Finland has had a turbulent history. Occupied by the Swedes and later the Russians, the country was finally granted independence in 1917. A number of hallmarks of this colorful past remain scattered throughout the country, in the form of captivating ruins, meandering cobblestone streets, and towering fortresses.
However, Finland is most famed for its incredible natural beauty. Crystal clear lakes, stunning island archipelagos, and towards the north, pristine winter wonderlands dominate the landscape. Meanwhile, modern cities and towns stay in tune with the times by offering world-class dining and accommodation options. Here’s a look at the top tourist attractions in Finland:
The small city of Rauma was founded in the 1300’s, making it one of the most ancient towns in Finland. The old section of the township is characterized by colorful, historical buildings and winding, cobblestone streets. Many cafes and restaurants line the recently restored Market Square in the old town. The area is well-known for its traditional bobbin lace making trade, and there is an annual Lace Week to celebrate this traditional local skill. In addition to these points of interest, a number of churches with celebrated frescos dating back to the Middle Ages and beyond are well worth taking some time to explore.
This magnificent castle has been standing since the late 13th century. Along with Turku Cathedral, which was built at the same time, it is the oldest occupied building in Finland. The impressive structure overlooks the Aura River and has become Turku’s most iconic building. Originally constructed as a military fortress, it changed hands many times throughout medieval era. Today, Turku Castle is one of the most visited museums in Finland and renowned for its grandeur. During the summer months, there are daily tours of the castle. If visitors are exploring on their own, they will need at least half a day to truly make the most of this amazing spot, as the castle is filled to the brim with twisting passages, period furniture, multiple exhibits and outdoor courtyards.
The capital city of Helsinki is home to a magnificent church: the Helsinki Cathedral. However, it is not your classically envisioned church, it celebrates a unique, neo-classical style of architecture. Construction began on the cathedral in 1830, and it finally opened its doors in 1852 as a Finnish Evangelical Lutheran church. Twelve statues of Jesus’ apostles stand guard on the roof outside the cathedral, which overlooks the city and its harbor. After visiting, most tourists head over to Market Square, which is lined with various food stalls and restaurants featuring heated patios, making it the ideal place for a bite to eat.
The Sami people are the only officially recognized aboriginal people living within the European Union. Many have maintained their traditional livelihoods, which consist of hunting and gathering, small-scale farming, and reindeer herding, although they have recently made a shift towards tourism and handicrafts. Inari is the focal point for the Sami people. It is the place to go to learn about their fascinating culture and traditions. It is here in Inari that the Sami parliament lives, which governs over their linguistic and cultural operations. Inari is also home to the Sami Museum, Sami Cultural Centre, and welcomes visitors to traditional reindeer farms. Outside of the municipality lie multiple, sprawling wilderness parks.
Lake Saimaa is the largest lake in Finland, and home to well over ten thousand islands. The area has been aptly nicknamed Lakeland. Made up of winding waterways, lush green islands and dense forests, it is extremely popular with Finnish cottagers, and visiting tourists; with kayaking and trekking being the area’s most popular activities. The region has a rich history with steamboats, which were used as transport before cars became widely available. However, these days the area is all about slowing down and simply enjoying the pristine landscapes surrounding Lake Saimaa.
During the Swedish reign in Finland, the Swedes built Suomenlinna Fortress upon six islands. It was designed as a military fortress and is strategically located at the entrance of Helsinki Harbor. Construction started in the 18th century, and the fortress was ruled over by the Swedes, Russians, and Finnish. After the Finnish were granted independence in 1917 they renamed the fortress Suomenlinna Fortress, which translates to the Fortress of Finland. Today, over 800 inhabitants live in Suomenlinna, mostly operating within the tourism industry.
This national park is the second largest in Finland. It is very diverse and attracts hikers, trekkers, and skiers. There are still some indigenous Sami people who practice traditional reindeer herding within the area. As such, reindeer, and husky safaris can be enjoyed here. Reaching all the way to the Russian border in the north, Korvatunturi or Ear Fell, is famous among the Finnish as the home of Santa Claus. Clear streams, deep gorges and rolling hills make up the stunning natural landscape, which changes dramatically from season to season, transitioning from verdant green to sparkling white.
Visitors come to Levi for its incredible skiing. The world-class slopes are nearly empty most of the year, lines for the chair lifts are non-existent, and the area generates regular snowfall. Facilities in Levi are modern and clean. There are a number of dining and nightlife options that cater to the skiers at Levi Resort, and even if skiing is not your cup of tea, there are many other snow-related activities in the vicinity, including snowmobiling, husky and reindeer safaris, and snow shoeing. Visitors should not miss visiting Levin Iglut Resort while in the area, famous for its glass-roofed igloos.
Sitting on an island overlooking Lake Saimaa, Olvinlinna Castle is truly magnificent. Built to strategically protect the Savo Region, it became an important fortification against attacks from the Russians in the east. Every year since 1912, the castle holds its Annual Opera Festival, which attracts guests from around the world. The castle is open to the public daily and offers an impressive guided tour, which divulges all the secrets hiding within the castle walls.
The riverside town of Porvoo is Finland’s second oldest. It has become iconic for the ruby red wooden houses that line the Porvoonjoki River on the edge of town. The river flows out into the Gulf of Finland, connecting Porvoo to Helsinki, and during the summertime a charming steamboat transports visitors between the two places. Cobblestone streets and quaint wooden houses are the standard here, along with many trendy shops and restaurants with open-air patios. The town boasts idyllic parks, an open market square, and picturesque landmark buildings. This is a great place for a weekend getaway, a day trip from the capital, or even a relaxing, longer holiday.
Finnish houses are unique in the sense that almost every home has a sauna. This is truly a national tradition. In fact, the Finns invented the concept. Saunas are a wooden room, attached or apart from the home, heated by steam from hot rocks. The classic experience includes shedding your clothes, entering the steamy room, and jumping in a lake or river afterwards. It is polite to have a shower before entering the sauna. Even if you don’t know any locals to join with, many resorts offer this classic Finnish experience for guests.
This tiny region of Finland contains the nation’s only Swedes speaking majority. The archipelago is located in the Baltic sea south of mainland Finland. The well-developed roads and ferry system make island hopping easy. The most popular activities in the area include visiting the capital of Mariehamn, exploring abandoned medieval ruins, or adventuring around deserted islands. The capital has a cosmopolitan dining and accommodation scene. Outside of the city, visitors can enjoy the gorgeous seascapes, or have a go at kayaking, hiking, boating, and other outdoor activities.
Each year Kemi welcomes visitors to the world’s largest fort made of ice. In the spring it melts, and each winter they rebuild the wonderland with slightly new architectural designs. The area includes a hotel, restaurant (with ice mugs!), art gallery, and even a chapel. The hotel rooms can be viewed during the day, and visitors come from around the world to be married or christened in the chapel. The Snow Castle is open from January to April, when temperatures are at their coldest, but there are now plans to build a Snow Castle in 2019 that will last year-round.
The Northern Lights should be experienced by everyone at least once in their lives, and Lapland offers the full glory of this natural spectacle up close and personal. On a clear and starry night in winter, visitors have an extremely high chance of witnessing this magical phenomenon. The evanescent hues of green, blue, yellow, purple and red dancing across the sky will make you feel like you are in a fairytale.