Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is the centre of cultural, financial and economic activity. Its green parks and waterways, fresh sea winds with seagulls flying over the busy market square, and many open-air cafés make Helsinki a pleasant place to visit in summer. The city retains a small-town feel: there are no high-rise buildings, and the market square is still surrounded by 19th century architecture. Built on a peninsula, Helsinki is linked by ferry to Suomenlinna Island in the Gulf of Finland, which is perfect for picnicking daytrippers.Helsinki contains some of the most notable art museums in Finland. The national art foundation's Ateneum is the principal gallery and covers Finnish and international art from the 19th century. The National Museum, also located in the city centre, has extensive collections of Sami and Finno-Ugric ethnological artefacts. Johnny Head-in-the-airs will notice the Kalevala-inspired frescos on the ceiling of its main hall. The Raitioliikennemuseo, with a dozen old rattlers, is a delightful tram museum. Located in an old depot, it depicts Finnish street life in decades past. The Rock Church, hacked out of solid stone, attracts many visitors seeking a few bars of albino gospel. There are concerts here as well as services. West of the city centre in the dormitory town of Espoo is the magnificent studio of Gallén-Kallela, the notable Finnish painter.Ferries and motorboats shuttle from Helsinki to Suomenlinna Island, where you can ramble around the ruins of the mighty fortress or look around its several museums. The Ehrensvärd Museum, which covers the history of the fortress from Swedish heyday to mayday, is the best. If you want to do a boy's-own battle reenactment, a torch is all you need to squeeze that body through bunkers and caves on either side of the fort.Helsinki has numerous budget hostels in the city centre, although it isn't a bad place to unroll your sleeping bag outdoors in summer. There are plenty of hamburger restaurants, kebab joints and grills in the city centre, but those who baulk at using their body as a grease trap can try one of the cafés south of the centre or around the market square. Theatres in Helsinki have shows in Finnish, but you may prefer opera and ballet, as performances will be incomprehensible in any language. Helsinki also has its fair share of good pubs and clubs for midnight ramblers.
Olavinlinna Castle is the principal attraction in the beautiful Savonlinna lakes area. Founded in 1475, Olavinlinna was meant to protect the eastern border of the Swedish-Finnish empire. It got its name from Olof, a 10th century Norwegian Catholic saint. Russians occupied the castle early in the 18th century, and hung around for almost 200 years, adding the red towers and a yellow house inside its walls. Two small museums in the castle have exhibits on its history plus displays of Orthodox treasures. You are not allowed to visit the castle without a guide, but there are hourly guided tours every day, all year round. The castle is located in the eastern town of Savonlinna accessible from Helsinki by plane, train and bus. A motorised floating bridge to the castle is removed when ships pass.
The old town of Rauma was recently placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as Finland's first entry. Although it is the largest wooden town preserved in the Nordic countries, Rauma's old town is not a museum but a living town centre, with many artisans, lace makers and goldsmiths working in small studios, most of which were erected in the 18th and 19th centuries. There are several interesting house museums and a 15th century Franciscan church, which used to be a Catholic monastery until Lutheran reformers kicked out the monks in 1538.The market square is the heart of Old Rauma and a lively centre for commerce even today. This is where you come for refreshments: try a pystcaffe - a café where you stand while drinking. If you find the voices around you even less comprehensible than other Finno-Ugric garble, then you've encountered another feature of Rauma - its dialect, which is almost a separate language. Rauma is located on the south-west coast of Finland, just over four hours by bus from Helsinki.
Turku, Finland's first capital, is the country's oldest city. Fire has destroyed it several times over the centuries, but its biggest blow was the transfer of the capital to Helsinki in 1812. Today, Turku is a substantial city with fine attractions, though locals sometimes joke that after Turku spread culture to the rest of Finland it never returned. Luostarinmäki is the only surviving 18th-century area of this medieval town - developers have ravaged Turku every bit as much as fires - and here, in summer, artisans work inside the old wooden houses. To the north, medieval Turku Cathedral is the national shrine of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland. It dates from the 13th century, and the museum here is open daily.Turku Castle, founded in 1280, is the most notable historic building in Finland. It houses an interesting museum, with many rooms decorated to evoke a specific decade or century. Situated on the southern coast of Finland, Turku is the most likely gateway to the country if you are coming from Sweden.
The Åland province, with its own flag and culture, comprises more than 6400 autonomous islands. Several dialects of Swedish are spoken, and few Ålanders speak Finnish. This beautiful island world is perfect for bicycle tours, camping and cabin holidays, and for experiencing the islanders' distinctive culture, expressed in folk dancing, Maypole decorating and pervasive small-town charm.The most interesting municipality is Sund, at the eastern end of the main island, where you'll find the impressive Kastelholm Castle. Of strategic importance during the 16th and 17th centuries, its exact age is not known, but it was mentioned in writings as early as 1388. Also in the vicinity, and one of the best places in Finland to witness Midsummer festivities, the magnificent open-air Jan Karlsgården Museum should not be missed. The ruins of Bomarsund Fortress are a memorial to the time when Åland, together with the rest of Finland, was under Russian rule. The main fortress, finished in 1842, was big enough to house 2500 men.Regular ferries connect Åland to both Sweden and the Finnish mainland, and for those interested in island-hopping, free transport is provided by inter-island ferries. Sund is accessible by bus or, better yet, bicycle.
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