Hello dear readers! Last time out on the blog I gave you a little introduction for my very first trip to Finland! I’ll pick up where that post finished so if you missed it, go give it a read!
Anyway, a rather nervous Jason had left Heathrow and was Helsinki-bound! My grandmother was Finnish, I’ve always had a love for all things Finland-related and I was worried that this mythical country that I’d built up in my head might not actually be as perfect as I’d believed it to be. I was desperate for Finland to deliver and be a place I adored.
It was nice flying with a new airline – flying with Finnair for the first time. I’d bagged a window seat too which meant I could enjoy the view as we began our descent in to Helsinki. The thing that really struck me from above was just how green Finland is. I don’t know what I’d really expected but Finland looked so pretty from the sky.
With the benefit of hindsight I don’t know what all the pre-departure fuss was about. We arrived in Helsinki and I’d seemingly remembered to pack my Finland-tinted glasses that made everything seem lovelier than is probably actually the case.
I arrived and straight away was raving about rather minuscule and insignificant details – “Helsinki’s airport is so nice..”
I hadn’t even left the airport and I was already swooning over Finland, insistent that this was one of the nicest airports I’d ever been to. So clean and spacious and modern before arriving at the security gates and making my exit.
A quick scan of the passport and I was officially into the country! From there I wandered on over to the airport’s train station. The staff at the station were very helpful and seemingly happy to help with any queries – although the ticket machines were pretty straight forward (English available) and it wasn’t long before I was boarding a train to central Helsinki. First impressions were promising.
I found a seat on the train and just to my left was this little girl sat up by the window and singing what sounded like a nursery rhyme with her dad. A precious, magical, beautiful moment. Use whatever adjective you like but I was smitten already – it sounded angelic despite understanding none of the lyrics.
Our lovely train ride ended at Helsinki’s main train station. We all departed and, to my shock, white stuff was suddenly falling from the sky.
Snow!? There had been no mention of snow in the forecast before the trip, I wasn’t anticipating snow whatsoever. Certainly not in May but this is Finland, this was Disneyland to me! Of course it’s snowing! What a perfect arrival!
I was now convinced that Finland was a land of magic and fairytales! A land of nursery rhymes and snow, home to the likes of Santa and
I don’t think the Finland-tinted-specs ever came off over the remainder of the weekend. If you’re hoping for some objective opinions on Finland I’m probably not the best person to ask – I couldn’t find fault with it.
“Look at that ominous black hole in the middle of the street. I’ve never seen anything like that on my travels! Isn’t Finland wonderful!?”
I’d arrived to nursery rhymes and snow. After genuine fear I’d not like Finland at all, I’d been won over instantly. I’d arrived in a land that I’d known all my life and yet oddly felt like I’d come home. I can’t explain it. I’d never been here before but somehow I felt at ease in Helsinki, almost like part of me belonged here.
Looking back I don’t know if Finland is actually that amazing. If you’re reading this and thinking “damn, I need to book a trip to Finland ASAP” then prepare to be underwhelmed because I can’t say what it’s like for people without the emotional attachment I had. Perhaps I didn’t ever even see the real Finland but I refuse to believe it was anything other than perfect. The magic and emotions had swept over me and consumed me for the remainder of the weekend.
I left the train station in disbelief that I’d actually arrived to snow. If I could have asked for any weather scenario to have arrived into the country this would have been it and I immediately grabbed a photo as some sort of photographic memory to mark the moment – magical!
I think it’s fascinating how much my mental state has an impact on a destination. The first impression goes a long way towards that.
I liken it to Nashville, I stepped off the bus in downtown Nashville and immediately heard music from somewhere and knew that “Music City” was somewhere I was going to love. In contrast it took me a long time to warm up to New Orleans because my first impressions of the city weren’t great. Skyscrapers, casinos and huge shopping malls in the heart of New Orleans was not at all what I was expecting before the trip.
In contrast I think my mood as soon as I’d arrived in Helsinki was so pro-Finland that I was never not going to enjoy this trip. I walked away from Helsinki’s train station aimlessly – nowhere to go, nowhere to be but without a care in the world.
Rather than remain wrapped up nice and warm I whipped my hat off, keen to feel the snow falling and I was bliss. You might be pondering if snow in Finland is somehow different to snow anywhere else in the world and no, I suppose it isn’t but common sense went out of the window and feeling it fall rather than retreating to somewhere warm seemed the only logical option. I spent the next half an hour or so just wandering aimlessly in the cold – “let’s go explore in this direction!”
My first real glimpse of Helsinki saw me pass the national museum of Finland before walking through a couple of parks, perfectly content getting lost in the city before trying to find my bearings.
Nevertheless, it was pretty cold so after a bit of time walking with no real purpose I decided I should probably figure out where I now was in relation to where my hotel was. After a quick look at Google Maps I realised I’d wandered off in the opposite direction of where I actually wanted to be so I did a U-Turn and headed back in a vague direction of the Kallio neighbourhood that I was staying in.
