As you’ll probably already know from my post a few weeks back, last month we took our first ever trip to Scandinavia and spent the week exploring south Finland. Most of our holiday was spent driving around the pretty towns and beaches of the south coast but as we flew into Helsinki we thought it only polite to stay in the city for a couple of nights and see what it had to offer.
Helsinki has probably been the first place I’ve ever visited where I’ve had no real idea what to expect. I usually arrive at the airport with an image in my head of my destination; the streets, the smells, the food, the people. This time I had nothing to go off but forest, fish and saunas… and they aren’t the usual words you’d use to start describing a city are they?
I’d also heard rumours that Helsinki likes to keep itself to itself and is pretty introverted compared to other European cities. This became clearer when we arrived at Manchester Airport the morning of our flight. As the tannoy announced that we were to encounter the longest queues in months, we found our gate in a quiet room off the main terminal and were suprised to find no line as we were whisked straight through to security. Feeling pretty smug at the time, I later remember questioning why nobody else was venturing to Finland.
Determined to discover more about the mysterious city, I wanted to make it my mission during our stay to uncover what Helsinki is all about, what exactly it is that makes it tick.
Over the weekend of our stay I fell for Helsinki and couldn’t believe that it’s managed to stay off the grid for so long. One of Europe’s best kept secrets, here’s what I found!
Peaceful and Introverted
Landing on the Friday evening, we were suprised to find that the streets of the city were quiet. As we wandered around trying to get our bearings we only passed a handful of people, most of whom looked to be on their way home or enjoying a quiet walk with their dog. I remember having this same welcome when we visited Pompeii a few years back. It felt like we’d jumped off the train and walked into a ghost town. Despite lacking the usual hustle and bustle of the city though, there was something different about Helsinki. It didn’t feel cold and unwelcoming at all, if anything it felt like the warmest of all welcomes. The quiet of the streets didn’t feel eerie, it felt peaceful. Ambling around with no real destination, admiring all of the pretty colours of the buildings, we instantly felt at ease.
So Many Islands!
One thing that really suprised me about Helsinki was the number of islands just off shore. There are over 300 in total and they offer the perfect escape from the city by easily hopping on one of the small boats in the harbour. One of the most well known of the islands is that of Suomenlinna, an old sea fortress built during the Swedish occupation to keep out Russia. It’s inhabited today and, classed as part of Helsinki, can easily by accessed by ferry. We spent the morning there wandering the little cobbled streets and walking inside the walls of the fortress. You also get a pretty great view of the city from the island too!
The other thing to mention is the number of island restaurants. A big part of their culture in Helsinki is island dining which involves hopping on a boat and venturing out to an island for a typically Finnish supper. We spotted these as we head out to Suomenlinna and were suprised when we were told that these beautiful wooden villas were actually restaurants. Very popular in summer and during crayfish season, it’s definitely worth booking before you go!
It’s Well Connected
Ok ok, so this isn’t entirely about Helsinki but it did surprise me nonetheless. When we were down at the harbour we spotted signs for ferry trips to Tallinn and when we found out it was only a couple of hours away we jumped at the chance to do a little excursion to Estonia. I’m not sure Estonia is one of those places you’d visit unless you were passing through so I thought it was pretty cool that we could just pop over for the day. This pretty little city is definitely worth a visit though. I could have walked around the walled city all day admiring the beautiful soviet inspired buildings and intricately carved doors. Having only gained independence in 2009, it’s a city full of history and a culture that’s fought hard to make its mark. There are several museums and city tours you can take and the pub and restaurant scene is brilliant. Well worth a visit if you get the chance.
The Foodie Scene
With its quirky seafront food halls and a very creative coffee scene, Helsinki is definitely a city for foodies! The Old Market Hall is well worth a visit if you’re after something typically Finnish. Inside the bustling market you’ll find the local delicacies including salmon soup, reindeer burgers and Karelian pies, a pastry filled with rice. If you’re a fish lover it’s worth heading to one of the stalls on the seafront to grab yourself a plate of white fish, potatoes and vegetables. (Finland’s equivalent of fish and chips is much healthier than ours but I can confirm it’s just as tasty!)
Being both lovers of coffee and design, it’s no surprise that Helsinki’s cafe scene is among the best. The best place we found was a street called Kanavaranta which is located right on the harbour front. There are about 5 or 6 coffee shops side by side here where you can get anything from a standard flat white to a more adventurous blueberry latte. If you’re looking for something a little different, I’d definitely suggest swinging by here for a coffee break! We opted for Johan and Nystrom which certainly didn’t disappoint.
It’s flat? Is that the best you can do I here you ask. Stay with me! How many times have you visited a city only to find that you’re exhausted at the end of the day because you’ve had to climb 40,000 steps to see that famous church? One thing that I was very pleasantly suprised by on arrival was just how flat Helsinki is. Because of this we decided to make use of the city’s bike scheme where you pay 5 euros and can hop on and off bikes over periods of half an hour. With hubs all over the city, it makes it so easy to get around and I feel there’s something quite special about exploring a new place on a bike, it makes me feel like one of the locals.
One thing to note is that because Helsinki is lacking hills, it’s not as easy to find a good spot to get a good view of the city. Determined to see the city from above, we took a trip to Hotel Torni, a hotel which has a lovely rooftop bar situated at the top where you can enjoy a drink while watching the sun set over the city. The drinks are a little pricy but it’s definitely worth a trip if only just for the stunning view.
So I’d heard a rumour that Finland enjoy a sauna or two but I didn’t expect to find so many around the city centre. Being such a big part of their culture, most of the hotels have a floor dedicated to them and there’s public saunas on every corner of the city. We decided to visit Allas Sea Pool, the most popular sauna in the city. Here you can pay 12 euros to swim in the 2 seafront pools and use the saunas here for as long as you like. We weren’t blessed with good weather on our visit but it didn’t matter too much as the pools were heated.
A Creative City
From the food, to the buildings, to the way the people dress, there’s no arguing that Helsinki is a city of design. You can see why us Brits have taken so much inspiration from the Scandis over the past few years! Every cafe you walk into has an arty vibe to it and even the coffee they serve is a work of art. If you’re looking to dig a little deeper, take a trip to the design district and spend the morning pottering round the interior shops and galleries. There’s even a whole museum dedicated to design!
The City and Beyond
What I wasn’t expecting on my trip to Helsinki though was for there to be so many towns on the outskirts of the city worth a visit. Porvoo is a lovely town only an hours train ride out of the city and is well worth a visit. With its charming cobbled streets and it’s brightly painted wooden houses, Its safe to say I fell in love with Porvoo. Walking around you feel like you’re in a toy town as the streets are filled with picture perfect shops and restaurants. It really is difficult to put into words just how beautiful this place is!