This City in Scandinavia You’ve Never Heard Of Is a Must-visit Summer Destination — With Beautiful Castles and New Nordic Cuisine

Finland offers an amazing mix of culture, cuisine and cosmopolitan appeal.

<p>From left: Arto Arvilahti/Courtesy of Smör; Abo Creative/Courtesy of Oobu</p> From left: Cod with crab and pike roe at Smör, a restaurant on the banks of the Aura; a private dining room at Oobu, a Turku restaurant that highlights ingredients from nearby islands.

From left: Arto Arvilahti/Courtesy of Smör; Abo Creative/Courtesy of Oobu

From left: Cod with crab and pike roe at Smör, a restaurant on the banks of the Aura; a private dining room at Oobu, a Turku restaurant that highlights ingredients from nearby islands.

Turku, by my, informal polling, isn’t a place many people know much about, or have even heard of. Crossword puzzlers may have come across a five-letter blank with the clue “residents of Turku” (answer: Finns). Even many Finns only vaguely know the city of some 195,000 souls on the country’s southwestern coast. Due to its location, they sometimes call it — and I’ll put this as politely as possible — the backside of Finland.

There’s more to the joke than geography. Turku is Finland’s oldest city and onetime capital, but it lost that latter designation — and the prestige that came with it — in 1812, shortly after Russia wrested control of the country from Sweden in the Finnish War. As Jonathan Clements asserts in “An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland,” Turku has “seethed in snooty resentment ever since the Russians relocated all the action to that glorified army camp, Helsinki.” More salt in the wound came in 1827, when most of the city — at that time Finland’s largest — burned to the ground, the result of an out-of-control house fire.

These days, however, the people of Turku are proudly tooting their own horn — at least as much as the naturally self-effacing Finns are able to. The local tourism bureau flaunts a “Kiss My Turku” campaign, a cheeky rejoinder to the city’s anatomical moniker. It was named European Capital of Culture in 2001. This launched a wave of civic excitement and development along the once-sleepy Aura River which runs through the town. The Seine-like vibe is one reason Turku has been called “the Paris of Finland”; when the producers of a recent film about Tove Jansson — author of the beloved Moomin books — couldn’t shoot scenes in the French capital because of the pandemic, they turned to Turku as a stand-in.

My wife and I arrived in the city in June, near mid-summer. Juhannuspäivä. The idea was to explore Turku for a few days, then take a short drive southwest to the archipelago of the same name — a huge chain of some 20,000 islands stretching nearly all the way to Sweden.

<p>Jaarmo Piironen/iStockphoto/Getty Images</p> The Aura River as it flows through the Finnish city of Turku, with the Turku Cathedral in the distance.

Jaarmo Piironen/iStockphoto/Getty Images

The Turku Cathedral can be seen in the distance as the Aura River flows through Turku.

In Finland, summer comes as a delirious provocation. After many long months of winter darkness, Finns are suddenly assailed with bright, comparatively balmy days and “nightless nights.” There is an air of fevered intensity, as people try to soak up the entirety of this solstitial bounty. (The Finns, with their characteristically mordant humor, joke that summer in Finland is lovely — it “hardly snows.”) In Turku, this summer binge was in full effect as we strolled along the Aura River. It was approaching 10 o’clock on a weekday, but on the far bank, arrayed on grassy slopes, were hundreds of people — eating, drinking, chatting, and otherwise bathing in the late evening light, like pellucid cave lizards emerging for a welcome bask.

After a few days Turku became my Platonic idea of a small, under-appreciated European city without hordes. You can find great food choices, such as the New Nordic star. Smör The Michelin-starred Kaskis. It has quirky accommodations — we stayed at the Hotel KakolaIt is located on the site of an old 19th-century prison. It also has many fascinating museums such as the Aboa Vetus Ars NovaThis museum is situated on the site a former archaeological dig. It displays a subterranean historical account of the city, which was once a bustling trading center for the Swedish empire. At the Turku Art Museum, a handsome granite mansion at the top of Puolalanmäki hill, we viewed an exhibition of work by such underappreciated Finnish women artists as Helene Schjerfbeck, who’s been called “Finland’s Munch.”

