sauna (seriously, check this place out if you’re ever in Helsinki), we decided to cook ourselves up some delicious sausages at the Regatta Cafe, while sipping hot chocolate by the lake:

Yes, I know. It’s a hard-knock life.

So, there you have it. When it comes to the cold, the Finns have learned not only to sisu through it but tame it into submission.

After going to Finland, we’ll never look polar bear swims the same way again. And best of all, Finland shocked us by NOT actually breaking the bank like Denmark and Iceland did.

Here’s how much we spent in Helsinki:

CategoryCost in USD/coupleCost in CAD/coupleNotes
Accommodations:$63 USD$82 CADAirbnbs in Helsinki are generally not cheap but not expensive either. The one we ended up picking was a short tram ride from the city center and on the smallish side, but very clean, neat and compact. Our host left us some cute thick socks and a book called '101 Very Finnish Problems: The Foreigner's Guide to Surviving in Finland' which I loved.
Food:$25 USD$33 CAD ($14 for eating out, $19 for groceries)Food definitely CAN be expensive in Finland–though not nearly as expensive as Iceland and Denmark. We ended up cooking a lot more and only eating a few things from food markets. After the reindeer burger and the weird ass candy, I decided to save our money for the saunas.
Transportation:$12 USD/day$16 CAD/dayDuring our four days in Helsinki, we only took the subway a handful of times and walked around for the rest. The 2-hour ferry from Estonia to Helsinki was only 10 Euros each (make sure to pick the Tallink Silja company) and trams are 2.20 Euros each person each trip.
Entertainment:$32 USD/day$41 CAD/dayThis was by far our most expensive category–shocking, I know. Since the Finns practically invented the sauna, we had to try out as many as we could. The least expensive sauna was only 7 Euros a person and was just 1 room, the mid-range was 14 Euros/person and the most expensive one we tried was 19 Euros per person for 2 hours at Loyly. You must book ahead of time for that one since it's very popular.
Total:$132 USD/couple/day$172 CAD/couple/dayEven though we spent a lot on saunas, Helsinki ended up being not that expensive and comparable to most of Western Europe! If you're ever in Estonia, I would highly recommend you take the ferry to Finland and try their saunas. You won't regret it.

What do you think? Would you ever take the plunge?


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27 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! How the Finns Beat Winter”

  1. I loved Finland; I went there during the summer of course. I thought it was the most American place in Europe technology and surroundings wise but it was definitely a Nordic and very foreign place. People were friendly, plenty to do for 3 days in Helskini and the cold plunge during the sauna is great (did that with a Russian buddy). I give it a big thumbs up for a 3-4 day weekend trip.

    1. I second your love for Finland, Dave! Can’t wait to go back and visit. They’ve totally turned me into a sauna snob–I can’t do saunas anymore without the cold plunge.

  2. Iiiinteresting! I’ve been to Sweden and Norway and thought “Scandinavia = CHECK!” But now Helsinki is on my list! This looks absolutely amazing. I used to love getting in a hot tub and then diving into a cold pool so it sounds like I need to get on this polar plunge situation ASAP. Also I had no idea that my favorite Friday night activity had a name (Kalsarikännit) though does it count as home ‘alone’ if my partner is there drinking with me? Maybe I need to take it to the next level Finn-style. Sensational lol. Thank you for sharing and expanding my mind. Finland here I come!

    1. “it sounds like I need to get on this polar plunge situation ASAP”

      GET it, girl! You will love it 🙂

      And yeah, I’m with you on the whole Kalsarikännit thing. That’s us all the way. Doing it with a partner still counts.

  3. i would absolutely go from sauna to ice water. saunas are the best. the closest i come is running a few miles indoors in buffalo and walking back to my lab in a sweaty t-shirt and no coast. it’s the budget version.

    1. With the Finns and their “sisu”, the bear doesn’t stand a chance 🙂 They will probably add bear burger to reindeer burger on the menu.

  4. I was there last summer and went to the same Löyly sauna on my birthday to celebrate! It was definitely an awesome venue and the heat of the saunas were nothing like the mild ones we have back home in Canada.

    I liked how there’s rope you can pull that splashes a bucket of cold water over your head in the showers, as well as the restaurant / lounge for kicking back and having a drink afterwards. For now I’ll have to stick to the sauna near my home and a cold shower as a substitute for the real thing.

    PS: Check out the Wim Hof Method if you want to develop a resistance (or even love of ) the cold water and ice, super healthy too!

    1. We love that rope bucket thing too. We kept alternating between the Baltic sea and the bucket by making up a game called “Bucket or Baltic”. Super fun.

