Finland in the summer months mainly consists of two colours: green and blue. Everywhere you go, the forested landscape is dotted with patches of water, sunlight dancing off the surfaces. There’s so much water in fact, that Finland is called “the land of the thousands lakes”.
That nickname is not, however, entirely correct. There are actually a total of 188,000 lakes in Finland, stretching from Helsinki in the south right up to Lake Inari in Finnish Lapland.
If you’re planning your holiday to Finland and thinking of visiting Lake Saimaa and Finnish Lakeland then this post is for you. The lake district, in Eastern Finland, is truly one of the most magical corners of the country and a wonderful place for a holiday.
Updated for 2020
In this blog post, you can find a list of the most interesting places to visit and the best things to do in Lake Saimaa and the Finnish Lakeland area. Also included is a sample itinerary, following our road trip around Finland, that covers all the main attractions in Lake Saimaa.
For more ideas on planning your trip, take a look at this guide to Finland with kids.
Things to do in Lake Saimaa
Lake Saimaa is the largest lake in Finland and the fourth largest natural freshwater lake in Europe. Measuring approximately 4,400 square kilometres, the lake is also home to some 14,000 islands. In fact, there are so many islands, that Lake Saimaa doesn’t look like one body of water, rather a series of lakes, connected via inlets and waterways.
In the summer months, sail boats and motor boats crisscross the lake, running from island to island. During winter months the lake freezes over, turning Lake Saimaa into a winter playground perfect for skating, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
You can spend weeks enjoying all that Finnish Lakeland has to offer. The following list is based on the activities and sights that we enjoyed during our time on Lake Saimaa. I’ve also included a handful of additional places that we hope to visit next time we visit Finland.
Enjoy Lake Saimaa
The star of the show in this region is, without doubt, Lake Saimaa. During the summer months, the cottages that pepper the shores of Lake Saimaa fill up with holidaymakers eager to make the most of the long summer days.
Hiring a lakeside cottage is really one of the best ways to enjoy summer in Finland. We stayed at the Anttolanhovi Art & Design Villas, where we had our own lakeside cottage with a private jetty leading down to the lake. Although the lake temperatures were chilly when we were there, we did as the Finns do and used the sauna followed by a dip in the waters. Here are some more Lakeland rentals.
Lake Saimaa is popular for standup paddle boarding (which you can borrow at Anttolanhovi), kayaking, canoeing, fishing and windsurfing. Apparently jet skis are becoming more popular, too.
If you really want to explore the lake, then I recommend hiring a guide. Harri is a local guide who can organise fishing trips as well as luxury three-course dining experiences on otherwise deserted islands. Guests arrive by boat to find tables set with table cloths and are then served a three-course meal in the Finnish Great Outdoors.
Pick berries at Raijan Aitta Berry Farm
During summer months the forest floor on the islands of Lake Saimaa are covered with blueberries, juniper berries and lingen berries but there are other berry picking options as well.
Raijan Aitta is a berry farm located down a dirt track not too far from the town of Mikkeli. The family-run farm was bought by the current owners in 1959 and is now run by Katarina and her mum. However, the original ‘Aitta’, the wooden store room built on rock to store the harvest and keep it dry, is more than 200-years-old.
The farm is built in a traditional square shape, with a building on each side. It’s positioned near the water, where apparently it is warmer during the winter months (I would argue that this is a mere technicality, winters in Finland are cold!). Originally, the farm had animals and grew wheat and barley but in 1970, the family decided to branch out and started growing berries.
We visited for a morning of berry picking and the charming Katarina showed us around the farm, where she has lived since she was born. Riajan Aitta now have two hectares of strawberries, one hectare of blackcurrants and one hectare of raspberries.
We had a lovely time exploring the farm and the kids filled their punnets to the brim with the sweetest strawberries I think we’ve ever tasted. This is a great activity to do in Lake Saimaa with kids; not only do you get to eat lots of fresh berries but it’s a wonderful opportunity to understand more about what life is like in Finnish Lakeland and how it’s changed over the years.
Raijan Aitta also has a linen shop (and a spinning wheel where Tess got to try her hand at spinning yard) as well as a cafe with delicious cakes, made with berries from the farm. The cafe and shop are open from the middle of June to the end of August. They also have a handful of lakeside cottages available for rent that are simple but charming and right on the lakeshore. You can find more information about their Lake Saimaa cottages here.
