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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most people who do come to Finland on a vacation stay in Helsinki, so these islands are an undiscovered treasure waiting for you.
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.
Leaving the Turku Archipelago
On your last day in the archipelago, take the big ferry from Mossala down the archipelago route to
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pyha Luosto National Park
The Lapland: Inside Pyha Luosto National Park
At the information desk in
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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