      Glad you enjoyed Löyly and thanks for the tip on the Wim Hof Method!

    1. Good to know! Yeah, I can never quite figure out why spas in Europe are cheaper than spas in Canada. I guess it’s just not a cultural thing for us to pay a small fee to sit in a sauna all day. We do it for pampering, they do it as a pastime.

  5. So glad To hear you enjoyed Suomi! You have to venture back in the summer and experience the longest day of the year, Finnish mosquitoes and korskenkorva.

    1. Thanks for the tips! We didn’t get a chance to try korskenkorva, but it’s on our list for next time! I think we’ll pass on the Finnish mosquitoes though 😛

  6. If you want to go bar-hopping in Helsinki, head to the Kallio area, just north of the centre. The bars are low-key, quirky, divey. There are loads, and we struck up many conversations with the locals. The beer prices aren’t too bad – similar to London prices. And don’t bother taking any cash out – even the smallest bar will thrust a card-reader at you when you order.

    1. I was a recent victim of credit card fraud. My assumption is someone at either a restaurant, fast food joint, or even someone allegedly with a skimmer that swiped credit card numbers from gas pumps allegedly caught my credit card number and used it to make an online fraud purchase. Do NOT, under any circumstances, use your debit card or credit card of any sorts at any place of business. Use $ gUaP $ if you can instead of cash. Watch where you use your card online also. And if you do shop online with credit, be mindful to store your credit card #’s away using Norton online protection or PayPal. Doing so will have you protected 100% across the board. 🙂

    2. Thanks for the tip, LukeM! We’ll definitely go there when we’re not Kalsarikännit-ing 😛

      Love the fact that they take credit card. I hate carrying around cash.

      1. Fun fact: You can dispute fraudulent credit card transactions and should be out $0 almost all the time. They’ll cancel your card and send you a new one. Better than my chances of just dropping cash on the ground.

  7. Your travels are inspiring, thanks for sharing. We went to Switzerland after reading about your trip there and loved it; and Thailand and Vietnam and others are on our list.
    Some “big names” are missing from your Europe travels though: Italy and France. Wondering why? From Paris to Loire Valley to Venice to Florence, Rome and Cinque terre, there is so much to visit, there isn’t enough room here to mention all.
    Also,in the budget category in Europe, Romania has lots of places to visit, from castles to mountains , delta and sea. I’m Romanian/Canadian so I had to mention it :). It’s in the EU (Shenghen not yet) so travel to Ro is easy if in Europe. And inexpensive. Last year: 51Euros flight from Madrid to Bucharest with Ryanair. Let me know if you ever want to go and need any travel ideas. Maybe we can even meet there if I’ll visit around the same time. Some links:
    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/24/travel/romania-europe-bargain-family-travel.html?smid=fb-share
    And as I understand you are foodies..:
    https://youtu.be/kM4h5H2_5TA

    1. So awesome! Glad you enjoyed Switzerland and are adding Thailand and Vietnam to your list.

      To answer your question, the reason why France and Italy aren’t in the travel posts is because we visited them back when we were working (Paris, Rome, and Venice were the on the top of my list when we first started travelling). So that’s why we haven’t gone back–but I suspect we will in the future and if we do, I’ll definitely be writing about it.

      And Romania is definitely on our list (just like Georgia, Albania, Croatia, etc). All great countries that give you fantastic value–only thing is they are not part of the Schengen zone we wanted to maximize our time in Schengen before heading off to the other countries. You will definitely be hearing about them in the future 😉

      Enjoy your time in SE Asia and I’d love to hear about it!

      1. Balkans are some of our favourite places, especially with respect to value. Slovenia is so hardcore. Never got around to editing my 2012 Romania photos.

  8. I never understood the obsession with diving into freezing cold water to feel the adrenaline rush. Probably I just need to try it. 🙂

    Pretty neat how people can adapt to live in the most extreme regions around the world… even frozen ice cubes!

    For my money though, I think I’d stick to someplace warmer and take a cold shower once in awhile. 😉

  9. I was literally shaking as I read you jumping into the freezing water cause I’m such a wimp when it comes to cold water. If you need me I’ll be rubbing my hands together for the next hour trying to get warm again.

  10. This is exactly how I imagined Finland would be. My company’s European head office is in Finland and through our calendar app I can see that one of their “meeting rooms” that can be reserved is literally a sauna. They have an office sauna! I keep asking my management to send me there; maybe if our Canadian office had a sauna I wouldn’t need to retire so early ;). Sounds like you had a great time in Finland!

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