7 Incredible Places to Visit in Finland
While Finland may not technically be part of Scandinavia proper, dare we say it's just as stunning. The country shares a border with both Norway and Sweden, after all, and the unspoiled forest landscapes and northern lights-lit skies are visible here, too. There is history and charm to be found in every corner, but if you need help narrowing down where to go, these 7 destinations are a great place to start.
Finland's southerly capital, Helsinki, is unquestionably every visitor's jumping-off point. Built in 1812 and modeled after Russia's St. Petersburg (they're just 186 miles apart), the harbor town is a vision of gold-gilded and whitewashed neoclassical architecture fanning out from the banks of the Baltic Sea. At its center, landmarks like the gorgeous Helsinki and Uspenski cathedrals add to its Russian-influenced, old-world charms. Even more impressionable is the city's young creative energy. Helsinki has become a capital of design (this is the birthplace of Marimekko, after all)—just look to its dozens of design landmarks, from the Design Museum and Kiasma to the avant-garde architecture of the Kamppi Chapel of Silence and Finlandia Hall, where you can catch concerts. Base yourself at Klaus K Hotel, the city's first high-concept design hotel with décor inspired by Finnish folklore.
A third of Finland is covered by the lake district, a tranquil expanse of bays, rivers, and lakes dotted with wooded islands and cliffs formed by glacial melt-off from the last Ice Age. Canoeing or kayaking the fjords is a perfect way to take in the beauty of the archipelago, but for those who'd rather sit back, hop on an original handmade steamship to experience inland lake history. At the region's heart is the tiny island city of Savonlinna, in the middle of Lake Saimma. Here, you'll find Olavinlinna, St. Olaf's Castle, which looks almost as it did when it was built in 1475. The castle is the site of the renowned Opera Festival (typically held July through August), which puts on masterpieces by the likes of Tchaikovsky and Puccini. After taking in a performance, stroll through the market square for a taste of pan-fried "muikku," a traditional snack of local fish.
Another city along Finland's southern coast, medieval Turku was for centuries the country's capital and remains one of its oldest settlements. Scores of Fins descend on the city in the summer months thanks to its calendar of festivities celebrating music and theater as well as its historic and cultural monuments. Highlights include the 13th-century Turku Castle, on the banks of the Aura River, and the Luostarinmäki district, whose cobbled streets and wooden houses date back centuries. Stop by the Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum to see artisans handcrafting everything from pottery to shoes and saddles using only traditional methods.
For many, the word "Finland" might conjure images of icy forests, husky-led sled rides, and tiny cabins blanketed in snow, their chimneys spouting fluffs of white smoke from fireplaces. Rovaniemi, high up in the Arctic Circle, is the capital of Finnish Lapland and that dream come to life. On the banks of the iced-over Lake Inari is Finland's official home of Santa Claus, where visitors come to tour Santa's village, visit with the local Sami people, hike or ski the rugged terrain, and sample local delicacies like reindeer and cloudberry. After spending enough time in the cold, retreat to one of the stilted (albeit cozy) rooms at the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel, whose floor-to-ceiling windows showcase the beauty of Lapland and—if you're lucky—the northern lights.
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While only sections of Turku hold medieval claim, the entire town of Porvoo, just east of Helsinki, dates back some 600 years. A row of crooked timber houses painted in red and orange along the Porvoo River is the medieval town's most recognizable landmark, along with the cobbled lanes that lead to Old Porvoo's central square, with its marketplace and half-wood Porvoo Cathedral, built during the 11th century.
This 17th-century town over on Finland's western coast was a testament to Swedish influence under the reign of Charles IX of Sweden, before the Swedish War ceded the country to Russian rule. After a fire in 1852 took down much of its historic buildings. Russian troops rebuilt the city under the watch of Tsar Nicholas I—though strong ties to Sweden remain. Today, Vaasa is a modern university town, decorated with maritime buildings, universities, and warehouses-turned-lecture halls and institutions like the Kuntsi Museum of Modern Art, home to one of the country's most important art collections.
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In the heart of the Baltic Sea, between Finland and Sweden, is the 6,500-some-odd-island archipelago known as the Åland Islands. Of their 60 inhabited islands, Mariehamn is the busiest town, home to two ports and rows of wooden residences and cafés. There are plenty of sights to see, like the ruins of 14th-century Kastelholm and a ship-turned-museum called Pommern, but it's the backcountry visitors often come for—miles of forests and beaches crisscrossed by hiking trails. Before heading off to explore, fuel up at Johanna's Hembakta, a bakery in Saltvik less than a half-hour's drive north from Mariehamn. Try the regional speciality—an Åland pancake topped with stewed prunes and whipped cream.
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