What is there to discover on a Southern Finland road trip? We found out first hand when I spent two weeks in Southeastern Finland on a business trip in September anchoring our trip in Kotka and Hamina. Finland is a large country with vast distances between cities and towns so a self-drive is the ideal way to explore. We used our trusty bright yellow Mini-Cooper car hire to do scenic drives along the southern and eastern edge of Finland. Read on to find out more about places to visit in Southern Finland by car.
Visit Kotka on the Gulf of Finland
Kotka is a town of around 50,000 people along the Southeast coast on the Gulf of Finland. We made Kotka our home for the week (staying at the Sokos Hotel) and set out to explore the town on foot and by car.
Things to Do in Kotka
As one of the larger towns in Southeastern Finland, Kotka has plenty to do if the weather cooperates and you know where to look.
Kotka Sculpture Promenade
Take a walk along the sculpture trail in Kotka. Discover modern art on display in the town center and among Kotka's vast green spaces.
The Maritime Museum of Kotka
The Maritime Museum in Kotka features a variety of boats that you can explore outside. Inside, there is an exhibit on the history of Eastern Finland and at the time of writing, various displays about boat travel in Finland. You can even try on period costumes or learn how to deliver a message using nautical flags.
Kotka's Sapokan Vesipuisto is a great spot for a morning walk. Enjoy peace and quiet among the lush gardens anchored by a picturesque pond.
Kotka's Stunning Sunsets
The end of summer in Finland is a great time to experience some stunning sunsets (at a time that isn't past my bedtime! In mid-September, the sun set at about 7:30 pm in Kotka). Hike up to Haukkavuori Lookout Tower for sweeping sunset views across the Bay of Finland.
Places to Eat in and Around Kotka
There are also some great places to eat around Kotka. If you aren't staying here, Kotka is a nice pitstop on a road trip to get something to eat. We were surprised to discover that many restaurants don't stay open for dinner in the 'off-season' (outside the summer months of June, July, and August). Fortunately, there were a few places to try in Kotka and we really enjoyed experiencing the Finnish gourmet and craft beer scene.
Koti Pizza - Try a Berlesconi
Koti Pizza is a Finnish chain of pizzerias best known for the Berlusconi, a pizza topped with smoked reindeer, chanterelle mushrooms, and red onions. The pizza earned its moniker in 2008 in response to the Italian Prime Minister's disparaging remarks about Finnish cuisine being the worst in the world. With Pizza Berlusconi, Koti Pizza triumphed by winning the America's Plate International pizza contest in New York City, beating the Italian-American contestants. You'll find Koti Pizza in most major Finnish towns. We showed our solidarity with the Finns by sampling a Berlusconi in Kotka.
For a more upscale dining experience in Kotka, try Vausti Ravintola. Modern Nordic dishes incorporating local fish, foraged vegetables, and local flavors dominate. For dessert, try the mix of lemon sorbet and licorice ice cream for a surprisingly delicious flavor combination.
Sam's Pub in Karhula
One of my colleagues who lives in the area recommended Sam's Pub in Karhula (close to Kotka Town) for the best selection of craft beer in Southeastern Finland. Descend the stairs to sip Finnish and world brews with a sound track of hard core heavy metal. Sam's truly is a local experience.
Road Trip to Lappeenranta
Lappeenranta is about 90 minutes away from Kotka and is a great stopping off point on a Southern Finland road trip. If you're planning a weekend in the area, leave Kotka on a Friday afternoon and arrive in Lappeenranta in time for drinks and dinner. Take a walk around the town in the morning before traveling further around Lake Saimaa. We spent one night at the comfortable Scandic Patria Hotel.
Craft Beer at Teerenpeli
Lappeenranta is a great spot to grab a pint and some nibbles to relax after the drive from Kotka. My favorite was the house brewed lingonberry cider. So tart and refreshing. Highly recommended!
Check out the waterfront in Lappeenranta along Lake Saimaa. In September, many of the tourist season fast food shops and bars are closed but the setting is still idyllic for an evening or morning stroll.
Explore the remnants of the old fortress in Lappeenranta. In September, you'll find barnacle geese sharing space with historic cannons.
Finland's Oddest Roadside Attraction: Parikkala Sculpture Park
Continuing our Southern Finland road trip, we encountered the most bizarre roadside attraction we've ever seen: Parikkala Sculpture Park. The park was created by Veijo Rönkkönen over a period of 50 years. Check out mossy yoga people, sculptures that seem to be drawn from every period of history (from pre-history to modern times). The oddest thing about Parikkala Sculpture Park are the eyes and teeth used to create each sculpture. Parikkala Sculpture Park rates high on my list of must-see palces to visit in Southern Finland. Don't miss it!
Eastern Finland's Siikalahti Nature Reserve
Stop in Scenic Savonlinna
Continuing our journey through Southern Finland by car, we stopped at Savonlinna for the night (we stayed at Lossiranta Lodge overlooking Olavinlinna Castle). Savonlinna is extremely popular with Finns in the summer (June, July, August). In fact, there is a popular opera festival hosted at the castle each year. Beware that in September when we visited, we had a difficult time finding a place to have dinner--pretty much all the restaurants in Savonlinna were closed in the evening. We opted to buy some food at the local grocery store and make it in our hotel room.
The main attraction in Savonlinna is Olavinlinna Castle. Sign up for a guided tour in English (running about every hour for around 45 minutes). The fortress was built in the 15th century and survived several onslaughts by the Russians over the centuries.
