For many centuries, Turku was the capital and largest city in Finland, before it was surpassed by Helsinki. It was also always Finland’s major western port city, which allowed it to grow and thrive. The Aura River runs through the city’s charming center, and in the summer you can take advantage of the boat bars that open up during the endlessly light, warmer months. Full of bright colors, hip restaurants, and exceedingly creative bars—fancy drinking in an old pharmacy or schoolhouse, anyone? Turku is the kind of small city where you wonder where the time went.
Located on the shore of Lake Saimaa, the fourth biggest lake in Europe, Lappeenranta is one of the Finns’ favorite spots to visit in their own country. Its main season is in the summer, when you can really enjoy what the lake has to offer, but the winter tourism industry has also been growing lately. The location is also important politically speaking, as it is equidistant between Helsinki and St Petersburg and is a bridge between Russia and the West. Most of the older buildings here were burned down in the mid 18th century, but the area has more than enough natural beauty to tempt you in.
Savonlinna was founded in 1639 and built up around the Olavinlinna castle, which you can still visit. Although it’s an inland town, you would be forgiven for forgetting that, thanks to the prominence of the area’s numerous lakes in the landscape. There are also several structures worth checking out, like the Kerimaki Church, which is the largest wooden church in the world, or the intricately detailed Rauhalinna Villa, large enough to fit 5000 people! If you come at the right time in the year, you might be lucky enough to catch one of their big events – the Mobile Phone Throwing World Championships.
It may come as a surprise, but Finland has beaches too. Hanko is where many people in the area will come to soak up the sun and enjoy the long days, and it just happens to have a fascinating cultural history to boot. Finland is technically a bilingual country, with a Finnish-speaking majority and a Swedish-speaking minority. While only about 5.4% of the Finnish population at large is Swedish speaking, 44% of the city of Hanko speak primarily Swedish. It was also controlled by Russia for long periods in its history, and for many years, the Russian nobility would come to Hanko for their vacations.
Mariehamn, or Maarianhamina in Finnish, is the capital of Aland, an autonomous Swedish-speaking territory that Finland has sovereignty over. Only built in the late 19th century, Mariehamn still appears much the way it did back then. Walking around the small center, you’ll see streets full of colorful wooden buildings and houses that really bring the town to life, either in summer or in winter. It has a long history as a port, so there’s a very large marina to explore, or you can board the Pommern, a museum ship anchored in the city’s western harbor.
Tampere is one of the largest cities in Finland besides Helsinki, and it grew up as a center of industry in the country – earning it the nickname of ‘Manchester of the North’. The industrial buildings have lately been put to new use as Tampere’s industries have shifted, and now they just give it a very gritty, cool feeling. Between the buildings and green space surrounding the Tammerkoski channel that runs through the city center, you’ll always have a pleasant spot to sit and observe the city’s flow – if you’re not freezing, that is. This is Finland’s major cultural hub outside of Helsinki, so you can usually enjoy anything from the local orchestra to one of their many museums or a great hockey game.
While the area that is now Rovaniemi has been inhabited continuously since the Stone Age (our ancestors made questionable decisions, given that it is just 10 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle), the city was heavily damaged when the Finns fought against the Germans at the end of WWII, so the buildings you’ll find will mostly be new. However, several of the most important ones, including the town Hall and the Lappia House, which functions as a theater and library, among other things, were designed by the well known Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. This is also the perfect place to look for the Northern Lights, and don’t miss the Santa Claus Village – Rovaniemi, after all, is the official home of Santa Claus.
Ever dreamed of sleeping in an igloo? Ever dreamed of sleeping in an igloo with a glass roof, perfectly suited for Aurora Borealis-hunting? Saariselka, which you’ll find by getting very close to the northern tip of Finland, is your place to go. The Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is where you’ll find those glass-topped igloos, but the area’s potential doesn’t end there. You can take a sled-dog safari to witness the beauty of what real winter looks like on unspoiled land, or come in June or July to find out the real meaning of White Nights. This is a very popular place to have romantic, snow-covered weddings – unsurprisingly, given where you could go afterwards for the beginning of the honeymoon.
Located in the southern part of Lapland on the Gulf of Bothnia, Kemi is another place to get in touch with Lappish culture. It was actually built as a shipping harbor in the late 19th century, but you’re not coming to see the permanent buildings. Kemi’s biggest draw is the SnowCastle, which they build every year in a different architectural style. You never know what it’ll look like, but there will always be a restaurant, a chapel (another site for winter weddings), and a hotel, which local artists decorate to give it some serious flavor. Fancy having a meal on an ice table, on ice benches covered with reindeer skin? Move Kemi up to the top of your list.
Raseborg in southern Finland, is a town where Swedish-speakers make up the majority. There are a number of things to see here, both man-made and natural. There’s a lovely neoclassical church and a couple of buildings by Alvar Aalto, plus the numerous streets full of brightly colored wooden houses to cheer you up on a dark day. On the natural side, given its location only barely on the mainland, this is a good jumping-off point to explore the islands in the Ekenas Archipelago National Park (Ekenas used to be its own town, and then merged with two others, Pohja and Karis, to form Raseborg in 2009).