Finland’s first capital, Turku boasts a magnificent castle and cathedral; between them lies a beautiful stretch of river and a city full of charm and character
The first time I went to Turku I got lost. That may sound like a damning admission from a travel writer, so I’d better say that it doesn’t happen often. And I’d better say, too, that it wasn’t Turku’s fault. Since then I’ve always found it one of the easiest of cities to navigate. Maybe on that first occasion my subconscious was trying to tell me something; instead of rushing off to the Archipelago (fabulous though it is), I ought to explore the city first.
On that first visit it was Turku’s magnificent cathedral that seemed to have a magnetic attraction, pulling me back three times before I finally got my bike wheels headed in the right direction. And that’s about right, because the cathedral is one of the two poles of this magnetic city, the other being its mighty castle, two kilometres downriver.
Turku is on the tattered coast of south-west Finland, sheltered by that Archipelago, whose islands are almost beyond counting. It’s linked to Sweden by further skeins of islands and by deep historical and cultural connections. It’s a bilingual region; all of Finland is officially bilingual, but in the Archipelago and hinterland some towns and villages put the Swedish name first. Not that you’ll ever run into trouble for using the ‘wrong’ name. And anyway, Finland is effectively trilingual, English being spoken almost universally.
The Swedish connection also explains why Turku (Åbo in Swedish) deserves to be called Finland’s first city. Helsinki may be the capital, but only assumed the role in 1812, after Russia seized control of Finland. Under Swedish rule, Åbo/Turku was always the capital; its castle was the focus of Swedish rule and the cathedral was and is the centre of the dominant Lutheran church in Finland.
The 100m-high tower of the cathedral (Tuomiokirkko/Domkyrka) still dominates the skyline. Like most cathedrals it’s grown in stages, starting from relatively small beginnings in the 13th century, with the bulk of the present granite-and-red-brick exterior dating from a few decades straddling 1600. The interior – high, cool and serene – has some notable frescoes that depict both Biblical scenes and some key moments in Finnish history.
A broad straight reach of the Aura river links castle and cathedral, and most of Turku’s other attractions lie along the river or just a block or two from its banks. I told you it was an easy place to navigate. There are five bridges, one for feet and bikes only, and below these a cute little orange ferry shuttles to and fro throughout the day (it’s free, too). Among the galleries and museums I’ve got to mention Aboa Vetus – remains of medieval Turku – and the Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum, up the hill south of the river. This is not just a museum but a well-preserved quarter of old Turku, where traditional crafts are still pursued in upwards of 30 workshops.
Along the river banks are more than a dozen floating restaurants, and on a summer’s evening the sun will still be shining even when you’ve finished eating. There’s ample choice of bars, pubs and restaurants on land too. Unusual premises seem to be a Turku speciality. Pride of place has to go to Puutorin Vessa, occupying what used to be a public lavatory! I’m afraid it’s all a bit too knowing and post-modern and ironic for me, but it’s worth popping in for a quick... er... beer.
For a longer session try the Old Bank (they use the English name), all walnut and brass, leather seats and well over a hundred varieties of beer. Koulu, in a handsome former school (which is what Koulu means in Finnish), is a pub with a smart restaurant upstairs and a spacious beer garden out back; they brew their own beer too. On the other side of the river Uusi Apteekki (New Apothecary) occupies a former pharmacy, with most of the original fittings still in place.
On a sunny day, though, I’d be very tempted to take a stroll round the lovely old market hall (Kauppahalli/Saluhallen). There are 42 food shops here and it’s a fabulous place to collect picnic ingredients, best enjoyed on the north bank of the river, below the bridges, where there’s plenty of space and you can watch the comings and goings on the water.
This also puts you on the doorstep of the maritime museum, Forum Marinum. Its collections cover the whole story of seafaring in the Baltic and beyond, but it’s the real ships that are the big draw; grandest of all is the lovely white full-rigger Suomen Joutsen.
From Forum Marinum, cross a car park and then a short stretch of real park and the castle suddenly looms over you. Founded around 1280 and added to many times over the centuries, it’s built mostly of massive granite blocks that look as if they’ll last for millennia to come. Lavish royal apartments and displays of jewellery contrast sharply with the grim outer walls.
From here there are regular buses back to the centre, or you could just retrace your steps. After all, you can’t get lost.
Where to stay
Hotel Centro: chic, compact rooms in central but quiet courtyard.
Best Western Turku Hotel Seaport: attractive former customs shed close to ferry terminals and the Castle.
With a Turku Card you get free public transport and free or discounted entry to many museums and attractions.