Modern cities and traditional settlements exist side by side in this historically replete region. Here, you can explore Finland’s rural past at ancient wooden churches, learn about its unsettled history at Hämeenlinna’s castle and admire its rich industrial heritage at Tampere’s handsome textile factories (most now museums). The other major town, Lahti, excels in two major 21st-century Finnish exports: technology and classical music. Smaller towns and a liberal scattering of villages and hamlets are home to picturesque churches, a much-loved artist’s retreat, and a world-renowned glass factory. There are plenty of outdoor activities to keep you occupied too. Every town in the region sits on a magical stretch of water and one of Finland’s essential summer experiences is taking a lake cruise. Hikers can head to the trails in Helvetinjärvi National Park and keen skiers can join the annual Finlandia Ski Marathon in Lahti.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Set between two vast lakes, scenic Tampere has a down-to-earth vitality and pronounced cultural focus that make it a favorite for many visitors. The Tammerkoski rapids churn through the center, flanked by grassy banks that stand in contrast with the red brick of the imposing fabric mills that once drove the city’s economy. Regenerated industrial buildings now house quirky museums, enticing shops, pubs, cinemas, and cafes. History In the Middle Ages the area was inhabited by the Pirkka, a devil-may-care guild of hunters, trappers, and vigilante tax collectors. Modern Tampere was founded in 1779; during the 19th century its Tammerkoski rapids, which today supply abundant hydroelectric power, were a magnet for textile industries, and industrialists – including James Finlayson, a Scot – established huge mills here. The 1917 Russian Revolution struck a chord with Tampere’s largely working-class population; the city became the capital of the ‘Reds’ during the Finnish civil war and the scene of their biggest defeat. As the textile industry dwindled, the city was forced to reinvent itself; its urban renewal is one of Finland’s success stories.
Pirkanmaa is a region of rolling green hills, picturesque lakes and rivers, and small industrial towns like Ruovesi, Keuruu, and Iittala.
Peaceful and pretty, Ruovesi is the main town on the Rte 66 stretch, with a couple of decent accommodation choices. Enjoying the lake is the only activity and cultural attractions are pretty well non-existent, but it makes a good base for exploring the area’s attractions by car.
HELVETINJÄRVI NATIONAL PARK
Northwest of Ruovesi, this park’s main attraction is narrow Helvetinkolu Gorge, gouged out by retreating glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. The numerous trails include the 4km circular Helvetistä Itään Nature Trail into the gorge. There are designated campsites throughout the park, including one with a dry toilet at Helvetinkolu, near the Restaurant Helvetin Portti at the Kankimäki parking area. The park is signposted less than 5 miles west off Rte 66, and about 5-1/2 miles north of Ruovesi.
Nestled in a lovely location on the northern shore of Keurusselkä, Keuruu’s major drawcard is its fascinating 18th-century wooden church. The Keuruun Vanha Kirkko was built between 1756 and 1759 and has superb portraits of Bible characters (although the artist didn’t complete the set, due to a pay dispute), and its painted wooden ceiling depicts scenes from the Book of Revelations, with dark clouds across the firmament peopled by scattered cherubs, angels and devils. In true Lutheran fashion, there are no richly embroidered vestments or precious liturgical vessels in the rear sacristy – merely a nasty-looking set of stocks for miscreants.
Set on a narrow isthmus between fast-flowing rapids, Mänttä grew around its paper mill, founded in the mid-19th century by the Serlachius dynasty. Progressive in outlook, the family endeavored to build a model industrial community and endowed the town with noble buildings and art. In recent times, two impressive museums founded by the Serlachius family have led to Mänttä marketing itself as Finland’s ‘Art Town’. The Serlachius Museum Gösta attracts art-goers from around the globe and is the most persuasive reason to head here. The best time to visit is between mid-June and August, during the Mänttä Art Festival.
This region of southern central Finland, also known as Tavastia, has historically been an important one. The castle at Hämeenlinna was the middle of the line of three imposing Swedish fortifications across the breadth of Finland. Today this ancient stronghold contrasts with the modernity of Lahti, the region’s other main city.
The little settlement of Iittala, just off the E12 between Tampere and Hämeenlinna, is world-famous for its glass factory, which has been at the forefront of Finnish design for decades. The factory complex includes a glass museum, outlet shop, and restaurant. The Suomen Lasimuseo museum traces the history of Finland’s glass industry and has two floors filled with thousands of glass items, including pieces from most of Iitalla’s ranges. There are also technical exhibits explaining glassmaking techniques and technologies.
Dominated by its namesake castle, Hämeenlinna (Swedish: Tavastehus) is Finland’s oldest inland town, founded in 1649, though a trading post had existed here since the 9th century. The Swedes built the castle in the 13th century, and Hämeenlinna developed into an administrative, educational, and garrison town around it. The town is quiet but picturesque, and its wealth of museums will keep you busy for a day or two. It makes a good stop between Helsinki and Tampere.
The frighteningly high ski jumps at Lahti’s sports center are put to spectacular use during the annual Lahti Ski Games and have hosted plenty of international events over the years, including the 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships. There are, however, a number of other factors drawing visitors to this modern town 90km northeast of Helsinki. Of these, the architecturally significant Sibeliustalo (Sibelius Hall) and its world-class resident symphony orchestra are the most notable. There are also a number of well-presented museums to visit and lake cruises to board. It’s a pleasant place to visit, particularly as its eating and drinking options are more impressive than in most Finnish towns.