Climb Neitvuori Hill
I expected plenty of forests and lakes when we visited Finnish Lakeland but I didn’t realise that the country’s topography was so rocky. The lakeland area is dominated by undulating terrain and plenty of rocks that were formed way back in the ice age. This means there are various lookouts around Lake Saimaa where you can get good views over the lake and its hundreds and thousands of islands.
One of the highest peaks in the area is Neitvuori Hill. Meaning Maiden’s Hill, it stands at 184m above sea level (there are no mountains in Finland, just hills!). We were guided by, Harri, a charming local who introduced himself by saying that he “eats like a local, drives like a local and lives like a local”.
Harri led us through the forest filled with birch, pine and spruce trees pointing out things along the way. Highlights included hanging moss, found only in places where the air is very pure, purple heather and holes in the trees made by woodpeckers.
The forest is also home to the Great Tit, a Finnish bird only found in Finland. Look out for a yellow breast with a black stripe running down the front and you’ll have found it. Much of the lichen-covered rocky landscape resembled the trolls’ home from Frozen, much to my youngest’s delight!
At the top of Neitvuori Hill, Harri unpacked a picnic and we enjoyed sandwiches overlooking Lake Saimaa. When the weather is not as dry, Harri offers a fireside lunch with sausages and marshmallows.
There are not many hiking trails in Finnish Lakeland, which is not surprising when you see how much water there is, but this trail is definitely worth doing and is an easy one to do with young kids. The roundtrip takes about 90minutes.
Canoe and kayak on Lake Saimaa
Canoeing and kayaking quietly through the calm waters of Lake Saimaa is the best way to enjoy the beauty of Finnish Lakeland. If you’re after something a little more adventurous, then the Squirrel Route is a 57km-long canoeing route that runs between Juva and Sulkava and can be done over several days, camping along the way.
See Santa’s in his Summer Hideaway
When Santa is not busy overseeing Christmas operations in Finnish Lapland then he’s taking it easy in Finnish Lakeland.
You can visit his summer hideaway at Kenkävero vicarage, near the town of Mikkeli. This old vicarage is a lovely place to visit with pretty gardens, some great shops selling Finnish design – everything from homewares and clothes to posters and jewellery – a bakery and Santa’s Summer Hideaway.
This small wooden cottage is where Santa does his due diligence, checking to see if girls and boys have been naughty or nice. His magic listening machine is on display and you can even try it out for yourselves!
If you visit between June 24 and August 6 then you’ll get the chance to meet Santa and some of his elves. If he’s already gone back to Lapland by the time you visit then don’t worry, you can rent the cottage for overnight stays!
Discover Olavinlinna Castle in Savonlinna
The 15th century Olavinlinna Castle is located in the town of Savonlinna on an island in the Kyrönsalmi strait and is one of the star attractions in Finnish Lakeland.
Originally built to defend against marauding invaders, the castle is today most famous for the annual Savonlinna opera festival that is held within the castle walls every summer.
Given its role as a strategic fortress, Olavinlinna castle was never home to Kings and Queens (there was not a princess to be seen much to Sam’s dismay!), and as such is rather stark inside. It does make you realise that life as a medieval guard would have been pretty unpleasant. You can only visit the Castle on a guided tour and English language ones leave on the hour taking you through the main rooms and towers in the castle.
Olavinlinna Castle is also the setting for some spooky ghost stories. Our guide told us the tale of the father who hid his daughter in the castle walls so that she would not be kidnapped during battle. Unfortunately, however, he died defending the castle and no-one else knew where she was hiding. Her spirit is now said to roam the fortress at night, carrying a candle.
And don’t miss the medieval toilets, built as mini rooms jutting out from the tower walls. These caused much hilarity with the kids when they realised that the only where for the waste to go was straight down below.
The best thing about Olavinlinna Castle according to my kids, however, was the dressing up room. We love the chance to put on a costume and there’s a fantastic kids’ room on the ground floor where you can dress up as knights, guards and, yes, princesses and then sit down to a make-believe Medieval feast.
Savonlinna is a couple of hours away from the town of Mikkeli. We only passed through but if you want to stay the night then look at Cafe Saimaa. It’s a family-run business and the head chef is English. We had lunch here and the food was excellent. The hotel looks equally lovely.
Look for the Saimaa Ringed Seal
The waters of the Linnansaari National Park are home to the very cute and very elusive Saimaa Ringed Seal. The seals are also horribly endangered with less than 400 left in the world.
Until 1952, the Finnish government paid hunters to kill Saimaa seals, believing that they were affecting the fish supply. Hunters would cut off the left flipper and present it to the local police and receive a handsome reward in return. Fortunately, those days are long gone and the Saimaa seal is protected.
