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Finland’s Drinking Culture

In Finland drinking is not about socialising. It is about getting drunk. Seriously drunk. I know this – I spent more than 20 years of my life in this strange Nordic country where you either get 24 hours of sunlight in a day, or none at all. I went back recently for a long weekend in the capital, Helsinki, and discovered that Finns love their drink just as much as they always have.

In winter Finns drink a lot because it is so dark and so cold that there really isn’t much  you can do except sit in a cosy bar enjoying one pint after another, while outside the arctic winds freeze your bones and you hardly see any daylight for months. In the summer the sun doesn’t set at all, so with 24 hours of daylight, Finns drink just as much as in winter: after all, the summer only lasts a couple of months and there really isn’t any time to waste.

And as pubs and bars often don’t close until 4am, Finland is the perfect place for a weekend of serious drinking. Low-cost airlines are finally flying to Finland, and so I flew from London to a remote little airport near the city of Tampere, an airport that looked like it was constructed yesterday from a couple of pieces of steel and cardboard, while snow was falling on the runway and the surrounding forest. But  public transport is efficient and reasonably priced, so it is only a 2-hour journey from the airport to the capital Helsinki and its alcohol-filled nightlife.
Making friends

I had the privilege of taking part in a family wedding, which soon descended into a great big drink-up in a bar in Helsinki. My boyfriend who was experiencing his first visit to Finland was struggling at first to keep up with all the Finnish around him, not to mention keeping up with the drinking – but soon everyone wanted to talk to the only Englishman in the bar.

And this is how it works in Finland. Finns might seem a bit cold and reserved at first, and it is true that we are not known for our small talk. If the woman at the tourist information booth looks like she wants to bite your head off, or if the sales assistant in the gift shop has a look on his face that makes you wonder whether he should be working as a prison warden instead, don’t let this put you off. Just think about it: only a couple of hours of daylight for several months – would you be smiling?

The truth is, you only have to wait until your average Finns finish their first pint or two, and suddenly everyone wants to talk to you. By 4 am you’ll have 20 new best friends who have all invited you to their summer cottages for holidays. Us Finns, we don’t appear to be the nicest people in the world – but once you have made a friend, you have made a friend for life.

The Finnish “Sisu”

There is this quality Finns have called Sisu. It doesn’t really translate to English, but it means that if you think something is worth striving for, no matter what obstacles there are in your way, you go for it.

Sisu can be applied to drinking, too. If a Finn wants to get drunk, s/he doesn’t let such small disadvantages as alcohol being ridiculously expensive, or it being -30 C outside, to stop her/him from getting seriously hammered. There are ways around the price issue: Finns often start drinking at home, so they are sufficiently drunk when they hit the bars and only have to top up their drunkenness with a few pints. And a couple of vodkas…not forgetting some litres of cider.

Another way around the high price of alcohol in bars is a little flask called “taskumatti” that fits neatly into your pocket and can be filled with vodka or Kossu – a traditional strong Finnish spirit – and from which one can take discreet sips in the pub toilet, thus avoiding paying extortionate prices for shots at the bar.

And when it comes to the fact that you have to brave the arctic weather conditions to get to the nearest bar – well, you just get used to it. In  the summer, of course, Helsinki changes completely, as outdoor drinking becomes the norm, every bar opens a beer garden, and drinking starts in parks, on boats, or on some of the beautiful islands outside Helsinki.

A word of warning, though – there are no off-licences selling beer for late-night emergencies. Spirits can only be bought from government shops called “Alko”, and supermarkets have to stop selling beer at 9 pm by law, so do stock up during the day.

So where to drink?

First,  pick up a copy of City, Helsinki’s free newspaper that lists everything that goes on in the capital. It is in Finnish, but has a directory of all the main bars, restaurants and clubs. The centre of Helsinki is small enough to walk around, or you can use the trams, buses and the metro.
For pubs, try Molly Malone’s (Kaisaniemenkatu 1 C), an Irish pub that was voted the best pub in Helsinki by readers of the City newspaper, or Bar Loose (Fredrikinkatu 34) for its great dj:s.
To see bands, head to Tavastia (Urho Kekkosen Katu 4-6), an old favourite hosting both Finnish and international bands.
When it comes to serious partying, one of the most popular clubs in Helsinki is Lost&Found (Annankatu 6)  a “straight-friendly gay bar” – but be prepared to queue.
For clubbing, try Helsinki Club (Kluuvikatu 8), Kerma (Erottajankatu 7) or Teatteri (Pohjoisesplanadi 2).

But for a more authentic Finnish drinking experience, take tram no. 3B from outside the railway station and head to the traditional working-class area of Kallio, which has several great pubs where you can drink cheap beer until 2 am. Many of these are situated along Vaasankatu and Helsinginkatu, and possibly the most famous of them is a drinking hole called Roskapankki (Helsinginkatu 20). Kallio has recently become a trendy place to drink, so people come from other parts of the city just to visit the pubs. Don’t be put off by people who look like they’ve been sitting in the bar for the last 20 years – they probably have, but what would you do if it was -30 C outside?

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