One of the world’s largest sea fortresses, the 18th-century fort on Suomenlinna is a 15-minute ferry ride from Helsinki’s Market Square (a mini-cruise that has lovely views of the city as a bonus attraction). Once here, you could easily fill a day with its sights and activities. The impressive fortifications, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, were built in 1847 by the Swedes (Finland was Swedish territory then) to scare off the Russians; they weren’t scared and later captured both the fort and Finland. Begin with the audio-visual experience in the visitor center (it’s in English) for a lively history, then explore its ramparts, tunnels, and museums and walk the trails around the beautiful island. Or sign up here for a guided walk to learn more about the fort and its various attractions. Among these are the 250-ton Vesikko submarine, used by the Finnish Navy from 1936 until the end of World War II. The Ehrensvärd Museum illustrates the earliest Swedish period, and the Doll and Toy Museum displays dolls, dollhouses, and toys in an old Russian villa. Various buildings house studios and shops of glassblowers, potters, and other craftsmen, and in the summer, you can stay for evening dance and musical performances of the Suomenlinna Summer Theatre.
Kauppatori (Market Square) and Esplanadi
Helsinki’s harbor is an integral part of the city, whose important landmarks overlook it. It’s also a popular gathering point, with an open-air market of local farmers, craftsmen, food producers, and fishermen, who sell directly from their boats. You may catch the fragrance of salmon cooking over cedar planks beside the boats, and depending on the season see a rainbow of glistening ripe berries or baskets of foraged woodland mushrooms. The historic 1889 market hall shelters more food vendors, but the outdoor market is a year-round tradition, protected by tarps and tents in the winter.
Stretching from one side of the Market Square, the open swath of the Esplanadi is where the entire city seems to congregate on summer evenings. The tree-lined promenade is bordered by elegant buildings and a pavilion houses the Kappeli Restaurant, whose terrace is especially popular on summer evenings when there are concerts in the bandstand. A fountain, another work by Eliel Saarinen, supports a statue of Havis Amanda, Helsinki’s symbol. In December, the entire Esplanadi is filled with booths selling beautiful local crafts and holiday foods. Helsinki’s most unusual museum, the Street Museum, climbs from market Square to Senate Square, a one-block progression from the early 1800s to the 1930s, with paving surfaces, street lights, mail boxes, and phone booths changing with each era.
Rovaniemi and the Arctic
The Arctic Circle runs across northern Finland, right through the town of Rovaniemi, giving it claim to being the Gateway to the Arctic. In the summer, this means the famous Midnight Sun. While the sun only stays above the horizon for a full 24 hours in Rovaniemi on the summer solstice in late June, from late May to early August it never drops far enough for it to get dark. Locals are out enjoying their great outdoors throughout these “White Nights” and welcome tourists to join them. Rovaniemi is in the center of a vast natural area of rushing rivers for canoeing, swimming, or fishing, with trails alongside them for hiking and cycling. The city is best known (ask any Finnish child) as the home of Santa Claus, right astride the Arctic Circle at Santa Claus Village. You can meet reindeer here or visit a Sami reindeer farm. To learn more about the Lapland culture and about the natural history, meteorology and geology of the Arctic, visit the stunning Arktikum Science Museum.
In the winter, this region is a paradise for skiers and others who love snow and ice sports. You can ride across frozen lakes and visit Sami villages on a dogsled safari, learn to drive your own reindeer sled, snowshoe or cross-country ski for miles, and watch the spectacular Northern Lights. Downhill skiers head about 170 kilometers north to Levi, a center for all winter recreation, with miles of scenic Nordic ski trails, lighted for night skiing. So are the pistes and slopes of Finland’s largest downhill ski area. Many hotels have rooms with glass ceilings, so you can watch the Northern Lights from inside.