HELSINKI, Finland — Within hours of landing in Helsinki recently, I was invited to someone's birthday party, treated to a nighttime tour of the city and persuaded to take my first coed Finnish sauna--all by the same group of strangers (friends of friends), though by the end of the evening we had become friends ourselves.
Not a bad introduction to Nordic hospitality.
As I soon discovered, this sort of thing is not unusual in Finland, especially the invitation to a communal sauna, one sure way to get to know the local people.
With the breakup of the Soviet behemoth on Finland's eastern border, their Cold War identity crisis has ended, the Finns say, and with it one of Europe's best-kept vacation secrets.
Once known mainly for hosting East-West summit conferences, Finland was often among the last places American tourists thought to include on their European travel itineraries. But the demise of the Soviet Union has finally given the Finns--so overshadowed by that large and powerful country--a chance to shine independently.
Summer brings Helsinki to life. Quaint pastel-colored buildings take on an almost tropical look. So do the Finnish people, who seem to enjoy soaking up as much precious summer sun as possible. The outdoors is every Finn's natural element, and the feeling can be instantly contagious. After a few days in Finland, you'll hate the thought of going inside.
So why bother? Helsinki may be the most pedestrian-friendly capital in Europe. And since nearly all tourist spots in the 3 1/2-square-mile city center are within convenient walking distance of each other, the best way to see the city is on foot.
A busy port on the Baltic Sea, Helsinki is a compact metropolis full of narrow winding streets, bustling sidewalk cafes and lots of churches, the most picturesque of which, Helsinki Cathedral (built in 1852), dominates the city's skyline. Use its five green domes as a point of reference, and chances are you'll never get lost.
I asked one Finnish couple how to get to Helsinki's famous Slavonic Library (1 Neitsytpolku St.), home of the most extensive collection of Russian literature anywhere in the West, and ended up being invited to their home for dinner and a sauna, followed by strawberry-flavored vodka. The evening's conversation covered such varied subjects as American cars, American women and American movies.
"Woody Allen is my favorite actor," said my host, who had seen every one of Allen's films but "Love and Death," a spoof on Russian literature that Finnish authorities--in an effort to not offend the Kremlin--once banned as anti-Soviet propaganda.
Finland, incidentally, has one sauna for every four of its 4.5 million inhabitants, and those willing to shed their inhibitions can soon find themselves feeling very Finnish. But visitors need not know local people to partake. In addition to public saunas ($10 to $15 per visit), most hotels have facilities and staffs who will instruct those unfamiliar with the practice in just how it's done.
Part of the fun of walking around Helsinki is watching the people demonstrate their adaptability to the changing seasons. Here, long summer days with as much as 20 hours of light mean more time for commerce and amusement. (Rest seems to be something Finns do in the winter.) During Night of the Arts--this year, Aug. 28--galleries, museums, libraries and cafes stay open all night, and classical, rock music, dance and theater performances are offered at venues around town.
Market Square, Helsinki's historic dockside market, with its abundant selection of fresh fish and colorful clothing from Lapland, is open until 8 p.m. throughout the summer months. The city's ferry system runs late too.
But perhaps the strangest local phenomenon for U.S. tourists is the absence of stop signs downtown. What makes Helsinki motorists brake their Saabs and Volvos at intersections?
"Community pressure," one driver told me, noting that Finns place a high degree of importance on civic responsibility.
A direct benefit to tourists is the assurance that little goes wrong during a stay in Finland. Lost luggage, botched hotel reservations and surly cab drivers are so rare, I had to remind myself I was really on vacation. But I soon got used to it.
Another boon to tourists is that many of Helsinki's 500,000-plus citizens speak English. Since few outsiders ever master the complexities of Finnish (a close linguistic cousin to Hungarian), most Finns compensate by learning two or three foreign languages.
That comes in especially handy at meal time. Smoked reindeer and salmon are a must, and while most restaurants feature them both on the menu, get ready for a case of sticker shock. Prices in Finland can be high. But if money is no object, try the Kanavaranta restaurant near the harbor for Finnish fare (dinner for two with wine can be $125). Otherwise, you can sample more affordable offerings at any number of small cafes in Market Square.