In my mind Helsinki has always been one of those cities that you end up visiting almost “by accident”. Maybe as a stopover on a plane trip, or maybe you had to go on business and visited it in the spare time work left you, or maybe as one stop in a multi city trip. But it is quite unusual to hear someone say Helsinki was the main destination of their trip and they had always wanted to go there and get to know it in-depth.
And, to be fair, even if Helsinki is not one of the “places not to miss under any circumstances” in Europe, it is possible to spend one or two very pleasant days wandering around and enjoying what it has to offer. Most of the must see places are close to each other, so it is possible to walk everywhere and there is no need to take buses or taxis. I must say that the post is a little bit tricky since I did not see all of the things described below in just one day (In fact I have been twice, once in the summer and the second one in November), but you can cover most of them in just one day if you organise the day efficiently.
Dates: a day and a half at the end of August 2004 and 5 days in mid-November 2008.
HARBOUR AREA AND SURROUNDINGS
The harbour is the neuralgic centre of the city and the area where you can find most of the interesting things to sightsee. In fact what I liked the most about Helsinki was its open spaces even in the city centre and the feeling of amplitude and openness to the sea. If the sun is shining the harbour area increases its appeal greatly, although it also has a charm with snow, a sort of climate that you feel it belongs to.
One of the top visits and a definite must see is the fortress island of Suomenlinna, listed as UNESCO World Heritage site. It is only reachable by a ferry departing every 20 minutes from the harbour. Once in the island you can walk around the fortress walls (built by the Swedish in 1748) and check the different military barracks and buildings now transformed into museums. A popular attraction is a submarine also converted into a museum. The views from Suomenlinna walls are fantastic: the Gulf of Helsinki and the Baltic Sea in the background, the many islands that dot the Bay, the panorama of the harbour and the city centre…in 2-3 hours you can see the island fairly well unless you plan to go into each and every museum.
The most popular areas to visit are the two main squares: Senate Square and Market Square. The big and wide open Senate Square, designed by C.L. Engel as the other buildings surrounding it during the first half of the XIX century, connects the city centre with the harbour. The building that dominates not only the square but the city is the Cathedral, built during a 22 years span (1830-1852) in a neoclassic style. Her shiny white colour offers a good contrast with the pale red bricks of the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, a bit further to the East, also on top of a promenade and visible from almost any place in the harbour and the Bay. The other two buildings flanking the square are the Senate and the University.
Market square is by the harbour and faces the Gulf. Usually is one of the most lively areas during the day, with stalls selling Finnish food and souvenirs (like the typical Scandinavian fur hats). A real classic thing to eat is a raw herring with chopped onions. It is good but the taste is quite strong, leaving you with herring’s aftertaste for the rest of the week, so not advised for honeymooners. During the summer it gets really crowded with people from the visiting cruise liners.
The two main arteries of the centre offer a pleasant stroll: the pedestrian Aleksanterinkatu and the very long Mannerheimintie with their beautiful Art Noveau buildings. One thing that caught my attention was that there are many streets and monuments named after people related to the Russian Empire. (Aleksanterinkatu after Aleksandar I, other streets crossing it are all named after his family, there is a statue of Aleksander II in front of the cathedral). Somehow I thought that after the bitterness left by the Winter War (Soviet invasion of Finland during WWII) they’d have deleted all the positive references to the Russian invader, but it seems that the Finnish people and government decided to leave the things as they were before the war.
A BIT FURTHER FROM THE HARBOUR
Temppeliaukio Church, excavated in a rock and with a crystal dome that lets the sunlight in, was interesting and is worth a visit. I went during the evening and it was empty. Going there gives you a good chance to walk around a more residential area with less tourists.
I also liked the Olympic area, where the Olympic Stadium and many other of sport halls are. In order to go there you need to continue going up Mannerheimintie (heading north), passing Töölönlahtiy Lake and the Opera. It is a 35 minute walk from the harbour. The stadium was built in the late 30s as Helsinki was going to be the site for the Summer Games in 1940 but WWII delayed the occasion till 1952.
If you are there during the winter and even if Ice Hockey is not your cup of tea, try not to miss one game of the SM-liiga, one of the best Ice Hockey leagues in Europe. There are 2 teams from Helsinki and one of them, HIFK, plays at Helsinki Ice Hall, just by the Olympic Stadium. I bought a ticket the same day of the game, just an hour before. Price was 18€ back in 2008 and I had a great time. At least the day I went the public was very calmed compared with Spanish football and basketball games.
During the summer there was DJ live music happening in the parks. It was crowded but still comfortable to be around, with people sitting and chatting rather than dancing, listening to the music in the background and not paying that much attention to the DJ on the stage.
A GOOD PLACE TO EAT
Out of the different places I tried for lunch/dinner, the best one was one recommended by LP, Ravintola Kuu (web is in Finnish but you find the address on it). I ordered Baltic fried herrings and they were superb. Main dish + beer + dessert was 31€ back in 2008. I found Helsinki quite expensive for eating out and accommodation, pairing with Dublin and Moscow for the most expensive capitals I have been to. Not sure why London has such a bad reputation as a very expensive city. Trying to find something cheaper I tried a pizzeria (Virgin Oil Co) and the bill came to 29€, so next day I decided to go back to Kuu since it was so much better.
Some other useful notes: the taxi from the airport to the centre was 36€ (in 2008). When I went on business I stayed at Hotel Scandic Continental (4*), in front of Töölönlahtiy Lake. Very good hotel, Scandinavian style with clean and comfy rooms. Price was £93, with a (good) breakfast buffet included. You could use their bikes for free.
If you happen to have a few free days in Helsinki the best you can do is take a ferry and visit Tallinn for at least a couple of days. It is much more beautiful, cheap and fun, but that is a different story and for a different post.