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Mainland Scandinavia's most culturally isolated and least understood country, Finland has been independent only since 1917, having been ruled for hundreds of years by first the Swedes and then the Tsarist Russians. Much of its history involves a struggle for recognition and survival, and it's not surprising that modern-day Finns have a well-developed sense of their own culture, manifest in the widely popular Golden Age paintings of Gallen-Kallela and others, the music of Sibelius, the National Romantic style of architecture, and the deeply ingrained values of rural life.

Finland is mostly flat and punctuated by huge forests and lakes, but has wide regional variations. The South contains the least dramatic scenery, but the capital, Helsinki, more than compensates, with its brilliant architecture and superb collections of national history and art. Stretching from the Russian border in the east to the industrial city of Tampere, the vast waters of the Lake Region provide a natural means of transport for the timber industry - indeed, water here is a more common sight than land. Towns lie on narrow ridges between lakes, giving even major manufacturing centres green and easily accessible surrounds. North of here, Finland ranges from the flat western coast of Ostrobothnia to the thickly forested heartland of Kainuu and gradually rising fells of Lapland, Finland's most alluring terrain and home to the Sami, the semi-nomadic reindeer herders found all over northern Scandinavia