Finland's oldest city puts on her glad rags

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City Slicker - Turku: This medieval Baltic port is a European Capital of Culture for 2011. Eithne Nightingale offers tips for new and returning visitors



Why visit?


Classical musicians float down the River Aura in giant bubbles; heavy-metal opera tells the tale of a princess and her army of female warriors; and 30 male wrestlers move in time to an accordion accompanied by a full orchestra.

These are just a few of the head-turning highlights of Turku's innovative programme to mark its year as a European Capital of Culture.

It's a fitting way to celebrate, too, because this city is defined by its thriving cultural scene. Many artists and designers have made this port on Finland's south-west coast their home, despite what's known as "Turku Disease" – the less-than-sensitive redevelopment of the 13th-century city during the 1970s and 1980s.

Indeed, Turku is the oldest city in Finland, losing its status as capital to Helsinki only in 1812. The city's castle and cathedral testify to its heritage, while cutting-edge design in the shape of the new library, built around a historic courtyard, and artist Jan-Erik Andersson's charming Leaf House, set in woods in the archipelago, reveals its progressive attitude. It's a superb backdrop against which the city can raise its cultural profile during this year's celebrations.

Don't miss...

...a walk along the River Aura. Start at the cathedral and make your way to the medieval castle, which was completely reconstructed after Russian bombing during the Second World War. Or, in summer, cruise the river by boat (turkutouring.fi).

...the castle (museumcentreturku.fi), which dates back to the 1280s when the country was annexed by Sweden. Its massive façades, thick honey-coloured stone walls, cobbled courtyards and dungeons all make it the most popular castle to visit in Finland.

...the cathedral (turunseurakunnat.fi/portal/en/turku_cathedral), which was built in the 13th century on a site of pagan worship, is Finland's national shrine. Its clockface tower can be seen the length of the River Aura and the city's Christmas market is held in the nearby square.

...the museums. Aboa Vetus and Ars Nova (aboavetusarsnova.fi) is a cultural double bill, with Aboa Vetus showcasing parts of medieval Turku, discovered during the construction of Ars Nova, built in the mid-1990s to exhibit contemporary art. Of the many other venues in this museum-rich city, the must-sees include: the Turku Art Museum (turuntaidemuseo.fi) for some of the finest works from the Finnish Romantic movement; the Luostarinmaki Handicrafts Museum (museumcentreturku.fi) set in the wooden houses that survived the Great Fire of 1827 – where silversmiths, printers and furriers demonstrate their crafts from May to late September; the Sibelius Museum (sibeliusmuseum.abo.fi) which displays 350 musical instruments and memorabilia of the great composer.

...Kauppahalli Market Hall (turku.fi). Join the crowds in this 19th-century market hall with high glass ceilings and mahogany-panelled shops. Buy reindeer meat and sample Baltic herring, a sweet doughnut called munkki, and pulla, a cake-like bread.

...the pub crawl. Go to Koulo, an old school, at Eerikinkatu 18, where organic beer is brewed on the premises; move on to Uusi Apteekki, an old drug store, at Kaskenkatu 1, the favourite watering hole of Reijo Juhani Maki, the detective writer, and his famous hero, Jussi Vares. Then, stagger to Puutorin Vessa, a converted toilet, north of Market Square, to drink a pint out of a potty, and, for a nightcap, pop into the Old Bank, at Aurakatu 3. In the summer, drink and dance on one of the floating terraces along the south bank of the river, such as the upmarket Donna or the more modest Cindy and Papa Joe.

...Moominland (muumimaailma.fi). Take the Moomin Bus from Turku Harbour to the quaint island theme park near Naantali, based on Tove Jansson's children's characters. Open June to mid August and in the last week of February.

What's new?

Logomo

This massive cultural complex converted from an old engineering works near the railway station opened just last month and features restaurants, theatres, exhibition and concert halls. Events in 2011 include: 1827 – Infernal Musical, an incendiary rock performance about the great fire of Turku; Alice in Wonderland, an international exhibition of surreal photography exploring imaginary worlds; a retrospective of the legendary homoerotic art of Tom of Finland; large video installations including the work of British artist Isaac Julien; and a 10m-high Dancing Tower, on which international artists will perform a piece by the Russian choreographer Sasha Pepelyaev.

Details: logomo.fi

Klo Design

See the latest in textile, fashion, interior and furniture design, part of Turku Design Now!, an initiative to raise the profile of local designers.

Details: klode sign.fi; turkudesignnow.fi

Tinta

This new restaurant with a terrace overlooking the River Aura uses local produce, has its own bakery and stocks 100 wines. Try fig and prosciutto pizza or hare stew (£10) at lunch or Finnish organic beef on skewers (£20) in the evening.

Details: tinta.fi

Flowpark

Move through pine forest on wire slides, rope nets and swings in this new activity centre. Try the Flying Fox Slide, the Spider Trap and Walk the Line treetop trails. There are various levels of difficulty, from three to 14m high, and fun challenges designed for small children.

Details: flowpark.fi

JukuPark

Take the kids to Turku's newest family attraction, a vast new water park. The typhoon tunnel and surfing hill are just two of the 16 waterslides on offer. There are several pools, sun terraces, and restaurants to enjoy, and the obligatory sauna, too.

Details: jukupark.fi

Insider Secret

Jan-Erik Andersson, Artist (anderssonart.com)

"Visit the national park island of Ruissalo, on the south-east side. There's a fantastic walk along the shore with views of beautiful Art Nouveau houses."

Compact Facts

How to get there

Eithne Nightingale travelled to Finland as a guest of the Turku 2011 Foundation (turku2011.fi/en/2011-foundation). Return flights to Tampere are available with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from £42. From Tampere, the train to Turku takes one hour and 40 minutes (vr.fi/en). Park (parkhotelturku.fi/en/) offers double rooms from £107 per night.

Further Information

Turku 2011 (turku2011.fi/en).

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