Tampere's factories dominate the skyline

Fancy a city break in Finland? Then look beyond the bright lights of Helsinki's big city, and head up north to the lakes region. Here, amongst the surrounding splendour of the lagoons, bays, and creeks, you'll find quirky Tampere, a city which has managed to repurpose the old into the new, and regenerate a charm all of its own.

As the plane draws into our destination, I'm struck by the sheer expanse of multi-hued greenery below me. There are no towns or settlements breaking up this dense shag carpet of green, no mountain range to distract the eye; in fact it would almost be monotonous, if it weren't for the puddles. For these 'puddles' are just some of the 3,000 lakes in the southwest region, a sparsely populated, pine-forested, lake-ridden sprawl - and home to Finland's third largest city, Tampere.

Situated 160km (99 miles) north of Helsinki, on a narrow strip of land between two of the largest lakes Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi, Tampere (pronounced Tam-peh-reh) is known as the Manchester of Finland. As comparisons go, it's certainly an apt one, nodding to the industrial legacy that both cities have inherited.

With a population of around 200,000, Tampere is small, less than half the size of its British counterpart, but any Mancunian would find an affinity with the huge red brick factories that dominate the river banks, puffing little clouds of steam into the air. Smokestacks punctuate the city at random intervals, serving as brick totem poles to a former role as the heart of Finland's textile industry. On paper it should be ugly, but the charm of the red brick coupled with the nearby babble of the rapids and lots of greenery makes for an oddly picturesque setting.

Finlayson benches, FinlandColourful benches abound at the Finlayson complex
Jane Duru

The sense of familiarity ends there however, as the creep into dereliction that blighted many of Britain's factory towns hasn't taken hold here. Whilst the industry has moved to the outskirts, the old buildings remain, but instead of being left empty, they have been reclaimed for more modern purposes. One of my first stops is the Finlayson factory, a large complex of buildings, which during the 1800s provided work for thousands of workers as a cotton mill.

Finlayson is still known throughout Finland for its fabrics, but today the original factory which once housed shops, workers' homes, a school and a church, has now been repurposed into a trendy hangout, full of artsy bars and cafés, galleries, and a cinema. With a kooky vibe throughout, it makes sense that here is where you'll find the world's first spy museum. James Bond geeks can let out their inner spook in this basement museum chock-full of real and replica exhibits, including spy cameras, hidden weapons, code-breaking machines, and lipstick microfilm holders.

I move on, in search of lunch. Tampere is very walkable and bike-friendly, and it's only a short stroll north from here to Ravintola Näsinneula (www.sarkanniemi.fi/nasinneula), one of the best restaurants in the city.

View from Ravintola NasinneulaEnjoy breathtaking views from Ravintola Nasinneula
Jane Duru
Despite its compact size, there are a number of sophisticated lunch options in Tampere, but paradoxically, Ravintola Näsinneula is situated within Särkänniemi Adventure park, home of the new Angry Birds land attraction based on the popular app. The setting is somewhat more glamorous once you get there and realise that you'll be eating 124m (407ft) above ground, perched at the top of an observation deck overlooking the park, and revolving 360° every 45 minutes, so that you can also take in wonderful views over Tampere, the lakes and all of the surrounding countryside.

It's a great panorama, but draw yourself away from the windows and let yourself be transported by the food. Gourmands will love mallasleipä, a sweet malt bread which is a specialty of southwestern Finland. It's followed by a delicious five course spread focussing on traditional Finnish ingredients, which on this occasion include grilled salmon and asparagus risotto, and a dessert of sea buckthorn and white chocolate. At around €50 a head (not including wine), this is food worth splashing out on. A reservation gets you free entry to Särkänniemi but after a meal like this, you might want to head to the park’s dolphinarium rather than the rollercoasters.

