I spent about seven months away last year in Europe, two of which were with a good friend from home.
There’s not many people in the world I could see every day for this length of time and still love them and while we didn’t always have the same opinion of the destinations we visited when it came to Helsinki, it was unanimous.
We didn’t rate it highly, but to be fair I guess it wasn’t entirely Helsinki’s fault really.
*So I want to start out by saying straight up that this isn’t a hate post, just my experience. I hope that the few places I got to and share below from my time here are still helpful for those looking to get some ideas of where to start in this city.*
We’d taken an overnight ferry from Sweden to Finland, which was spectacularly rocky across the Baltic Sea for a ship of its size.
Our bunks were on the lowest deck, so low in fact, that there was two levels of cars parked above us.
Think Leonardo Di Caprio in the Titanic and you’ve got a decent picture.
My friend providing an accurate summary of our ferry experience
The fear of certain death if we were to sink was quickly drowned out though by the fact that this ferry route is known for its partying.
Needless to say, following a buffet dinner featuring all you can drink, topped off with a karaoke bar and then a nightclub for good measure, the next morning we arrived in Helsinki a little worse for wear.
The Silja Line ship is the one we were on from Stockholm
The weather when we stepped off the ship didn’t make things better unfortunately.
It was horrendously cold, grey and drizzling the day we were there despite being the middle of summer.
It probably wouldn’t have felt so bad if the past few days in Stockholm hadn’t been so perfectly sunny!
As much as I try not to let things like the weather affect how I feel about a destination (for example, I think snow can make you enjoy a destination from an entirely different point of view) it certainly does make a deep impression on your experience.
Especially since so much of what Helsinki offers is outdoors. The best example being the UNESCO heritage listed island fortress of Suomenlinna.
There is no entrance fee but you do need to pay for the ferry ride, which is only a few euro from memory.
First construction began in 1748 when this area was owned by Sweden, it was later taken over by the Russians and has been a site for various military purposes since its inception.
Today, the few islands which comprise Suomenlinna are for the most part connected and have a variety of sites and cultural offerings, including museums. There are also guided tours available which is a great way to learn more about its history.
I can easily imagine how lovely it would be to enjoy a day here with a picnic lunch as it’s very green, open and tranquil.
Instead, in an attempt to escape the chill of outside we decided to check out what the Toy Museum on the island was about.
Really it was a small house converted into part museum, part café and the smell of fresh baking and warmth surrounded us as we entered. It was amazing.
Although there was some rather ominous looking displays (see below) made creepier by the fact that we were the only people there, the place did have an interesting range of toys throughout the years.
It also included the popular Moomin (hippo like) characters that are well known in Finland.
After leaving Suomenlinna when we could no longer take the relentless wind and rain, the highlight of our sightseeing for me back on the mainland was the Hakaniemi Market Square, which you immediately spot due to the bright orange tents everywhere.
This area is full of stalls selling souvenirs and a variety of food options, unsurprisingly there are many great seafood selections too.
Beware though of the mutant sized seagulls (3x the size of normal ones, so strange) that hang around in this area.
I left the table with a bite left in my hand, as I brought it to my mouth one of these giants swooped in right next to my face and stole it. It was actually pretty hilarious in retrospect once I recovered from the shock and the Finns around me obviously agreed by their laughter.
A short stroll from the market is Uspenski Cathedral. Being an Eastern orthodox structure it is rather decorated inside, as compared to the Lutheran Cathedral, which is still quite impressive to behold as it sits high above the Esplanade area. However, by stark contrast it is simplistic and plain inside compared to Uspenski.
Entrance into both cathedrals is free.
Uspenski Cathedral interior
Lutheran Cathedral interior
Yet another religious related popular site to visit in Helsinki is the Rock Church (Temppeliaukio Kirkko) which looks pretty unique and worth a look but sadly on our attempts to get to it we were delayed and got there just as it closed 😦
Another thing worth noting it that the brand Marimekko comes from Helsinki and you’ll notice a few stores around the place as a result. Check one out if you’ve heard of their colourfully styled goods.
While I’m still not sold overall on Helsinki from my day here and the atmosphere it gave off, I can recognise that it would have had more appeal with improved weather, but while I probably wouldn’t visit the city again I’d definitely return to Finland.
There’s no way of course you can judge an entire country by one, or even a couple of its cities and I’d especially like to get further up into the Lapland area and spot some Northern lights.. one day!