Folks in Turku, also known as Åbo by its partially Swedish-speaking population, have a saying: “Why Paris, when we have Åbo?”
You’ll see the phrase, coined by a Swedish fashion journalist in the 1960s, everywhere – largely because the Association for New Design trademarked it in 2012 for the Turku Design Festival and hasn’t been shy about printing it on bags, T-shirts and posters.
Comparing this small Nordic city, Finland’s oldest and its former capital, to the City of Light is bold, but even a short stroll reveals that it’s not so much of a stretch: the impassive façade of Turku Castle (turku.fi/en/turkucastle), guardian of the River Aura since the 13th century, yields to tree-lined cobblestoned boulevards connecting 19th-century theatres, apartment buildings and inviting public spaces.
Turku’s granite Art Museum (turuntaidemuseo.fi), built in the characteristic romantic style and a national treasure, houses around 7,600 works spanning the turn-of-the-century “golden age” of Finnish art, surrealism and pop art.
In summer, the leafy Cathedral grounds host outdoor concerts and a collection of kiosks hastily erected to take full advantage of long, sunny days – a place where Finns gather to lounge in deckchairs and enjoy the simple pleasures of watching the river flow, munching on herring, cheese bread and ice cream and sipping craft beer and berry “wine”. (When Finland joined the EU in 1995, ministers were offered a choice of subsidies for home heating or wine-producing and opted for the former.) As the leaves turn russet in autumn, residents adopt light knit layers and sunglasses.
Turku, named European Capital of Culture in 2011, has a diverse history that has informed its cosmopolitan, continental feel. Turku was part of Sweden until it became an autonomous grand duchy of the Russian Empire in 1809, and maintains close ties to its neighbour – Stockholm is 11 hours away by boat and car, and many of the people I chatted to around town were Swedes who holidayed there as children. As adults, they joined transplants from Helsinki and home-grown talent in establishing businesses in Turku that run the gamut from wine stores to record shops and eclectic boutiques.
The Finns drink more coffee than any other nation – consuming three to five cups a day is typical – and roasters abound in Turku, many offering cross-genre delights. Café Art (cafeart.fi) doubles, unsurprisingly, as a gallery; book café Turun Kirjakahvila hosts queer club nights, festivals and reading groups; Sammakon Kirjakauppa & Kahvihuone (the Frog’s Bookshop & Coffee Room), run by an independent publisher, does a roaring trade in coffee, tea, vegan cakes and focaccia.
This year’s Nordic Countries Michelin Guide 2023 gave a well-deserved highbrow nod to Turku’s contemporary food culture, but the city and surrounding archipelago has long been a culinary destination. Its market hall has been a go-to for artisanal products and dine-in bites since doors opened in 1896.
I arrived there eager to sample sauna-cured ham but was diverted by shop-cum-lunch counter Herkkunuotta (herkkunuotta.fi), where chef-fishmongers develop catch-of-the-day dishes between wrapping fillets for customers. That day, on-the-fly offerings included perch soup seasoned liberally with fragrant dill, and reindeer two ways – a mousse-filled tartlet, and cold-smoked, sliced with horseradish.
Every bite had the vitality characteristic of hyper-local, hyper-seasonal produce sourced from the surrounding archipelago, and while you don’t have to stray from the city to enjoy the bounty of its 40,000 islands, you absolutely should.
Most of the huge electric yellow ferries gliding noiselessly from dock to dock, connecting the archipelago’s 124-mile trail, or “ring road”, are free – the philosophy is that as there’s no charge to use the roads, travellers shouldn’t need a ticket to ride Finland’s waterways (finferries.fi). Everyman’s Right affords the freedom to temporarily stay and camp out overnight anywhere, as long as you don’t cause damage to the property or land or disturb the landowner.
Åland, an autonomous group of more than 6,500 islands, 60 of which are inhabited, is known for outdoor pursuits and charming lodgings. Mariehamn, a town founded in 1861 by Russia’s Czar Alexander II and named for his wife, is small in size, with just 12,000 inhabitants, but big on glorious parks, museums and places to eat and drink – a boon for the region’s 1.5 million annual visitors.
If your goal is to avoid people altogether, you can rent a private island without breaking the bank: Långharun has hermit lodgings for two; cabins on Lökskär Långskär and Gyllenklobb offer saunas (visitaland.com; rooms from £25). Not far enough? Consider a kayak expedition from Utö, the most remote island in the southwest, along the archipelago’s southern fringe. Camping here on the islands, you might not see other people for a week – even the celebrated lighthouses are automated.
On the last day of my trip, I decided I wanted some company, so I stopped on Hyppeis Island before heading back to the mainland, disembarking at Hotel Hyppeis (hotelhyppeis.fi;doubles from £134), a renovated former schoolhouse where I was greeted by co-owners Sam and Outi, a violinist, and waiting staff carrying silver platters bearing crystal glasses of flower-bedecked rose spritz.
Quaint, simple rooms feature vintage furnishings and rugs woven from upcycled old bed linens and towels. But the restaurant here was the show-stealer. Chef Johannes Berlin oversees menus in spring until Midsummer, when rotating guest chefs serve multiple-course dinners showcasing local produce in the lovingly reimagined classroom.
The menu that day rattled through a starter of roast lamb, pickled rutabaga, malt mayo and chips from potatoes grown 1,000ft away, followed by a Jerusalem artichoke and blue cheese cream soup with pear compote, and a salty salmon dish fragrant with star anise. Then, “Lamb 2.0”.
“It’s the same as the first course again, but this one is over-cooked and that one was raw,” he quipped, deadpan.
Both were delectable, and after a cream and meringue dessert to finish, it was time to head back to Turku. Spotting that my bag, stuffed with local treats, jewellery and art prints, was on the verge of explosion, one of the staff offered me a tote, emblazoned with the phrase “Varför Paris, vi har ju Åbo?”
On my next visit – which can’t come soon enough – maybe I’ll get the T-shirt.
Gemma Price was a guest of Visit Finland (visitfinland.com)
How to get there
Norwegian (norwegian.com) flies from London to Helsinki. From there, take the bus (matkahuolto.fi; from £12, three hours) or train (finlandtrains.com; from£26, two hours) to Turku, or rent a car (two hours).
Where to stay
Hotels such as the art deco Solo Sokos Hotel Turun Seurahuone (00 3589 4153 4612; sokoshotels.fi) and Centro Hotel Turku (00358 2211 8100; centrohotel.com) are charming and affordable, both offering doubles from £166. Rooms at former prison Hotel Kakola (00358 2515 0555; hotelkakola.fi) are well appointed (from £120)