It’s fair to say that I left my heart in Turku. Lying on the southwest coast of Finland, Turku is the oldest city in Finland. It’s also arguably the coolest.
The city is laid-back, compact and filled with lively cafés and restaurants. There’s a vibrant creative scene and lots of independent brands base themselves here. There are also lots of things to do in Turku from electric river boat rides and fun food tours to engaging way’s to explore the city’s past.
It’s a great place to visit during the summer when the sun is shining and the locals are making the most of the Great Outdoors.
Read on to discover how to enjoy the best of the beautiful city of Turku.
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The oldest city in Finland
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Finland’s oldest city has had a dramatic past. Regular fires have ripped through Turku over the centuries, destroying many of the wooden buildings. The Great Fire of Turku in 1827 destroyed nearly the entire city.
Today, just a handful of original wooden houses, Turku’s oldest buildings, remain. The remaining architecture is a mishmash of styles including pastel coloured buildings from the Art Nouveau era.
If you’re travelling to Helsinki from Turku make sure to read this post on the best things to do in Helsinki.
For more ideas on planning your trip, take a look at our guide to Finland with kids.
Things to do in Turku
We spent two days in the city on a trip organised by Visit Turku. They did a brilliant job of showing us Turku’s best sights. From a Medieval castle and old steamships to a food tasting tour and our hilarious attempts to steer a boat down the Aura River. Read on for ideas on what to do in Turku.
Explore Turku Castle
The 700-year-old Turku Castle (Turun Linna) is undoubtedly the most famous attraction in Turku. Amazingly, when it was first built in the late 13th century, it sat on a small island surrounded by water. Over time, however, the island expanded until it connected to the mainland.
At the time of construction Finland was ruled by Sweden and the fortress was built for the local Swedish governor. It was later gifted to Duke John (who later became King John III) for his 18th birthday present. Despite only living here for seven years, however, he made substantial changes turning the building from a functional fortress to a castle fit for a king.
At one point, King John was imprisoned in his own castle by his own brother. There remain several prison cells in the castle today, including one that is only accessed by a hole in the floor.
Turku Castle is a brilliant place to visit and a great way to better understand the city’s history. Filled with stories of daring escapes, treacherous families and romantic promises, there’s a story to captivate everyone.
Our guide told one tale of a Japanese tourist who was held in place by a ghostly presence. Another legend spoke of the rebellion leader who escaped from his prison cell via the toilet.
And then there’s the story of Duke John and his wife Catherine, who refused to be separated from her husband and so went to jail with him for five years saying “Nemo Nisi Mors”, which translates as “Until death do us part”. When they were released, they were crowned the King and Queen of Sweden.
If you are visiting Turku with kids then there’s a fun dressing up room where you can transform into a princess, a queen or a knight.
Turku Castle also runs a Little Knights tour for groups of children where they learn the art of being a knight and search for treasures in the castle before meeting the Queen at the end.
The Old Great Square
At the heart of Turku’s historic centre is the aptly name Old Great Square, a medieval market square located a stone’s throw from Turku Cathedral.
The square was the administrative and commercial centre of the city up until the Great Fire. After the fire, buildings were constructed on he southern side and today you can still spot the Brinkkala Mansion, Old Town Hall, Hjelt Mansion and Juselius Mansion. The Brinkkala Mansion is where Christmas Peace has been declared every Christmas Eve at noon since 1886.
A Christmas market is held here during the month of December and during summer months, the square and neighbouring Porthaninpuisto park are the setting for the Medieval Market.
Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum
The Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum is a fun way to explore Finland’s history, especially if you’re visiting Turku with kids. The open-air museum is set in a 200-year-old courtyard that survived the Turku Fire. Today, 30 different workshops representing different crafts operate within the original old buildings.
Visit during the summer months and you will see various trades at work form cobblers and bookbinders to a lithographic printing shop. Mail sent from the Luostarinmäki post office is hand stamped (a great place to send postcards from) and there’s a general store selling all manner of stylish souvenirs.
Eat like the locals at Turku Market Hall
One of our favourite things to do in Turku was visit the Turku Market Hall. Dating back to 1896, this market hall is filled with food stalls and restaurants and is a fantastic place to come for lunch or to pick up some fresh produce for dinner.
Some of the family-run stalls, such as the butcher, has been here since the market hall first opened. There’s a fun display that shows was most shops looked like in the market hall when they opened over 100-years-ago.
We took a guided tour through the market hall and sampled a handful of the local dishes. Visit Turku run tours (1.5 hours) in the market as well as tours that last 3.5-4 hours that explore Turku’s foodie scene in the market and beyond.
