“Make air, not war” screams the poster, promoting the annual Air Guitar World Championship in a quirky little city called Oulu in North Finland, the fifth largest in the country. ” You can’t hold an imaginary guitar in your hand and also hold a gun, ” says our guide Martta Tervonen adding, that there is even a repair shop for air guitars in this town, that houses just over 200,000 people. But the creative spirit of Oulu Finland is not just about its idiosyncracies and whacked-out sense of humour. It’s also a university and a technology town, the home of Nokia, and Martta adds that the very first SMS in the world was sent from here. We are standing in front of the City Hall, where a set of 32 miniature bronze sculptures chronicle the “Passage of Time” or Ajan Kulku as they are called in Finnish. Each character represents a historical connection to the coastal city, as the world’s tar capital morphs into a research and technology hub, and is now designated as the European Capital of Culture in 2026. Located right below the Arctic Circle, it is also the biking capital of Finland and the starting point of the magical Pohjola Route, or the Northern Route
Pohjola Route from Oulu Finland
There is an exciting new way of exploring Finland and it’s called the Pohjola Route or the Northern Route, a microcosm of authentic Finland, also dubbed as the “birthplace” of the Nordic country. Surrounded by 900 km of fells and forests, there are over ten pristine destinations along the scenic route in the Bothnian Bay, around the fascinating city of Oulu, which is at the very heart of it.
The route takes you through breathtaking landscapes of beaches, wetlands, alpine forests and fells, riverine islands, archipelagos, sand dunes, and picturesque towns and villages. Steeped in folklore, the mystical Pohjola Route is also a winter wonderland with reindeer and husky safaris with frozen oceans and forest floors covered with layers of snow, ideal for skiing and safaris and also a great destination to see the Northern Lights.
Watered by over 15 rivers, the trail takes you into the wetlands of Liminka, thronged by birds and birdwatchers, the Southernmost fell at Syote, the sandy shores of Kalajoki, the Arctic archipelago of Hailuoto and the UNESCO Rokua Geopark around the Oulujoki Valley. Your journey begins with Oulu, the fifth largest city in Finland, located right below the Arctic Circle.
As we explored Oulu, peeling off its layers, we discovered little stories and nuggets of history. Art and culture blend in well with the outdoors here. Before embarking on the breathtaking Pohjola Route, here are some of the breathtaking places to see in Oulu and fascinating experiences you can do in Oulu in 48 hours.
1. Meet the chubby policeman of Oulu
The Pohjola Route is centered around the fascinating city of Oulu, whose symbol is the Toripollisi or the Chubby Policeman who watches over the Market Square. We were on a city tour of Oulu when we met Bobby of the Market Hall to take a selfie with him. The statue is a tribute to the real policemen who used to watch over the Market Square which was once a hub of merchants.
While the atmospheric coastal vibe of the square is now a tourist hub, you can also buy handmade arts and crafts and artisanal and gourmet produce from the indoor market here. The Market Hall built in 1901 has now been restored to its original Neo Gothic style.
2. Take a city tour
Oulu Finland is a destination by itself and you must take a city tour to explore some of the heritage monuments and the art and cultural districts. Pottering around we visited the towering cathedral, an ancient castle now a cafe, and even a quirky observation tower nicknamed the “ Booze Tower.” where the sailors socialized over drinks.
Oulu’s cathedral built in the 18th century was built on the site where a wooden church once stood. But if you want to learn more about the history of Oulu creatively and artistically, then head to the 19th-century City Hall, where each of the 32 miniature sculptures open to the sky, represents a momentous moment in this ancient city.
3, Visit Pikisaari to see the artists at work
An idyllic art district with old wooden houses, the riverine island of Pikisaari, is nestled in a picturesque setting and has a quaint air about it. The vibrant street art only makes you feel like you are inside a giant mural itself. Pikisaari translated to “Pitch Island” was once filled with old pitch workshops since the 17th century. Besides wooden homes, you can see sawmills, shipyards, old industrial warehouses, granaries, and there is a distillery as well.
The idyllic wooden houses and warehouses are now studios of several artists and artisans who live in this atmospheric old quarter. One of the oldest timber buildings here is the Sailor’s Home which is now a museum. You can do a walking tour here, interact with the artists, or just lose yourself in the old-world charm. Pikisaari can also be reached by a pedestrian bridge from Market Square.
