Helsinki – the capital of Finland and on the “to travel” list of many wanderlust people. I must admit I always wanted to go, but it was never really high on top; I had no idea what I would see or do, not even what Helsinki is famous for. Well, let me tell you a story of how I came to be €20 away from a day in Helsinki and how Internet and fellow travellers came to my aid.
I was given an opportunity to spend two weeks in Tallinn for a business trip and, while there, I found a return ferry ticket to Helsinki for €20 on the one weekend I had free. As I was working during the daylight, I did not want to spend the whole weekend away from Estonia so I decided on only one day in the capital of Finland and I decided to make it count. I started googling things to do in Helsinki (in a day) and in general what is there to see. After a couple of hours and dozens of articles and posts, I made myself a crude list and a battle plan for the last Saturday of November; I would make this one day trip amazing!!
I took one of the earliest ferries from Tallinn, the 7 o’clock one that got me to Helsinki for about 9 in the morning. The ship was massive, but my enthusiasm for it was quickly extinguished once I got on board – it was a big shopping centre on water; if you wanted to sit at a table you had to buy food, drinks of whatever (of course, overpriced) and the couple of benches they put in quickly got filled up by other travellers. I ended up sitting on the floor in a quieter part of the ship, close to one of the doors leading out to the deck as I wanted to read my book in peace (I was in the middle of rereading the Harry Potter series :D).
Alas, it was not to be; a herd of wild children found it the pinnacle of entertainment to constantly run in and out the doors spending literally 10 seconds on the freezing deck and then back inside. All this was, of course, followed with screaming and shouting. It was 7.30 on a Saturday morning, and the icy Baltic air was swooshing through the door and around my increasingly frozen person sitting on the floor. Moving to another part of the ship did not help as the little brats followed me and continued to fill my trip with the sweet sounds of their people -.-
Getting into the Helsinki bay during the sunrise did give some amazing photo opportunities that were worth braving the freezing (and empty) deck with the north wind whipping my face. Once off the ship, I used their public transport app HSL and got myself a day ticket (adult €9) that can also be used on the ferry to Suomenlinna (otherwise, the return ticket is more than €5), Basically, if you would buy more than 3 single tickets, the day one is worth it; I used it as I only had the one day and wanted to see several things. And it was cold… So cold…
My “things to do” list for the day looked like this:
- Market Square Kauppatori
- Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral
- Helsinki Senate Square
- Helsinki Cathedral (Tuomiokirkko)
- Esplanadi Park
- Temppeliankio Church – Rock Church
- Rantatientori Metro Station
- Helsinki Station Square
- National Library (unfortunately, closed on weekends)
- try reindeer meat (for your average carnivore)
- Have coffee at the Moomin cafe
It was quite an ambitious list but I did say I was going to make this one day count 😀
First stop was Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, closest to the ferry port. With its red bricks and golden cupolas, you can’t help but think of Mother Russia and the influence it obviously had on Finland throughout the history. I did not go inside, but looking at photos online, the walls are covered in iconography and the eyes hurt from the amount of gold.
After snapping some photos of the cathedral itself and the view from there (you can see the Helsinki Cathedral) I walked down to the Market Square. There were only a few stalls but they had really nice things to offer. Some looked very traditional and like perfect souvenirs, some could be used in case you had thought that Finnish late autumn is nothing to worry about and hadn’t brought hat/gloves/scarf.
The ferry to Suomenlinna can be taken from the market. Once onboard, sitting outside gives a view, unobstructed by windows or kids glued to the glass, but it does remind you how far up north you are. The whole trip is about 20 minutes.
Suomenlinna (original name Sveaborg) is a sea fortress built over eight islands and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is very popular with tourists, especially in warmer months so if that is when you are visiting, prepare for crowds. I visited end of November with the daylight temperature of -9 Celsius and there were still quite few people on the ferry and the islands themselves.