Our Market Hall food tour started at Herkkunuotta, a fish stall with a 15-seater area for in-house eating. They provide fish to many of the local restaurants and the fish we tried was simply delicious. Our sample menu included cured white fish with cream, Baltic herring, cured salmon and pike roe, all served on their homemade dark rye bread. It was so tasty that we bought some to have for dinner.
Next, we visited the cheese store where we tried a handful of Finnish cheeses (nope, I wasn’t aware that Finnish cheese was a thing either!). Favourites included Kasleholm and Työvoitto.
Our last stop on our food tour was M Bakery, an award-winning bakery. We tried a Kiss My Turku cake, a delicious strawberry and passion fruit mousse covered in chocolate.
The Turku Pharmacy Museum & Qwensel House
Get a feel for what life was like in the City of Turku way back when with a visit to Qwensel House, the oldest remaining wooden building in town. Dating back to the 18th century the house belonged to Joseph Pipping, the father of Finnish surgery. From the 19th century, the house also operated as a pharmacy with two laboratories, a materials room and the herb room.
Today the house and the pharmacy are open for visitors to step back in time – the Pharmacy Museum’s pharmacy shop houses the oldest remaining pharmacy interior in Finland, dating back to 1858.
Visit during the summer months and the courtyard of Qwensel House hosts activities for kids; children can play at being a pharmacist or a (poorly!) customers in the children’s pharmacy. Charming Cafe Qwensel also opens for business.
Enjoy Turku’s shopping scene
Turku is home to some great shopping as we quickly discovered and I only wish we’d had more time in the city! Make sure to pick up a copy of the Treasure Map Turku, which details all the best places to shop in Turku. It also lists cool cafes, hip bars and excellent restaurants.
Located near the Market Hall are a couple of old wooden buildings where you’ll find Kui Design. This local family-owned business stocks lots of local designers as well as their own designs. There are lots of fun and colourful screen-printed bags, cushions and homewares as well as cool kids’ clothes, mugs and posters. They also produce bags with the famous Finnish saying “Why Paris when you have Turku”, ask the lovely shop assistant to explain the meaning behind it!
Next door is another local clothing design store, Klo Design.
If you have time, go to PUF Design Market, which showcases over 20 Finnish brands. Each month PUF highlights a different brand and they stock everyone from newcomers to internationally renowned brands – although if you want Marimekko, you’ll have to stop by the Hansakortteli shopping centre. For kids’ clothes with a Nordic flare, try Kukuti.
Waino Aaltonen Museum of Art
The Waino Aaltonen Museum of Art is the Turku City Art Museum named after the famous Turku born sculptor Wäinö Aaltonen. Also known as WAM, the art museum hosts changing exhibitions, lectures, concerts and art workshops. If you’re visiting Turku with kids then it’s worth taking a look at the museum’s themed days for children and families.
Cruise along the Aura River
The River Aura is really the heart and soul of the Turku, running through the city centre and out to the Archipelago Sea. In winter months the river can freeze over, turning it into an ice skating rink. During summer months, ships sail up and down its waters including the SS Ukkopekka that links Turku to Naantali, a pretty seaside town and the gateway to Moominworld.
When the weather is warm you can hire Låna electric boats and cruise along the Aura River. I always love seeing a place from a new perspective, whether that’s on the top deck of a double-decker bus, a train window or from the water and these boats were a fantastic way to see Turku.
The boats are easy enough to steer, although there was quite a lot of zig zagging going on. The only trouble we had was parking the boat at the end of the hour-long trip, something which took us quite a few attempts and a lot of laughter. The boats can be hired for one-, two-, or three-hours and can fit two to eight people. If you opt for the three-hour trip then make sure to pack a picnic!
Visit the Aboa Vetus Ars Nova Museum
The excellent Aboa Vetus Ars Nova Museum sits on the banks of the Aura River and showcases Turku’s medieval history as well as contemporary art.
In the ‘Aboa Vetus’ (Old Turku) part of the museum you can see the remains of six medieval houses as well as one of the of medieval Turku’s main streets that runs through the museum area. There are plenty of interactive displays to keep curious minds interested, including trying out medieval brick-laying or using a stylus to create a wax picture.
The art gallery is located on two floors and features regularly changing exhibitions. The museum is definitely one of Turku’s best sights and I’m only sorry we didn’t have longer to explore here.
Do make sure that you have lunch in the museum restaurant, M Kitchen & Café, which is superb. The museum also has a great gift shop.
Have fun at JukuPark
JukuPark is an enormous water park with lots of water slides for kids of all ages as well as three large swimming pools of varying depth. Not surprisingly given how cold Finland gets in the winter, JukuPark is only open from June to mid-August when Finnish schools go back.
