With a coast that stretches 780 miles and countryside where forests of pine and birch trees wrap around over 180,000 lakes, Finland is all about water. The Gulf of Bothnia laps the western shores, while the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea follow the glorious southern coastline to the Russian border. On the way, those northern seas give Helsinki its summer and winter playgrounds.
So where better to start your Finnish holiday than in Helsinki, down by the harbour where tour boats, ferries and fishing boats jostle for space and custom, while along the quayside larger cruise ships line up at the Olympia Terminal.
Beside the harbour the market square buzzes with stalls. Some are piled high with rich red strawberries, sharp green pea pods and punnets of wild berries. Mountains of root vegetables look as if they were dug up that morning. Other stalls offer crafts, souvenirs and felt hats, amber jewellery and everything you might need for your sauna, from towels to hand-made wooden sauna baskets which make great gifts to take back home. Brightly coloured awnings cover the little kitchen stalls offering ice-cold drinks, creamy salmon soup and fried vendace fish. It’s time to sit on one of the wobbly benches and watch the world go by.
Out in the Baltic Sea, the four islands that make up the UNESCO World Heritage site of Suomenlinna Fortress beckon. Regular ferries scurry through the blue waters to the open green spaces, old ramparts and small cobbled streets of the sturdy stone fort. Built in 1748 to defend Helsinki and house the Swedish Archipelago Fleet, now the rusting cannons that fired on the Anglo-French fleets during the Crimean War are silent; the World War II Vesikko submarine that protected convoys in the Gulf of Finland is permanently marooned on shore, and the old dolls, teddy bears, prams and tin cars once beloved of generations of children sit in glass cases in the Toy Museum. Just the place to soak up the past wandering around this small village with its museums, stone buildings and restaurants, bars and cafés.
Seeing Helsinki from the sea is a magical experience, so grab a seat at the front on the returning ferry.
Against the blue sky, the red brick 19th-century Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral with its golden onion-domes stands on a hill overlooking the harbour. The majestic Town Hall and the President’s Palace, once occupied by the Russian Tsar, border the Market Square. Standing centre stage in nearby Senate Square is the blockbuster white, green and gold extravaganza of St Nicholas’ Cathedral, surrounded by the elegant, classical 19th-century buildings of the architect Carl Ludwig Engel who turned to St Petersburg for his inspiration. Looks familiar? Dr Zhivago and Reds were both filmed here.
To stay in full Czarist mode, book in to Helsinki’s best known Russian restaurant. The plush red, gold, over-decorated and definitely over-the-top Šašlik restaurant offers rich fare: borscht soup, or for something completely different, grilled bear on skewers.
At the Helsinki City Museum (well worth a visit for a quick and entertaining history of the capital), pick up a map that takes you through Art Nouveau Helsinki and an astonishing array of Finnish Jugendstil design from the 1900s. Massive granite towers with domed rooves, carved window frames and plaster reliefs make up the exuberant architecture that has more than a touch of Lord of the Rings about it. The national romantic style is at its most formidable at Eliel Saarinen’s famous 1919 central railway station with its giant figures which inspired Gotham City in the first Batman films. Take tram number 2 or 3 from Market Square and get off at very upmarket Eira to walk past the pretty turn-of-the century villas down to the sea.
If it’s modern architecture you’re after, Helsinki is a dream. Right in the centre of town, the spectacular curving new Oodi Central Library is a real cultural space with café, restaurant, public balcony and movie theatre, as well as a great book collection, of course! Don’t miss the copper-domed Temppeliaukio Church, carved into granite and bathed in natural light. Or the small, beautifully curved wooden Kamppi Church, designed as an oasis of calm in the middle of the busy city.
It was Alvar Aalto, Finland’s great architect and designer, who laid the foundations for the country’s huge burst of creative design. Reflected in the waters of Töölönlahti Bay, the spectacular, startling white Finlandia Hall propelled the country into the international arena.
Then for a rare treat, book a meal at the Savoy Hotel Restaurant. Look out at the views from the 8th floor, enjoy modern Finnish gourmet cooking, and admire the original calm, modernist Aalto interior. An expensive meal but well worth it.