It was still a bit too early to check in to my hotel so I figured I’d try and find a spot for lunch on the way. I hadn’t intended for my first meal in Finland to be something foreign, infact I wasn’t really intending to visit this restaurant at all this weekend but by coincidence I happened to stumble upon Helsinki’s Hard Rock Cafe (HRC) and took it as a sign to pop in.
Long time followers will know that I’ve visited a few HRC’s on my travels and it was nice to tick another of their restaurants off of my list. There was still plenty of time for more local delicacies before leaving Finland, right?
I surprisingly found that Finland wasn’t as expensive as I was expecting. Perhaps all the talk of it being expensive had me well prepared for the cost of things but I didn’t find it overly extortionate. More distressing was that I ordered a meal and a drink and my beer arrived with a chunk of it missing! The head of the beer had seemingly disappeared and rather than top it up I was short-changed in to 90% of the glass containing beer. Can I not have a full pint please?
I figured it was just how things are here but that was the only real disappointment of the visit. I had a seat by the window and a nice view, a nice atmosphere and enjoyed my lunch before heading back out in to the cold.
I still didn’t quite have my bearings with Helsinki. I’m sure there was a more direct route to the hotel from the restaurant so I unintentionally ended up taking the more long-winded route which took me via Helsinki’s gorgeous cathedral – towering over the square.
I don’t know if this is again just Finnish bias flowing through me but I love it. It is a stunning bit of architecture and easily one of my favourite buildings that I’ve seen anywhere on my travels. A cathedral to rival the likes of St Paul’s in London, Florence’s Duomo & the Sacre Couer in Paris which are some of my other favourites that I’ve seen in the flesh. Plus Peterborough’s too of course!
Admittedly there’d been snow and it was cold but being a Saturday I was quite surprised at how quiet the cathedral square was. It’s a pretty large square but I had it near enough to myself and could only admire the cathedral in all its glory. Make a mental note I thought – “I’ll definitely be coming back here!”
I continued onwards to my hotel – I was staying in a Hilton just by the water in the neighbourhood of Kallio. The location was excellent and it was a nice hotel to base myself for the next couple of nights.
I didn’t do an awful lot with the rest of my evening. I mostly used it as an opportunity to find my bearings in the city, get some dinner and have a fairly early night. I was quite keen to get a good sleep and then an early rise the next morning.
I kicked off my Sunday morning with a little wander by the water. Yesterday’s snow was a distant memory and I’d woken up to glorious blue skies, it was still a little cold but much better weather for exploring the city.
I was keen to go and find somewhere to get some breakfast so strayed from the water and back up towards the Kallio area. The first thing that really caught my eye was the the Kallion Kirkko (church of Kallio). It was an interesting looking building so I was intrigued and headed in that direction.
It’s a beautiful building and the front of it, I thought, was so unique. I decided I’d grab some food before paying a visit and found a small Russian restaurant just across the street which seemed ideal. The woman, who I presumed to be the owner, spoke pretty much no English which was a nice novelty. Although my Finnish was little better (I knew a few words at the time) and even less Russian so I had to hope I’d communicated well enough to order what I’d like!
It was a nice place and I grabbed a seat by the window to admire the view. The service was nice enough. Unfortunately the restaurant in question doesn’t look to be there any more, I was hoping to name-drop it here but Google suggests it’s now a sushi restaurant so I guess it either closed down or moved elsewhere. Shame as I’m sure it was a popular breakfast spot before church.
After finishing breakfast my plans were to do just that – have a look around the church. Unfortunately it appeared to be closed. Reflecting back I’m not sure that actually was the case, it was a Sunday after all and Google suggests that they would have been open. Perhaps my limited Finnish misled me (I vaguely recall reading a sign that turned me away) or perhaps they were already in service and had closed their doors temporarily but something convinced me they were closed and so I wandered off back down towards the water.
To be honest I didn’t really have any sort of plan for my entire time in Helsinki. This was very much a “wing it” kind of trip in the end. One of my fellow bloggers, Marion, is also a Finland enthusiast so I’d read a good 30-odd posts on Finland before my trip that really whet the appetite and gave me so many ideas and so much inspiration that then remarkably saw me have nothing planned in the end.
I think I was so content just to have finally visited Finland that I wasn’t really too concerned about how I spent my time. I wanted to see a few things but mostly I just wanted to be here in Finland, getting a little glimpse of life in Helsinki and retracing the same steps my grandmother had likely stepped growing up.
I left Kallio with no direction or plan, pondering where to go next. I started wandering back towards the heart of Helsinki, over the bridge and across the water before changing my mind and pondering whether a trip to Linnanmäki theme park might actually be a better way of spending my morning.
It’s a little unique for a theme park to be so close to the city and I recall Marion mentioning that there is no admission fee. If you wish to ride anything there is a charge but you can wander around the grounds for free and I pondered how many places you could do such a thing. I wanted to see the sights and such in Helsinki but I was also really interested in seeing Finns in their natural element – how many locals spend their weekend at an amusement park on a nice sunny day? Linnanmäki opened in 1950 and I thought about how many times my grandma or her family had possibly stepped foot in the park.
