Best Places to Visit in Finland – Lapland, Helsinki, Turku.

Finland is probably not the first country you think of when you hear the phrase “summer vacation in Europe.”  However, this welcoming, ecologically clean and diverse nation is an underrated vacation destination.  There is no shortage of places to visit in Finland, wherever your interests lay.  In Finland, you can explore the extensive national parks, including those above the Arctic circle (Lapland). Here, you can delve into the thriving metropolis of Helsinki and the 20,000 Turku Archipelago islands. Its a lot to do in one week – but I wanted to cover it all. In this article, I’d like to give you an overview of all the best places to visit in Finland.

Thank you to my friends at Vero Social Network for their support, and for sponsoring this trip – I am proud to be a part of a social network that brings out the best in all of us.  

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A woman walks in front of Helsinki Cathedral, Market Square, Helsinki, Finland

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Exploring the cities in Finland – Helsinki

We start off in Helsinki, a metropolis of 600,000 people.  This city is a recent capital (the old capital Turku, is another city we visit later).  Helsinki has an interesting and rich history, made no less interesting by its huge neighbor to the east.  Finland is in a unique position because it is a country that strongly allies with Europe but is located on the Russian border.  When Finland passed from Swedish to Russian control in the 18th century, the Czar was very vested in winning over Finnish hearts and minds.

Check out hotels to stay in Helsinki.

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Helsinki is situated on the southern peninsula of the Gulf of Finland. Here you’ll find a long naval tradition and boating culture.

When the Czar took over, he changed the capital from the Swedish aligned Turku to the Saint Petersburg aligned Helsinki. He invested a lot of money in building a beautiful northern capital in the new Finish territories.  If you visited Saint Petersburg, the architecture in Helsinki probably reminds you of Saint Petersburg.  This is no coincidence – the same architect designed both cities. This means that Helsinki is laid out in a classic Italian style – unusual for a northern European country.

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Helsinki streets are designed in an Italian Renaissance style – unusual for a northern European country.

What to see in Helsinki – take a walking tour

Upon your arrival in Helsinki, Finland, I suggest starting your day off with a walking tour.  There is so much to do in Helsinki, and the walking tour is a great way to get yourself oriented.  These tours are a great way to quickly discover all the best spots in the city and to learn about the country’s history.

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The view of downtown Helsinki

As you walk around Helsinki you’ll notice bullet holes in some buildings and statues. These are from World War II, preserved for the historical significance.  Today the bullet holes are a reminder of all the lives lost and sacrifices made in the war.   

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What is the best time to visit Finland?

Not sure when to visit Finland? That really depends on what you would like to see.  If you are looking to discover the country in full bloom, then you should visit during the warmest months – June through August.  If, on the other hand, you are looking for the best place and time to see the northern lights, visit Santa’s village in the Lapland, and enjoy a winter wonderland, then you should go around November – February.  Above the arctic circle, it is possible to get lucky and see northern lights as early as August.  However, if you really want to see the northern lights I wouldn’t rely on luck.  The best time to see northern lights in Finland is when its darkest – from November through January.

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After you have explored, Helsinki, move to your next location – Turku. The former capital of Finland is a pretty town built along the river Aura.  Turku is also the starting point of the archipelago circle.  Spend the night (or a few days) in Turku

Best Places to Visit in Finland: Turku and the Archipelago Circle

If you are looking for the best places to visit in Finland, you really can’t miss Turku.  Although there are many museums and other activities here, my favorite thing to do in Turku is to take a stroll along the river, perhaps with a cup of coffee in hand.  Speaking of coffee – the Fins drink more java per capita than any other country in the world.  So, if you are a coffee addict like me, you will have no shortage of places to purchase, although they mostly stick to drip coffee.

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In Turku, enjoy a leisurely stroll along the river, cup of coffee in hand.

In the center of Turku, you will find Turku Castle. This medieval fortress constructed in the 12th century is a major finish landmark. Inside the castle, you will stroll the well-preserved chambers, a children’s hall, and special exhibits.

When you are ready to move on, make your way to the Turku tourist information in center town.  The clerk in the information center spend about 45 minutes with me helping me figure out my itinerary.  Without her help, I would never have been able to plan my next step – a visit to the Turku archipelago. 

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Turku is also designed in the Italian Renaissance style.

Avoid this mistake on your trip to Finland

While visiting Finland, I did make an error – I didn’t pre-book a car to do the archipelago route.   This meant that the only way for me to do the circle would be by public transport.  When booking a car, I suggest you use a car rental aggregate service that allows you to check prices in dozens of car rental agencies at once. In Europe, a manual transmission is standard, so specify an automatic if you need one.