To buy a piece of Finnish design, walk through the central Design District. In a clutch of streets just off the main Esplanadi Boulevard. Around 200 individual stores sell classics, such as the iconic Aalto glass vases and beautiful Arabia tableware, as well as modern silverware, jewellery, textiles and household items by international names and individual designers. But they are pricey, so to grab a historic bargain, head to the Helsinki Secondhand Warehouse on Korkeabuorenkatu.
Finland’s Lake District
In summer, do as the Finns do and make your way to Finnish Lakeland. It’s a magical, and awe-inspiring region where vast systems of lakes, bays and islands are interlinked by waterways, canals and causeways.
Fishing in the still lake waters then cooking your catch on an open fire, and taking a boat out for a leisurely row are part and parcel of a Finnish summer. Lakeside towns will provide you with canoes and kayaks, or bicycles for a slow ride along well-signposted paths. On a guided walk, discover mushrooms and wild berries that you can forage for under Finland’s Everyman’s Right Laws.
Lazy summer days by the waterside will definitely restore your wellbeing, but for a little more, look to the inland cities built on the great waterways.
Just 112 miles north of Helsinki the once mighty industrial town of Tampere separates two lakes. The rapids linking them have long stopped powering the famous 19th-century Finlayson red brick textile mills, and today the buildings are full of cafés, bars and restaurants, as well as a useful Finlayson outlet shop.
For the ‘Manchester of the North’, industry meant workers and workers brought communism. In 1905 Lenin met Josef Stalin for the first time in the Workers’ Hall here, and the story is told in the Lenin Museum. The Spy Museum completes the murky past.
On a lighter note, Tampere offers the Moomin Museum which entrances both young and old with a Moomin House, and displays and models of the well-loved characters.
To the east, Lake Päijänne is full of boats in summer, taking locals between the large cities and visitors out to the Päijänne National Park. Here tiny uninhabited islands are home to an astonishing variety of wildlife while larger islands offer sandy ridges and rocky cliffs to scramble over. They set off from Jyväskylä’s busy harbour, a mecca for yachts and motor boats.
Further east still, you come up to the Russian border where the lake system brought the ever present danger of invasion from the big eastern neighbour. On Lake Saimaa, Europe’s fourth largest lake, massive Ovanlinna Castle defended the pretty town of Savonlinna for centuries. Today, every July and August, the walls of the stone fortress, perched on a rocky outcrop of its own, echo to the glorious sounds of one of the world’s great opera festivals.
Throughout the summer, steamships ply their trade on Lake Saimaa, chugging their way from shore to shore. And once a year public and private steamships get together for a celebration you’ll also find on other lakes - the annual steamship regatta. It’s heaven for ship lovers and the mechanically minded, fun for everybody, and noisy, particularly when they all start their steamship whistling moment.
Lake Saimaa’s southern waters come right up against the Russian border at Imatra, a small town eternally stuck in a time warp. Tourism came early to Imatra with the arrival of Catherine the Great in 1772. Numbers swelled in the 19th-century when tourists came from St Petersburg to watch the mighty Imatrankoski Rapids, which are still let loose in the summer to the music of Sibelius.
Have a drink or a meal at the Jugendstill Valtionhotelli, built in 1903, and conjure up the ghosts of Russian and western spies who met here during the Cold War. It’s all very John le Carré.
The ‘Cavalry City’ of Lappeenranta, equidistant from Helsinki and St Petersburg, comes alive in the old formidable fortress where you can follow the swashbuckling story of the scarlet-uniformed soldiers and their faithful steeds.
Or just chill out in this lively city whose streets and squares fill up in the summer with music and dance festivals, open-air craft and art markets and Finland’s biggest sandcastle. Each year three million tons of sand are transformed into a massive sculpture by around 20 sand sculptors, creating perhaps a fantasy fortress, or a huge tower covered in trees, all made of sand.
There’s one last experience to enjoy. From Lappeenranta you can take the steamship M/S Carelia along the Saimaa Canal to the former Finnish city of Viborg. The leisurely, day-long trip takes you through eight massive locks over the border into Russia and back. It’s just one more water-borne adventure awaiting you in the Land of a Thousand Lakes.
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