48 Hours in Finland’s Oldest City

A writer peels away the layers of Turku to uncover an artsy city which holds its history on its sleeve.  
Turku
Summer evenings in Turku are best spent by the river Aura, hopping from one lively restaurant boat to another. Photo Courtesy: Seilo & Ristimaki – Iloinen Liftari Oy/Visit Turku

Try telling a Helsinkian that you’re visiting Turku and you’re likely to get a polite ah-good-for-you smile. The rivalry between Finland’s capital and its second city goes back over two centuries, when Turku was the capital and the region’s most important city, and Helsinki was just a fishing village. The Russian tzar moved the capital to Helsinki in 1812, and it is now the epitome of Scandinavian cool. Turku, on the other hand, is staging a revival of its former glory.

It’s a rainy, gloomy evening when I reach Turku, lugging around my suitcase mournfully. The city of seven hills seems terribly empty for a Saturday evening. Suddenly, I look up and there’s a vivid mural on a building, of an old man holding his hat by Spanish artist Aryz. There, some potential. I quickly dump my luggage at the hotel and walk down to the Aura river, stopping for veal-and-pepper pintxos at the riverside Gustavo restaurant. Poring over maps and websites tells me that for a small city, there is a lot to do here. Think ten museums, Finland’s oldest castle and cathedral, and a blooming food scene. I rub my hands in anticipation. It’s time to get started.

Day 1

10 a.m.

Take it from the top

Any city with an 800-year-old history will have seen it all: wars, change of reigns, fires and devastation. Turku is no different, and guide Annamari Laine tells me that the best place to understand it all is the Turku Cathedral. The city was born after the church was moved here from Koroinen in 1229 (it was consecrated in 1300). After craning your neck at the stunning ceiling murals by iconic Finnish painter Robert Eckman, check out the marble sarcophagus of Swedish Queen Karin Mansdotter. Tombstones of past bishops and commanders trace the history of the state. Watch out for paw prints in the stone underfoot—local legend ties them to the elf who lives in Turku Castle and visits the cathedral with his cat via a secret passage. Fun fact: the 12-noon chimes of the Turku Cathedral can be heard across Finland—they’re broadcast on the national radio.

It’s not officially Christmas in Finland until the ‘Declaration of Christmas Peace’ is read out from the balcony of Brinkkala Mansion, the erstwhile police station (also Turku’s first) located right opposite the cathedral, in the Old Great Square. The ritual began to drive home a fairly simple message: It’s Christmas, everyone wants to sit at home and eat turkey, so troublemakers will be fined extra. The tradition dates back to 1885, and over 10,000 people gather every year to hear it (it’s also televised and live streamed). If you’re here at the time, don’t forget to pick up goodies at the square’s annual winter market.

48 Hours in Finland's Oldest City

An archaeologist displays findings in the Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova museum (bottom-right); Handicrafts Museum (bottom-left) takes visitors back to the 18th and 19th centuries; When at Café Art (top-left), a slice of mango-passionfruit cake to go along with freshly brewed coffee is a must; A large building-size mural (top-right) by Spanish artist Aryz at Eerikinkatu stands tall near the centre. Photos Courtesy: Ari Korkala Studio Bright Nauris/Aboa Vetus Ars Nova (archaeologist); Dallas & John Heaton/Picture Finders/Dinodia photo library (handicrafts museum); Visit Turku (café); Tuomas Lehtinen/Moment Open/Getty Images (mural)

12 p.m.

Old and New

The first thing I notice when I reach the Aboa Vetus and Ars Nova museum (Latin for Old Turku and New Art) is the snaking line outside. It’s for the brunch at M Kitchen and Café within, Annamari tells me. The place churns out heavenly meat pies, cream cakes and handmade gelato, and is run by the folks from Piece of Cake bakery in the Market Hall, which was winner of Best Finnish Bakery.

The museum is a pop-up show of surprises right from the start. I gape at the transparent flooring in the lobby which reveals 14th- and 15th-century ruins of Turku’s old homes and a well. They emerged in the early 1990s, when work began to renovate the mansion that stood here, making way for a contemporary arts space (hence the museum’s name). On select days, visitors play archaeologists and join experts on the digs. Tip: Keep aside a good chunk of an hour to browse through the museum shop’s art postcards. I bought 15 (aboavetusarsnova.fi).

3 p.m.

Handcrafted history

Continue the walk back in time by climbing up Vartiovuori hill (Guard Hill) for about 10 minutes, until you reach Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum. On your way up, keep an eye out for markers showcasing the level of sea water from prehistoric times (I spotted one which dated back to 1000 B.C.).