The Turku Botanical Garden
Located at the University of Turku on the Island of Ruissalo, the Botanic Garden is home to some 5,000 plant species from all over the world. Open throughout the year.
Visit Turku City Library
If wondering what to do in Turku if it’s cold or wet outside then stop by the Turku City Library, which has an excellent kids’ section with books, games and toys. The café is a good choice for lunch or an ice cream pick-me-up.
Sail to Naantali on S/S Ukkopekka
The steamship S/ S Ukkopekka was built in 1938 and is the oldest steamship in Finland still in commercial use. It’s been spruced up and renovated and now sails along the Turku Archipelago, transferring passengers between Turku and the nearby harbour town of Naantali.
There are a handful of sailings daily between June and mid-August and it really is a lovely way to travel. Sit on the top deck and spy on summer houses. Or purchase a lunch ticket, which gives you access to the buffet (although the buffet is quite pricey).
Famous passengers have included Tove Jansson, author of the Finnish favourite, the Moomins. When we sailed, the staff ran a treasure hunt for the kids where they had to collect gold coins. There’s also a small play room on board.
Wander around Naantali
Easily one of the prettiest towns in Finland is the seaside town of Naantali where the streets are lined with one- and two-storey wooden houses painted in pretty pastel hues of lemon yellow and raspberry pink.
The town is only open during summer months and even when we were there in mid-August, opening hours were late and a little erratic. Still, it is a beautiful, picture-worthy place and we loved staying here (we stayed at the nearby Naantali Spa Hotel, see below for more details).
Naantali wasn’t always a tourist hot spot, however.
It was founded in 1443 when the then King of Sweden ordered a monastery to be built; the town then grew up around it. Today, it’s filled with cute cafes, Moomin-themed shops, boutique hotels and some excellent restaurants. It’s also where the Finnish President holidays in the summer.
Somewhat incongruously, this story book town is also a busy port, home to an electricity power plant and an oil refinery. This isn’t something they talk about in guidebooks (and you certainly don’t see it from the town) but you’ll pass both if you take the S/S Ukkopekka from Naantali to Turku.
Get lost in the Turku Archipelago
The next time that we visit Turku I plan to explore the Archipelago Trail.
This 250-kilometre trail can be done by car or on two wheels starting in Turku and then heading off to any number of 20,000 islands that pepper the waters. The inhabited islands can be reached by ferry and many of them are also accessible by bicycle. You can hire bikes with a child seat or a trailer. Bikes for kids are also available.
Meet the Moomins at Moominworld
Naantali is also the gateaway to Moominworld, a magical island that celebrates Tove Jansson’s loveable characters. I’ve still no idea what kind of animal a Moomin is but nevertheless they are wildly popular and very cute.
The magical world of all things Moomin is divided into different areas. At the heart of the park stands Moomin House. The Moomins, along with other characters including mischievous Little My can be found outside the house and are more than happy to take photos or give Moomin hugs.
During our time in Moomin world We discovered Snork’s new inventions and tried eyeball soup with the witch and her granddaughter Alice. We later found a colourful dragon in the sea, met Thingumy and Bob and more.
It’s a beautiful escape into a wonderful world of make-believe.
Take a day trip to the island of Vepsä
If you’re looking to explore beyond Turku then the island of Vepsä is a great idea day trip. Water buses run daily between Turku and the island. Once upon a time the island was a hiding place for smugglers but these days it’s a popular place for hiking, swimming and just hanging out on the sandy beach. If you fancy staying longer on the island, cottages are available to rent.
Where to stay in Turku
We stayed at the Naantali Hotel & Spa and loved it. I usually choose smaller hotels but our two-bedroom self-contained apartment overlooking the sea was perfect. The hotel itself has a fantastic pool and spa area that the kids loved playing in. The hotel is also within walking distance of Moominworld.
For more ideas on where to stay in Turku, take a look at these ideas on Booking.com or the suggestions below, which also include holiday rentals.
How to get to Turku
There are various ways to plan a trip to Turku. We travelled by car, as part of our summer road trip of Southern Finland. However, you can also travel by boat, plane or train.
Turku Airport is 7km from the city centre and has regular flights within Finland, to destinations in Europe and direct flights to Asia.
From Turku you can get a ferry to Stockholm Tallinn and Aland on the Tallink Silja line. Viking Line also runs ferries from Turku to Mariehamn and Langnas. Ferries link Turku to other destinations in Finland.
If travelling between Turku and Helsinki you can either take the bus (both Onnibus and Matkahuolto run buses between the two cities, the journey takes just under three hours) or the train, which takes two hours.