The region immediately west of Helsinki comprises swathes of interminable forests interrupted only by modest-sized patches of water and wooden villa towns. The extreme southwestern corner is more interesting, with islands and inlets abutting a jagged shoreline, a spectacular archipelago stretching halfway to Sweden (so renowned it’s known as the archipelago) and some distinctive Finnish–Swedish coastal communities.
Co-host of the European Capital of Culture during 2011 (along with Tallinn), Turku was once the national capital, but lost its status in 1812 and most of its buildings in a ferocious fire in 1827. These days it’s a small and sociable city, bristling with history, culture and a sparkling nightlife, thanks to the students from its two universities. If you base yourself here for a few days, you’ll be able to explore the fascinating coastal inlets and islands in the surrounding area.
To get to grips with Turku and its pivotal place in Finnish history, cut through the centre to the Aura River that splits the city. This tree-framed space is, as it was before the great fire of 1827, the community’s bustling heart.
Turku’s combined museum of Aboa Vetus and Ars Nova (daily 11am–7pm; €9; guided tours July & Aug daily 11.30am) sits on the riverbank. Digging the foundations of the modern art gallery revealed a warren of medieval lanes, now on show. The gallery comprises 350 striking works plus temporary exhibits, and there’s a great café.
15km west of Turku, the small town of Naantali is one of the biggest and best-preserved examples of Finnish wooden architecture, and the gateway to a chunk of the archipelago lying off the southwest coast (much accessible by road). There are several good-quality restaurants here, though the big attraction is Moominland (daily mid-June to Aug; day ticket €28) theme park, devoted to the famous Finnish children’s book characters. Needless to say, kids enjoy this most. Buses #6/7 from Turku’s kauppatori (market square) run here.
Overlooking the river, the Tuomiokirkko (daily 9am–6pm except during services) was erected in the thirteenth century and is still the centre of the Finnish Lutheran Church. Despite repeated fires, a number of features survive. A cathedral museum (€2) is located at the main entrance.
The Turku Art Museum (Tues–Fri 11am–7pm, Sat & Sun 11am–5pm; €9) is at the top of Aurakatu, housed in a lovely building constructed in 1904. It contains one of the better collections of Finnish art, with works by all the great names of the country’s nineteenth-century Golden Age plus a commendable stock of modern pieces.
Crossing back over Aurajoki and down Linnankatu and then heading towards the mouth of the river will bring you to harbour-hugging Turku Castle (Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; €9). If you don’t fancy the walk, hop on bus #1 from the market square. The somewhat featureless whitewashed exterior conceals a maze of cobbled courtyards, corridors and staircases, with a bewildering array of finds and displays a 37-room historical museum. The castle probably went up around 1280; its gradual expansion accounts for the patchwork architecture.
At the harbour several historic ships are moored, including the 1902-built 100m-long Suomen Joutsen, evoking something of the city’s erstwhile maritime clout. To get the nitty-gritty on all things nautical, visit the diverting harbour-side Forum Marinum (June–Aug daily 11am–7pm; Sept–May Tues–Sun 11am–7pm; €8) where the new permanent exhibition colourfully runs the gamut of several centuries of maritime history.