Savonlinna Provincial Museum
Just a five minute walk from Olavinlinna Castle, you'll find the Savonlinna Provincial Museum. Learn about the history of the region, see and hear the Saimaa Ringed Seal, and explore a number of retired sea vessels on the pier behind the museum.
Paistetut Muikut at Kalastajan Koju
Before leaving Savonlinna, make sure to stop at Kalastajan Koju to try Paistetut Muikut, deep fried fish caught from the lake and served up with lemon and tartar sauce. We watched our neighbors eat their muikut to confirm that we should eat the entire thing: bones, fins, and all.
Kenkävero at Mikkeli
Another lovely spot to stop on a Finland road trip is Mikkeli. Kenkävero is a complex of craft shops and a cafe. Have a cardamom bun and thick black coffee to keep your energy levels up for the rest of the drive.
Rural Finland Road Trip Rest Stops
Coffee and a Riverside Walk near Kouvola
Kouvola is another lovely spot to pull over and stretch your legs on a self-drive in Southern Finland. We discovered a river with a surface almost like glass which then picked up speed into a tumbling rapid in just a short span.
Sisustus-Kahvila Kaarnasydän is also a good spot for a road trip toilet break and more caffeine.
After our weekend road trip in Southern Finland, we spent the second week of my business trip in Hamina at Hamina Bastion Apartments. Hamina boasts about 20,000 residents and is laid out in a circular pattern.
Hamina's Concentric Circles
Hamina is laid out in concentric circles surrounding a bright yellow town hall. It's hard to get lost in Hamina. Go to the center and explore this quiet town in a widening spiral.
Hamina Bastion was built in the 18th century and is a well-preserved example of a star fort in Finland. A trail runs along the now grassy top of the old fortress wall. Hamina Bastion is a great spot for an early morning walk.
Hamina's Birdwatching Wetlands (Beware of Mosquitos)
Hamina features some nice wetland areas for a hike (within about a 20 minute walk from town). We hoped to see birds but instead only saw bird houses. Apparently, this is a common school project in Finland. Heavy logging in Finland means that there aren't a lot of old growth trees with knots and holes for birds to nest in. Finland solves this problem by getting school kids to create bird houses to hang from the younger replanted trees.
We did see a bunch of dragonflies plus plenty of mosquitoes on our hike near Hamina. Do yourself a favor and wear insect repellent before embarking on a walk on the trails around Hamina. I was wearing long sleeves and long trousers but the mosquitoes simply bit up the top of my hand (one of my fingers swelled up like a sausage). Those bugs are fierce!
Go for a walk along the beach and explore the kitschy sculptures outside the maritime museum and associated bar.
Passing Through Porvoo
It's about a three hour drive from Hamina to Turku. Porvoo is an ideal stopping point to stretch your legs and break up the road trip across the Southern Coast of Finland.
Craft Beer at Porvoon Paahtimo
Cross the river and follow the trail until you see Porvoo Cathedral in the distance. Hike up the hill to see the restored church up close.
World Class Curry at Nepalilainen Ravintola Pokhara
Take a break from Finnish cuisine and try some world class curry at Nepalilainen Ravintola Pokhara before continuing your road trip to Turku.
We spent a weekend exploring Turku with Radisson Blue Marina Palace Hotel as our home base. Turku was settled in the 13th century and was the capital of Finland for 500 years until the Russians moved the capital to Helsinki. What is there to do in Turku? Read on to find out how we ate, drank, and explored our way around this deeply historic city in Finland to close out our road trip around Southern and Eastern Finland.
Turku Market Hall
Turku Market Hall is worth a stop if you're hungry. We ate coffee and a local pastry in a stall decked out to look like an old train car. You'll definitely find something to satisfy every craving at the Turku Market Hall.
Aboa Vetus and Ars Nova
Check out an archeological dig combined with a modern art museum at Aboa Vetus and Ars Nova. Learn about the history of Turku as told through the stories of fictitious medieval residents.
Good Eats at Foija Restaurant and Wine Bar
Turku has a population of almost 200,000 and thus has some big city amenities and nice restaurants. We sampled fine Finnish cuisine at Foija Restaurant and Wine Bar. A creamy soup made with local mushrooms and garnished with dried reindeer really hit the spot.
Craft Beer at Panimoravintola Koulu
Turku also features a number of craft beer bars that can you duck into if the weather turns wet. We sampled cranberry cider and house craft beers at Panimoravintola Koulu in the heart of Turku. Fantastic atmosphere!
Spend a morning doing a self-guided tour of Turku Castle. Turku Castle dates back to the 13th century and is the oldest surviving Medieval building in Finland. The castle played a prominent role in the Finnish struggle against both Sweden and Russia (incidentally, Finland is celebrating 100 years of independence in 2017).
Want to know the coolest thing that we saw in Finland? It had to be the Fibonacci Smokestack. A tall industrial tower sits just up the road from Turku Castle and features the following numbers: 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55. These are the first numbers of the Fibonacci series (add the first two numbers together to get the third and then repeat with the 2nd + 3rd and on to infinity). The Fibonacci sequence can be used to model a wide range of phenomena from math and science to art and nature. I love that the Finns have turned the Fibonacci sequence into an art installation.
Return Drive to Helsinki Airport
And with that, our September road trip through Southern Finland was coming to an end. If you have a little extra time, I recommend spending a couple days in Helsinki at the beginning or end of your self-drive or extending your road trip with a sailing adventure from Hanko to the Helsinki Archipelago.