Finland's fusion of wild beauty, contemporary design and culinary excellence is a beguiling mix. Throw in winter magic and irresistible summers, and you've one cool country.
Call of the Wild
The Finland you encounter will depend on the season of your visit, but whatever the month, there’s something pure in the Finnish air and spirit that’s vital and exciting. With towering forests speckled by picture-perfect lakes, as if an artist had flicked a blue-dipped paintbrush at the map, Suomi (the Finns' word for their country) offers some of Europe’s best hiking, kayaking and canoeing. A fabulous network of national parks has well-marked routes and regularly spaced huts for overnighting, and you can observe bears and elk deep in the forests on nature-watching trips.
Finland’s short but sparkling sunny season sees the country burst into life. Finns seem to want to suck every last golden drop out of the summer in the hope that it will sustain them through the long, dark winter months, and there’s an explosion of good cheer and optimism. With surprisingly high temperatures for these latitudes, summer is a time for music festivals, art exhibitions, lake cruises, midnight sunshine on convivial beer terraces, idyllic days at remote waterside cottages and bountiful market produce.
After the Snowfall
Winter has its own charm as snow blankets the pines and lakes freeze over. The best way to banish the frosty subzero temperatures is to get active. Skiing is great through to May. Other pursuits include chartering a team of dogs, a posse of reindeer, or a snowmobile for a trek across snowy solitudes, lit by a beautiful, pale winter sun; catching the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) after your wood-fired sauna; drilling a hole for ice fishing; and spending a night in a glittering, iridescent ice hotel.
Finland isn't just vast expanses of pristine wilderness. Vibrant cities stock the country's southern areas, headlined by the capital, Helsinki, an electrifying urban space with world-renowned design and music scenes. Embraced by the Baltic, it’s a spectacular ensemble of modern and stately architecture, island restaurants and stylish and quirky bars. And the ‘new Suomi’ epicurean scene is flourishing, with locally foraged flavours to the fore. Beyond Helsinki, Tampere and Turku in particular are lively, engaging cities with spirited university-student populations.
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Suomenlinna, the ‘fortress of Finland’, straddles a cluster of car-free islands connected by bridges. This Unesco World Heritage site was originally built by the Swedes, as Sveaborg, in the mid-18th century. Visually striking and historically evocative, it offers at least a day's diversions: several museums, bunkers and fortress walls, and Finland's only remaining WWII submarine. Cafes and picnic spots are plentiful. Ferries (www.hsl.fi; day ticket €5, 15 minutes, four hourly, fewer in winter) depart from the passenger quay at Kauppatori. From May to September, JT-Line runs a water bus from the Kauppatori, making three stops on Suomenlinna (20 minutes). At Suomenlinna's main quay, the pink Rantakasarmi (Jetty Barracks) building is one of the best preserved of the Russian era. It holds a small exhibition and the helpful, multilingual tourist office, which offers downloadable content for your smartphone. Guided tours of Suomenlinna depart from here. Near the tourist office you'll find a hostel, a supermarket and Suomenlinna's distinctive church. Built by the Russians in 1854, it served as a Russian Orthodox place of worship until the 1920s, when it became Lutheran. It doubles as a lighthouse – the beacon was originally gaslight, but is now electric and still in use. From the main quay, a blue-signposted walking path connects the key attractions. By the bridge that links Iso Mustasaari and the main island, Susisaari, is Suomenlinna-Museo, a two-level museum covering the history of the fortress. The most atmospheric part of Suomenlinna, Kustaanmiekka, is at the end of the blue trail. Exploring the old bunkers, crumbling fortress walls and cannons will give you an insight into this fortress, and there are plenty of grassy picnic spots. Monumental King’s Gate was built in 1753–54 as a two-storey fortress wall, which had a double drawbridge and a stairway added. In summer you can get a water bus back to Helsinki from here, saving you the walk back to the main quay. Several other museums dot the islands, including the absorbing Ehrensvärd-Museo, once the home of Augustin Ehrensvärd, who designed the fortress. Outside, Ehrensvärd’s elaborately martial tomb sits opposite Viaporin Telakka, a picturesque shipyard where sailmakers and other workers have been building ships since the 1750s. The dry dock holds up to two dozen boats; these days it's used for the maintenance of wooden vessels. Along the shore from here is another fish out of water. The Vesikko is the only WWII-era submarine remaining in Finland. It saw action against the Russians, and it’s fascinating to climb inside and see how it all worked. Needless to say, there’s not much room to move. Back on Iso Mustasaari is Sotamuseo Maneesi, which has a comprehensive overview of Finnish military hardware, from bronze cannons to WWII artillery. Quite a contrast is the nearby Suomnelinna Toy Museum, a delightful private collection of hundreds of dolls and almost as many teddy bears, which has an on-site cafe. There are several places to eat and drink. Suomenlinnan Panimo, by the main quay, brews a clutch of excellent beers, including a hefty porter, and offers good food to accompany it. Cosy and snug in winter and spilling onto a sunny terrace in summer, Bastion Bistro is housed in a historic Russian military building a five-minute walk from the city ferry terminal. Finnish craft beers and a good selection of organic wines complement a varied à la carte menu that includes pizzas. For something lighter, the warm and welcoming aromas of hot soup, house-made bread and fresh cinnamon buns greet visitors to Cafe Silo. Open daily in a wooden house in the old Russian merchants’ quarter, the cafe faces visitors as they walk from the city ferry quay through the jetty barracks tunnel. Taking a picnic is a great way to make the most of Suomenlinna’s grass, views and (hopefully) sunshine. At around 5.15pm it’s worth finding a spot to watch the enormous Baltic ferries pass through the narrow gap between islands.
