Beyond Helsinki, many of Finland’s delightful, small towns remain relatively unexplored. Picturesque seaside communities, wintry Arctic Circle refuges and Unesco heritage sites abound.
Much of Finland is geographically remote, accessible after travelling for many miles along roads that wind around the myriad lakes that litter the interior. This has placed much of the country some way off the tourist radar of most travellers in Europe. But to those with the pioneering spirit, you’ll discover that Scandinavia’s best-kept secret is home to several small towns that exude character and charm, often surrounded by splendid natural beauty. Below, in alphabetical order, is our pick of 10 of the most charming towns with populations of under 20,000 that Finland has to offer.
An idyllic seaside town on the Finnish south coast, Ekenäs claims to be home to the country’s oldest pedestrian street, which can be found in its picture-perfect old town. At the heart of the old town proudly stands the 17th-century Ekenäs church; an eye-catching testament to the town’s past. Nearby there are a sprinkling of pretty wooden houses, small harbours and green parks, along with enticing modern amenities such as boutiques, cafes and restaurants, all of which serve to attract a steady stream of visitors during the warmer summer months.
It may not be renowned for its beaches, but Finland also boasts its own handful of desirable sandy shorelines. Among the most popular is one that can be found in the port town of Hanko – often described as the Finnish Riviera – which is perched on a long peninsula on the country’s southern coast. Once an upscale Russian spa town, today it is a haven for sun-seekers thanks to its stunning ocean setting and delightful old town where you’ll find plenty of entertainment spots to enjoy after a day in the sun. Opulent seaside villas with Victorian and art-nouveau architectural detailing add to the appeal.
Located in Ostrobothnia in Western Finland, beautiful Jakobstad (‘Pietarsaari’ in Finnish) is renowned for its rich maritime heritage, myriad of public parks and gardens, and top class museums. Colourful, decorated wooden houses line the central district, and a cozy summer café is the perfect spot for people watching. Jakobstad is also within easy reach of several outdoor activities including skiing and ice skating, while nearby beaches and harbours provide spots for relaxation.
A pretty coastal town, Loviisa is testament to the traditional workmanship that went into its creation, with many of its original wooden structures dating to the 19th century still standing tall and strong. But perhaps Loviisa’s most unique feature is its annual opening up to the public, which sees visitors and locals given free access to many of its oldest buildings and their gardens. The two-day event is also used as a platform for local artists and artisans to showcase their wares, and there’s also music and kids’ entertainment to add to the atmosphere.
The capital of Åland Island, Mariehamn is one of Finland’s newer towns, having only been built in the late 19th-century. But it has rapidly become one of the country’s most charming, with its streets dotted with kaleidoscopic wooden townhouses and cafes. A bustling port town, it also has sandy beaches and a busy working marina where a museum ship offers a fascinating look at the town’s maritime heritage. To mark 100 years of autonomy for Åland Island in 2022, ‘Åland 100’ will see residents, tourists and local organisations take part in a packed programme of celebrations starting in June 2021 through to the official centenary in June 2022.
Nestled between the verdant beauty of Teijo National Park and the brackish waters of the Baltic Sea, Mathildedal is an enticing blend of old and new. Originally an ironworks village, today it’s dotted with local handicraft shops, galleries and even an alpaca farm, and is also a major hub for small start-ups. Yet far from distancing itself from the past, the village has embraced it, with well preserved and much cherished traditional Finnish wooden red ochre houses and pretty oak alleys. Surrounding the village are green meadows teeming with wild flowers while frequent concerts and theatre events place the village at the vanguard of local culture.
Vibrant with tourism, the town of Naantali offers that captivating combination of natural beauty and human-made attractions. The nearby archipelago provides plenty of the former while the latter can best be enjoyed in the buzzing old town district where cafes, restaurants, and boutique shops hum with activity. Throughout the year, Naantali also plays host to a diverse mix of festivals, each serving to celebrate a particular aspect of national culture. For respite, the tranquil Kultaranta gardens offers an ideal retreat.
A resort village close to the northern tip of Finland, Saariselkä is a popular jumping off point for excursions into the Urho Kekkonen National Park. As for the village itself, it positively exudes atmosphere and charm, boasting quintessential wintery scenes and a number of restaurants, bars and other facilities for escaping the harsh elements. Surrounded by scenic fells and a picture-perfect lake district, the village is also a prime spot for seeing the famous Aurora Borealis (aka Northern Lights). What’s more, legend has it that a certain Father Christmas lives in a log cabin deep in the snow-capped forest of Korvatunturi, a fell on the outskirts of Urho Kekkonen. He is said to make regular visits to Saariselkä.
A hub for winter thrill seekers, the town of Salla is set amid an expansive wilderness in Lapland that combines atmosphere and adventure. While lacking some of the amenities of more developed towns, its charm lies more in its sheer natural wonders that extend across its snow-swept forests and fells. Whether you visit to enjoy adrenaline-fuelled activities like husky sled-rides and snowmobile trips, or simply to revel in mother nature at its finest, Salla is simply magical.
Featuring an officially designated Unesco World Heritage Site, the mill village of Verla in the Kymi River Valley of southeast Finland is steeped in history. A groundwood and board mill founded back in 1872 is today a well preserved factory museum, while many of the antiquated crafts practiced here in bygone eras continue to be celebrated at village workshops and regular special events. Outside the town itself, forest walks and garden tours contribute to the charm that invariably washes over all who visit.