While there are several restaurants and cafes here, you can also stay in this art precinct of Oulu. And if you are bitten by the creative bug, try your hand at Lovi, crafting and painting small wooden creations from the “Forests of Finland.”
4. Climb the Nallikari Lighthouse
Drive from Oulu to the Nordic Riviera where the seaside resort town awaits you. The sandy beach at Nallikari beckons swimmers and sunbathers during summer, but in winter, it becomes an ethereal sight, turning into sheets of ice as you can walk on the frozen waters, ski, fish, or just chase the Northern Lights.
However it is the view from the Nallikari Lighthouse which is mesmerising, be it in summer or winter. Built on the breakwater on the beach’s northern end, this towering coastal landmark is highly Instagrammable. Don’t forget to take your selfie here.
5 Say cheers at Hailuoto Island
Take a ferry from Oulu to the charming archipelago of Hailuoto, looking out for seals, and lose yourself in the lush fabric of alpine forests surrounded by wetlands that are a bird haven. While Hailuoto Island is a treat for outdoor enthusiasts, you can experience the scenic landscapes on a coastal walk with charming wooden cabins lining the shores. And if you are feeling a bit adventurous then climb the 19th-century lighthouse at Marjaniemi and listen to the tales of the beacon light.
But a trip to Hailuoto is not complete if you don’t say “Kippis” (cheers) to the first Finnish organic brewery where you can sip local beers brewed here with seasonal ingredients and lose yourself in the flavours.
6. Visit a reindeer farm
Reindeers or “Paro” as they are called are virtually synonymous with Finland and at the panoramic Panuma Village, you learn more about the herder communities and their reindeer farms. We were greeted by Napsu, the reindeer with his owner Sylvi Oinas, the youngest reindeer herder who told us that most of the herd would gather in winter from the forests and the communities are fiercely protective of their herd.
During winter you can go on a safari as the herders would tell you more about the sacred and protected animals, who are more than just Santa’s ride through the skies. It is believed that Santa chose reindeer for his journey as they are known to bring people traversing a harsh winter safely home.
7. Sail away to Maakalla Island
Surrounded by the Gulf of Bothnia, the Maakalla Island looks straight out of legends. It is a boat ride away from the sandy shores of Kalajoki, one of the alluring destinations on the Pohjola Route, which is barely 130 km and a two-hour drive from Oulu. The island which is uninhabited today has been autonomous for the last three centuries , even after Finland got its independence from Sweden, and is virtually a time capsule,
Wandering around we stopped at a charming 18th-century wooden church, a tower, and a lighthouse beside 40 wooden huts of fishermen who visit during summer. Lose yourself in the wild rugged island off the coast and listen to the folklores narrated by the silent shores here.
8. Visit a Husky Farm
The mystical fells at Syote National Park, located a couple of hours away from Oulu by road are just breathtaking, especially in winter when the verdant landscape turns white and the landscape is ethereal. The arctic forests are ideal for the outdoors, be it skiing, or snowboarding. You can go on hikes, bike through the fells, or like me, pick berries in the wilderness and just enjoy dreamy views from my room at the Hotel Iso Syote.
But nothing is more fascinating than saying hello to over a hundred huskies at the most adorable farm where every dog wants to be petted and cuddled, while “Husky Mamma Joanna” shares stories of winter escapades as the huskies train throughout the year for the safaris. Syote Husky Safaris is a must-do experience during winter and it’s the best way to appreciate the magical atmosphere. You can spend a day here and even have a traditional Finnish lunch in a round teepee called Kota.
Places to stay in Oulu Finland
You can stay in some of the traditional and luxurious properties that are spread all over the Pohjola Route. In Kalajoki we stayed at Santa’s Resort and Spa Hotel Sani while the Hotel Iso Syote atop a hillock at Syote is a great destination to even see the Nothern Lights from your rooms. Oulu, we were at the fabulous Lapland Hotel Oulu with its historic cellar.
You can also stay in a glass igloo in Nallikari which has more accommodation options as well. The Finnish sauna is an integral part of the local culture and is a must-do experience during your trip. There are several options for sauna from outdoor saunas and community saunas as well.
Have you been to Oulu or on the Pohjola Route ? Share your experiences and recommendations .
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