Anchoring the country’s southwest is Finland’s former capital, Turku. This striking seafaring city stretches along the broad Aurajoki from its Gothic cathedral to its medieval castle and vibrant harbor. Turku challenges Helsinki’s cultural pre-eminence with cutting-edge galleries, museums and restaurants, and music festivals that electrify the summer air.
Throughout the south, the coastline is strung with characterful little towns. The Swedish and Russian empires fought for centuries over the area’s ports, and today they’re commandeered by castles and fortresses that seem at odds with the sunshine and sailing boats. Inland, charming bruk (ironworks) villages offer an insight into the area’s industrial past.
Scattered offshore, islands provide yachting opportunities, sea-salt retreats, and stepping stones across to Åland and Sweden. Most of the charming, history-steeped coastal towns offer summer cruises, guest-harbor facilities, and charter boats to discover your own island.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Turku, a bustling port with a modern city center, was Finland’s principal city during the sovereignty of Sweden and remains the center of Finland’s second language, Swedish. Completed in 1300, Turku Cathedral is the principal place of worship for the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland. The museum holds many ecclesiastical treasures. Work on Turku Castle began in the late 13th century but reached its prime in the mid- 1500s with the addition of further rooms. The history of Turku and the castle are presented in Turku Castle. A double museum comprising Aboa Vetus and Ars Nova focuses on life in medieval Turku and 20th-century Finnish and international art respectively. Other attractions include the west bank of the River Aura with its many restaurants, cafés, and riverboats. The old Market Hall is well worth a visit. Archipelago cruises are also available in summer.
Most visitors to charming Naantali are summer daytrippers from Turku, 11 miles east. They come to meet their friends at Muumimaailma (Moominworld) or to browse the shops and galleries in the quaint Old Town. Even the Finnish president spends his summer holidays here – at the stately mansion overlooking the harbor at Kulturanta. Out of season, Muumimaailma closes its gates and the Old Town acquires the melancholic air of an abandoned film set. But Naantali continues to work hard behind the scenes, with Finland’s third-busiest port, an oil refinery, and an electricity plant.
An awesome collection of 20,000 islands and skerries (rocky islets) make up the Turku Archipelago, one of Finland’s most spectacular natural attractions. This is a majestic summertime playground – just a hop, a skip, and a few ferry rides away from Turku. There are no big-ticket sights, just quiet settlements, abundant birdlife, and ever-changing views of sea and land. It’s a magnificent environment for cycling, kayaking, and island hopping. Like much of Finland’s south coast, the archipelago is primarily Swedish-speaking. The five largest inhabited islands – from east to west, Pargas, Nagu, Korpo, Houtskär, and Iniö – are clustered in a tight crescent. Collectively they make up the municipality of Pargas (Finnish: Parainen).
Once a Hanseatic League port, Pargas (Finnish: Parainen) is the de facto ‘capital’ of the archipelago. It still has a substantial port, and its limestone quarry – Finland’s largest – is a major employer. Its quaint town center and a handful of interesting sights make it worth a quick stop before heading further into the archipelago.
Korpo (Finnish: Korppoo) is the last of the ‘inner islands’ of the Turku Archipelago. That means it’s the furthest island that you can reach without planning your trip around a ferry schedule. It does require two short trips on free inter-island shuttles, and it’s still remote, wild, and beautiful. As on the other islands of the archipelago, the main attractions in Korpo are pristine forests, hidden swimming beaches, and welcoming island culture. There are a few sweet places to stay and one fantastic restaurant, making Korpo an ideal stop if you’re riding the Archipelago Trail and an attractive destination in its own right. Korpo is the gateway for shipping to Kökar on the Åland Archipelago’s southern route. The main harbor is Galtby, less than two miles east of Korpo village.
KIMITO ISLAND & ARCHIPELAGO NATIONAL PARK
Kimito (Finnish: Kemiö) is a sprawling coastal island – Finland’s largest – located 40 miles southeast of Turku. Numerous inlets and waterways weave their way through the forested isle, which is dotted with seaside villages. It’s worth taking your time exploring the island, as there are some fascinating sights along the way, including a historic church in Dragsfjärd and an art-filled manor house in Kimito. But the main attraction is further south. You guessed it: more islands. Kimito is the main jumping-off point for Archipelago National Park, a scattering of spectacular islands that stretches south and west into the sea. Island attractions include Finland’s tallest lighthouse, a century-old fortress island, and a re-created Viking village. Cruises depart from Kasnäs, the harbor on the southern extreme of Kimito island.
Fiskars is a charming factory village with a green river sliding between brick buildings, which now house studios and showrooms for cutting-edge design. This is the town where your favorite Fiskars scissors originated. Fiskars bruk (ironworks) began in 1649 with a single furnace and went on to make millions of horse plows. In 1822 Turku apothecary Johan Jacob Julin bought the factory and the company boomed, producing a huge range of farming and household items, including its iconic orange-handled scissors (since 1967). Today more than 100 artisans, designers, and artists live and/or work here, and craft shops, studios, and galleries fill the village’s neoclassical buildings. Strolling through the picturesque center and shopping for Finnish designs are the twin draws here.
Finland’s second-oldest town is a popular day or weekend trip from Helsinki. Porvoo officially became a town in 1380, but even before that, it was an important trading post. Its historic center includes oft-photographed riverside warehouses that once stored goods bound for destinations across Europe. Away from the river, the cobblestone streets are lined with charming wooden houses of every color. Birthplace of national poet Johan Runeberg, the town is peppered with signs commemorating his whereabouts on various occasions. Porvoo is home to a fantastic dining scene and a burgeoning art movement.
About 80 miles east of Helsinki, Kotka is Finland’s only city set on an island. In Kotka’s early days, the Kymijoki provided a critical transport route for logging and rich waters for fishing, so the city developed as a port – vital for shipping out those valuable exports. Nowadays it’s one of Finland’s most important industrial ports. Celebrating these seafaring roots, Kotka boasts several superb sea-focused attractions, most notably the Merikeskus Vellamo. The islands of the nearby archipelago, with their quaint villages and salty breezes, make for an appealing day trip. On dry land, Kotka has spruced up its city center with parks and public art to make itself more of a holiday destination. But this hard-working port can’t shake its inherent grittiness – which lends it an appealing authenticity.
Located less than 25 miles from the Russian border, Hamina has long been a military town. The town was founded in 1653 as a Swedish outpost, but it was largely destroyed during the Great Northern War. After Vyborg fell to Russia, Swedish king Frederick I began to rebuild the town in 1722, renaming it Fredrikshamn (as it’s still known in Swedish today). At this time, construction began on the star-shaped fortifications and the circular Old Town, all designed by Axel Löwen. Alas, the fortress did not prevent Hamina’s capture in 1743, and the town returned to Russian hands. Today there’s a modern military base in Hamina and the whole town is on parade for the semiannual Hamina Tattoo. And there’s a visible Russian presence still (or again).