Finnish tourism last year welcomed its best ever figures, with more than seven million guests arriving from overseas for an overnight stay. The figure is even more impressive when one considers that the country itself only has a population of 5.5 million. Many travellers will mainly think of Finland in terms of Lapland and Helsinki, but the rest of the country should not be overlooked.
As Paavo Virkkunen, director of VisitFinland, explains: “It is important to guide tourists to quieter seasons and areas. This is how we create year-round jobs and regional vitality. When developing tourism, it is important to consider the economic, socio-cultural and environmental impacts, as well as the needs of the local population.”
Affectionately known as ‘the arse of Finland’, Turku could certainly be said to be one of these quieter areas and the marketing campaign – Kiss my Turku – playfully nods to the city’s reputation. Nestled on the archipelago in the mouth of the river Aura, the city is an undiscovered gem boasting history, nature and friendly locals as well as cultural and culinary attractions year-round.
Turku is the oldest city in Finland and was previously the capital – with its proximity to Sweden proving strategic during the many centuries of occupation. The influence remains to this day, with signs commonly in Swedish before Finnish, Swedish language schools and even a university. When Finland was invaded by Russia in 1808 the capital was moved to Helsinki, closer to St Petersburg.
A great way to delve into the history of Turku is a visit to the Castle. Built in the 1280s, it has served as a defensive fort, a court, a prison, storehouse and barracks. The attraction provides a vivid insight into the building and the lives of the people who lived there – from the prisoners kept in terrifying underground cells to the kings and queens, a couple of whom were imprisoned themselves in the turbulent history. Close by, the Old Great Square is home to Turku Cathedral. Consecrated in 1300, the cathedral is considered to be the most valuable historical monument in Finland. Walking around the majestic arches, every nook and detail holds a part of the country’s history.
Also fascinating is the Turku Handicrafts Museum, a district (‘Luostarinmäki’) of preserved 18th century houses containing reconstructions of artisanal crafts and cottage industries including clockmaking, traditional meals and himmeli. The area was miraculously spared from a series of fires in the city, including the Great Fire of 1827, which caused massive devastation. Today the open-air museum serves as an atmospheric window into how the people of the 1800s lived and worked. Especially fun was a mirrored contraption that allowed gossipy housewives to get a panorama of the goings-on of the street from their windows.
Aside from history, Turku has a reputation as the culinary capital of Finland offering a wide selection of gourmet food for all budgets. Highlights on the local restaurant scene include seasonal fine-dining at Smör (Swedish for butter), cosy local favourite Restaurant Mami on the waterfront in the historic sector and the stunning Nooa with its glass walls offering views onto the guest harbour. There are culinary tours available which allow you to sample dishes from a selection of restaurants in Turku over a few days – then facing the impossible task of trying to find a favourite! For beer lovers, the micro-brewery Koulu has a great selection of brews made on the premises – a former school. It also offers beer tasting tours.
For a more traditional experience visit the historic Turku Market Hall. Built in 1896, the market contains many quaint original features including a display of how it would have looked in the 19th century. It offers both traditional and modern Finnish cuisine at its different stands, where you can have a snack and soak up the atmosphere alongside the locals before perusing the local produce. There are meat and fish counters, delicatessen and speciality shops, some of which have been there a hundred years. The local and sustainable fish dishes from Herkkunuotta were particularly sublime, as were the tasty cheeses from Juustopuoti, and cake from MBakery, voted best bakery of Finland 2015.
The ultimate authentic experience is of course visiting a local in their own home to experience family life and VisitTurku offer this to guests. Groups can visit this lovely home on the island of Hirvensalo and relax and enjoy traditional Finnish snacks such as blueberry cake, view the house and the garden which sweeps right down to a private marina, perhaps use the private sauna and the plunge pool, or have a boat trip. These tours are bespoke, tailored to the needs of each group. This year there will be the option to stay overnight too, to truly live like a local.
Turku has its own airport but does not yet benefit from direct flights to the UK.
However, it is a two-hour drive from Helsinki and a great launchpad for exploring the Finnish Archipelago or other key attractions such as Moominworld. The city centre is easily walkable, and this is the best way to explore the quaint streets. City life drifts close by the banks of the River Aura (which means ‘artery’) which is definitely a focal point for the city, with its working port and maritime industry. The riverside bars, restaurants and even floating hostels make for a relaxing destination to watch the ebb and flow of the world.