Turku has a long history as Finland's largest city and occasionally as the administrative center of the country, but for the last two hundred years has been surpassed by Helsinki. The city's identity stems from its status as the oldest city in Finland and the country's first capital. Originally, the word "Finland" referred only to the area around Turku (hence the title, "Finland Proper" for the region).
Although archaeological findings in the area date back to the Stone Age and early literary sources such as Al-Idrisi's world map from 1154 mentions Turku, the town of Turku was officially founded in late 13th century. Turku Cathedral was consecrated in 1300.
During the Middle Ages, Turku was the seat of the Bishop of Turku (a title later upgraded to Archbishop of Turku), covering the then eastern half of the Kingdom of Sweden (most of the present-day Finland) until the 17th century. Even if Turku had no official capital status, both the short-lived institutions of Dukes and Governors-General of Finland usually had their Finnish residences there. In the aftermath of the War against Sigismund, the town was the site of the Åbo Bloodbath. In 1640, the first university in Finland, the Royal Academy of Turku, was founded in Turku. Turku was also the meeting place for the States of Finland in 1676.
After the Finnish War, which ended when Sweden ceded Finland to Imperial Russia at the Treaty of Fredrikshamn in 1809, Turku became briefly the official capital, but soon lost the status to Helsinki, as Emperor Alexander I felt that Turku was too far from Russia and too aligned with Sweden to serve as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland. The change officially took place in 1812. The government offices that remained in Turku were finally moved to the new capital after the Great Fire of Turku, which almost completely destroyed the city in 1827. After the fire, a new and safer city plan was drawn up by German architect Carl Ludvig Engel, who had also designed the new capital, Helsinki. Turku remained the largest city in Finland for another twenty years.
In 1918, a new university, the Åbo Akademi – the only Swedish language university in Finland – was founded in Turku. Two years later, the Finnish language University of Turku was founded alongside it. These two universities are the second and third to be founded in Finland, both by private donations.
In the 20th century, Turku was called "Finland's gateway to the West" by historians such as Jarmo Virmavirta. The city enjoyed good connections with other Western European countries and cities, especially since the 1940s with Stockholm across the Gulf of Bothnia. In the 1960s, Turku became the first Western city to sign a twinning agreement with Leningrad in the Soviet Union, leading to greater inter-cultural exchange and providing a new meaning to the city's 'gateway' function. After the fall of Communism in Russia, many prominent Soviets came to Turku to study Western business practices, among them Vladimir Putin, then Leningrad's deputy mayor.
As for architecture in the city, both the body of architectural styles as well as the prevalent way of living have experienced significant changes in the 20th century. While having survived relatively intact throughout the years of war 1939–1945, the city faced increasing changes in the 1950s and 1960s due to rising demands for apartments, the eagerness to rebuild, and most of all the new development of infrastructure (especially increased automobile traffic). The wooden one- to two-story houses that were the dominant mode of building in the city were mostly demolished in the 1950s and 1960s to both enable more efficient building and to ease vehicle traffic. This resulted in the destruction of buildings that were, in later decades, seen as beautiful and worth saving. Some individual buildings remain controversial to this day when it comes to their demolition in the decades after the war. For example, the building of Hotel Phoenix that stood on corner of the Market Square was torn down to make way for a large, multistory apartment building in 1959. The building was significant both for its location and history: having stood on one of the most valuable lots in the city center since 1878, the building had, for example, served as the first main building of the University of Turku. Other buildings whose demolition was seen as scandalous, either already at the time of action or proved to be so in later years, include The Nobel House (subject to the very first photograph ever taken in Finland) and the building of Old Hotel Börs which was built in jugendstil in 1909 by Frithiof Strandell.