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Five Wacky Things to Do in Finland

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You may have heard of a little company called Nokia, which of course is the world's leading manufacturer of mobile phones -- but did you know that Finland, where Nokia's based, holds a yearly cell phone throwing contest? How about a wife-carrying competition in which husbands lug their wives -- piggyback and over the shoulder are popular -- through an obstacle course (whoever succeeds in the fastest time generally wins his wife's weight in beer)?

Just last year a sex festival, swamp football, topless winter jogging, a sauna bathing contest and (our personal favorite) the Air Guitar World Championships were all among the wacky activities available to locals and tourists in this Nordic country.

In fact, Finland is so wacky that a special term -- Finnwacky -- has been coined to describe the country's out-of-the-ordinary goings-on. We're not sure what makes the people here so delightfully off the wall, but we do know that this "Finnwackiness" is part of what makes a visit to Helsinki, the country's capital city, so interesting and fun. You might even spot Santa shopping at Stockmann, an upscale department store -- in the middle of July! After all, even jolly old St. Nick, who reportedly lives in the Lapland area of northern Finland, needs a day away from the toyshop.

So when you arrive in Helsinki, why not get a little Finnwacky yourself -- whether you fancy spinning around upside down on a ride at Linnanmaki Amusement Park, lunching at an antique prison turned modern-day hotel or careening through the city to your own rendition of "My Way" in a Karaoke Taxi.

Toss that phone and hoist your wife (just don't mix those two up!) -- and get ready for a wild day in wacky Helsinki.

1. Linnanmaki Amusement Park
Who said your European vacation had to be all about museums and monuments? Take the kids (or your own inner child) to Helsinki's Linnanmaki Amusement Park. Disney World it's not, but you can easily spend a full, fun day here with water slides, a roller coaster and an arcade all set on a hilltop on the outskirts of Helsinki (ride the Ferris wheel for a gorgeous view of the city below).

The wackiest one we tried was Kieputin, which suspends riders upside down over a fountain spewing water. Nothing says "Wee!" quite like the sound of euro coins falling from pockets and hitting the ground below. And if you can resist the traditional fair food that scents the air -- like cheesy pizza and hot waffles topped with whipped cream and strawberries -- you're made of stronger stuff than we are.

During the summer, Linnanmaki is a popular hangout for locals, but most everybody speaks English in addition to Finnish and Swedish. Linnanmaki is accessible via the 3T tram. Admission is free; wristbands vary in price depending on height and offer unlimited access to rides. All profits are donated to children's charity.

2. Hotel Katajanokka
The Hotel Katajonokka, which opened in Helsinki in 2007, is a destination in its own right -- this boutique design hotel, part of the Best Western chain, was a prison dating back to 1837! After closing down in 2002 (the inmates were transferred to another facility), the jail underwent a 12-month renovation from lockdown to luxury. The exterior of the building, protected by the National Board of Antiquities, has been preserved -- along with the central corridor and old prison wall.

Even if you don't stay in one of the hotel's quite unique rooms (two or three old prison cells united together and decked out in modern interiors), you can have lunch at Jailbird Bar & Restaurant, which strives to keep the spirit of the prison alive. Servers wear the familiar black-and-white stripe on their shirts, and menu items include some cleverly named specials such as "Not Guilty" (steak with garlic-cheddar sauce and garlic potatoes) and "Try Squeezing Through the Bars After This One" (lemony veal cutlet with fries).

The hotel is in the same area of town as the Uspenski Cathedral.

3. Karaoke Taxi
Japan may be the karaoke capital of the world, but Finland is catching up. In addition to numerous karaoke bars throughout Helsinki and karaoke machines popping up in restaurants and clubs, you might see (or hear) the Karaoke Taxi rolling through town. The Karaoke Taxi (358 40 500 6070) is basically a minibus that seats up to 12 people and is packed with all the karaoke essentials -- TV screen, neon lights, preloaded tunes and microphones for amplifying your very best vocal stylings.