We set off on a boat safari from Jarvisydan Hotel & Spa Resort in search of the Saimaa seal but were sadly not successful. Truth be told, the odds were not stacked in our favour when we were told that there are only 10 pairs of seals living in this area!
We did, however, have an amazing day on the water thanks to our local captain, Jarri. Jarri’s family have been in the area since 1658. As we sailed along, he would point out islands where he would stop as a child to help his fisherman grandfather or where he once saw a Saimaa Ringed Seal and her cub in a snow cave. Further on, was an island where he would help his grandmother wash their carpets.
It was stories such as these that really made our time in Linnansaari National Park one of our favourite things to do in Finnish Lakeland.
Enjoy a sauna!
Saunas are a way of life in Finland and we spent a lot of our time during our summer road trip around Finland trying out saunas wherever we went (this usually meant sitting stark naked on some paper towels in a very hot hut!).
Some of the best that we found were in Finnish Lakeland; first at the beautiful Art & Design Villas in Anttolanhovi and then at the Järvisydän Hotel & Spa Resort. Most hotels that we stayed at also came with their own sauna!
Ironically, for a nation that is generally known to be more introverted than other countries, Finns have no hang-ups about stripping off and joining a bunch of strangers in a small wooden box. Often, the sauna is the place where Finns really open up to one another. If you’re wondering about sauna etiquette (we did, a lot!), the this article on 10 sauna tips for beginners should help.
See the rock paintings at Astuvansalmi
Located in Ristiina near Mikkeli in Finnish Lakeland are the Astuvansalmi rock paintings. There are some 70 rock paintings in the area and the oldest are believed to date back to about 3000–2500 BC.
The paintings were first discovered by a Finnish archaeologist, Pekka Sarvas, in 1968 although apparently locals were aware of them well before that. There are images of elk, human figures, hands and animal tracks, boats and some pictures that are believed to show a fish and a dog.
You can visit these rock paintings although they can only be reached either by boat or on a 3km hike. Astuvansalmi is one the main rock paintings sites but there are others, mostly located around the lake shores in Saimaa and Kymenlasakso.
Finnish Lakeland Itinerary
There are many ways to visit Finnish Lakeland and the itinerary below is just a suggestion and based on our own itinerary. It includes everything that we covered in the four days that we spent exploring Lake Saimaa.
We travelled in August and had beautiful sunny weather, long sunny days and temperatures in the low to mid-20Cs. The Midnight Sun, when the sun never sets, occurs in places north of the Arctic Circle. Finnish Lakeland isn’t quite that far north but the summer months still see plenty of sunshine.
Here’s where we went on a self-drive tour of Finnish Lakeland in four days:
Days 1 & 2
- Lake Saimaa / Anttolanhovi Art & Design Villas (we spent two nights here). Anttolanhovi is approximately a three-hour drive from Helsinki
- Visit Riajan Aitta berry farm
- Hike up Neitvuori hill
- Visit Kenkävero vicarage and Santa’s summer hideaway
Days 3 & 4
- Savonlinna and Olavinlinna Castle
- Järvisydän Hotel & Spa Resort (we spent two nights here)
- Seal safari to see the Saimaa Ringed Seal
TIP: This sample four-day itinerary starts from Helsinki but you could also start from Tampere or if you were coming from Finnish Lapland to the north. This trip around Finnish Lakeland was part of our longer 10-day road trip around southern Finland. In winter, when the days are short, you won’t be able to do quite as much and the activities available in Finnish Lakeland in winter are very different to the summer months.
How much time do you need in Finnish Lakeland?
You could easily spend weeks exploring Lake Saimaa and beyond. It’s a popular holiday destination with city folk who rent lakeside cabins for weeks at a time and fully embrace summer cottage life. If you don’t have weeks to spare, then you can see the main highlights and get a good idea of what Finnish Lakeland is about in three to four days.
We spent four nights in Finnish Lakeland: two nights at Art & Design Villas in Anttolanhovi, on the banks of Lake Saimaa and two nights at Järvisydän Hotel & Spa Resort near Linnansaari National Park. We loved our time exploring Lake Saimaa and are already planning to go back.
Getting to Lake Saimaa
Lake Saimaa lies northwest of the Russian border on the eastern side of Finland. Mikkeli and the Anttonlanhovi Design Villas are approximately 254km from Helsinki. Jarvisydan Hotel in Linnansaari is a further 100km north. For more details on driving around Finland, take a look at our road trip itinerary.