For a Finnish short break with a difference, the city of Tampere provides a great mix of wintry culture and nature with its fascinating museums and scenic lakeside location, writes Anna Maria Espsater
Tampere, Finland’s third largest city, is friendly, laidback and surprisingly nice to visit in winter. Santa Claus might be living further north, but there are plenty of reasons to travel to other parts of Finland during the snowy months – a scorching sauna session followed by a bracing ice-hole dip, to mention one. What’s more, there are year-round direct flights to the city from the UK.
Tampere was founded back in 1779 by Swedish king Gustav III, at a time when Finland formed part of Sweden. It grew rapidly during the 19th century, mostly due to the many industries, particularly textile, situated here, giving rise to the city’s nickname ‘Manchester of the North’. Just like many other former industrial cities in Europe, Tampere has had to reinvent itself in recent decades and these days the city’s longstanding industrial history can be viewed in fascinating museums.
Many of the museums are found in the so-called Finlayson factory quarters. A lot of Tampere’s industrial prosperity can be traced back to one man: James Finlayson was a Scottish Quaker and engineer who first visited Finland, by this time part of tsarist Russia, in 1819 and decided to settle here. In 1820 he began using the water power from nearby Tammerkoski River to build a factory in the city and at one point the Finlayson textile factory and cotton mill was Tampere’s largest employer. A whole factory quarter was set up, rather like a mini-city within the city, and the Finlayson family even had their own chapel built here. The Finlayson legacy has been long-lasting and Finlayson textiles are made in Finland to this day, albeit on a smaller scale. The vast factory quarters now house the Textile Industry museum, the Finnish Labour museum and, perhaps more surprisingly, also the Spy Museum.
A museum entirely dedicated to espionage is a world first for Tampere. Washington D.C. may since have overshadowed their efforts somewhat by creating a larger one, but there’s no doubt that the Finns got in there before the Americans. The museum, although on the small side, has plenty of authentic gadgets, informative displays, and information on some of the greatest spies in history. It’s also great fun for kids, with interactive exhibits and spy tests to be taken, not to mention a pitch black ‘spy tunnel’ to negotiate. A lie detector, bugging devices, and poisonous umbrellas are also among the interesting features found here. For those looking to explore even more museums, Tampere has one of the few in the world dedicated to Vladimir Lenin.
Tampere is a nice place to enjoy the great outdoors, even in winter. The city has a lovely location between two lakes, Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi, with Tammerkoski river rapids running through it. Covered in a thick blanket of snow, the location looks even more picturesque. In winter the river rapids often make for a spectacular sight when frozen solid and it’s possible to walk all along the riverfront on the gritted pathways. The rapids run through the heart of town and the streets running east and west from here are where you’d find a lot of the city’s bars, cafes, restaurants, and main shopping area, as well as the Central Square and theatre.
In the run-up to Christmas, Keskustori Central Square is home to a wonderful market, complete with dancing Moomin troll, Finnish handicrafts, and gourmet products. They also do ice-sculpting in the square to add to the scenic wintry atmosphere. Nearby shopping street Hämeenkatu has some of the best shops in town – try Sokos and Stockmann for a wide variety of Finnish design such as Moomin troll mugs from Arabia pottery or Iittala glass.
If staying a few days, there are several places near Tampere worth a visit, e.g. the Pispala district, to the west of the center – a quaint, old-fashioned neighborhood replete with 19th-century wooden houses, overlooking the lakes. Also in the western part, on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Näsijärvi, lies Näsinneula Tower, the tallest observation tower in the Nordic countries. The revolving restaurant at the top serves excellent Finnish food and offers spectacular views of the area.
No visit in winter is complete without a sauna session and when in Finland one must be brave and do as the Finns do – sweat, sweat, and sweat, only to rapidly cool down with an icy dip. Villa Amanda, near the village of Pakkala, some 35km (21 miles) from Tampere is an exceptionally inviting place to go through this Finnish rite of passage. The well-appointed villa is a winter-dream come true, complete with open fire, big sauna, and cozy loft bedrooms. It’s not far from cross-country and downhill skiing options if you really want to work up a sweat before sweating some more.
Villa Amanda sits right on a lake and after some 15 minutes in the sauna, nipping outside is starting to sound better and better, even if it happens to be -10 outside. Of course with such temperatures, the lake does freeze solid, but the kind owners of the villa simply open up a hole in the ice for hardy sauna-goers to cool down in. Make sure you wear some footgear walking along the snowy path to the ice hole, where a small ladder leads into the lake. No point taking too long about it, you’ll only get too cold and change your mind. Just briskly climb down the steps and enjoy the rather strange sensation of going pleasantly numb in the icy waters, before heading back to the sauna, feeling ever so slightly brave and tough. Warm up again in the sauna and take the plunge twice if you fancy, then return to the open fire for glöggi (mulled wine) and Finnish nibbles – elk or reindeer salami perhaps?
Tampere is a great place for uniquely Finnish experiences, perhaps especially so in winter.
Need to know
Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies direct from London Stansted to Tampere. No other airline flies direct, but Finnair (www.finnair.com) has flights via Helsinki and SAS (www.flysas.com) via Stockholm.