When you study a map of Finland, it looks like there’s more water than land. It’s no surprise when Finland has more than 188,000 lakes – a labyrinth of islands stretching for hundreds of kilometres. Forests are known for their healing powers, with the Finnish Lakeland covered in dense woodland perfect for hiking, cycling, horse riding, wildlife-watching and foraging. Then there is the water: The Finns spend many happy hours on Finnish lakes, swimming, boating, fishing or cooling off after a session in the sauna. Read on to discover some of the best places in Finland to visit…
1. Nuuksio National Park
Nuuksio National Park
Great for: Nature lovers and hikers
Lakes, forests, valleys, mires and crags - you'll find them all in Nuuksio National Park, located in Espoo. It’s hard to believe it’s just a short drive or train and bus ride from Helsinki. Start your visit by calling into the Finnish Nature Centre, Haltia, celebrating Finland’s 40 national parks, including Nuuksio on its doorstep.
You should visit for the many outdoor activities you can do: In the park there are a variety of marked trails suitable for both novice and experienced walkers. Birdwatch and forage as you hike; rock climb, horse ride or cycle. And on the lakes: fish, swim and canoe. Camp near the park (book a suspended lakeside tent) or stay in a cosy cottage or treehouse just outside Nuuksio.
2. Lake Saimaa
Finland's midnight sun (Pielinen)
Great for: Wellness and water sports
Take a leisurely cruise on Lake Saimaa that’s edged by two national parks, or paddle through bays, channels and between islands. Some of the bigger lakeside resorts rent cycling, fishing and boating equipment. Guided lakeside tours offer everything from foraging to forest yoga. The town of Savonlinna with its medieval castle is a great starting point for your exploration of Lake Saimaa.
Time your visit for the opera festival and catch an aria at Olavinlinna Castle or on the harbourside. Mikkeli, to the southwest also is well-worth a visit. The fascinating Headquarter Museum chronicles the Finn’s pushback against the Russians during the Winter War - all planned from the staffroom of a primary school.
3. Bird and bear watch in Eastern Lakeland
Great for: Fans of wildlife
On the western fringes of the great Siberian Boreal forests, you’ll find breeds of birds seldom found in other parts of Europe: Siberian jays and tits, a host of warblers and waders and an incredible ten species of owls. Join a birdwatching excursion in the wild Finnish taiga on the Russian border. Eastern Finland is also one of the best places to encounter bears.
Photography and bear-watching excursions take place in the season between April and October, with overnights organised in cabin-like hides to maximise the chances of seeing these magnificent animals, held sacred in Finnish folklore. Book one of the hillside cabin resorts that organise wildlife safari trips. You can also stay in a more luxury hotel, the wildlife unfolding around you.
4. Koli National Park
Great for: Reflection
Koli National Park lies in the North Karelia region, on the eastern fringes of the country. It’s one of Finland’s most scenic parks, offering a diverse landscape. Head first to the hilltop Ukko-Koli to find your bearings and drink in the views over to Lake Pielinen, dotted with islets. Koli has been a source of inspiration for writers, artists and musicians, including Sibelius.
Just a few hundred metres from the viewpoint is Koli Nature Centre, exhibiting the park’s impressive bio-diversity. Take time to explore the old-growth and herb-filled forests, steep quartzite cliffs, waterfall and gorge; the slash-and-burn clearances and lakeside beaches. Stay in a cosy woodland cottage for total relaxation.
5. Take the road less travelled
Great for: Adventurers
Driving is easy in Finland, with quiet roads and lakeside settlements well-connected. Love culture? Take a trip through the Lake District heartland to Savonlinna with its waterside castle. Detour to Kouvola and its museums. Wind your way to Mikkeli with its Winter War museum and on through the watery landscape to Jyväskylä, ‘Capital City of Alvar Aalto’, Finland’s famous architect. Head east to the cultured city of Tampere before returning to Helsinki.
Love nature and water? Take one of Finland’s most celebrated drives and follow Route 14 southward from Savonlinna onto Punkaharju ridge. This is a superb drive that crosses causeways and islands along a narrow strip of land surrounded by water. Lakeland is home to three national parks. The roads connecting them take you through some of Lakeland’s most stunning landscapes. For a great self-drive, try this Western Finnish Lakeland route.
6. Lakeside living in Tampere
(Harri Tarvainen/ Visit Finland)
Great for: History and colour
It may be Finland’s second city, but Tampere gives off a friendly and chilled vibe. The centre is squeezed into a narrow neck of land that separates the great lakes of Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi, its suburbs spilling out along the lakes’ shores. It’s a glorious location for a city; especially one as pretty as Tampere, with it’s colourful house fronts and quirky architecture. It’s also Finland’s sauna capital.
Surrounding the Tammerkoski rapids that slice through the isthmus between the lakes, you’ll find parks and gardens, quirky museums, the city’s theatre and the 19th Century cross-shaped Old Church hemmed in by handsome neoclassical buildings. Visit the delightful Moomin Museum, book a cruise on the lake, chill in a shoreside sauna and wander through the colourful wooden houses of Pispala; then climb Pyynikki glacial ridge to the observation tower and enjoy the views overlooking the city and lakes.
Beautiful Helsinki (Julia Kivela; Juho Kuva; Visit Finland)
Great for: Culture and city
Forest, sea, islands and a vibrant culture; Helsinki has it all. Finland’s capital, with its eastern and western influences, is one of delightful contrasts. Magnificent neoclassical and Finnish Art Nouveau buildings – shaped by the National Romantic movement – sit comfortably side-by-side with modern functionalist architecture. The dynamic Design District blends seamlessly with laidback bohemian districts of leafy parks, shabby-chic boutiques, bars and restaurants. Helsinki is famous for its urban spa culture: cool off in the Baltic Sea after a sauna in the stylish sea-fronted Löyly; luxuriate in the elegant art-deco bathhouse and saunas of Yrjönkadun or enjoy the romance of the charmingly rustic Kaurilan Sauna in the suburbs of the city.
Summers can be surprisingly warm in the capital. It’s a great place for open-air bars, with a fun, convivial atmosphere as the sun goes down. You can head for Helsinki’s oldest open-air swimming pool at the Olympic Stadium, the central Sea Allas Pool with saunas, a breezy city beach or shady park. And if you are smitten by the sauna culture of Helsinki, you should book yourself into one of the luxurious city-centre design hotels with state-of-the-art spa and wellbeing facilities.