Cruising Finland’s lakes

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Finland is often romantically called the 'Land of a Thousand Lakes', which is a gross understatement: the country has more than 180,000 lakes, most of which are packed into a central region known as Lakeland.

In the depths of the Nordic winter, these relatively shallow lakes freeze over and merge into the surrounding snow-covered land. But between June and August, the lakes transform into a glistening patchwork of waterways, studded with islands and bordered by emerald pine, spruce and silver birch forests.

Before roads were built, steamers and long boats were the main form of transport in this part of the country, and manmade canals and locks connect many of the lakes to create an extraordinary system of navigable waterways.

It is no surprise then that a highlight of travelling in Finland in summer is a lake cruise.  Seeing the region along some of the longest inland ferry journeys in Finland is a lot of boat travel, but the Nordic summer days linger, and you can hop on and off along the way, savouring the bucolic charms of Lakeland’s most interesting and serene waterside towns. Bon voyage – or as they say in Finland: Hyvää matkaa!

Stage one: Tampere to Hameelinna

Finland’s liveliest inland city is the perfect place to start your trip, as it is completely surrounded by lakes. Tampere, 230km north of Helsinki, was once very industrial, but many of the old brick factories, cotton mills and warehouses have been converted into art spaces, restaurants, bars and clubs.

Board the Finnish Silverline ferry for an eight-hour cruise through Pyhäjärvi and Vanajavesi -- mirror-like interconnecting lakes that are bordered by forest and peppered with lakeside cottages. Stop off for a spot of wine-tasting at Lepaa Winery and to visit the Visavuori Museum, once home to renowned sculptor Emil Wickström. At the end of the line is Finland's oldest town, Hamenlinna, renowned for the 1837 red-brick Häme Castle and as the birthplace of Finland’s greatest composer, Jean Sibelius.

Stage two: Lahti to Jyväskylä

About an hour's drive north of Helsinki and an hour by bus from Hamenlinna, Lahti is best known as a winter sports centre, and you can watch champion jumpers training on the frighteningly high ski jumps year-round. Lahti is at the southern end of 120km-long Lake Päijänne, Finland’s longest lake. A twice-weekly ferry will take you on the 10-and-a-half hour journey, calling into about six Lakeland villages along the route to Jyväskylä at the northern end. A highlight of this cruise is observing locals at play – there are more than 15,000 summer cottages speckled along the shoreline and watersports are in full swing all summer. Jyväskylä is best known for the functional architecture of Finnish designer Alvar Alto, who designed a number of buildings in the town. 

Stage three: Kuopio to Savonlinna

A two-hour bus ride from Jyväskylä, the town of Kuopio is pure Finland. The expansive kauppatori (market square) is the place to sample kalakukko, a local speciality of lake fish baked in a rye loaf, and the lookout tower on Puijo Hill provides a rare panoramic view of the flat Finnish countryside. Do not miss steaming it up at Jätkänkämpällä, the world’s largest traditional savusauna (smoke sauna), in a log cabin on the shores of Lake Kallavesi.

The double-deck MS Puijo is one of Finland’s most popular and scenic lake ferries, cruising from Kuopio through a complex system of lakes, locks and canals to beautiful Savonlinna, Finland’s summer 'opera town'. The 10-and-a-half-hour cruise passes through some of Finland’s finest Lakeland scenery, where the blue of the lake seems to wash into the sky and is separated only by the green of forested shoreline and hundreds of tiny islands.

Stage four: Savonlinna to Lappeenranta to Helsinki

Savonlinna’s imposing medieval castle, Olavinlinna, is the setting for the world-class Savonlinna Opera Festival held annually in July. At least four boats cruise around the lakes from the busy harbour in summer, including the historic steamship Heinävesi. But real lake travellers should book a cabin for the ocean-going MS Brahe that will take you all the way to Helsinki about 600km away . The three-day trip wends its way through Lake Saimaa, Finland’s largest lake at 4400sqkm, to the Karelian port of Lappeenranta near the Russian border. From there, the 43km-long Saimaa Canal, an engineering marvel with its eight locks, cuts through to the Russian town of Vyborg and out into the Gulf of Finland. Say goodbye to the lakes – from here it is two days by sea to the capital, Helsinki.

Finnish ferry tips

  • Book ahead. The summer window is brief and some routes are very popular. Sammai Travel, Finnish Silverline and MS Puijo are all reputable operators.
  • You can buy food and drink on board but it can be expensive, so consider packing a picnic. Overnight cruises include accommodation, meals and entertainment in the ticket price, and day cruises have a bar and restaurant; some boats even have a sauna.
  • Most all-day ferries leave in the morning and arrive early evening, but with almost 24-hour daylight during the summer months it can be hard to tell the difference.