Finally a plan of action! Following in the footsteps of many a Finn of the last 70 years! There are easier and quicker ways to get to Linnanmäki I’m sure but given it was a nice sunny day I decided to walk. I enjoy walking when I travel – a great way to familiarise yourself with your surroundings and also see more of a city.
I kicked things off with a walk through Kaisaniemen Puisto (or Kaisaniemi park) where I stumbled upon Kaisaniemi’s Botanical Gardens. I don’t think it’s somewhere you’d feel a need to go out of your way for but it was nice to have a little wander through before continuing my journey.
The rest of the walk took me parallel with the train tracks and through other park and forested areas. Despite not being very far from the city at all it felt very remote and peaceful. Along the way I encountered a few pretty villas and other buildings that I’m sure make a nice retreat from the city – not that Helsinki felt particularly hectic in comparison to other big cities or capital cities.
Again, I’m not sure that my explorations took me via the most direct route to the amusement park because after a bit of walking I came across Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium – an unexpected encounter.
I might have been tempted by a stadium tour but unfortunately the stadium was closed for renovations at the time. It has since re-opened but I had to settle for admiring it from the outside. Perhaps I just approached it from an unnatural direction but it did take me by surprise in comparison to other Olympic stadiums that I’ve come across. The last thing you’re expecting to find after a walk through the woods is a stadium pop out of nowhere.
After an odd detour I followed the last stretch of forested area towards Linnanmäki which took me through an underpass of sorts with interesting artwork before an uphill climb to the amusement park.
As I drew closer one thing that really struck me was just how quiet it was. It made me unsure that I was heading in the right direction. I don’t think it’s a particularly walk-friendly park to get to and I don’t think I’d taken the most direct of routes but there was so few people around that it still took me by surprise. Perhaps people take public transport or drive to the park but it was unnerving.
A little climb and a few minutes later I realised why – the park was closed! It wasn’t really apparent why but the sign read that they were closed until the afternoon which meant I’d struck out twice already this morning. Two sights or attractions visited and thwarted by both – the “wing it” plan was coming back to bite me.
Had I had a shorter wait I might have hung around but I had a good bit of time and there’s not really anything nearby so I abandoned my morning plans and ventured back in to town.
Fortunately it was a nice day at least. My morning had been a bit of a bust so far but exploring in the Helsinki sunshine made up for it a little bit. I walked back towards the heart of the city with the cathedral in my sights.
Despite the bright blue skies Helsinki still felt pretty quiet, the cathedral square was a little busier than the day before but not much moreso. Where are the tourists at!? Helsinki was peaceful.
I had a look around the cathedral before heading on over to the waterfront where another cathedral stood – the Uspenski Cathedral. Incidentally, Wikipedia claims this is the largest orthodox church in Western Europe which I find a fascinating claim.
“Western Europe..” – as far as Europe is concerned you can’t go too much further East than Helsinki, it’s not much more West than Istanbul! Where does Eastern Europe begin if we’re throwing Helsinki in to the Western side? Given how far to the North Finland is I don’t think of Finland in the same sense as many Eastern Europe countries but Western Europe, really?
Anyway, Uspenski Cathedral sits in a picturesque spot right by the water. It’s free to visit so I popped my head in and looked around.
Ironic given its claim but I found its interior to actually be pretty small, I don’t think all of the church is accessible to the public which is why but truthfully I doubt that there’s a religious site that I’ve spent less time in than this one. Its interior is pretty but quite a limited space and I don’t think I’d have missed anything had I just skipped a visit and admired its exterior. It is free so I won’t discourage you from visiting but with nowhere to really go or wander I was in and out of there pretty quickly, retreating back out in to the Helsinki sunshine.
I grabbed some lunch somewhere close by and pondered what to do next. I swung back by the main cathedral’s square and decided to jump on a bus for a tour of the city.
Technically it was a hop-on, hop-off bus but I decided to just do a full loop of the bus journey. It’s actually quite rare that I do these kind of tours, I usually just walk everywhere when I travel so it was a nice change of pace and allowed me to just sit back and take in the scenery. I had a vague plan for my final day in the city but hoped the tour might offer a little more inspiration on what to do tomorrow.
Included within the tour was a recorded audio guide which actually ended up being really good – the right dose of information and humour that made me chuckle a few times along the way. I dare say one of the best audio guides I’ve listened to on such a tour but you know, those Finland goggles right? Or I suppose headphones in this case?
From start to finish the tour takes around 90 minutes so you do get to see quite a sizeable amount of Helsinki. Some of the landmarks and architecture were pretty cool to look at and I pinpointed a few sights to try and return to before saying goodbye to Helsinki.
Feeling a little more content that I’d seen some of Helsinki my attention turned towards evening plans. I hadn’t really done much on my first night so I was keen to go and enjoy a night out in Helsinki. Good food, a few beers, what could go wrong?
More on that next time!