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Finland’s oldest city overflows with maritime history

Turun jokirantamaisemaa yölliseen aikaan.

Founded on the mouth of the Aura River, Turku has always had a strong connection to seafaring and the surrounding archipelago. And, as the gateway to this spectacular group of islands, this still holds true today. Turku is the natural starting and end point for most journeys into the archipelago, whether they be short day trips or slightly more epic expeditions. 

An historically significant port

Turku has long been one of Finland’s most important seaside cities. As early as the Iron Age, people settled in the valleys along the Aura River and goods were sent through the Baltic Sea to be traded in Sweden, Novgorod, and the Baltic region. From the Middle Ages, Finland was part of the Swedish Empire and Turku became an even more important city. Not only was Turku the ecclesiastical capital of Finland, but it was also home to a grand castle and a growing community. Ships sailed back and forth to Stockholm at this time, and trade continued to flourish through the Hanseatic League. 

Turku remained Finland’s capital until the beginning of the 1800s, when Finland was placed under the control of Russia following the war with Sweden. Despite the focus moving to Helsinki, Turku kept its position as an important seaside city.

S/S Bore, a cargo ship, beside the Aura River. There is a yellow anchor point in the foreground.
The beautifully restored S/S Bore is found near Turku Castle. During its colourful history, it sailed across both the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea. Today, the ship is part of the National Board of Antiquities' traditional ship register and operates as a restaurant and hotel. Photo: Viola Vuorinen

Soak up the city's past along the Aura River

Its medieval history as well as its long tradition of seafaring are best experienced at Turku Castle and Forum Marinum Maritime Centre, which are found close to the mouth of the Aura River. You’ll also get an introduction to the unique nature found in the archipelago when you drop by the 40 000+ exhibition at Forum Marinum.

Turku also has a unique history of shipbuilding and it’s made the city famous worldwide. Ships have been built in Turku since the 1550s and nowadays, the largest luxury cruise ships in the world are built at the Meyer Shipyard in Perno, just 15 minutes from the city centre. Even though the shipyards are long gone from the Aura River, their history is still seen today in the cranes that remain behind. For a birds-eye view of the Aura River and the archipelago, check out this brand-new virtual tour.

The Aura River filled with colourful sailing boats. There are two churches as well as cranes in the background.
Turku is the perfect destination for maritime events like the Tall Ship Races. This popular event sees traditional ships sailing into the Aura River, filling the city skyline with colourful masts. Photo: Tomi Ketola

Enjoy the archipelago's breeze even in the city

The rich history of boating in the Turku region can also be seen at the Ruissalo Boatyard. It was the largest shipyard in the Nordic countries between 1889 and 1954, and its operations had a huge impact on the development of boating in Finland, both in terms of racing and recreational use. More than 5,000 boats were built at Ruissalo Boatyard for sailors, entrepreneurs, statesmen, and even royals. These days the beautifully restored shipyard is home to fantastic restaurants, like Zaké Pizzeria & Wine Bar, which is right beside the guest harbour, Tenlén BBQ & Smokery, and Avelia, which is both a café and design shop. If you want to catch a glimpse of some incredible boats as they sail along the Aura River, grab a seat at Restaurant NOOA’s terrace, which is just in front of the Turku Guest Harbour.  

Ruissalo boatyard as photographed from above. There are boats docked in the harbour and the surrounding islands are green.
Nowadays Ruissalo Boatyard is a lively event centre, perfect for an evening trip. The location of the restaurants here is second to none and the classically beautiful wooden boats, each with its own history, create a wonderful atmosphere.

Get to the archipelago from the Aura River

It can be tricky to get a handle on the archipelago; there are thousands of islands and ferry connections can seem complicated. But luckily, you can also reach the archipelago quickly and easily from the Aura River. You’ll find lots of boats here that sail to the archipelago, both to nearby destinations and islands further out to sea.

Föli water bus – Föli, which is Turku’s public transport system, run water buses in the summertime. You can travel straight to Ruissalo and Pikisaari in Hirvensalo from the Aura River, all for the price of a bus ticket. There are two boats which sail this route: the sweet m/s Ruissalo and the slightly bigger m/s Jaarli. You can hop off the water bus at Ruissalo Boatyard, for example, or Kansanpuisto, which is famous for Ruisrock.

s/s Ukkopekka – Now 80 plus years old, s/s Ukkopekka is Finland’s last authentic passenger steamship. You’ll find it in the Aura River near Martinsilta Bridge, and in the summer months, it sails from Turku to Naantali. On July evenings, s/s Ukkopekka takes travellers to the island of Loistokari for an unforgettable experience. Here, you’ll enjoy a romantic dance on the pier as well as a delectable dinner inspired by the archipelago. You can buy tickets here.

M/s Norsskär - M/s Norsskär, which is run by Vitharun, sails from the Aura River to the island of Seili as well as Nagu. So, if you feel the pull of the archipelago, hop aboard! Seili is a fascinating destination known for its history, while Nagu is often called the Saint-Tropez of the archipelago. Its lively beaches are filled with terraces, restaurants, and sailboats. Tickets can be bought online or straight from the ship before it sets sail.

The Föli water bus and s/s Ukkopekka cross paths in front of Suomen Joutsen on the Aura River.
Explore the archipelago by hopping aboard the Föli water bus or the steamship, s/s Ukkopekka. Make sure you also stop by Suomen Joutsen, seen here in the background, an iconic sailing ship that is now part of Forum Marinum Maritime Centre. Photo: Viola Vuorinen