The long and icy backbone of Scandinavia, Finland rarely fails to enchant. It draws travelers with the promise of Lapland’s far-flung forests and fells, snow-packed ski fields, the Sami and Santa, the cutting-edge cities of Helsinki and Turku, uber-friendly locals, swish design studios and some of the most wonderful and rugged coastal stretches in the world. Here, we take a look at 15 of its top bucket-list destinations.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Finland:
A cocktail of industry and innovation, Finnish hospitality and the vibrant arts, Tampere can be found sandwiched between the two colossal lakes of Pyhajarvi and Nasijarvi – both of which offer endless opportunities for boat cruising, hiking and cross-country skiing by winter.
Back in the city and the old red-brick mill houses of yesteryear now play host to off-beat exhibitions like the Hiekka Art Museum and the Lenin exhibit, while the Moominvalley Museum and the Amuri open-air park offer glimpses of Finland’s famous Tove Jansson and the nation’s labour history alike. The middle of town is cut-through by the roaring Tammerkoski Rapids, with nearby Keskustori Square and the strip of Hameenkatu buzzing with tea houses, heavy metal dives and black blood sausage holes-in-the-wall.
A city of more than 600 years of history, Porvoo hails in as one of Finland’s few bona fide medieval settlements. It can be found clinging to the pretty topography of the Baltic Coast just a short jaunt east out of Helsinki; a patchwork of crooked timber homes painted in red and orange and historically-rich town squares clad in cobble, all fringed by the Middle Age constructions of the town’s onetime Swedish masters.
Right at the heart of the centre, the gorgeous Porvoo Cathedral and its half-wood façade ooze with tales of Russian and Danish invaders alike, while locals gather in the marketplace of Old Porvoo to sip coffees and people watch the day away.
Ranging from the snow-caked forests of Riisitunturi to the stark and windswept fells of the north, the icy rollers of the Gulf of Bothnia to the blasted boreal tundra of the Arctic Circle, Lapland is every inch the mysterious, untapped, untrodden wilderness you’d expect.
Travelers flock here to man the husky sleds and delve into the wild forests that encompass ice-crusted Lake Inari, they come to sample hearty reindeer steaks and cloudberry preserves, to see Santa Claus in his ancestral home, to ski the treeless hills, encounter the earthy Sami peoples and their charming town steads, hike the rugged borderlands with Sweden and see ancient timber churches dotting the northern wilds.
Facing Sweden on the northern gulf, Oulu is a charming town of islets and bridges, prosperous neighbourhoods and prestigious universities. Indelibly green and verdant in the summer, the banks of the brackish River Oulujoki delineate the town centre, carving it up into a series of pretty cays as the tendrils of the delta move outwards to meet the salty rollers of Bothnia.
It’s here that travelers will find the lively cobbles of the central Kauppatori square, packed with farmer’s markets on the weekend, and the bubbling main drag of Rotuaari, with its looming department stores and clutch of student cafes and bars. This all comes peppered with the pretty neo-Renaissance facades of the City Hall and one cutting-edge science centre to boot.
The beating cultural, economic and political hub of Finland as a whole, Helsinki is unquestionably one of the most bucket-list capitals in Scandinavia. It bursts forth from its location on the edge of Uusimaa; the Baltic lapping up against its countless inlets and harbours; its resplendent gold-gilded and whitewashed architectural rises belying Petersburg and one seriously ambitious tsarist rebuilding from two centuries ago.
But this neoclassical shell and the likes of the gorgeous Lutheran Cathedral are just part of the story. Helsinki’s locals are innovative and edgy in the extreme, offering oodles of design studios and hipster cafes, mind-boggling avant-garde at the Ateneum, otherworldly architectural pieces like the Kiasma and a sophisticated nightlife scene besides.
6. Archipelago National Park
A series of countless islets, cays, sandbanks, protruding coastal rocks and fragmented lands that juts its way out into the cold Baltic on the extreme south-western edge of Finland, the beautiful Archipelago National Park remains one of the nation’s undisputed gems.
Some of the islands here are tiny, offering just a mound or craggy salt-washed top to visitors passing by on chugging sightseeing boats. Others, like the Oro Fortress Island, which allows glimpses of Finland’s militarised past during the years of Russian occupation, or Jurmo, showcasing the real rustic beauty of this windswept coastal clime, come packed to the brim with culture and character.
Turku enjoyed several centuries as the most strategic and vibrant town in all of Finland; a medieval boom that’s now showcased in the great wealth of historical monuments here, from the great bulwarks and shadowy dungeons of the Turku Castle to the square-cut tower of the mighty Turku Cathedral.
There’s also a vibrant student scene to enjoy, and oodles of al fresco pubs and beer dives, vodka bars and heavy metal music joints. Add to that a truly gorgeous setting on the edge of the Archipelago National Park, the craft exhibitions and untouched historical wonders of the Luostarinmaki district and the pretty beech forests and golf courses of Ruissalo, and Turku really starts to score points!
