Trail of the unexpected: Tampere

From Miro to the Moomins, the Finnish city of Tampere is full of surprises, says Chris Leadbeater

Anna is doing what every bride-to-be does a fortnight before her wedding. She is handing doughnuts to travellers at her local airport. I must look especially bemused as I accept her gift, because she pauses to explain. It is her hen weekend, she says, surprised that I am surprised. And giving sugary snacks to strangers is a ritual certain to bring good luck. I decide not to quibble. The doughnut, full of apple jam, is the best I have eaten in a while.

But what might be deemed unusual in many cases almost makes sense here. Hidden 160km north of Helsinki, Tampere skips to an arrhythmic beat. Maybe this is because, with its industrial heritage and lively arts scene, it has a reputation as "the Finnish Manchester". Maybe it is because, although only the third-biggest city in Finland, it is the largest city in the Nordic world not to lie by the sea. Either way, it has a character and style all its own.

Not that the city is huge – or landlocked. Just 211,691 souls inhabit its cobbled streets – many squished into the thin isthmus on which much of the centre sits. On each side lurks a lake – the vast Nasijarvi to the north, the (comparatively) smaller Pyhajarvi to the south.

These giant pools – and the Tammerkoski, the channel that drops 18 metres on its mile-long journey between the two – are Tampere's raison d'être. King Gustav III of Sweden noted the abundance of water in 1775 and immediately thought "new settlement". A Scottish industrialist, James Finlayson, spotted the foaming rapids of the Tammerkoski in 1820 and thought "power source", before quickly building a textile mill. Two centuries on, this red-brick super-structure that prompted the city's growth spurt still lords it over Keskustori, the main square – though nowadays it hosts restaurants and shops rather than busy looms.

It also contains the Vakoilumuseo, a museum dedicated to all things espionage. This cluttered collection of cloak-and-dagger memorabilia is seemingly aimed at children, but on the day I visit there are plenty of adults eyeing the tapped telephones and two-way mirrors – and I can't resist creeping into the "Spy Tunnel" in search of secret doors and potential assassins, as images of Kim Philby and Sidney Reilly glower from the walls.

With its Cold War ambience, the museum is a reminder of Tampere's proximity to Russia, 150 miles east. But a more pertinent one lies a few blocks away: Tampere's Lenin Museum. Out of kilter with a planet that has largely pulled down any statues devoted to 1917's poster boy, it pays tribute to the period (1905-1907) when the great revolutionary used the city as a refuge from the attentions of the Tsar's henchmen. Letters and documents – including the fake ID he used to flee St Petersburg again in July 1917, as "Konstantin Petrovitsh Ivanov"– are set out in the room where he met Stalin for the first time, in 1905.

Yet you have to hunt for this gem, which hovers on an upper floor of the Kellariteatteri, a theatre of rich art-deco design. And this disappearing act marks a prevailing trend, for Tampere unveils many of its points of interest cautiously. The Kaleva Church, east of the centre, confounds me with a flat, jaundiced exterior that suggests a Soviet TV station – yet reveals a calm interior. The Sara Hilden Art Museum displays 4,500 works, including pieces by Miro, Picasso and Bacon – but only if you notice it behind the rollercoasters of the Sarkanniemi theme park. And the Muumilaakso museum celebrates the Moomins, Finnish author Tove Jansson's popular creations – from within the city library.

Some of Tampere's charms, however, need no disguise. Pyynikki Beach lies on the top edge of Pyhajarvi, where I walk on a warm evening, admiring the wooden houses of the lofty Pispala district as they rise above, with the Nordic sun smearing the sky (even in August, it hangs around for 16 hours). There is also Pyhajarvi itself, explored via a cruise that leaves the city lost in the trees but for the chimneys of its workhorse past. And there's the gourmet joy of Nasinneula, a revolving restaurant 124 metres up the observatory tower of the same name, where the panorama – lakes shimmering below – beats even this sumptuous taste of Kaldoaivi reindeer (€31).

The view is also a useful tool if you wish to retrieve your bearings in a place that is happy to confuse. But if you require further help, you can always consult the guide I encounter in Keskustori Square – a cluster of signposts proffering directions to 20 foreign cities.

Where you might expect the usual international names – New York, Paris, Rome – here you are shown a more obscure array of destinations: Guangzhou in China (7,536km); Syracuse in the US (6,137km); Mwanza, the second city of Tanzania (7,021km). That they are all twinned with Finland's surprise package seems entirely appropriate.

Travel essentials: Tampere

Getting there

* Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies to Tampere from Stansted and Edinburgh.

Staying there

* Sokos Hotel Ilves, Hatanpaan valtatie 1, Tampere (00 358 20 123 4631; sokoshotels.fi). Doubles start at €120.

Visiting there

* Cruises on Pyhajarvi lake cost €25, including lunch, with Finnish Silverline Cruises (00 358 10 422 5600; hopealinja.fi).

More information

* Gotampere.fi; visitfinland.com

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