In various parts of the world — and nowhere more than in northern Europe — summertime’s fondly considered a bright and cheery idyll, tailor-made for vacations and good vibrations in general. It’d been a long time since I’d been to Scandinavia in summer, and on my recent visit to Finland, I had the pleasure of rediscovering why the warmest season in this part of the world is so appealing — oh, what the heck, I’ll say it: even enchanting.
The seasons can feel almost manic-depressive up here in Viking-land, with long, dark winters balanced by delightful summers famous for their “white nights” — when the sun stays up and parties till after midnight — sometimes barely dipping below the horizon. In June, July, and August, a buttery glow seems to infuse everything, and most Finns are clearly in a jolly and expansive mood.
So summer and early fall are naturally the most appealing times to experience an undersung corner of Europe, starting with the country’s low-key but classy capital, Helsinki. With no looming highrises to mar its human scale, it’s a mix of 19th-century wood and stucco architecture (a little like Czarist St. Petersburg) and elegant modernism (the name Alvar Aalto ring a bell?) — along with the requisite dose of nondescript 20th-century housing stock. It’s also a marvelous city for strolling, starting with waterfront Market Square, where you can wander betwixt the fishmongers and handicrafts-hawkers in the shadow of the dramatic Russian Orthodox Uspenski cathedral (above right). Or get in some quality window-shopping for duds, baubles, or home furnishings in a plethora of cutting-edge boutiques (this is the home of Marimekko, after all!). My own — much-abridged — list of Helsinki highlights:
● Cruising the area’s spectacular archipelago, whether to tour the huge and ancient island fortress of Suomenlinna (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) or to while away several hours over dinner involving cured reindeer at an airy island restaurant like Klippan (below), which takes up most of the tiny islet of Luoto.
● Wandering the bosky pathways of the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum, popular with locals for its own idyllic island setting (this one reachable by bridge) and selection of 87 traditional buildings carted from all over Finland (the soaring wood Orthodox church is a particular fave of mine).
● Soaking up the sights and sounds during organ practice in Temppeliaukio Church, a masterpiece hewn out of solid rock in an otherwise unassuming residential nabe. If only those Japanese tourists would get out of my face…
I could go on, but I want to leave room for smaller southern Finnish burgs, which serve up charms of their own; you can easily cover several in a road trip, or via cushy coach using a Matkahuolto bus pass (seven days € 149). Highlights of Turku, the country’s oldest and fifth-largest city, include its own medieval fortress, mellow riverboat cafés, and a fascinating little collection of centuries-old wooden hovels turned “living history” museum of old-timey artisan shops (above right). It’s worth at least an overnight for that and to take in several museums that are playing key roles in the city’s stint as 2011 European Capital of Culture, including the Sibelius Museum (named for the Finnish giant of classical music); the Aboa Vetus/Ars Nova (upstairs, modern art; in the basement, medieval history centered around the excavated ruins of old Turku); and a shipshape maritime museum.
But what I dug most of all were the wee-er places. Like Naantali, a coastal resort a half hour north of Turku whose inviting waterfront restaurants sport views toward the president’s island summer digs; it also tosses in Muumimaalilma (Moomin World), a theme park based on hippo-like Finnish children’s-book characters with a Smurflike following (you may have even heard of them).
Some 45 minutes outside Helsinki, this city of 51,000 was one of Finland's key medieval towns and is a popular tourist destination due to its well preserved 18th- and 19th-century buildings, as well as its 15th-century cathedral. It's quaint-as-all-getout slice of olde Finlande whose 18th-century quarter comes down just on the safe side of twee; its cobblestone lanes are lined with wooden houses harboring various shops, museums, and restaurants (one of which, Timbaali, specializes in snails, yum).
Even smaller and inching even closer to the border of precious, Fiskars is a name you might recognize if you own a pair of those scissors with the groovy orange handles. This tiny, 360-year-old company village grew from an ironworks, still turns out top-notch products today, and has capitalized on its past and postcard setting, turning into a tourist attraction with galleries, restaurants, and B&B’s.
Autumn is by no means too late to put Helsinki and southern Finland on your to-visit list, but if Europe’s not in the cards till next year, give serious thought to coming to experience the luminous summer here. You’ll come back glowing, I promise.