Sitting down to dinner in what was once Finland’s most dangerous prison wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I embarked on a recent Scandinavian sojourn. But soon after touching down I learn that the city of Turku’s penchant for experimental dining is fast turning the place into Finland’s culinary capital.
It’s all too easy to be lured by the call of the Med for late summer adventures, so I decided to go against the grain, eschewing the typical crowded beach resorts for a Finnish break instead. Not only good for snowy scenes and Santa Claus, Finland’s food scene and stunning vistas make it a destination as worthy of a summer visit as during the winter months.
Helsinki of course deserves its own weekend, but I bypassed the capital and headed south west for a lesser-trodden, yet far tastier, path. What was briefly the capital of Finland and known as the birthplace of the language, the medieval city of Turku is so much more than just its history.
Being named the European Capital of Culture in 2011 had a profound effect on the city, not just with residents speaking of its refreshed spirit and atmosphere, but the transformation of its riverside into a vibrant cultural space with a thriving food scene.
I tried Baltic herring pickled every which way, and ‘sauna-smoked ham’ – literally a juicy joint slowly wood smoked in a sauna, (swimsuit optional)
The title helped the city find its niche as Finland’s food hub, not to mention the gateway to the Åland Islands. This enticing archipelago is made up of thousands of tiny islands, and with an itinerary of hiking, biking and swimming they make for a great long weekend add on to a trip to the mainland.
Turku’s gastronomic rise is thanks to a new generation of talented chefs who are focused on local and sustainable cuisine. Less than a two hour drive from the capital, the city lies 150km west of Helsinki. Though the fifth largest city in Finland, its population tipping just 190,000, it’s feasible to see its main sights in a day, although you’ll want to make it two – at least – to make the most of those precious meal times.
My 48-hour food tour of the city begins with the 19th century market hall, where I tried local Baltic herring pickled every which way, sauna-smoked ham – literally, a juicy joint slowly wood smoked in a sauna, swimsuit optional – and an apparently famous iced Turku Bun, a delicately spiced bake filled with cream and drizzled in caramel chocolate, created by the winning bakery of a Finnish reality TV show.
The aforementioned prison restaurant is just one of several exceptional meals worth booking while you’re in town. It sits within a complex on one of Turku’s seven hills that was formerly the district prison. Now the space comprises 260 apartments, a luxury hotel (where you can sleep in a converted cell, in case you’ve always wondered…), a craft brewery and taproom, Kakola Brewery, which supplies some of Helsinki’s top fine dining establishments, and Kakolan Ruusu, the restaurant in the former night cell wing.
Sharing plates like garlic-infused beef tartare, rainbow trout in dill cream sauce, and sirloin grilled over the kitchen’s open fires are matched with a cellar of unique wines, toasted with a convivial atmosphere that’s a far cry from the building’s past.
A bi-lingual city thanks to its proximity to Sweden, the city is named Åbo in Swedish, meaning “to live by the river”. Much of its culinary activity takes place along the Aura’s banks. NOOA serves up a five course seasonal tasting menu rich in local ingredients. I ate leek foam with picked kohlrabi, a shiitake rice cracker and seaweed cream, marinated local white asparagus with crispy dukkah and marinated rhubarb with almond ice cream and sorrel granita.
It’s easy to see why this outdoor terrace spot is making a name for itself, I thought, watching the sun go down. A short walk down the bank, Restaurant Smör, under Head Chef Mikko Pakola, explores Finnish and Scandinavian traditions across its menu, the food carried by waiters from within the moodily atmospheric candle-lit walls of the 18th century cellars.
It’s an elegant way to travel, especially spending a few hours counting the thousands of islands floating past from top deck.
Local pickled white asparagus, Norwegian scallops with white miso glaze and blue mussel, lamb tartare with soy and brown butter, Icelandic cod in an aquavit and calendula sauce, yuzu parfait and a vanilla panna cotta with liquorice gel and pickled rhubarb delivered one of the most memorable meals of my year, thanks to the skilled pairing of freshly sourced local ingredients with unique flavour combinations from different cuisines.
The feast left every diner with something of a post-prandial waddle as we headed back to our hotel. I ventured further than Turku, on a fivehour sail to the Åland Islands, midway between Sweden and Finland and served by the Viking Line’s brand new Viking Glory cruise ship. With interiors created by Swedish design company Koncept and a colour palette drawn from the heather and moss-inspired hues of the local archipelago landscape, and more great food, it’s an elegant way to travel, especially spending a few hours counting the thousands of islands floating past from top deck.
Despite its relatively diminutive population of just 30,000, the Åland Islands are comprised of a hotbed of residents who stayed post-vacay, with 70 languages spoken and residents from over 80 nationalities. It’s easy to see why; with over 6,700 islands, many uninhabited and accessible only by boat, it’s easy to feel properly removed from ordinary life.
We docked in the capital Mariehamn, and from here, the best way to get around is by packing light and hiring two wheels, or by taking to the water; vast swathes of land are easily accessible by bike thanks to bridges and ferries connecting the islands, plus it’s flat enough for even novice cyclists.
Plunge into the Baltic Sea. It’s not the Mediterranean, but it’s a lot more reviving, particularly when there’s not another soul in sight.
With guesthouses and holiday cottages spread across the archipelago it’s easy to plan a route, while adventurers seeking solitude can pack a tent and kayak to an uninhabited island for a night under the stars, where you’d almost have the island to yourself: though be sure to check with the local information centre as some are off limits to overnight guests to protect breeding seabirds.
I sauntered through silent woodlands, discovered a secluded hidden beach and hiked to find some breathtaking hilltop vistas, behind which the stresses of my life seemed to disappear. I went east from Mariehamn towards the sleepy car-free island of Föglö via ferry, home to the Carlsro Badhotell, a lovingly restored 1912 property inspired by traditional 19th century Danish bathing hotels, with a handful of rooms including access to the waterside beach house, sauna and hot tub, paddle boards and kayaks.
Embrace the bathing culture with a sprint from the sauna down the dock for a plunge straight into the Baltic Sea. Sure, it’s not the Mediterranean, but it’s a whole lot more reviving, particularly when there’s not another soul in sight. Island-hopping is feasible by ferry for the larger ones, on two wheels thanks to the flat roads and well-connected bridges, or local boat owners can be hired for a day to deliver you to uninhabited gems for a unique al fresco camping experience.
In just two days we covered several islands, though just a drop in the ocean when you consider their breadth. On the archipelago I also discovered so much more: a gin distillery, a craft brewery, plentiful quaint restaurants serving up local catches like pike-perch, and museums and galleries. This feels like the summer scene none of us knew about but have all been craving.
Visit Finland’s islands and the city of Turku yourself
Finnair flies from London to Helsinki from £155 return. Connections between Helsinki and Mariehamn take 55 minutes via Finnair.
Viking Glory sails daily from Turku to Mariehamn (vikingline.com) We stayed at the Solo Sokos Hotel Turun Seurahuone in Turku, rooms from around £160 per night and at the Park Alandia Hotel in Mariehamn, with rooms from around £80 per night. Laurel was a guest of Visit Finland, Visit Turku and Visit Åland.