Turku’s historic skyline is distinctly European. Turku CathedralThe 13th-century building was destroyed by fire 500 years later, but it has been rebuilt with care. Turku Castle, the largest extant medieval building in Finland, has exhibits that chronicle the country’s complex history. It is also very walkable. My daughter and I went to a tree canopy ropes course. Flowpark in the far reaches of town, we piloted there safely on e-scooters, thanks to the region’s excellent network of bike paths.

Turku is often dubbed “the food capital of Finland,” implying a natural rivalry with Helsinki. “It is not the food capital,” Turo Jokinen told me one afternoon as I sipped smoked-salmon soup in an elegant riverfront dining room. Jokinen is a Turku native and recently quit a career in finance in Helsinki to open the restaurant. Oobu. I pressed him: “Maybe on a per capita basis?” “Yes!” he boomed. “Per capita, yes!”

That morning, we began our introduction to Finnish cuisine in the Turku Market HallThe city’s central vaulted brick building, located in the 19th century. At Herkkunuotta, a fish shop inside the hall with a small lunch counter, chef-owner Johan Hellsten plied us with the usual Finnish delicacies, like pickled Baltic herring, as well as cold-smoked pike roe, a Hellsten specialty, and dense, malty “archipelago bread.” Like many Finnish foods, it’s designed to provide succor through the long winters.

<p>From left: Jan-Peter Boening/laif/Redux; Karol Koslowski/Alamy</p> From left: Turku residents unwind alongside the Aura late into a summer evening; the1896 brick building that houses the Turku Market Hall.

Jan-Peter Boening/laif/Redux; Karol Kslowski/Alamy

From left: Turku residents enjoy their summer evenings with the Aura.

Finland is said to be 90 percent forest and sea, and the food reflects that — zesty spruce shoots, heaps of dill and licorice, hardy rhubarb and parsnips, and fish like perch and pike, all salty and smoky (Finns have been known to cook in the sauna). And let us not forget the humble new potato, or, as it’s called in Finland, “virgin potato.” A true harbinger of summer, it was enjoying its fleeting seasonality during our visit, as we learned one afternoon when we attended the 10th edition of Turku’s Virgin Potato Festival, held at a local brewery. “Have you heard that we are eating potatoes a lot in Finland?” joked Mari Sandell, an organizer. Sandell, a University of Turku sensory scientist, led us to taste a range of delicious new potatoes. One of the places we tried was a barbecue joint where they served them with beef tenderloin. The chef described it as “a sort of journey from Texas to Turku.”

Another Turku virtue is that it’s the gateway to the Turku Archipelago, an array of islands with rugged rock outcrops, thickly covered in pine and spruce and dotted with small rustic cottages. After a short drive and two ferry crossings — many of Finland’s ferries are equipped for icebreaking and run year-round — we arrived at our destination, the Hotel NestorThe island of Korpo. Run by chef and owner William Helmgren, who previously cooked at the Michelin-starred Frantzén in Stockholm, Nestor is the perfect little country inn, with a delightful New Nordic–ish tasting menu replete not only with sugar-salted salmon and new potatoes but sea buckthorn and broth made with locally foraged mushrooms.

<p>Sergi Reboredo/VWPics/Redux</p> The entrance to the Hotel Nestor, a rustic inn on Korpo, an island in the Turku Archipelago.

Sergi Reboredo/VWPics/Redux

The entrance to Hotel Nestor is located on Korpo Island, an island of the Turku Archipelago.

Our days were spent roaming the islands, cycling and hiking, as well as taking a dip in the Baltic postsauna. We also enjoyed looking out from our ocean kayaks at huge sea eagles. One afternoon we took a sail on Nagu’s beautiful Lake Superior. TacksamhetenSami Uotinen, the owner of this restored workboat, took us on a tour. We explored many islands looking for rustic red cottages as we drifted. (Finns are famously obsessed with their cottages — there are nearly half a million of them across the country.) We passed Själö, an island that once housed a leper colony — a place so dismal, inmates were forced to bring the materials required to build their own coffins.

However, most of the time we enjoyed the Nordic silence and solitude. Jokinen, a Turku resident, had shared with me the story of the time he hosted some American friends on an archipelago. “It was kind of hard for them — they said, ‘We should Do something,’” he recalled, laughing. “I don’t think we should do Anything. It’s a Finnish way of living at summer houses — you can just look at the sea. The ‘thing’ is the nothingness.”

A version of this story first appeared in the February 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure Unter dem Titel “Time for Turku.

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