12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Finland
From the vibrant art-filled cities of Helsinki and Turku to the depths of the boreal forests and the thinly-inhabited outer archipelago, Finland remains one of the relatively unknown corners of Europe. While the cities and towns offer many unique cultural and historical attractions, the natural surroundings serve as a playground for both winter and summer activities.
Helsinki is the main point of entry for most visitors to Finland. This is where sightseers will find the country's finest museums, art galleries, restaurants, and shopping. It's easy to spend a week exploring the city and enjoying the cultural attractions. Some of the most important sights in the city include Finlandia Hall, the architecture around Senate Square, Suomenlinna, and the underground Rock Church. Those with an interest in history or art will also want to allow some time to wander through the Finnish National Museum or the Finnish National Museum of Art. Nearby, the Open-Air Folk Museum on the island of Seurasaari, with old houses and timber buildings, reveals an in depth historical perspective on Finland.
From Helsinki there are a number of great day trips. Northeast of the city is the historic town of Provoo, which can be reached by road or by boat. To the north of Helsinki lies the medial castle at Hameenlinna. To the west lies Turku, the ancient capital of Finland. Those looking to venture further afield will find a countryside of forests and lakes. This becomes clear on a trip to Tampere, a lively industrial city with an active cultural scene and numerous museums and parks, and depending on the time of year, various events. From Turku, it's also possible to visit the Aland Islands, a large archipelago which can be reached by ferry. Finally, a must-do for visitors to Finland is a trip to the wilds of Lapland.
The Åland Islands or Åland (Swedish pronunciation: Oland, Finnish: Ahvenanmaa) is an autonomous archipelago between Sweden and Finland. A predominantly Swedish-speaking province of Finland, Åland is comprised of a few large islands and nearly 10,000 smaller ones. Åland has a unique history. It was ceded to Russia by Sweden in 1809. In 1854, a combined British/French fleet took the islands, destroying the fortress. After that, the entire archipelago was demilitarized and remains so to this day. About 27,500 people live in Åland today, with about 11,000 in the main town of Mariehamn. The main industry of the islands has always been shipping and trade, so the Maritime Museum, the Museum Ship Pommern, and the Maritime Quarter in Mariehamn are worth seeing to understand the islands' fascinating maritime history. Also worth a visit is the Jan Karlsgården open air museum in Kastelholm where visitors can see what a typical island farm looked like around 1890. However, the big draw to Åland these days is its unspoiled nature and beautiful landscapes. On midsummer's eve, Åland holds a massive and ancient celebration marking the longest day of the year. There are also a wide range of excellent places to eat and many artists' studios to visit. The islands can be reached both from Stockholm and Turku as well as by small plane.
Hämeenlinna (Swedish name Tavastehus), is attractively situated on a long, narrow lake, the Vanajavesi. The Hattelmala hills are a boundary to the south of Hämeenlinna. The town was founded by the Swedish governor, Per Brahe, in 1639 on a site to the north of the 13th-century Tavastehus Castle, which he enlarged and strengthened. The red brick castle is one of the noted landmarks along with Aulanko Park. The town of Hämeenlinna was moved to its present site in 1777. Its economy depends primarily on timber-processing, with some metalworking. Hämeenlinna was also the birthplace of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) and the poet Paavo Cajander (1846-1913). In the center of Hämeenlinna is the Market Square (Kauppatori). On its east side stands the Lutheran church, with a statue of Paavo Cajander in the gardens in front of it. On the south side of the square is the Town Hall. North of the square visitors will find the Sibelius Museum, and a little bit further on, the Sibelius Park. Be sure to also visit the Hämeenlinna Historical Museum near the park. Finally, no trip to Hämeenlinna is complete without a visit to the castle on the shores of the Vanajavesi.
Helsinki (Swedish Helsingfors) is the capital of Finland and chief town of the province of Uusimaa (Nyland). The city offers a variety of cultural opportunities such as the National Museum of Finland; the Helsinki City Museum; the Finnish Art Gallery, featuring classical to modern art exhibits; and three major theaters. Around the city itself, various suburbs grew up from 1950 onwards, most of them outside the city limits in the province of Uusimaa. This gave rise to administrative problems, which were resolved in the early 1960s by the establishment of the towns of Espoo/Esbo to the west and Vantaa/Vanda to the northeast - independent administrative units without established centers, which at once joined the select group of Finland's five largest towns. The only relics of the past in these towns are a few old churches and pastors' houses in gray stone.
