A short sojourn in Helsinki provides the opportunity to explore one of the Baltic’s cultural treasure chests
Helsinki and its cultural treasures
It’s early morning in Helsinki’s Market Square. At the quayside a small fishing boat has moored and a fisherwoman selling fresh fish is calling out to locals. Behind her tiny vessel, large ferryboats are lined up next to piers, ready to whisk commuters and tourists to one or more of the many islands that form a barrier between the city and the Gulf of Finland, a giant inlet of the Baltic Sea. In deeper water on both sides of the harbour, massive cruise liners are docked – the Baltic is said to be the second most popular destination for cruises after the Caribbean.
Close by, and for a few hundred metres along the harbour front, stall owners are busily setting up at the open-air market in readiness for the day ahead. Some sell a cornucopia of fresh fruit and local produce, while others offer the typical souvenirs of the region – from razor-sharp Finnish knives sheathed in soft reindeer leather to carved wooden spoons and bowls. Ice cream and coffee stalls compete with those selling heartier fare such as merenherkkulautanen or “sea gourmet plate”.
Though it’s only 7am, the city’s residents all seem to be up and eager to make the most of the good weather and long summer day – Helsinki gets an incredible 22 hours of daylight in midsummer… of course, the downside of that is in the depths of winter only two hours of daylight are on offer, so summer can take on a real “party hard” atmosphere.
FINNISH FOCAL POINT
Helsinki may lie on the northern fringes of Europe, but thanks to Finnair’s successful expansion into Asia, the city has become a popular hub for travellers between Western Europe and Asia. Since 2016, Finnair has partnered with Visit Finland to tempt travellers to break their journey – if only for a few days – with a StopOver option at no extra cost to its air ticket. It offers a range of suggestions on interesting activities that can be neatly bundled into a short space of time.
If it were winter, I would have opted for the three-day trip to the Arctic Circle to see the Northern Lights. Instead, I choose a shorter two-night option that encompasses highlights
in and around Helsinki itself. Landing at Helsinki airport very early in the morning, I take the easy and efficient train into the city (lines I or P; €5), arriving at Central railway station 30 minutes later and walking to the stylish Hotel Lilla Roberts to drop my bags, before heading straight down to Market Square and the harbour.
I wander past the city’s famous Allas Sea Pool, a spa complex with large swimming pools of different temperatures (from a constant 27˚C to bone-numbingly cold) on pontoons that jut out into the sea, as well as saunas, cafés and outdoor decking offering panoramic views over the city. On a small knoll nearby stands the impressive Uspenski Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox creation of gilded onion domes that’s one of the largest in Western Europe, with an interior that’s just as colourfully decorated as any you’d find in Russia.
A short walk away, the inside of Helsinki Cathedral is plainer by comparison, notable for a statue of Martin Luther gazing seriously down on visitors. The cathedral towers over the broad slope of Senate Square, which is bordered by atmospheric streets and alleys that remind me somewhat of Vienna, though Helsinki was in fact modelled on Paris and St Petersburg.
I walk up Aleksanterinkatu, passing the grand Kansallissali building that houses the Sibelius Finland Experience multimedia show, as rattling trams pass me by, then I turn back through Esplanade Park. This long expanse of green boasts a 200-year history; once the domain of wealthy merchants and their families, who promenaded up and down its paths enjoying the colourful flowerbeds, green lawns and statues of famous local luminaries, today it plays host to office workers grabbing lunch and soaking up the sun. The bar inside Hotel Kamp on its northern side was where independence was fomented early in the 20th century, while at its eastern end Café Kappeli has attracted the great and good of Finnish society for 150 years and was a regular haunt of the composer Jean Sibelius.
Back on the waterfront the Old Market Hall houses traditional shop stalls selling gravlax and other tasty foodstuffs, much as it has done since 1888. “Hei!” says one shop owner when I stop to browse – that being Finnish for “hello!” (To the amusement of many tourists, bye is “hei hei”.) I’ve stopped because a jar has caught my eye – it’s labelled “bear grease/tar soap” and I’m sorely tempted to buy it, but eventually decide the price is too high for what, to me, would be a mere novelty – I doubt whether my wife would use it…
In order to see as much of the city as I can during my brief stay, I buy a 24-hour myHelsinki Card (helsinkicard.com; €48) that gives free travel on public transport and access to regular hop-on hop-off sightseeing buses making a circuit of the city’s major attractions. Helsinki has the highest concentration of early 1900s Art Nouveau buildings in Europe, and a top-deck drive through districts filled with
Helsinki’s atmospheric streets remind me of Vienna, although it was in fact modelled on Paris and St Petersburg
Art Nouveau and Art Deco architectural highlights is a great start to the tour.
