How to spend a long weekend in Finland's Turku Archipelago

The ultimate island-hopping destination, Finland’s 155-mile Archipelago Trail is a place of rocky skerries and forested islets, where eco-retreats, Nordic cuisine and saunas abound — and the gateway to it all is buzzing Turku, the former capital city.

By Stephanie Cavagnaro
Published 9 Sept 2019, 10:11 BST, Updated 17 Aug 2021, 10:26 BST
Wooden cottage and sauna, Finnish archipelago
Wooden cottage and sauna, Finnish archipelago.
Photograph by Getty Images

A constellation of some 20,000 islands fan out like the Milky Way from Finland’s southwestern shores — some simple rocky skerries, others topped with twisted pines. This largely Swedish-speaking island chain rising from the Baltic Sea is one of the world’s largest archipelagos. Its wind-beaten shores are green beacons of the quiet life, offering lung-cleansing air and shelter for seabirds.

Explore the floating greenway following the 155-mile Archipelago Trail — a laid-back loop of roads and free public ferries — to take in sleepy red boathouses, forested islands and sheltered coves. It’s a place where terns and swallows zip by, traditional Finnish smoke saunas abound and, in summer, roadsides are carpeted with wild strawberries and lingonberries.

Turku, Finland’s oldest city and the former capital, is the gateway to it all, divided by the linden-lined River Aura into ‘this side’ (older) and ‘the other side’ (newer). It’s a city undergoing  a colourful renaissance led by a string of openings: the city’s first rooftop bar; a brand new funicular; and even a prison-turned-hipster-paradise housing a microbrewery, bakery and coffee roastery. And with new direct flights operating from Luton, it’s now much easier to touch down in Turku.

Day one: take in Turku

The way to Turku’s heart is through its larder. Start at Turku Market Hall — it may date back to 1896, but it’s no antique. At Herkkunuotta, bowtie-wearing chef Mikko sells fresh fish and creates dishes like cold-smoked pike roe with fennel and sour cream on archipelago bread (a malty, sweet loaf), and herring with Finnish strawberries. He acknowledges, “It sounds strange, but think of how many ways you use pineapple.” Next, savour mature emmental and organic goat’s gouda at Juustopuoti before stopping for a cake-and-caffeine kick at MBakery Café. Nearby, the 280ft-tall Turku Cathedral is a gothic monument to the city’s former life as Finnish capital. “The cathedral is 700 years old, and has seen it all — the fires, the wars,” says my guide, Olga. Inside, it’s austere, with hints to its history as a Catholic church: Roman pillars, vaulted ceilings and a cavernous nave housing statues of bishops.

Still peckish? Stop for a light lunch in the airy foyer cafe of Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova before exploring this double-bill museum. Ars Nova celebrates contemporary art, while Aboa Vetus is firmly set in the past. Ruins lie beneath the building, showcasing stone houses and artefacts discovered during excavation. Head around the corner to Old Great Square to peer down the medieval cobbled street of Luostarin Välikatu, then hop back into this century on a Låna electric boat cruise along the river. Pack a case of gin-and-cranberry Hartwall Original Long Drink cans — a Finnish summer favourite — to sip as you as you cover the 2.5-mile stretch from the cathedral to the Baltic Sea; you’ll pass red-brick warehouses, art displays, defunct cranes from shipbuilding’s heyday and even a 700-year-old castle fortress along the way.

So good it should be illegal — Kakola Prison has been transformed into the city’s latest hedonist hotspot. Closed since 2007 (because the views were too good, or so the joke goes), access to this area is via a new free funicular. Grab a bag of pick-me-up at Frukt, which sources seasonal coffee from small producers and roasts it on the spot, or, if you’re after a stronger tipple, head next door. “Welcome to the smallest bar in Turku,” says Peter, owner of Kakola Brewing Company. The five-seater space (with terrace benches in summer) serves pints ranging from a sour ale spiced with raspberry to a dry hopped saison. “Hopefully next spring we’ll open a tap room so you can see into the production area,” Peter adds. Nearby Kakolanruusu restaurant’s thick walls evoke the prison it once was, but the creative sharing plates are no canteen cuisine: try the mackerel escabeche with oyster emulsion and green juniper.

