Long the quiet neighbour sandwiched between Sweden and Russia, the former, popular for all things Scandi, the latter for Cold War curiosities, Finland has often been overlooked on the tourism trail. But, with increasing demands for nature-filled breaks, healthy activities, and local cuisine, Finland fits the bill superbly. The best part? Finland is probably one of the last less-discovered places on the planet. The Lakeland region, with more than 4,000 lakes, four national parks and where 85% of the area is forested, offers an authentic experience with a good blend of culture, outdoor pursuits and indulgence. It’s the most popular place for Finns to rent or own a cottage and is a year-round destination; lake swimming, hiking and floating saunas (scroll down for the skinny on that) in the summer months and cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, and snowboarding in winter. Jyväskylä, a region and eponymous university city in the western part of the region, is home to several buildings designed by legendary Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. With just a few days, it’s possible to get a taste for this special part of Finland.
We begin on the outskirts of Jyväskylä with a visit to Säynätsalo Town Hall, one of Alto’s most important works. The building is hailed for its strong connection to nature and the community, demonstrating Alto’s skillful control of space and light. A handful of rooms and apartments are available to rent for the night or longer stays. Guided tours are conducted year-round and there is also a café on-site. An overnight in Jyväskylä allows for a stroll around the city taking in 16 of Alto’s buildings, from his early years to his final works. A route can be found here.
Another of Jyväskylä’s charms is its reputation as the Sauna Region of the World. Spa lovers, unite! There’s an entire sauna village with 24 smoke saunas, including some dating back to the 18th century. We indulged in one of the more unique sauna experiences; a floating sauna on Lake Päijänne. Most aren’t much more than simple sheltered rafts with motors and, you guessed it, a sauna on board. It’s traditionally an activity that men do together, sort of like playing golf. They rent a modest vessel for an afternoon or evening and take along food and drink. The idea is to heat up in the sauna, then dip into the lake, no matter the temperature (it’s not done in winter when lakes are frozen) and repeat. Nowadays, women and men, as well as families, take part in floating saunas. It’s an exhilarating and addictive experience, never mind the documented health benefits of plunging into extremely cold water to reduce inflammation.
Hiisi Taproom and Bottle shop in the heart of the city is among the leaders of Finland’s craft beer movement. The country has a long history of beer drinking, but until about 20 years ago, Pale Lager was dominant. Back then, there were only about 10 breweries. Today, there are more than 100 and the industry is still growing. The UN declared Finland’s water the cleanest in the world, which some believe makes a better beer. Hiisi’s founders were inspired to start their own brewery in 2013 to brew beers they wanted to drink. Their experimentation has pushed boundaries, with past-date fruit and other supermarket ingredients thrown in for different flavor profiles. Take their Lempo sour ale, made with barley, hops, white wine and yuzu. Hiisi is as quirky as it is delightful. Beer can be purchased and consumed in their tap room, and they offer a menu of inventive local dishes.
Less than an hour by train west of Jyväskylä, we arrive at Hankasalmi, home to a resort unlike any I’ve ever visited. Revontuli is laid out like a campground with different kinds of accommodation, including modern “igloo” style cabins set in front of the lake. Glass roofs and wall to wall bedroom windows are designed to allow for sightings of the Northern Lights, typically during the autumn and winter months. Tent saunas, igloos saunas and traditional smoke saunas surround the lakefront, making it easy to shuttle between them. There are endless activities; water bikes, fat bikes, a golf course, trampolines, mini golf and even a bowling alley with an American diner. We went for the gourmet options, which included a delicious salmon gravlax and perfectly cooked moose, high quality, local food, perfectly prepared. One or two days here is plenty to unwind after a city break, take advantage of the amenities and also fit in a hike or two nearby.
Take a 10-minute cab ride to the train station and it’s a straightforward ride directly to the airport.
Jyväskylä hotel and restaurant recommendations
Stay: Boutique Hotel Yöpuu sits in the center of Jyväskylä. Each room is decorated differently and there’s a generous breakfast spread.
Eat: Restaurant Pöllöwaari is set on the ground floor of the Hotel Yöpuu. The atmosphere is intimate and elegant with soft lighting and beautiful glassware. Menus are seasonal, changing every two months, with dishes like deer and artichoke with vermouth, as well as vegan courses.
Restaurant Harmooni occupies an old harmonium factory. Harmoniums are similar to piano’s but are played with one hand on the keys and another pumping air through the mechanism at the back. It’s rustic and cosy with food sourced locally. It’s well-located opposite the train station and a short walk to the harbour.
Amy Guttman is a freelance journalist and broadcaster based in London regularly reporting for PBS Newshour, BBC and Forbes, focusing on current affairs and entrepreneurship.
Photographs courtesy of Visit Jyväskylä Region and by Julia Kivelä