Pispala clapperboard housePispala is dotted with picturesque clapperboard houses
Jane Duru

There's plenty to see on a weekend break in Tampere - head up into the nearby hills, to the bohemian Pispala, once an old worker's neighbourhood. Clustered with darling old pastel clapperboard houses, it's now one of the most-sought after residential areas and home to a thriving artistic community, and a Centre for Contemporary Arts. From there you can hike the surrounding trails, or, if you want more of a view, then Pyynikki observation tower is around 2km (1.3 miles) south; at 178m (584ft) above sea level you can't miss the looming tower - just be sure to stop at its cafe for the renowned doughnuts.

Back in the centre, there are quirky museums like the Moomin museum, an ode to Tove Jansson's popular cartoon characters (inter9.tampere.fi/muumilaakso/index.php), where you'll find original prints, 3D tableaux and a gift shop housing all the souvenirs you'd ever want. Five minutes' walk away from the adventure park are the Tallipiha Stableyards, another example of regeneration; this time with converted stable yards repurposed as the location for a daily outdoor market selling artisan handicrafts and souvenirs. Pick up foodie gifts from chocolate shop Tallipihan Suklaapuoti, Kuninkaankatu 4 (www.tallipiha.fi) and stock up on delicious korvapuusti (cinnamon cardamom buns) at nearby cafe Tallipihan Kahvila (www.tallipihankahvila.fi) where they also put on a great spread of other pastries and sandwiches.

However, being in Finland during the summer means one thing is guaranteed: midnight sun. Tampere is situated so close to the Arctic Circle that during June, July and to a lesser degree August, the sun barely sets, and days can be disorientatingly, wonderfully long. Several times during my stay, my brain can't quite tally the level of light with the actual time - midnight feels like early evening, and the 'darkest' hours, between 0100 and 0400 are more dim than dark. Finns take advantage of the bright nights by decamping to summer cabins in the forests in celebration - Midsummer's Eve is an unofficial public holiday. If you can't snag an invite from a friendly Finn, do the next best thing instead and rent a private lakeside cabin.

Peltola organic farmRustic beauty: enjoy the simple life in the Finnish countryside
Peltola organic farm

Tampere makes a great jump off point for exploring rural Finland. Finns don’t really do ostentation so you won’t find much in the way of bling cabins unless you head to Lapland. What you will find is a desire to be in harmony with their surroundings; proximity to nature is luxury enough. A 90-minute drive away lies the small town Mänttä-Vilppula, on the outskirts of which you'll find Peltola organic farm (www.peltolanluomutila.com), a rural old farm house.

Cross the threshold and you’re met with a scene of idyllic rusticity. A couple of wooden rocking chairs sit empty, beneath rafters which have seen successive generations of Finnish farmers come and go. Outside, horses whinny in the fields. It feels like the last 50 years just passed on by. Whilst the farmhouse does have another building with rooms for rent, the real coup is the presence of a traditional Finnish smoke sauna, sat 100m (328ft) away, right on the lip of Lake Ajosjärvi.

View across Lake AjosjärviLake Ajosjärvi gleams in the bright night sky
Jane Duru

It’s 4 o’clock in the morning and I’m sitting in a dark hot hut with a few others, sweating heavily and lightly whipping myself with a vasta (bunch of birch twigs) ostensibly to get the circulation going, but really I just want to waft that lovely birch fragrance around. My first pang of slight discomfort soon gives way to a sensation of tranquil relaxation as I get used to the humid heat, and slowly sup a beer, forgetting to worry about any health benefits it might be cancelling out.

Sauna is sacred here. It’s the place where you go to socialise and relax, to do business, have a think, or in the winter, get warm. In the summertime too actually, as I soon find out, after following my early morning sauna with a bracing dip in the lake. At 13°C, it’s a shock to the system, but slowly the invigorating water and the bafflingly luminous night sky seem to work in tandem – I climb out feeling cleansed and regenerated, ready for the new day ahead.

Need to know:
Fly: Ryanair flies to Tampere. Return flights from £56.
Stay: Hotel Cumulus has rooms from €94 including breakfast. Find the cheapest deal for Hotel Cumulus with World Travel Guide.

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