8. Koli National Park
Hugging the hilly banks of Lake Pielinen as it scars its way through the heartlands of south-central Finland and North Karelia, the Koli National Park is home to truly breathtaking vistas of primeval spruce forests and waterside fir groves. It’s hardly surprising that the area has been the muse for painters and romantics, and there’s little question that its glorious backcountry charms make it the popular hiking and winter sports (there are two ski resorts here) destination it is today.
However, Koli is perhaps best seen as a cultural hotspot, famed for its earthy bucolic side and ancient traditions of slash-and-burn farming and rustic agriculture. These are best viewed from vantage points at Ukko-Koli Hill and Vesivaara.
Encompassed by the Baltic waters just a little to the west of Helsinki, the verdant and calm island of Seurasaari represents arguably the most acclaimed open-air museum in Europe. Awash with faded timber barns and painted manors decorated in wooden carvings, bobbing rowing boats and rustic shelters, it does well to showcase the traditional Finnish way of life.
But Seurasaari isn’t just about the heritage park that’s made it famous. No sir, there are also secluded beaches here (one’s nudist!) and enchanting moss-clad cabins to discover in the woods, while midsummer sees an eruption of bonfires all around the island – a testimony to the continuation of age old traditions here.
Sleepy Hameenlinna can be found set between the waters and inland wilds of Tavastia in southern Finland; a place off-the-beaten-track and dressed in swathes of green coniferous forest. The town is crowned at the centre by one seriously glorious Swedish castle, which was raised here in the 1200s to secure trading routes back to the Bothnia Gulf.
Today this monolith fortification still silhouettes the horizon of the city, while the home of Sibelius the composer and the Hameenlinna Historical Museum offer a glimpse at the other culture and heritage that has blossomed here since the 16th century.
Vaasa is a proud relic of the lengthy Swedish excursion into this western edge of Finland, and a town that fuses its deep history with a lively university scene and modern edge. In the downtown, travelers will discover national monuments (particularly relevant in this town where the tumult of Russian invasions was felt much more than anywhere else), alongside reinvigorated mill houses where lecture halls now talk technology and innovation.
The beautiful Market Square is the beating heart of life in Vaasa, while the waterfront walkways and Gothic Revivalism of the stoic maritime buildings there add weight to this one’s age-old connection with the sea.
One of the jewels of the Finnish lake district of Northern Savonia, Kuopio sits nestled between the mirror-like waters of Kallavesi and sweeping swathes of spruce forests that flit between icy white and spinach green with the changing of the seasons.
A real favorite with adventure tourists and outdoorsy types, the modest little town and its National Romantic architecture, bulbous City Hall and sprawling central square is a fine place to wax up the walking boots and hit the pretty trails of Laivonsaari island, don the Nordic skis and delve into some of the best cross-country routes in Finland, or simply stroll the countryside between creaking windmills and pretty farmsteads.
13. Lemmenjoki National Park
Something like Europe’s answer to the wildernesses of Alaska and Canada, Lemmenjoki National Park sprawls out over a whopping 2,850 square kilometers on the northern fringes of Finland, where the rugged fells give way to the ice fields and chiselled fjords of Norway.
The whole area is crisscrossed with over 60 kilometers of marked and maintained hiking trails, drawing thousands of backpackers and walkers each year to the vast hinterland of cascading spruce forests and looming pines, shimmering lakes that turn to ice by winter and the reindeer-dotted woodlands of the high north. Other travelers will come to seek out the gold-digging locals, or the indigenous ancestral homeland of the Sami people, whose rustic timber villages ooze the traditions of a time gone by.
Mantled in snow for its long, long winters, and perched neatly up between the rugged, tree-dotted fells of the Arctic Circle, Levi hails in as Finland’s top winter resort. Skiers come by their droves to enjoy the generous powder and guaranteed conditions, which spread out over the 43 alpine runs and offer a whole host of skiing and boarding for beginners through to intermediates (there are also a handful of challenging black runs).
In the evening the charming town takes over, its pine-clad sauna spas and reindeer farms all lit up by the Northern Lights – pure winter bliss!
15. Aland Islands
A stepping stone of an archipelago at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia, the Swedephone Aland Islands are a real curiosity to say the least. The locals speak Swedish and proudly talk of their duty-free, tax-free rights to the mainland Finns who make their way here in the summer. They also tout their own brand of Aland pancakes (to-die-for!) and an enthralling mix of Russian fortresses and mysterious castle ruins left over by the Swedish kings (check Kastelholm).
The real treat here, however, is the backcountry, which rises from the Baltic Sea in a medley of shimmering, ivory-white beaches, rocky shores peppered with shaggy sheep herds, winding seaside bridges and verdant spruce groves.