Most of the songs on tap are in Finnish, naturally -- but a handful of English favorites from Elvis, Eminem and even Frank Sinatra have been showcased. Whether you sing in English or try your hand at Finnish is up to you (and perhaps whether you've had any cocktails before joining the party on wheels).

4. Nordic Walking
If you haven't been hitting the gym during your vacation, don't despair -- the latest craze in Helsinki can help you shed some pounds while seeing the sights. Nordic walking is a form of exercise that involves walking with ski poles -- essentially cross country skiing without the snow and slopes, using two poles specially designed with rubber tips for an urban setting. The activity evolved from the off-season rituals of competitive Nordic skiers, who practiced between winters by walking with their poles on dry land.

Nordic walkers seem a bit clumsy at first glance (picture quick, exaggerated movements), but the price of looking a bit silly is worth it: Nordic walking burns more calories than regular walking because the walker applies force with both arms. Each stride uses more of the body's core muscles -- even abdominals. It is also easier on the joints and back, and can improve balance and stability, particularly when walking uphill.

A guided walk is available for 25 euros per person (based on two participants) through Helsinki's FIT Department. The two-hour tour, available every day but Sunday, includes poles, instruction, a warm up and stretch, a bottle of water, and an English-speaking guide/trainer. The walk begins at the Nordic Fitness Sports Park and passes sites such as the Finnish National Opera and Finlandia Hall. At the end, you'll get a diploma.

5. BizarreOne's Bizarre Tours
If you're after shock value, arrange a date for yourself or a loved one with a drag queen, or hit the streets of Helsinki shopping with Santa Claus, the ultimate gift guide (remember, he lives in Finland). BizarreOne offers all manner of peculiar tours, including wintertime ice fishing and even a "fantasy" option -- name your wishes and budget. The company describes its offerings as "something you yourself would not think of doing." Indeed. Other tours recommended for visitors to Helsinki include a sauna and lunch excursion in a Finn's actual home (how hospitable) and ice sculpting lessons (available even in the summer).

One caveat: They pack a price punch. The price for the bus and fuel to go shopping with Santa, for example, is 780 euros! However, if you get a group together (up to eight people in this instance), the cost can be split that many ways. More affordable is the ice sculpting (95 euros per person). Pricing for the sauna and lunch is available upon request.

Finnwacky "Lite"
Just in case a date with a drag queen or a spin around the block with walking sticks doesn't appeal, we've dug up a few options and add-ons for the slightly less adventurous to spice up their time in Helsinki!

  • If you're touring Helsinki on foot ... Consider arranging for a day with a Citysherpa. During the summer, these city guides offer visitors a unique, personalized look at Helsinki -- free of charge. If you're a foodie, for example, you can have a volunteer introduce you to the city's food markets and hip restaurants. Interested in sauna-hopping? They'll show you the region's best. Visit the Citysherpas' blog for more information on setting up a tour.

  • If you're headed to Suomenlinna ... Suomenlinna is an inhabited naval sea fortress built on six islands during the 18th and 19th centuries, reachable by boat from the Market Square. Take time to peruse the arts and crafts workshops and ceramics studio for souvenirs, visit the Toy Museum, or explore the Vesikko Submarine. And while you're there, stop in at Suomenlinna's on-site brewery for a local pint. Though the Finns are better known for the creation and consumption of hard liquor, like vodka or the Finnish-made grain alcohol Koskenkorva, we must admit the beer at the Suomenlinna Brewery Restaurant is not bad! On tap are Hopken Pils, Coyet Ale and a dark Helsinki Portteri.

  • If you're hell-bent on visiting museums ... There are a few unconventional options in Helsinki. The Paivalehti Museum (newspaper museum) profiles the history of Finnish newspaper journalism. The School Museum, a branch of the City Museum located in two wooden houses from the 1830's and 40's, chronicles the history of Helsinki's elementary school system. At Kiasma, a contemporary art museum, exhibitions and collections change often -- but are generally high-tech (kiosks that double as Internet stations) or performance-based (involving musical and/or theatrical components).

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    --written by Melissa Paloti

    Photo Credit: Nordic walking photograph appears courtesy of Helsinki's FIT Department.
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