I hop off just down the road from the Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church), an architecturally unique place of worship quarried out of a solid rock hillock, with an incredible copper ceiling dome comprising 22 kilometres of wound copper tape. My next stop brings me to the Sibelius Park and Monument in a lovely green park by the sea. Its curious design comprises more than 600 hollow pipes of gleaming silver metal that create a humming noise when the wind is right. It looks like a dozen church organs have had their pipes mashed together. Small birds flit in and out of them, occasionally with insects held greedily in their beaks. Soon after I arrive a Chinese tour group descends, taking a thousand pictures within the space of minutes, then as quickly as they arrived they are gone, and peace returns.
The bus curls round onto the city’s main thoroughfare, Mannerheimintie, and I jump off between Finlandia Hall, created by the legendary architect Alvar Aalto, and the grey stone edifice of The National Museum of Finland. One of the country’s national symbols is a brown bear,
and a large stone statue of one sits by the stairs up to the museum’s entrance. Inside, the various exhibitions lead you through the story of Swedish and Russian domination, the struggle for independence, and elements of modernday Finland, throughout which the uniquely Finnish concept of sisu – meaning “guts”, “grit” or “hardiness” – shines, highlighting the courage and resilience needed for people to survive in the harsh climate and conditions of this northern land.
Come evening I board a Beautiful Canal Route water tour, which is also part of the myHelsinki Card deal. For 90 minutes the open-topped ferry sails through Helsinki’s harbour and waterways, passing the dramatic Suomenlinna island fortress, chugging through the forest-lined Degerö Canal, skirting Korkeasaari island where the zoo is situated, and finally slowing for a look at Finland’s impressive icebreaker fleet – the country’s nautical engineering is very advanced and some of the best icebreakers in the world are made and stationed here. Loudspeakers provide a commentary in four languages, but the wind off the water can be cold, so underdressed tourists are given blankets to keep warm as they gaze from side to side at the scenery.
On my final morning I walk down to Market Square waterside one more time and jump on a JT-Line waterbus for an island-hopping experience (from May to September). First stop is Vallisaari nature reserve, on the eponymous island that has been left in its wild state, and was only opened to the public in 2016.
It’s a lovely taste of a typical northern European forest, with oak, linden, beech and silver birch trees growing alongside evergreen larch and pines. Songbirds warble everywhere you go; in June the meadows are carpeted with flowers in yellow, violet and white, attracting insects that in turn feed thrushes, wagtails and other birds, which flit around fearlessly in front of walkers. This was an idyllic life for 200 villagers in pre- and post-war days, but now the houses have been abandoned. At the southern end of the island the 19th-century Alexander battery faces out to the open sea, the direction from which danger invariably approached.
Next is the Fortress of Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Finland’s top attractions. A naval bastion stronghold spread across six islands, it was begun in 1748 during the period when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden. Designed to command the sea approach to Helsinki, its most famous sites are the King’s Gate, the Great Courtyard and the large cannons dating from Russian rule, which are located in the southern part of the largest island, Kustaanmiekka.
However, there’s much more to see: the main museum explains the building of the fortress and former life for those living on the naval base; there are interesting boat yards, a large church and beautifully restored wooden houses that were once the residences of the merchants who supplied the naval garrison. Add to this Arts and Crafts shops, cafés, a toy museum and a dry-docked submarine that you can explore, and it’s clear a whole day could be spent here alone.
My time is running out, so I have one final port of call at the famous restaurant on Lonna island, then it’s back to Market Square and my hotel to collect my luggage, and a pre-booked taxi back to the airport for a set fee of €35. I’ve packed a huge amount into less than three days, but I know that’s just the tip of the iceberg. finnair.com/stopover; finlandtours.fi; visitfinland.com
Senate Square and Helsinki Cathedral
ABOVE LEFT: A statue of a brown bear marks the entrance to the National Museum of Finland
TOP: Helsinki has many brightly coloured buildings ABOVE RIGHT: The Sibelius Monument comprises more than 600 steel pipes RIGHT: Quarried out of bedrock, Temppeliaukio Church is one of Helsinki’s most popular attractions
ABOVE LEFT: Allas Sea Pool juts out into Helsinki’s main harbour and includes both a hot water and seawater poolABOVE RIGHT: The Fortress of Suomenlinna, built on six islands at the entrance of Helsinki’s harbour, is a UNESCO World Heritage site