Frukt Coffee Roasters.
Photograph by Frukt

Day two: into the archipelago

Rent a car for the ultimate Finnish road trip: the Archipelago Trail. On the one-and-a-half-hour drive towards Nagu, stop off at Art Bank gallery in Pargas to meet eccentric owner Ted Wallin. “I’m the only recognised reincarnation of Salvador Dalí — and I didn’t choose him. He chose me,” he announces. The gallery’s rooms are packed with surrealist paraphernalia: a gold leaf-covered floor light, a lip sofa, anthropomorphic drawers and melting clocks. In addition to regaling visitors with history of the art, Ted waxes lyrical about the artist: “Salvador is amazing; everything he touched turned into gold.” Ted also hosts a splash-out €3,000 (£2,700) Privat Dalí dinner for 10 — the setting is baroque-luxury with spiral twisted table legs and gold ribbon-lined chairs, while food and drinks are straight out of Dalí’s cookbook.

Stop off at Sattmark Kaffe & Safka, a 10-minute drive away, for a seasonal spread. An 18th-century croft, it houses a boutique restaurant and shop selling such edible souvenirs as white chocolate with bilberries, local apple juice, salty liquorice and Moomin products galore — it's no surprise, given this is the heartland of Tove Jansson’s cartoon creations. Take a seat in the sunny courtyard for a fish feast: egg mousse with herring and pickled onions, cold-smoked salmon and crab-marinated herring, all scooped up with archipelago bread and buttery new potatoes. Save room for coffee (a national obsession) and knock-your-socks-off cinnamon buns that are the perfect combination of fluffy and sweet. Hidden in the woods beyond is a collection of eco-lodges made from clay and straw.

Another 45-minute drive west takes road-trippers to Nagu Marina, from which you can either drive a further two hours to Houtskär or go VIP aboard a private charter boat. Scenery rips past: birch-, pine- and spruce-covered islands; seabirds sailing across blue skies; and chilli-red boathouses providing a pop of colour against the greenscape. Race through narrow fairways, indulging in pike perch on toast with Champagne, before docking at Hyppeis Värdshus, a small B&B run by husband-and-wife team Sam and Outi. Dine on the likes of smoked lamb, local potatoes with dill sour cream and the freshest fish at the unfussy restaurant, then retire to your room; most offer sea views, and all have the vibe of a summer cottage, decked out with striped baby-blue wallpaper, dark wood furniture, patterned armchairs and Finnish books.

Day three: island life

Up and at ’em for a sea and sauna session, where it’s customary — but not mandatory — to go in the buff. Sweat it out as you overlook the peaceful water beyond, with geese, swallows and terns crossing the skies in search of breakfast. “Do you know what to do when swimming in cold water?” owner Sam asks. “Don’t be tense — just relax and breath slowly.” And with that, hot-foot it into the chilly sea, then retreat to the heat of the sauna, repeating this process until you’ve worked up an appetite. Indoors, a breakfast spread of fresh bread, porridge, granola and rhubarb jam awaits. “Everything but the dairy products are made here,” says Sam. And afterwards? Try the easy climb up Borgberget Hill and its observation tower for views over the distant Åland Islands and boats snaking between the clusters of green.

Take a ferry from Houtskär to Korppoo as you make your way back to Nagu. Stop for a stroll at Korppoo’s string of harbour huts, selling everything from smoked salmon to sailor trinkets. Walking trails twist away from here, one leading to a medieval church, others to secluded beaches. If you’ve time, take a fishing or kayaking trip. In Nagu, the leafy garden of the mustard-hued Köpmans Café & Restaurant provides a perfect pitstop for a slice of berry pie and a round of ‘poptails’ (frozen fruit pops served in sparkling wine). Flavours include gin, cucumber and tonic, and strawberry, mint and cantaloupe. For something more substantial, however, head to L’Escale for French fare or try Najaden, a steamboat restaurant serving up crispy pizza and cold beers.

