When the sun breaks through the clouds over Finland’s Turku Archipelago, the reward is a shimmering vista of sea, sky and rocky green islets. More than 20,000 islands, many no larger than a kiddie pool, stretch out into the Baltic Sea from the mouth of the Aura River.
In Turku, the most ancient of Finnish cities, there are two constants: water and history. No fewer than 10 bridges — some pedestrian-only — crisscross the Aura River in Turku, and among those Baltic islands are some of Scandinavia’s most popular getaways. In the center of town, where cobblestone alleys date back centuries, a contemporary art gallery also became a museum for the medieval artifacts unearthed during its renovation.
If you’re looking to add a little Finland to your European summer, Turku makes a convenient stop, with a smattering of Jewish heritage and plenty to see during the year’s longest days. Getting here involves a short flight or boat ride from Stockholm or St. Petersburg, or an even shorter hop from Tallinn and Helsinki.
This accessibility reflects Turku’s status as the nation’s oldest and most historically important city — founded in the 13th century, this is Finland’s gateway to the Baltic — despite its diminutive size. In a country of five million, lively, cultured Turku is the sixth-largest city, with fewer than 200,000 residents.
Of those, fewer than 200 Jews maintain a historically small community that nonetheless erected one of Northern Europe’s prettiest synagogues in 1912. The Turku Synagogue, a majestic, mocha-hued structure on an elegant block near the University of Turku, is one of the two surviving temples in postwar Finland.
With numbers this small, a combination of intermarriage and emigration has put the community’s future in jeopardy — but the synagogue endures, a testament to the role Turku Jewish merchants, scholars and trades people played in building the modern university town.
Truth be told, the Jewish presence in Finland is both more marginal and more recent than in most corners of Europe. Jews were prohibited from settling these lands during the long centuries of Swedish rule, and established a modest if significant community only in the late 19th century. And despite Finland’s alliance with Germany during World War II, its Jews were largely spared during the Holocaust.
Oddly to the casual visitor, much of central Turku is only as old as that Jewish community — because the Great Turku Fire of 1827, the most horrific conflagration to strike Scandinavia, destroyed most of the city core. Many of the rebuilt structures are in the cosmopolitan style of 19th-century capitals, with colorful façades — such as those in the cobbled lanes surrounding the Old Great Square, a medieval marketplace (today dotted with galleries) in the center of town. Nearby, the “modern” Main Square is a popular spot for shopping and lunch at the Hansa Centre, a mall housed in a vintage building with 20 eateries.
But history also intrudes on the present. One of Europe’s coolest museums, Aboa Vetus and Ars Nova, came into existence when the city planned a contemporary art museum — but as workers renovated the 1920s villa to become Ars Nova, they turned up troves of medieval treasures. So a second gallery, Aboa Vetus, was dedicated on the spot to showcase the discoveries. Today visitors can enjoy multimedia light installations and medieval walls in the same Finnish historical site.
The city’s most enduring monument, however, is the Turku Castle — a stone fortress complex whose signature tower defines the waterfront. To wander the narrow chambers and labyrinths inside is to glimpse 13th-century military might.
For more medieval fun, July brings the Turku Medieval Market. This Finnish Renaissance Faire re-enacts Turku’s glory days with jesters and troubadors, dancers and jousting nights, beer gardens and a children’s zone with sheep for petting and a school for princesses. As the name promises, it’s also a bonanza for shoppers: Sheepskin rugs, handcrafted jewelry, traditional musical instruments and potions made from local plants are just a smattering of the wares on offer.
All summer long, however, your best bet is to explore the coastlines that make Turku so unique. Adventurers take a ferry to Aland, a rocky, Swedish-speaking outcrop of islands halfway between Turku and Sweden. Or head directly to Naantali, a charming waterfront village southwest of Turku, where the Finnish president summers at a palace known as Kulturanta. The royal gardens are a popular tourist destination, as are the area’s spas and beaches, especially those on the neighboring island of Luonnonmaa.
And if you can’t pronounce any of that, don’t worry. Finns all speak English … and Scandinavia’s summer pleasures need no translation.