Around 100 miles north of Helsinki, Tampere is the third-largest city in Finland. The region boasts more than 50 public saunas and the countryside around is known as Finnish Lakeland.
It’s a city built on water, situated on the Tammerkoski rapids, between two large lakes, with the green banks providing a counterpoint to red brick industrial buildings. It was the birthplace of the Finnish industrial revolution when, in 1820, Scottish engineer James Finlayson built a factory to manufacture heavy machinery.
By 1828 he’d switched to textiles and the town became known as the Nordic Manchester. It shared similarities with its English counterpart and the conditions of the thousands of workers were not much better. Today the mills are almost all gone, but the buildings have been artfully preserved and filled with shops, museums, bars and restaurants.
In the huge complex that was once the Finlayson cotton mill, the Werstas Museum has the history of the Finnish textile industry with 25 machines on display, hundreds of objects and photos related to the history of the factories and items produced by the Tampere textile industry. Pride of place is the Sulzer steam engine that is still in its original location, in the heart of the original mill. It dates from 1900 and is the biggest steam engine ever used in Finland.
After the Russian Revolution, Finland became independent and the town was at the centre of the brutal civil war between the workers’ movement, the reds, and the conservative landowners and industrialists, the whites. The Battle for Tampere in 1918, with 300,000 soldiers involved, was one of the most decisive military engagements of the war.
In the museum, black and white photographs bring back the carnage and show parts of the city in ruin. With the help of German troops, the Whites won the battle and eventually the war. The losers were the workers and, even now, it’s an event that still divides families.
Tampere is not all about industrial heritage. The spacious wide-open Central Square in the heart of the city was built when Tampere was Russian and the influence is obvious in the architecture.
On the East is the Tampere Theatre built in 1912 and opposite is the grand neo-Renaissance Old Town Hall, still used for festive occasions. Art Nouveau buildings make up the south side and in winter the square is home to a famous Christmas market.
Echoing the city’s Russian past are the seven cupolas of the Byzantine Orthodox church, known locally as the “Onion Church”, the inside covered in icons. There’s only a small orthodox population and the nearby Lutheran Cathedral is the place of worship for most churchgoers.
It’s a great example of the Finnish national romantic style and what’s most striking are the murals by Hugo Simberg. They created a furore back in 1907 and it’s easy to see why – the Garland of Life depicts twelve giant-sized naked boys, spaced along the gallery walls.
Sauna came to Finland over 2,000 years ago and apparently, there are over three million in the country, more than one for every two Fins. Recognised by UNESCO as part of the country’s intangible cultural heritage, Tampere now designates itself as the Sauna Capital of the World.
Aficionados have a choice of over 50 public saunas in the region, including Kuuma, right next to Central Square. Upstairs is a café-restaurant with a terrace and below are two saunas, open all year round. When you can’t take the heat, you plunge into the refreshing waters of the Pyhäjärvi Lake, in a corralled pool area.
Of course, the water was an attraction for another industrial complex, based around a paper pulp mill at Mänttä-Vilppula, a beautiful lakeside town, 90 km north-east of Tampere. The founder’s nephew, Gösta Serlachius amassed a unique art collection now on permanent display at Art Museum Gösta on Lake Melasjärvi.
His majestic manor house is home to mainly Finnish artworks but a stunning modern wood pavilion hosts temporary exhibitions, including one dedicated to Banksy, the famous street artist. This includes over a hundred works borrowed from various collections with well-known examples of the artist’s early production.
Finland has over 188,000 lakes and around 180,000 islands, many located in the Lakeland district, the largest of its kind in Europe, which surrounds Tampere. Imagine a blue labyrinth of lakes, islands, rivers and canals, interspersed with forests and low rise hills.
A good way of exploring is by e-bike and the tourist office has devised a number of trails, which link up with ferry services in the summer. For day trips you have a choice of the two large lakes, Pyhäjärvi or Näsijärvi, on either side of the city and bike paths follow the lakeshore. Restaurants and tea shops mean you’re never short of refreshments. At the end of a long day in the saddle, there’s nothing better than a sauna for a true Finnish experience.
I go south and end up at Lempäälä, as the evening sun is hanging low over Pyhäjärvi Lake. Mikkola is no ordinary sauna but a traditional smoke sauna that they’ve been heating for six hours.
There’s no chimney so, as the wood burns, smoke fills the room. When it reaches the appropriate temperature, the fire is extinguished and the room is ventilated. That’s when I step in and salve my weary limbs. The moist heat and steam rise from the stove, mingling with the scents of smoke and tar, and I’m soon at peace. Not for long, though, I’m fast heating up so there’s no alternative but to rush out and jump into the lake – they say it’s good for you…
Visit Tampere has information about the city.
Visit Finland has information about the country.
FLY: Ryanair will fly direct from London Stansted to Tampere from November 2021.
STAY: Radisson Blu Grand Hotel Tammer is a comfortable base right on the rapids.
SEE: The Finnish Labour Museum has the largest steam engine in Finland.
Serlachius Museum Gösta is accessible by shuttle bus from Tampere and also has an excellent restaurant.
EAT: Sauna Restaurant Kuuma has a terrace where you can enjoy their menu.
Ravintola C has a multi-course fine dining set menu.
SAUNA: Mikkola Smoke Sauna is around 20 miles south of Tampere, has space for up to 18 people and serves traditional dishes.