It takes a little over an hour to get back to Turku for a last hurrah. Kick off your evening with a pre-dinner drink at E. Ekblom; a recently devised option is the ‘spruce’ cocktail, made with Napue gin, ruby port wine, spruce sprout syrup, cranberry and lime. “In Finland we have ‘everyman’s rights’ — you can pick anything you want from the forest,” Riku, the barman, says of the syrup. “This is from Lieto — it’s nearby.” Next up, head to ‘this side’ of the river for dinner at Kaskis, a 36-seater spot that’s often booked up two months ahead. Four- and six-course seasonal options are paired with wine; dishes range from whitefish and fried nettles with a lemon-seasoned butter sauce to a white asparagus, pork and Varkaus caviar with homemade almond milk.

Cyclist on the Archipelago Trail.

The best saunas in Turku

1. Airisto Spa
Strip off and slip into the wood-heated igloo-shaped sauna. Or go all out and try the electric, infrared, steam, wood and alter-scented smoke varieties. In the latter, smoke fills the chimney-less room, the fire dies and the space is ventilated before use; a wood stove sauna, meanwhile, provides a continuous burn. To cool off, make your way to the outdoor solar-heated pool or opt for a sea plunge to take your temperature down a few degrees.

2. Herrankukkaro
On the shoreline, just 40 minutes’ drive from Turku, is the world’s largest underground smoke sauna, the maasavusauna, which produces a soft heat and is big enough for 124 people. The kyläsavusaunathe (village smoke sauna), meanwhile, is a more intimate affair, holding groups of up to 30. Don’t miss the outdoor heated baths and saltwater pool, dotted with fire pits, overlooking the Baltic Sea.

3. Forum Sauna
Set in a simple yellow house, Turku’s only public sauna is an ideal place to try out a vasta (a fragrant bunch of silver birch twigs with which you gently whip yourself); the practice is said to aid circulation and soften skin. There’s also an infrared sauna, mud therapies and leech treatments for those lacking squeamish tendencies.

4. Saaronniemi
This popular summer beach west of Turku turns into an ice swimming hotspot come winter. From early October until late April, brave bodies come here to heat up in the sauna before the big chill. This extreme outdoor escapade is common in Finland, where water temperatures regularly dip below 10C. 

5. Hotel Stallbacken
It doesn’t get much more traditional than a wood-fired sauna. Head to Nagu and check into this stone-built B&B to be enveloped in löyly, the steam produced by throwing water on hot stove stones. After around 15 minutes, head to the jacuzzi for a dip or, if you’re feeling brave, make your way outside to roll in piles of refreshing snow.

The best bars in Turku

1. For lofty revelries
Walo Rooftop Bar:
The city’s first rooftop bar opened this summer atop Hotel Wiklund. Its paired-back decking is dotted with potted plants. Turn up for stunning sunset views over the city, and a selection of organic wines, bubbly and mocktails like raspberry lemonade.

2. For beach vibes
Surf Shack:
A blue facade is plastered with hand-written signs and slung with surf boards. This summertime pop-up is a local haunt, open until 02.00 on weekends. There’s an al fresco seating area, DJs pop by to spin decks and the menu offers a winning combo of ice cream and cocktails.

3. For hoppy hangouts
Exam papers are swapped for pints at this brewery-cum-restaurant set within a neo-renaissance ex-school building. Seasonal varieties are served with classics like pilsners and porters. In the summer, a buzzy beer garden grill sizzles with pork ribs and slow cooked brisket.

How to do it
Wizz Air has a new thrice-weekly nonstop flight from Luton to Turku. 
Solo Sokos Hotel Turun Seurahuone in Turku is from €138 (£121).

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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