Turku 2

The ceilings of Turku Cathedral by Robert Eckman is crafted to perfection. Photo By: Joel Carillet/iStock Unreleased/Getty images

When I step into the outdoor museum, I feel like I’m again peering through a doorway of Turku’s past. Luostarinmäki is a district of old wooden houses from 18th and 19th centuries, miraculously saved in the Great Fire of 1827. Excellent craftsmen within them preserve arts that would have perhaps disappeared from the area post industrialisation—from a violin-maker and printing press to bakery and watch-maker, the space exhibits around 40 diverse crafts in homes. The artists mostly don period costumes, which is half the fun (turku.fi/en/luostarinmaki-handicrafts-museum).

5 p.m.

Riverside Lounge

After all that gallivanting, give yourself the ultimate gift: cake. Cross the river and head straight to Café Art for
a slice of sinful mango-passionfruit cake and coffee. If you’re peckish, try the salmon bread—an open toast made with traditional, delicious rye bread and topped with fresh salmon and onion. The interiors are artsy, but a seat at the river-facing tables outside will transport you to Paris (cafeart.fi).

Later, walk along the Aura river—it is on these flower-filled banks that locals love to lounge on a summer’s day. There are several lively restaurant boats to hop on and off for a pub crawl. Try the local lager, called Aura, or the Finnish Long Drink which is gin and grapefruit soda. Dusk will settle far later than you’re used to, and the boats will light up, their reflections lighting up the river too. Cheers.

Day 2

11 a.m.

Amble for Art

High on the Puolalanmäki hill sits the striking Romantic granite-and-stone building of Turku Art Museum. Walk up the hill to see some of the prettiest art nouveau buildings in the city (and also some modernist, functional ones). Turn around when you reach the top—the river twinkles from the city below.

Built in 1904, Turku Art Museum is a cathedral of art in the city, showcasing an incredible display of Finnish works, both old and modern. There is a permanent display of part of the museum’s collection of 7,000 artworks. The ongoing “Four Elements” exhibition has a mix of artists portraying the human relationship with air, water, fire and earth (turuntaidemuseo.fi).

Turku 1

Turku Art Musem (top-left) is a cathedral to art; The whale fin sculpture called “Harmonia” (top-right) brightens up the harbour; The 700-year-old Turku Castle is Finland’s oldest castle and a repository of stories. Photos By: Lubna Amir (art museum); Catuncia/iStock/Getty images (whale sculpture); JuhaHuiskonen/E+/Getty images (castle)

1 p.m.

Harbour Views

Make your way back towards the city centre (currently undergoing a controversial renovation for an underground parking lot), and hop on bus no. 1 to go to the other end of Turku. Get off at the harbour and grab lunch at a riverside restaurant. The river feels different in this part of town: bigger ships and boats can access this part of the Aura, making it livelier and busier. Walk past outdoor art—“Harmonia,” the whale-fin shaped fountain-sculpture in the river, and the part-wood, part-fibreglass “Daisy” sculpture, giant in scale and dewy in appearance—to the 700-year-old Turku Castle.

The best way to explore this imposing structure is with an audio guide. As you listen to the stories that make up Finland’s history, the cavernous rooms with their high-vaulted ceilings jump to life. There are old statues of Christ and his saints, some missing a limb or two: not from vandalism, just misplacement. The dainty castle chapel is a popular site for weddings. The castle’s permanent exhibition focuses on its everyday life and festivities. But my favourite is the current one called “A Few Words about Women.” It details the life of women in the 17th century, in a format that grabs attention—stories of businesswomen, lovers, wives, and merchants laid out in juicy tabloids at the entrance (turku.fi/en/turkucastle).

4 p.m.

Cable and Coffee

Turku’s newest attraction is a free funicular up the Kakolanmäki Hill. A prison until 2007, the complex has been remodelled into a hipster haunt. There’s a brewery, coffee roastery, bakery and a restaurant called Kakolanruusu, or “the rose of Kakola,” which is run by the team behind Kaskis, often touted as the city’s best restaurant. Reserve well in advance, it’s not easy to get a table here (kakolanruusu.fi)

Essentials

Finnair offers direct flights from Delhi to Helsinki. From here, Turku is a 2-hr train ride away (vr.fi). The best way to explore Turku is on foot. However, a 24-hr bus pass can be purchased on-board for €7.5/Rs600.

Purchase the Museum Walk (€38/Rs3,000) and Food Walk (€44/Rs3,500) cards from Visit Turku’s website or the tourism office. The museum one allows free admission to 12 museums, including the castle, while the food card offers free meals in some of the best restaurants (visitturku.fi).

  • Lubna Amir is Assistant Digital Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?