This colorful hamlet gives visitors a look at what a small town in this area was like a century or so ago -- it's the second-oldest town in Finland. Simply strolling the Old Quarter, shopping for handicrafts, art, paintings, chocolates, exotic mustards, and smoked fish is a charming way to spend an afternoon. The town is especially appealing in the weeks before Christmas, when it goes out of its way to evoke an endlessly cheerful Finland of long ago.
Founded by Swedish settlers in 1346 at the mouth of a river, Porvoo was already an important trading center in the Middle Ages. Ships commandeered by member cities of the Hanseatic league unloaded then-exotic delicacies here, including wine, dried fruits, and spices, and loaded up on local products that included dried fish, butter, timber, tar, and flax. Even before the town was given its charter, the Swedes maintained a wood fortress on a hill that helped control river and sea trade for several centuries. After Sweden relinquished Finland to Russia, Porvoo was the site of the first Finnish Diet in the early 19th century, when Tsar Alexander I made the little country a semiautonomous grand duchy.
Today, the village and its environs boasts a half-dozen art galleries, pottery and jewelry studios and shops, a gamut of antique stores and secondhand shops, and in addition to the separately recommended cathedral, a half-dozen historic churches or chapels. Tip: The town's most famous culinary product is a cylinder-shaped tart, usually consumed at breakfast or with afternoon coffee, that was the favorite pastry of Finland's national poet, J. L. Runeberg. It's widely available in cafes and pastry shops throughout Porvoo.