Being on a trip to Oulu, one of the most northernmost cities of the world, which is considered Finland's gate to Lapland, one expects to find dark woods, plaguing amounts of mosquitos and a frightening fauna of wolves and bears. However, upon arriving in the coastal city, Oulu surprises with its appealing and quaint, astonishingly urban cityscape: Surrounded by woods and plenty of waters, it is a true haven to leave one's cares behind.
Upon arrival, I was staggered: Both the size and the busy mood of the city of 140.000 inhabitants dared to be thoroughly discovered. Obviously, the best way was to go on a canoe ride, so I met Vepe Okkonen of local Go Arctic! tourist guide agency in a mid-city forestland. Vepe, an experienced canoeist, who was of the appearance of the skilled outdoor enthusiast one expects every Finn to be, prepared boats for us, bound to discover Oulu from the water side. One paddle stroke at a time, we passed a stretched and meandering mid-city coast, which was lined with beautiful pine and birch forests and charming wooden estates. Vepe showed me the calm and tranquil branches of the Hartaanselkä, Oulu's river delta of Oulujoki river, uncovering hidden wetlands and idyllic meadows, where plenty of boats lay ashore; just until we set course for the city centre, which was close by. The site reminded me of a Nordic miniature Venice replica: Silently driving through the few sunlit canals, where sun worshippers greeted us, we passed both luxury residential buildings and preserved wooden cots, a yacht harbour and a small parkland, just when Vepe suddenly led me back into the arcadian idyll of Hartaanselkä's tree-lined seclusion. If it wasn't for the occasional anglers and barbecue parties, I would have assumed we already left Oulu.
After we went ashore, I was proved to be wrong. It was a short and comfortable walk back to the city center, hopping from one island to the next via numerous bridges, where I met Karoliina and Janne for dinner at the cozy and calm Sokeri-Jussin Tavern on Pikisaari island. The restaurant offers many traditional Finnish dishes, all sorts of fresh fish, reindeer, mushrooms and berries collected in the surrounding woods. (Decide for yourself, but have the mandatory shot of Koskenkorva, the iconic vodka that obviously plays a big role in every Finnish social event.) During dinner, Karoliina and Janne told me a lot about Oulu and its history. Founded only 400 years ago as royal resort, the city was soon wealthy thanks to the export of the tar produced in the surrounding region and the salmon caught in Oulujoki. The inhabitants preserved a saying, they happily and proudly recite: 'There is no place where the tar is that black, the butter is that yellow and the salmon that red as in Oulu.' Today, Oulu is a high-tech centre and university city. Its inhabitants are remarkably young, being of a mean age of 37 years. Indeed, later, as I took a walk on the market at the city centre, there were mostly young people around, giving the city a strange notion of a vast university campus. Only the market customers, who gathered around the stalls on the square and in the beautiful antique market hall, where all kinds of local food were sold, gave proof that Oulu also had inhabitants from every other age.
Later that evening, when the sun had just set at half past eight and the late dusk was approaching, Janne and Karoliina led me to Rotuaari square, where thousands of cheering Finns gathered to watch the annual air guitar world championship. When finally darkness set in, the show began and both the contestants and the crowd had a lot of fun and, the latter, a lot of Koskenkorva. When it comes to leisure activities, the Finns are quite on the quirky side: They also stage championships in unusual sports such as wife-carrying, ice swimming and even ant nest sitting. The Norse climate might produce such whimsical habits, however, one thing was sure: The Finns knew how to make the best of their long sun-lit days and of course, the short nights to follow.
Oulu is best accessible via air through its own airport only a half an hour bus ride away. Flights from Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen and other cities operate often many times a day.
Address of Go Arctic!:
Go Arctic! guides and activities · Nahkatehtaankatu 6 · 90015 Oulu
Address of Restaurant Sokeri-Jussin:
Sokeri-Jussin · Pikisaarentie 2 · 90100 Oulu
Mon — Sat 11:00 — 11:00 · Sun 12:00 — 11:00
Text & pictures by Matthias Planitzer