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If Helsinki were a painting, its centre and surrounds would require very different brushstrokes. The city is renowned for its functional yet stylish design, while its surroundings are a shrine to the random beauty that can be created by tectonics and time.
The Finnish capital has so much to offer visitors but without jumping in a car and heading out of town, the complex culture, seismic geography and awesome – in the true sense of the word – adventure that Finland offers will elude travellers. Stay a few days extra and here’s how you could spend your days of discovery.
If you like your road trip to be as much about the road as the destination, set your satnav in the direction of Puumala. Puumala Ridge offers driving as good as anywhere on the planet, weaving you through little forest-covered islands and across the truly stunning Saimaa Lake District. It’s a three-hour drive, so break it up and travel via Porvoo to enjoy a 14th-century city that was once home to royalty.
Expect cobbled streets, colourful wooden houses, cute shops and pretty cafes here. Porvoo is known for its thriving foodie scene so it makes for the perfect lunchtime break before getting back on the road. If you have time, pop to the Postimaki Outdoor Museum to see how craftsmen lived in the 19th century, or visit one of the town’s many art galleries.
There’s probably a debate to be had about Finland’s most famous export: Nokia phones or saunas? It is, however, very clear which of the two the world could not live without. Saunas are an invariably happy place, so a visit to the sauna capital of the world surely makes for a joyous day out. Here you’ll find them in a multitude of guises – from lakefront and historic to state-of-the-art.
Whatever happens, you’ll head back to Helsinki relaxed. Don’t spend all day sweating, though; this industrial yet surprisingly beautiful city is small enough to enjoy on foot. For starters, stroll down Hameenkatu to the cobbled boulevard and, most impressively, views of the Tammerkoski rapids from the Hameensilta bridge. Then take your pick from the Spy Museum, Tampere Cathedral, the Market Hall, the observation tower at Pyynikki Park or even the Moomin Museum to round off a delightful day in Tampere.
National parks could be plonked pretty much anywhere in Finland, such is the beauty of its countryside. The one-hour drive from Helsinki to Nuuksio National Park is, at times, almost as pretty as what you’ll see inside the 53sqkm (20sqmi) of protected land. This is a nation that takes protecting forests very seriously, and anyone who enjoys jaw-dropping landscapes will be particularly pleased by this. As you set off along marked trails, there are various difficulty levels to choose from or, if you prefer to let someone else take the strain, there are horse trails too.
Expect to see valleys and gorges, soaring forests, shimmering lakes and, depending on what time of year you visit, a blanket of colour-filling views from spots such as atop a high rock on the Haukankierros trail. Also within easy reach of Helsinki and worth the trip is Sipoonkorpi National Park, especially in summer and autumn, when locals love to pick wild mushrooms and berries.
There aren’t a huge number of castles in Finland, but it’s certainly worth visiting one while you’re staying in Helsinki. Among the most interesting is Turku Castle, which, along with the Turku Cathedral, date back to the late 13th century. This is the former capital and the country’s oldest city and, while many of its historic buildings tragically burnt down in 1827, the remnants of the early years are a fascinating juxtaposition to Helsinki’s thriving modernity. Walk between the castle and cathedral monuments along the Aura River and brush up on your Swedish before you go, since it’s actually spoken more than Finnish here.
Twin Turku with a trip to Naantali – a slightly younger town, founded in the 15th century – which is medieval through and through, with cobbled lanes and old wooden houses. There’s a great museum here that tells the story of the town, but for a bizarre immersion into more modern history, head to Moominworld for a deep dive into the hippo-like fairytale characters of the Moomins.
Finland’s southernmost, and therefore warmest, spot is conveniently also where you’ll find some of the best sandy beaches in the country. If that doesn’t sound appealing enough to make the drive down, consider that the historic spa town of Hanko has become known as the Finnish Riviera. All rivieras are amazing, everyone knows that.
Two hours from Helsinki, Hanko is wildly popular with city types needing some R&R, as well as being a prime location for the sailing crowd. It’s the white bathing huts that get the lion’s share of Insta-attention, but the town is far more than a one-shot pony. Have a swim, then stroll through parks along the shoreline, in and out of boutique shops, before heading to the East Harbour for archipelago cuisine at Origo, or some of the best pizza and craft beer you’ve ever tasted at Skiffer.
The name of this quaint factory village may ring a bell thanks to its namesake brand which, among other things, creates those iconic orange-handled scissors. You almost certainly own something they’ve made. The company began life in 1649 as a single furnace churning out horse ploughs. Today, you can see blacksmiths at work in Fiskars Forge, and you can even have a go yourself if you want a personalised souvenir.
The village is packed with more than a hundred artists, designers, artisans and other creative types, with visitors torn between enjoying the neoclassical buildings and river views, or stocking up on Finnish designs from craft shops. Our advice is, do both: there are genuine one-of-a-kind buys to be had here that twin imagination and quality beautifully. Microbreweries and great restaurants have sprung up in recent years, making this a very popular day trip from the capital, as it’s only an hour and a half away by car. For a seasonal lunch at the oldest guesthouse in the country, try Fiskars Wardshus.
Helsinki sits on an archipelago of more than 300 islands, so, while most day trips from the capital are a delightful drive away, you should seriously consider spending at least one day exploring by boat. Ferries are plentiful – as are your island options. Locals love to head to Pihlajasaari with a picnic to enjoy long summer days on the beach; Vartiosaari is a sublime ski and skating spot in winter; Suomenlinna is home to a famous sea fortress, and Vallisaari is a nature-lovers’ paradise – having been a military base for many years it was closed to the public but very much open to flora and fauna.
If you really want to avoid seafaring you can still go island hopping by foot onto nearby Seurasaari, where the squirrels are as friendly as puppies and the open-air museum celebrates traditional Finnish life.
Finland is ready to welcome travellers as soon as the time is right. Head to visitfinland.com to start planning your trip to this magnificent country.