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Riverside in Turku

The Turku Archipelago trail

The Turku archipelago is made up of thousands of islands, but the planned archipelago trail covers about a dozen.  The trail, one of the best places to visit in Finland, goes in a circle which starts and finishes in Turku. I did this route in 24 hours – without a car.  I would suggest at least 48 hours or more to do the route properly and to rent a car.  I created a map of all the islands located on the trail, you can download it before you set up for your Turku islands adventure.  

The Turku Archipelago via public transport

If you are doing the archipelago route via public transport, the clerk at the office will help you figure out the stops, bus schedules, and the ferries.  However, you are limited in options because busses bypass some great places and only run once every couple of hours. 

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A sign close to Jumo, Turku Archipelago route

Because I didn’t have a car, I hitchhiked a portion of the trail, and it was a great adventure.  Finland is very safe in general and the archipelago is a safe place to hitchhike.  To start on a trial by hitchhiking, take the bus out of Turku to the first island of Pargas and work your way out from there.

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A house in Houtskar, Turku Archipelago Trail

Turku islands are tiny, with only a few hundred year-round residents on each island. Hotels sell out quickly during high season – book hotels in advance. Additionally, in the Turku archipelago, the ferry’s don’t run round the clock, so ask the information center for a schedule.

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A local resident is waiting for a ferry in Turku Archipelago

The Culture of Turku Archipelago

The islands are all about culture and relaxation, which make them one of the best places to visit in Finland.  There are no big attractions here, but peaceful forest roads punctuated by lakes, little bed-and-breakfasts, and ferries that transport you from one island to the next. The Finish people are kind and welcoming.  The islands are off the beaten path, because Finland is not yet known as tourist paradise the way Iceland is.

Most people who do come to Finland on a vacation stay in Helsinki, so these islands are an undiscovered treasure waiting for you.

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Turku Archipelago, Inio

While doing the archipelago trail on a weekend, you may come across summer village celebrations.  And speaking of summer, the archipelago route is only available in the months of June, July, and August and many of the ferries shut down on the last Sunday in August.  I was told by one of the ferry captains that when the routes freeze over, and the locals make them into unofficial driving paths. 

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A fisherman in the Turku Archipelago

Leaving the Turku Archipelago

On your last day in the archipelago, take the big ferry from Mossala down the archipelago route to Hinskar.  Here, continue over the two small islands to Kannvick.  Just before you board the ferry in Kannvick (your last stop in the archipelago), stop and have lunch in Café Alpilla. Here, a kindly older woman makes meat and fish pies and the environment is straight out of a Finish fairy tale.

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One of the smaller ferries in the Turku archipelago.

The ride out of the archipelago is one of the longest, at about 25 minutes.  From here you are about half an hour from Turku, or an hour if you are traveling by bus. 

Finland Train Travel Tip

That evening I got back on the train on my way north to Oulu.  When you are buying train tickets, if you are traveling overnight, you’ll have two options.  The first option a regular car which has upright chairs like on an airplane.  The second is a sleeper car and is slightly more expensive. The sleeper cars are comfortable and clean, I think they are a much more convenient way to travel.

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The Finland City of Oulu

If you took the overnight sleeper train, you will wake up in Oulu, a town about halfway between Helsinki and the inner arctic circle city of Rovaniemi.  Oulu is a small city, also constructed in the Italian Renaissance style. Many travelers say that Oulu is one of the best places to see in Finland.  If you are here on a weekend, be sure to visit the huge outdoor market.  In the market, you’ll find a hundred vendors, music performances, even sporting events. On a weekday, check out the pretty indoor market and to walk the streets in the center. 

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Oulu’s architecture is similar to Helsinki

In addition to the market and the architecture, you will find a cathedral in the center of Oulu.  Here too you’ll see several museums, including a museum of the North.  In the museum of the North, you can learn about the Finish north and its history – a very different history than the southern located Turku.  The north is influenced by Russia, unlike European aligned Turku.

If you are looking for off the beaten path sightseeing, you can hardly do better than Oulu.  Practically everyone I saw in Oulu was from Finland, with only a few tourists from Europe and Russia. After you are done exploring Oulu, hop on another train. You’ll arrive in Rovaniemi in just a few hours. 

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Oulu waterside

The Finland City of Rovaniemi

Rovaniemi is a small town located inside the arctic circle and is the gateway to some amazing northern adventures.  Spend the night in town after your long journey. I stayed at Wherever Hostel.  There are only a few hotels in Rovaniemi, but just outside town, you’ll find the world-famous Santa’s Holiday Village. One of the most unique hotels in the world, here you can enjoy private cabins with saunas, on staff reindeer – and of course, get to know Santa Claus.