Jyväskylä was founded by Tsar Nicholas I in 1837. The small city is located on the north side of the Jyväsjärvi lake, which is linked by a narrow strait, the Aijälänsalmi, with Lake Päijänne, Finland's second largest lake and its deepest, to the south. Jyväskylä is an important traffic junction, the administrative and cultural hub of central Finland and an industrial town (woodworking, metalworking), which is also noted for its trade fairs. The town gets its particular character from a mingling of old wooden houses and modern stone buildings. The first Finnish-language secondary school was established here in 1858. The University was founded in 1934. In the centrally-located Church Gardens (Kirkkopuisto) is the neo-Gothic Town Church. Nearby is a monument to the Finnish writer, Minna Canth (1844-97). On the way from there to the harbor and the lake are three buildings by the famed Finnish architect Alvar Aalto: the Municipal Theater, the Police Headquarters, and the Local Government Offices. To the north, in Rajakatu, are the Orthodox church and a neo-Classical church. The impressive Jyväskylä International Arts Festival is held in June and is the longest-running annual cultural event in Finland.
5 Northern Lights
For most people, seeing the Northern Lights is a once-in-a-lifetime treat. Finland is perhaps the top country in the world for seeing these blazing curtains of light drape across the sky. Although, at times, the lights can be seen even in the southern most regions of the nation, the best place to see them is in Lapland. In the north, between September and March, visitors are almost guaranteed a show if the sky is clear. A wide range of hotels in the north cater specifically to people wanting to see the lights. Also, the Finnish Meteorological Institute allows you to sign up for free Northern Lights email alerts.
6 Lake Saimaa and Savonlinna
The entire eastern portion of Finland is more sea than land. With literally tens of thousands of lakes, rivers, marshes, and ponds, eastern Finland is a fabulous aquatic playground. The dominant lake of the region is massive Lake Saimaa, the "lake of a thousand islands." Lake Saimaa itself has an area of some 1,300 square kilometers - excluding its numerous islands. The whole lake system is drained by the river Vuoksi, which leaves Lake Saimaa to the north of the town of Imatra and flows into Lake Ladoga in Russia. The hilly shores of the lake and most of the islands are almost entirely covered with coniferous forest, with some birch forest farther north.
Savonlinna is the main city of Finland's lake region. A popular spa and holiday resort, Savonlinna lies between the Haapavesi, to the north, and the Pihlajavesi, to the south. The town grew up around the castle of Olavinlinna and received its municipal charter in 1639. The oldest part of the town is picturesquely situated on an island between two waterways, with the newer districts on the mainland to the west. Savonlinna is one of the main centers of the boat services on Lake Saimaa. The principal sight of Savonlinna is indeed the Olavinlinna Castle. The castle, which has been beautifully restored, contains a number of handsome rooms used for receptions and conferences, among them the King's or Knights' Hall, the Congress Hall, and the Great Hall. Three massive round towers have survived, and in one of them, the Church Tower, is a small chapel, still used for worship and weddings. In the Great Bastion is a summer café. East of Savonlinna lies Kerimäki and the largest wooden church in the world. A must do when in the lake region are the boat cruises. From Savonlinna, there are boat trips to the other towns on Lake Saimaa, to Punkaharju, with the Retretti Art Center, the largest in the Nordic countries, to the monasteries of Uusi Valamo and Lintula. Another day trip option is a cruise down the Saimaa Canal to Vyborg in Russia on the Baltic Sea.
7 Lemmenjoki National Park
Anyone seeking an Arctic wilderness experience will love Lemmenjoki National Park. The 70-year-old tract over boreal forest is the largest park in Finland and one of the most extensive chunks of wildlands in all of Europe, covering more than 1,000 square miles. For the trekker, there are hundreds of miles of marked trails as well as free and open wilderness huts and more sophisticated rental huts with sauna and campfire places. The namesake of the park, the Lemmenjoki River, is a sight to behold as it flows down from the fells into a stunning valley of towering pines. Visitors can either rent a boat or take a tour. This is the place to find brown bear, wolves, and wild golden eagles as well as moose and reindeer.
Sweet little Oulu (Swedish Uleåborg) lies near the north end of the Gulf of Bothnia, at the mouth of the Oulu river. Its university was founded in 1959. In spring, there are numerous sporting events such as skiing competitions in the Oulu area. Towards the end of the 16th century, King John III of Sweden built a castle on the island of Linnansaari at the mouth of the Oulu river, and the town grew up on this island, receiving its municipal charter in 1610. In 1822, it was almost completely destroyed by fire. The town was swiftly rebuilt in accordance with a plan prepared by Johan Albrecht Ehrenström. During the 19th century, the trade in tar flourished, and the town prospered accordingly. At the north end of the busy Kirkkokatu in Oulu stands the Cathedral, originally built in 1770-72. To the left of the entrance, a monument commemorates those who fell in the Civil War of 1918. From the north end of Kirkkokatu, a small bridge leads into the beautiful island of Ainola Park. At the west end of the island is the Municipal Library and the Provincial Museum. Farther north is the Botanic Garden, and on the island of Hupisaari, a summer theater. Another popular tourist attraction is the Tietomaa Science Center to the east of the Oulu Botanic Garden and in the summer, sightseers should spend a morning at the Market Square with its excellent coffee, classic Finnish pastries, and dose of culture.
