Experience the Finnish Archipelago - the world's largest island labyrith
Turku is not just a seaside city; it’s the gateway to the Finnish Archipelago, an unparalleled natural wonder made up of 40,000 islands and counting. But here’s the thing: even if you were to visit one island every day, and lived to be 100 years old, you’d be hard-pressed to squeeze them all in. So, where do you even begin?
Your best guide to this region is Explore Archipelago, a new digital service created by the City of Turku in partnership with the Stockholm Archipelago Foundation. It’s got the most in-depth info on destinations to visit, things to do, and places to stay. But here are a few ways you can journey into the Finnish Archipelago, and a quick rundown of the islands to put on your bucket list.
From wooden taxis and water buses to steamships and passenger ferries, there are a huge number of ways you can sail around the archipelago. Keep in mind that it’s often seasonal; some companies only operate in the summertime when the sea isn’t frozen!
Viking Line’s archipelago cruise – Let’s start big! Hop aboard Viking Line’s archipelago cruise, which departs from Turku Harbour at 8.45 in the morning. You’ll sail to Mariehamn, the capital of the Åland Islands, and return to Turku around 8 in the evening. It’s a luxurious way to get a glimpse of the Finnish Archipelago; not only can you enjoy the sea breeze, but you can also try out the on-board restaurants, pick up some tax-free shopping, and pamper yourself at the spa.
Föli water buses – For something a little more low-key, take a water bus to the nearby island of Ruissalo. Run by Föli, the organisation responsible for public transport in Turku, the water buses cruise back and forth between the Aura River and Ruissalo during the summertime. It’s the easiest way to experience the archipelago, plus tickets are set at the same rate as regular bus tickets: 3€ for adults and 1.50€ for children.
River Taxi Aura 1 – Flag down this wooden boat as it cruises down the Aura River or make a booking by phone or email. With a maximum capacity of eight people, River Taxi Aura 1 will take you to the nearby islands of Ruissalo or Hirvensalo, or you can just stay on board as it sails along the Aura River.
Låna – If you’d like to create your own adventure, why not rent an electric-powered boat from Låna? You can cruise up and down the Aura River for up to three hours, so pack a picnic and take the helm!
s/s Ukkopekka – Now more than 80 years old, Ukkopekka is the last passenger steamship still cruising the Finnish Archipelago. During the summer months, Ukkopekka sails back and forth between Turku and Naantali every day (except Sundays and Mondays). You can also hop aboard Ukkopekka for a nostalgic evening cruise to the island of Loistokari, where you’ll enjoy an archipelago-inspired feast and live music.
m/s Rudolfina – When you’re short on time, set sail aboard Rudolfina for a two-hour lunch, dinner, or supper cruise into the archipelago. Rudolfina departs from the Aura River, right in front of the Vaakahuone Pavilion.
m/s Lily – This blue-and-white ship is a familiar sight in the Aura River during the summer, carrying cheerful passengers to the island of Vepsä. Hop aboard for the hour-long cruise, then spend the whole day picnicking, swimming, and exploring Vepsä. You can sail back to Turku aboard Lily in the afternoon or later in the evening.
m/s Norrskär – Between May and September, you can sail to Seili and Nauvo from the Aura River. The island of Seili is famous for its grim past, while Nauvo is a lively seaside community, bustling with cafés, restaurants, and boutiques.
The Finnish Archipelago is paradise for hiking and cycling enthusiasts. There are kilometres upon kilometres of trails that weave through this part of the world; here are a few of the most famous ones.
St Olav Waterway – Named in honour of a hugely important Nordic saint, this route is part of a pilgrimage that leads all the way to the Norwegian city of Trondheim. This section zigzags across the Finnish Archipelago towards Åland, winding through tranquil countryside and coastal landscapes best seen on foot or bike. Check out the routes on Outdoor Active, pick up a bike from 10bikes or Carfield Bike Rental (if you’re planning on cycling), and get on your way!
Archipelago Trail – Every country has that one famous route. For America, it’s Route 66, while Ireland has the Wild Atlantic Way and Australia has the Great Ocean Road. Here, in Finland, it’s the Archipelago Trail. Okay, it’s only 250 kilometres long, but there’s lots to see and experience along the way, especially in the summer months. The circular route begins in Turku and you’ll encounter stunning scenery and warm hospitality in whichever direction you choose to travel. You can zip round in a day by car, but it’s made for travelling slowly by bike or on foot.
Small Archipelago Trail – As the saying goes, sometimes less is more; in which case, the Small Archipelago Trail is a snack-size version of the Archipelago Trail. It’s just over 100 kilometres, and it follows the same route as the main trail until you reach Nauvo. From here, the Small Archipelago Trail diverts through the island of Seili towards Rymättylä and Naantali. It’s the perfect solution if you’re on a tight schedule.
Coastal Route – Roughly 200 kilometres long, this bike route begins in the city of Salo, a 45-minute drive from Turku. From here, the trail runs through Kemiönsaari towards Bengtskär, the southernmost island in the Finnish Archipelago, and loops back via Hanko. Pedal slowly to take in the picture-perfect views, not to mention the national parks and historic villages.
The Finnish Archipelago is like a 40,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. There’s something unique about every island, but these five are especially worth a visit.
Ruissalo – Hop aboard the Föli water bus and set sail to Ruissalo! It’s known for its natural beauty, historic villas, and mouth-watering eateries, plus it’s just a few kilometres from the centre of Turku. Hike or bike your way around the island, pop by the Botanical Garden, and tuck into a traditional serving of pea soup and pancakes at Honkapirtti. You can also take the bus to Ruissalo; it’s Föli #8 from the city centre.
Seili – The story of Seili is something that will stay with you long after you leave the island. From the 1600s, this tiny island was home to a hospital for people with leprosy and then later, once leprosy began to disappear from Finland, the buildings were put to new use as the nation’s first public mental health facility. Hundreds of people were exiled to Seili over those years, and most never saw the mainland again. Nowadays, the island is used by the University of Turku to monitor the Archipelago Sea and Baltic Sea. Journey to Seili to explore the historic buildings, considered one of the most significant built cultural environments in Finland.
Örö – Like Seili, Örö is a combination of picturesque nature and captivating history. As well as the barracks, fortifications, and weaponry left over from its time as an army fortress, the island is home to rare flora like the pasque flower, plus unusual butterfly species, which are under threat on the mainland. Be mindful that Örö is some distance from Turku; you’ll need to make your way first to Kasnäs, on the southern tip of Kemiönsaari, and then hop aboard a ferry.
Utö – It’s about a four-hour journey to Utö, but it’s worth the extra effort. Only 40 people now live on this sleepy island year-round, but it was once the site of a pilot station and military garrison. Utö is also a birdwatcher’s utopia; visit in springtime to see migratory birds resting on the island after their long journey over the water.
Bengtskär – The remote island of Bengstkär is an almost mystical sight. It’s entirely barren, aside from a great tower of granite and brick that stretches 52 metres high. It’s the tallest lighthouse in the Nordic countries and it was completed in 1906. It took a pounding during both the First and Second World Wars, but continued to stand tall, surrounded by the vast sea. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, why not spend the night here? Ferries travel to Bengtskär from places like Kasnäs, Rosala, and Hanko between May and September.
Text Kathleen Cusack, Juuso Suominen, and Liina Komi
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