Stretching for more than 300 miles, Finland’s west coast harbors a cache of historic wooden towns such as Jakobstad, Kokkola and UNESCO-protected Rauma, founded at the height of the Swedish empire. The area retains strong links with neighboring Sweden, with Swedish spoken almost everywhere. Fantastic summer festivals in the region include the Nordic countries’ biggest folk-music gathering in tiny Kaustinen, huge rock and tango festivals in Seinäjoki, and world-renowned jazz in Pori. But the biggest attraction in western Finland is the coastline itself. Long beaches attract swimmers, surfers, and birders around Pori and Kalajoki, where cozy cottages nestle into the dunes and forests. Enticing archipelagos pepper the coast around Vaasa and Uusikaupunki. Established in 2011, the Bothnian Sea National Park encompasses 100 miles of coastline, where rocky islets and sandy shorelines make up one of the country’s most pristine and picturesque natural landscapes.
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Founded in 1617, the town is filled with historic wooden buildings, so it’s ironic that ‘Uusikaupunki’ translates as ‘New Town’. The treaty of 1721, which quelled hostilities between Sweden and Russia after the grueling Great Northern War, was signed here. Straddling an inlet, the town’s port was once a popular destination for smugglers…until the customs house was built in 1760. Today Uusikaupunki draws a buzzing yachtie crowd in summer. There is a lovely riverside park and a few oddball museums, but the main attraction of Uusikaupunki is its lovely setting and laid-back charm. It’s also a popular jumping-off point for the nearby Velhovesi archipelago, which is ideal for cycling and sailing.
Centered on its lively market square, Rauma’s Old Town district, Vanha Rauma, is the largest preserved wooden town in the Nordic countries. The main pleasure here is simply meandering the quaint streets of this UNESCO World Heritage site. In the Middle Ages, Rauma’s lacemakers ignored King Gustav Wasa’s order to move to Helsinki to boost the capital’s industry. By the 18th century, Rauma was a thriving trade center, thanks to the European fashion for lace-trimmed bonnets. Locals still turn out the delicate material and celebrate their lacemaking heritage with an annual festival. You might hear snatches of Rauman giäl, the local dialect that mixes English, Estonian, German and other languages that worked their way into the lingo from Rauma’s intrepid sailors. Rauma remains an important shipping center, transporting Finnish paper around the world.
Try to get to Pori during its renowned jazz festival, which attracts 150,000 visitors annually and has the Finns scatting in the streets for a week in July. The whole town buzzes; even the local football team changed its name a couple of decades ago to FC Jazz. After the festival, Pori settles back down to business as an industrial center and one of the most important deep-water harbors in Finland. It’s a regional cultural center (even besides the jazz festival), with a lively theatre scene, a contemporary art museum, and an architectural landmark in nearby Noormarkku.
Named for Queen Kristina of Sweden, Kristinestad was founded in the mid-17th century by maverick count Per Brahe. It was once a booming shipbuilding center and a port for shipping tar and timber out of the Pohjanmaa region. These days, it’s a sleepy little spot sustained by potato farming. But its maritime roots are still evident in the picturesque seaside town center. Here, grand Empire-style merchant buildings adorn the grid-like roads, along with the 17th-century church and customs house. Around 300 historic wooden houses line the narrow lanes further inland. In 2011 Kristinestad became Finland’s first ‘Cittaslow’ town. An extension of the Slow Food movement, Slow Cities aims to rebalance the hectic pace of modern life – not only with ‘eco gastronomy’ but also with local arts, crafts, nature, cultural traditions, and heritage. Kristinestad’s main draw is its charming town center, crowded with colorful wooden houses and framed by the sea.
Seinäjoki is often overlooked by visitors exploring the coast. But anyone interested in architecture shouldn’t miss its striking town center, designed by the country’s most celebrated architect and designer, Alvar Aalto. Occupying two large city blocks, the center consists of four municipal buildings and one church – each remarkable in its own right but also creating a uniquely integrated composite. Seinäjoki enjoys a vibrant cultural life, with a city theatre, orchestra, and art hall. Huge dance and music festivals, especially Tangomarkkinat (Tango Fair) and Provinssirock draw crowds each summer.
Vaasa sits above the 63rd parallel – southern Finns consider it ‘The North’. Just 45 nautical miles from Sweden, the city has a significant Swedophone population, with a quarter of residents speaking Swedish as a first language. The 17th-century town was named after Swedish royalty: the noble Wasa family. But 200 years later it was in Russian hands. The Old Town burned down in Vaasa’s Great Fire of 1852 – caused by a careless visitor who fell asleep and dropped his pipe – and the new city was built from scratch, 4 miles away from the cinders. Vaasa has long been a family-holiday playground, with plenty of outdoor recreation and easy access to the Kvarken Archipelago. It’s a cultural center too, with three universities and a thriving arts scene, exemplified by its excellent museums.
In 1652, war widow Ebba Braha founded the town of Jakobstad in honor of her husband, Swedish war hero Jacob de la Gardie. The site was previously the harbor of the parish of the Pedersöre Kyrka. The church still stands today, lending its name to the town’s Finnish name, Pietarsaari. But the Swedish identity runs deep, as more than half the population are Swedophone. Jakobstad is also the birthplace of Finland’s (Swedish-speaking) national poet, JL Runeberg (1804–77). Jakobstad’s main attraction is its Skata (Old Town), which stretches for several blocks north of the center. It contains some 300 of the best-preserved wooden houses in Finland, with the picturesque Gamla Hamn (Old Port) beyond.
The biggest attraction in Kokkola (Swedish: Karleby) is its charming Neristan (Lower Town; Old Town) where the town’s sailors and fisherfolk once lived. Until the 1960s fishing boats could sail up the coffee-colored river to sell fish in the market, but you wouldn’t believe it to look at the shallow water today. As with the Kvarken archipelago, the land around Kokkola is rising, which means that Kokkola is chasing its port as the sea gets further from the town. Nonetheless, it’s a delightful place to stop for a day or two – to wander the dusty streets and admire the ancient wooden houses or to catch a boat out to the lighthouse station at Tankar Island.
Families flock here to spend their summer holidays in colorful timber cottages snuggled in the white sand dunes or in gleaming resorts overlooking the beach. Swimming, golf, and Nordic walking (which was invented here) keep visitors active in summer, along with water parks, adventure parks, and all manner of outdoor fun. Winter offers great cross-country skiing. Kalajoki village is just off the highway, with most of the facilities (bus station, banks). The resort area – with the beach, airfield, and most accommodation – is 6km south of the village in the Kalajoen Hiekkasärkät (Kalajoki Dunes).