Historical places to visit in Finland: Porvoo and Lappeenranta

When I was a child, I had my own list of places to visit in Finland and the elves’ village was one of them. I was convinced that magical creatures resided in Finland and that the entire country was dotted with wooden houses and trees. In fact there’s some kind of magic in the land of the Northern Lights, of lakes and forests. But the cities are different from those we see in children’s books. Still, there are some places that resemble the ones I used to dream about. When I set foot in Porvoo, I found myself in a little old word. I had just visited Helsinki, with its relaxed atmosphere, green areas and design shops, and I was looking for the Finnish equivalent of Gamla Stan or Sigtuna in Sweden.

Porvoo con le sue case rosse

Porvoo, one of the most charming places to visit in Finland

Located south of Helsinki, Porvoo is a historical village. As we drove towards it, I saw endless forests and lonely roads; there are signs warning against the animals that can come out of the woods. During the summer, you can also reach Porvoo by boat from Helsinki. The town lies by the river Porvoonjoki, and a journey by boat is an experience that should be included in any tour. This is the only way to understand a country made of water, trees and earth.

The red warehouse buildings

Following my map, I went straight to the river. The riverside houses in Porvoo are painted red, a detail that reminded me of Swedish barns and houses. And then I was told that this colour was chosen in honour of King Gustav III of Sweden, when he came to visit, to make them look more beautiful. They were used as warehouses, since Porvoo was a center of commerce and exchange. Here came the boats loaded with a range of products coming from foreign and exotic countries. When Finland became a Grand Duchy at the beginning of the 19th century, the Czar of Russia wanted to replace the old houses with new ones. But luckily Old Porvoo survived.

The Town Hall and the Cathedral

The riverside houses are part of Old Porvoo, which looks like a fairy tale place. After seeing the warehouses, you can walk to the Town Hall, one of the oldest town halls in Finland. Nearby is the Cathedral, which was built in the 15th century and damaged several times. The Porvoo Diet in 1809 was opened and closed here, whereas the speech of Czar Alexander was held in the Chapter House. There’s also a story regarding the ball that was held for the Czar, who fell in love with a Finnish girl called Ulla.

Tea, Chocolate & Runeberg’s cakes

Mari, our local guide, led us through the lanes and alleys (Itäinen Pitkäkatu-Kulmakuja) to have a look at the beautiful courtyards and gardens. Then she pointed at a lovely place, the tearoom called Tee ja kahavihuone Helmi. Step into this pastel-coloured house and you’ll bump into a collection of old pots, cups, photos, boxes displayed in cupboards. The idyllic garden is crowded with people having lunch or drinking tea. It’s a small, peaceful world where times seems to have stopped. Here you can also have an afternoon tea with cakes, scones and mini-sandwiches prepared with local products.

A cup of tea in Lappeenranta

Not far from Porvoo, the city of Lappeenranta is another interesting place to visit in Finland. The Russian border is only a few miles from this part of Karlia, and Mari told us many stories about the Finnish people being wary of their neighbour. In addition to the peaceful scenery of Lake Saimaa, another good reason to stop here is Linnoitus. Once a fortress built by the Swedish, this site is now an attraction for tourists as well as for locals. If anything, you should pay a visit to Kahvila Majurska, a lovely teahouse housed in a historical building. The rooms are charmingly old-fashioned, the cakes are homemade. You can order a up of tea and sit in one of the comfy red armchairs, or go outside and enjoy the view. 

Let’s face it, as tourists, we are attracted to local shops. Old Station Warehouse is the place to go if you’re looking for… anything. But my favourite shop is Pieni Suklaatehdas, a little chocolate factory just across the river. In 2005, Chef Peter Westerlund opened this shop to offer the best chocolate, made from pure ingredients and with renewable energy. One more reason to buy it. If you wander about the alleys and lanes of Old Porvoo, you’ll find shops selling clothes, design objects, jewelry, and much more. If you like sweets, try Runeberg’s cake, a delicacy made with almonds, bread crumbs and cardamom.

A story about Karelia

As I enjoyed my own cup of tea and slice of cake, I was reminded of a story about Karelia. For more than forty years, this region has been home to a landmark study focused on nutrition. According to the World Health Organization, North Karelia was the least healthy region of the world, and it had much to do with diet, based on excessive saturated fats. So they started to analyze the impact of dietary change on chronic disease and encouraged people to eat more fruit, vegetables, cereals and good fats. And it worked. Thinking of the new Nordic cuisine, it’s easy to understand that this program has had a deep impact of the way Scandinavian people eat and cook. But we’ll talk more about it another time.