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Lapland, Finland, close to Rovaniemi.

Best Places to Visit in Finland – The Lapland

Lapland forests are an unparallel miracle of nature. For me, visiting the Lapland is at the top of my list of the best places to visit in Finland.  I have been to many forests during my travels, and every forest is magical in its own way. Still, having hiked through Lapland I must confess – I now have a favorite. Perhaps it is the hundreds of varieties of mushroom along every trail, perhaps its all the berries.  Perhaps it’s the non-hilly, well-maintained pathways or maybe it’s the reindeer who are not bothered by humans. Whatever the reason, Lapland forests are pure magic – and you must see them for yourself. 

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Lapland in the summer – Pyha Luosto national park

How to get to the Lapland

If you are staying in Rovaniemi, you can take a ski bus to get to the nearby national parks. Your host should help you figure out the schedule. Alternatively, if you are staying in Santa’s Village they will provide you with in house transportation.

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Pyha Luosto National Park

Pyha Luosto National Park is the oldest national park in Finland and just celebrated in its 80th birthday. I picked Pyha Luosto for several reasons.  First, it’s a short drive from Rovaniemi, about 2.5 to 3 hours on the ski bus.  Second, it’s a small park (by Finnish standards) and the best parts are packed into an area easily doable in 2 days.  And third, a good portion of the park has some cell signal. The cell signal is great in case of an emergency especially if you are hiking alone.  If you only have one day to hike, Pyha Luosto is also a great choice for the same reasons. You can visit many of the most beautiful sights in the park in one day. 

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The Lapland: Inside Pyha Luosto National Park

At the information desk in Pyha Luosto, I spoke with a local guide and picked up a copy of a park map.  Entry to the park is free, and inside the park, you’ll find really well maintained empty shelters open to anyone.  Additionally, inside the park, you will find fireplace pits equipped with cooking equipment and firewood. This level of care and maintenance is one more reason why hiking in Finland is such a magical experience.  There is nothing quite like hiking for 5 or 6 hours to reach a well-maintained fire pit equipped with pots and pans and plenty of wood.  In case of rain you can sleep in one of the shelters – they are spotless, and the local custom requires you leave them spotless when you depart. 

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The Lapland: Santa Clause Village

On many lists of the best places to visit in Finland, is the most famous attraction in Rovaniemi, Santa Claus village.  Visiting here is a delight for travelers of any age but especially for children. The village is busier in the winter than in the summer, and it doesn’t have the same feel without all the snow.  However, its still a lot of fun so Santa Clause village is a great place to visit in Finland. 

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Lapland: The Husky Park

Another well-reviewed Rovaniemi attraction is Husky Park. Here you’ll have several hours with some very friendly huskies and their puppies. In the winter the park offers to slay rides, and in the summer spend time with the dogs in the park.  It sounds like a lot of fun.

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Lapland: The Amethyst Mine

In the middle of Pyha Luosto, you will find the Amethyst mine. This modern, sustainable mine is environmentally safe.  You can tour the Finland Amethyst mine and buy goods produced here.  You can visit the mine during your hike in the Pyha Luosto. Alternatively, take the ski bus here on a different day. 

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Rovaniemi to Helsinki by Train

After you are done with the Lapland and Rovaniemi, head back to the big city.  Traveling back to Helsinki from Rovaniemi is very easy.  I took the overnight train and “splurged” for a sleeper cabin.  The trip to Helsinki takes exactly 12 hours, the central station in Helsinki is the last stop.  Enjoy your ride and sleep well!

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Exploring Helsinki’s Art Scene

Today is the last day of your trip to Finland and another day to spend in Helsinki.  Helsinki could simultaneously be the coolest and the oddest town I’ve ever visited.  Here you’ll find a thriving arts and music scenes, hip food joints, old-world architecture.

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Since you did the touristy thing on your first day in town, the second day is your opportunity to absorb some of the culture and enjoy the local scene.

The Art District in Helsinki

There are dozens of art galleries in Helsinki, and of course plenty of museums.  Personally, I prefer the galleries because they are smaller, more intimate and tend to showcase contemporary, living finish artists.  I find that the galleries are a great way to get to know the local culture – not just the art scene

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If you are in town for a few days, be sure to check out Kosmos Restaurant. The Kosmos is one of the oldest restaurants in Helsinki but do not be intimidated.  Although they tend to host a high-end crowd, I was treated just as well as anyone (even though I wore fresh out of Lapland chick yoga pants).  And the 32-euro lunch is a great bargain for the Michelin star quality food they serve here. 

One last thing…

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Uspenski Cathedral, Market Square, Helsinki, Finland
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