9 Archipelago National Park
The Archipelago National Park (ANP) near Turku was established in 1983. These islands offer a very unique cultural mix of Finnish, Russian, and Swedish influences. Finland's islands are also a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Here, in the islands, the sky truly meets the sea, and visitors may feel as though they have reached the very edges of the earth. The air is quiet, and the sea relatively calm. Sailboats glide on crystal clear waters under skies filled with terns and sea geese. Sightseers can rent many types of boats, from sailboats to kayaks and motor boats. This is also an incredible place to see seals and catch fish - very large pike and trout. Around 60,000 people come to the park each year, but it never seems crowded given the size of the area. Solitude is easily found here. The entire coastline of Finland is dotted with these island treasures. The most interesting islands to visit in the park are Jurmo, Noto, Uto, Aspo, and Houtskär.
Tampere (Swedish: Tammerfors) is one of the loveliest towns in all of Finland. It was founded in 1779 as an industrial settlement and is now Finland's third largest town (the largest inland town in Scandinavia) and the country's leading industrial city. It lies between two lakes, Näsijärvi, to the north, and Pyhäjärvi, to the south, which are linked by the Tammerkoski, a stretch of rapids about 900 meters long. Tampere is noted for its active cultural life with an open-air theater, numerous festivals, and popular sports teams. After Finland came under Russian control in 1809, the development of the town was promoted by the Tsars; thus between 1821 and 1906 its exports to Russia were exempted from customs duties. Tampere's main industries are now metalworking, textiles, and footwear. Tampere's principal street is Hämeenkatu, which runs from the railroad station through the Central Square to the wide avenue Hämeenpuisto. In the square is the Hämeensilta (bridge) with four statues of famed Finnish culture figures by Wäinö Aaltonen. In addition to its theaters, which have an international reputation, it offers a wide range of cultural and recreational facilities, including the modern Municipal Library, the Lenin Museum, numerous parks and lakes, and the Särkänniemi amusement park. Within the city limits are almost 200 lakes, and several inland shipping lines are based in Tampere, including the motor vessels of the Silver Line and the appealing old steamers, which ply on the "Poets' Way." Be sure also to visit the old villages of Ruovesi and Virrat.
The southwestern Finnish town of Turku (Swedish Åbo), the country's oldest town and once its capital, lies on the Gulf of Bothnia, at the mouth of the Aurajoki. About 5 percent of the population is Swedish-speaking, and the town attracts many visitors from neighboring Sweden. Turku lies in the area where the successors to the Swedish Vikings landed in the 12th century and set out to conquer what is now Finland. In 1525, the town received its municipal charter from Gustavus Vasa. In 1810, the seat of government was transferred to Helsinki. During the 1970s, Turku developed into a considerable tourist center. The hub of Turku's traffic is the Market Square (Kauppatori), on the north bank of the Aurajoki. This is a great place to come for coffee and pastries. Flanking the square here are the Swedish Theater, the glass-roofed Hansa shopping center, and the lovely Orthodox church. Standing on the east side of Turku's Cathedral Square is the main cathedral, founded about 1230 and consecrated in 1290. It is a massive brick church in Late Romanesque style with Gothic and Renaissance additions and a massive 97-meter high tower that dominates the city. Just down from the cathedral along the river, two old sailing ships are moored - the "Suomen Joutsen," now a training school for seamen, and the barque "Sigyn." Both are open to the public in summer. Also along the banks of the river are a number of old vessels, which have been converted into restaurants. Finally, a must-see is the old castle. Located on the west side of Turku near the harbor, the castle was built around 1300 on what was then an island at the mouth of the river. It was enlarged in the 16th-17th century and now houses the Turku Historical Museum.
Established in the 1300s, Vaasa was an important town in the time that Sweden ruled Finland. The original town burned down in 1852 and was relocated six kilometers northwest near a better harbor. The ruins of the old city are now a giant park (Vanha Vaasa, Gamla Vasa) that is well worth the visit. The town is about 34 percent Swedish-speaking and retains many ties to Sweden. Surrounded by a wide range of cafés, restaurants, and shops, the large market place is the center of city life. This peaceful town offers plenty of attractions. Visitors can walk along the waterfront, which begins in front of the town and extends for miles along the coast. Other attractions include the Kuntsi Museum of Modern Art, down at the harbor, the Ostrobothnian Museum, the Terranova Kvarken Nature Center, the Tikanoja Art Museum, and the Vaasa Maritime Museum. Just to the east of the city center, on an island, is Tropiclandia and tropical spa, a waterpark inside a heated dome packed with pools, slides, and saunas. South of Vasa is the famed Söderfjärden crater caused by a meteor millions of years ago. To the north lies the Kvarken National Park, a wild archipelago hosting many great hikes and excellent bird watching opportunities. Vasa also hosts a number of notable cultural events including the Night of the Arts; the Korsholm Music Festival, one of the most noted of chamber music festivals; and the Vaasa Choir Festival. Vasa also claims to be the sunniest town in all of Finland, so soak up some rays on one of the many beaches.