About a third of Finland is covered by the Lake Region, a massive area of bays, inlets and isles interspersed with dense pine forests. Despite holding much of Finland’s industry, it’s a remote, peaceful, verdant area, and even Tampere, a major industrial city, enjoys a laidback lakeside setting. The eastern part of the region is the most atmospheric: slender ridges furred with conifers link the few sizeable landmasses. The regional centre, Savonlinna, stretches gorgeously across several islands and boasts a fine medieval castle, inside which a famous opera festival is held every summer, while bustling Kuopio has superb museums and another enviable lakeshore location for water-based fun.
Top image © Maxim Ritzi/Shutterstock
The pleasant lakeside town of Kuopio is best known for its enormous smoke sauna, the biggest in the world, and makes for a worthwhile pit stop on your way north to Lapland. One of the best times to visit is during the Kuopio Dance Festival in mid-June.
Built on a grid system, the centre is easy to navigate. Just south of the train station is the main square, the kauppatori.
From the main square Kauppakatu leads east to the Kuopio Museum (Tues–Sat 10am–5pm; €8) at
no. 23 with two floors of natural and cultural history. Further up the road, at no. 35, the Kuopio Art Museum (Tues–Sat 10am–5pm; €6) has mainly modern Finnish art, housed in a converted bank. Two blocks down on Kuninkaankatu, the Victor Barsokevitsch Photographic Centre (Mon–Fri 11am–6pm, Sat & Sun 11am–4pm; €8) is a real find – one of the best photography galleries in the country.
Every self-respecting Finnish city has a tower to look out over the flat lands below, and Puijo Tower, Puijontie 135, 2km north of the train station (Mon–Sat 10am–9pm, Sun 10am–7pm; €6; bus #10), is Kuopio’s. The tower is modern but the woods nearby are ancient and undisturbed, plus there’s a rare example of a sixteenth-century tenant farm to explore.
Kuopio’s woodsmoke sauna (Tues year-round, plus Thurs June–Aug; €12) is the main draw in town, and about as quintessentially Finnish an experience as you’ll find: there are traditional Finnish evenings each night the sauna is open, which include a Lumberjack Show and great dinner buffet from mid-May to mid-August (€21). The sauna is located 4km south of the centre within the Rauhalahti spa hotel complex.
Savonlinna is one of Finland’s most relaxed towns, renowned for its opera festival (t 015 476 750, w www.operafestival.fi) in July. Book well ahead if you’re visiting in summertime. Out of peak season, its streets and beaches are uncluttered, and the town’s easy-going mood and lovely setting – amid a confluence of forests and lakes – make it a pleasant place to linger.
The best locations for absorbing the atmosphere are the harbour and market square at the end of Olavinkatu. At the square, try the Savonlinna speciality of lörtsy, a delicious meat-and-rice-filled pastry.
Follow the harbour around picturesque Linnankatu, or around the sandy edge of Pihlajavesi, which brings you to atmospheric and surprisingly well-preserved Olavinlinna Castle (hourly guided tours Jan–May Mon–Fri 10am–4pm, Sat & Sun 11am–4pm; June to mid-Aug daily 10am–6pm; mid-Aug to mid-Dec Mon–Fri 10am–4pm, Sat & Sun 11am–4pm; €8), perched on a small island. Founded in 1475, the castle witnessed a series of bloody conflicts until the Russians claimed possession of it in 1743 and relegated it to the status of town jail.
Nearby is the Savonlinna Provincial Museum in Riihisaari (Tues–Sun 11am–5pm, plus Mon same times June–Aug; €5), which occupies an old granary and displays an intriguing account of the evolution of local life, with rock paintings and ancient amber carved with human figures.
Punkaharju, a densely forested ridge set amid the lakes 35km southeast of Savonlinna, and accessible by train, is your best opportunity to get out into the region’s stunning countryside. A must-see near the train station is the Finnish Forest Museum (June–Aug daily 10am–7pm; May & Sept daily 10am–5pm; Oct–April Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; €10), which has riveting exhibits that bring the forests and their place in Finnish culture alive. There’s a restaurant, and trails nearby.
Scandinavia’s largest inland city, Tampere is a leafy place of cobbled avenues, sculpture-filled parks and two sizeable, placid lakes. It was long a manufacturing centre, but thanks to an impressive arts patronage, it has metamorphosed into one of Finland’s most enjoyable cities, with free outdoor concerts, a healthy nightlife and cracking modern art. Even its old industry is now part of its edgy appeal: check the bars and the boutiques in the former factories and the hipsters hanging out alongside the weirs and canals.
The main streets run off either side of Hämeenkatu. At its western edge, Hämeenpuisto runs north–south. Further west, in undulations of parkland interspersed with churches and grand residential addresses, the isthmus that divides the two lakes of Näsijarvi and Pyhäjärvi stretches away.
The Lenin Museum at Hämeenpuisto 28 (June–Aug daily 11am–6pm; Sept–May Tues–Sun 11am–5pm; €6) was newly refurbished for 2016 and commemorates the revolutionary’s ties with Finland.
About 3km north of Tampere Hall in Lappi neighbourhood, a woodsy park culminates in Rauhaniemi beach, complete with a sauna (Mon–Thurs 3–8pm, Fri 3–8.30pm, Sat & Sun 1–8pm; €4) where you cool off in the lake afterwards. Take bus #2 from outside the tourist office.
At the northern end of Hämeenpuisto, Särkänniemi (one-day pass €38) is far more than the lake-fronting amusement park you see from afar. Aside from all the rides and a planetarium (which the day-pass gets you entry to, along with the tower), it’s here that you will find Näsinneula observation tower (daily 11am–11pm; included in Särkänniemi ticket price, €5 by itself), topping out at 130m with a great view of the city and a restaurant. There’s a lift if you don’t fancy the climb.
With a separate admission charge, tremendous Sara Hildén Art Museum (May–Sept daily 10am–6pm; Oct–April Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; €10) behind the observation tower is a quirky collection of Finnish and foreign modern works perched above the lakeshore.
Three blocks north of Hämeenkatu, stone-built Tampere Cathedral (daily May–Sept 10am–5pm; Oct–April 11am–3pm; free) is attractive from the outside. Inside, however, it is stunning, with some quite controversial decorative murals by Hugo Simberg and Magnus Enckell.
On the east side of the rail tracks, Scandinavia’s largest conference centre is flash, but of note to sightseers as the new home of the adorable Moomin Museum (Tues–Fri 9am–5pm, Sat & Sun 10am–6pm; €6), a respectful and exhaustive overview of Tove Jansson’s creations with touching models and sketches.