Founded in 2017 to commemorate Finland's centenary of independence, the country's 40th national park stretches over 11,000 hectares of glittering lakes and dense forests. Highlights include Julma Ölkky, a 3km-long lake-filled canyon that narrows to just 10m wide; Öllön, a 40m-deep lake where scuba-diving will be possible; and Värikallio, a river canyon where 4000-year-old rock paintings can be viewed from a metal platform. Criss-crossing the park are canoeing and cross-country skiing routes, plus mountain-bike and hiking trails. Throughout the park there are 14 lean-to shelters and 12 wilderness huts, along with three designated campgrounds, including Karhunkainalo. Bears, wolves, elk, wolverines and reindeer roam freely; you can also view reindeer at the reindeer park Hossan Poropuisto. The visitor centre has information as well as nature and cultural exhibitions.
This fantastic villa is considered one of the 20th century's architectural masterpieces and the pinnacle of Alvar Aalto's career. It is the former home of industrialists Harry and Maire Gullichsen, who were avid art collectors and tireless supporters of modern culture and social change. The house still contains the couple's museum-like collection of modern art. Villa Mairea is located in Noormarkku, about 15km north of Pori. Noormarkku is the headquarters of Ahlström Corporation, the industrial giant that financed the Gullichsens' artistic endeavours.
Occupying a palatial 1887 neo-Renaissance building, Finland’s premier art gallery offers a crash course in the nation’s art. It houses Finnish paintings and sculptures from the ‘golden age’ of the late 19th century through to the 1950s, including works by Albert Edelfelt, Hugo Simberg, Helene Schjerfbeck, Pekka Halonen and the von Wright brothers. Pride of place goes to the prolific Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s triptych from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, depicting Väinämöinen’s pursuit of the maiden Aino. There’s also a small but interesting collection of 19th- and early 20th-century foreign art, including the first-ever Van Gogh purchased by a museum, Street in Auvers-sur-Oise (1890), which was acquired in 1903. On the ground floor is a contemporary Finnish cafe/restaurant, the Ateneum Bistro, along with a good bookshop and reading room. One-hour guided tours in English (included in admission) take place at noon on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.
An unmissable stop for Finnish design aficionados, Helsinki's Design Museum has a permanent collection that looks at the roots of Finnish design in the nation’s traditions and nature. Changing exhibitions focus on contemporary design – everything from clothing to household furniture. From June to August, 30-minute tours in English take place at 2pm on Saturday and are included in admission. Combination tickets with the nearby Museum of Finnish Architecture are a great-value way to see the two museums. In summer the Design Museum and Museum of Finnish Architecture have a shared summer pavilion (free admission), which is built by students from collaborating universities to create a sustainable structure.
Built in National Romantic art nouveau style and opened in 1916, Finland’s premier historical museum looks a bit like a Gothic church with its heavy stonework and tall, square tower. It was given a major renovation in 2019, and its highlights include the exceptional prehistory exhibition and the Realm, covering the 13th to the 19th century. You'll also find a fantastic hands-on area for kids, Workshop Vintti. From the 1st-floor balcony, crane your neck up to see the superb frescoes on the ceiling arches, depicting scenes from the national epic Kalevala, painted by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. In July and August, 30-minute guided tours in English at 11.30am from Tuesday to Friday are included in admission.
An iconic example of National Romantic art nouveau architecture, Tampere's cathedral dates from 1907. Hugo Simberg created the frescoes and stained glass; you’ll appreciate that they were controversial. A procession of naked childlike apostles holds the ‘garland of life’, graves and plants are tended by skeletal figures, and in the upstairs gallery a wounded angel is stretchered off by two children. Magnus Enckell's dreamlike Resurrection altarpiece is designed in a similar style. The serpent on the dome adds to the strange ambience.
When the savage Great Fire of 1827 swept through Turku, the lower-class quarter Luostarinmäki escaped the flames. Set along tiny lanes and around grassy yards, the 19th-century wooden workshops and houses now form the outdoor handicrafts museum, a national treasure since 1940. All the buildings are in their original locations, including the workshops of 30 artisans (among them a silversmith, a watchmaker, a baker, a potter, a shoemaker, a printer and a cigar shop), where artisans in period costume ply their trades.
Following the war of 1808–09, Russia began building this major military structure as its westernmost defence against the Swedes. The fortress was still incomplete when the Crimean War began in 1854, and a French-British naval force bombarded it heavily from the sea. Within four days the Russians were forced to surrender it. The evocative ruins stretch for a couple of kilometres, straddling the road and overlooking the sea. Across the water on Prästö, the small Bomarsund Museum displays excavated artefacts. At the complex's core was a huge fortress, built from brick and strengthened with distinctive octagonal blocks, containing a garrison town, and protected by ramparts and a planned 15 fortified towers. Prästö became Bomarsund’s island of the dead, with a military hospital and separate Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim and Christian graveyards. The epic construction drew masons, craftsmen and soldiers from across the Russian Empire. In the Huvudfästet (main fort), only three of the defensive towers were completed. Today, they are an impressive sight, particularly Brännklint tower, its walls scarred by cannon and rifle fire. The overgrown foundations of the garrison town Nya Skarpans, populated now only by ants and butterflies, are also atmospheric.