From wooden houses to several museum (check opening times) and apparently the last surviving Finnish submarine that somehow managed to escape my research until now! the islands are quite lovely to roam around. There are a couple of tiny cafes dotted around where you can grab a hot drink and a quick bite (trust me, you’ll need them in the cold).
If I could redo this trip again, one thing I would do differently is to NOTICE THE ISLAND MAP ONBOARD THE FERRY! There is the map of the Suomenlinna islands on the ferry to help you navigate the islands and see what you can do and where to go. I, however, failed to notice this until my return trip and only then did I realise that I saw only one island. Don’t get me wrong, even that one island took almost an hour; I would not have had that much time for the rest of Helsinki if I did a few more. Nevertheless, it still irks me that I missed so many things on Suomenlinna!
On the way back to the city, I braved the cold and stayed outside on the ferry. The day was cloudless and the sun felt nice on the tiny bit of my face that was exposed to the elements. The view was lovely and you had seagulls chasing the ship trying to rob unsuspected tourists of any scrap of food they might have had in their hands.
There is the map of the Suomenlinna islands on the ferry to give you a clue what you can do and where to go.
Old Market Hall
Once back on dry land, I popped into the Old Market Hall for a bite to eat. I got myself a sandwich with reindeer meat as that was the cheapest thing I could find that was “very Finnish”. I was not that impressed with the reindeer meat. It was mentioned on so many sites as something very Finnish, but I just didn’t see it. Yes, it was tasty, but it did not taste much different to the usual meat you eat (beef/pork). Maybe I should have had it in a different dish…
The market itself is very picturesque with dark wooden stalls lining the narrow passages, people from different backgrounds everywhere you look. It looked quite multicultural and it was noticable in the food offered as well. There were many things to choose from and they all came with a steep price tag. As the rest of Scandinavia, Finland is quite expensive 😦 However, the food looked really fresh and most of the food looked mouth-watering. From the market I went straight to Esplanadi park which is right next to it. I came back later in the afternoon when night fell and
Ticking off the list
It was now about 13.00 o’clock, cca 3 more hours of daylight left. This is where my day ticket came to shine. I hopped on the tram (the transport app has a map to help you get where you need to go) and went all the way to Sibelius park; there was a metal sculpture I wanted to see (on the right). Isn’t it brilliant?!
The park is situated by the bay so it gives a view of Seurasaarenselkä, a part of the Helsinki bay, home to some of the islands and a good place to see wooden houses on the water. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful, crisp day, all I wanted to do was sit on the bench by the water and enjoy the day. Although, I probably would have gotten pneumonia
From Sibelius park I continued towards the Temppeliankio Church/Rock Church, the Parliament, Kiasma museum and the stations; they were quite close and walking took maybe a couple of minutes longer than public transport. By walking I got to see a bit more of the city and I also stumbled upon the National History Museum.
The Rock Church was closed for viewing until later on in the afternoon (the times I saw were 14.45-17.00, this was end of November). It was about 14.00 and I had more things to see so I didn’t want to waste 45 minutes of daylight in the neighbourhood as there was not much there to see. I moved on, planning to come back later.
The Parliament, Kiasma museum (I saw only the outside, I am not a big fan of contemporary art) and the Helsinki Station Square can all be seen in about 15-20 minutes. I have to admit, at first glance I was not impressed with the Station Square. Sure, it looked nice, but I did not know why it was put as a must see on so many different sites. However, seeing it from a higher perspective, it does look quite amazing. I am not sure if there are any viewpoints around, there probably are.
At this time the cold really started getting to me and despite all my layers. I started shivering. It was time to get to Moomin cafe and warm up. But, alas, this too was closed* so I popped to a nearby cafe, I believe it was called Espresso Edge.
It was warm, quiet, had coffee and free Wi-Fi. It was perfect. I got so comfortable I could not force myself out in the cold to go see the inside of the Rock Church. By the time I left the café it was 16.40 and there was not enough time to go to the Church and actually have a look around. I continued my sightseeing on foot towards the market square visiting the rest of my list. I even managed to see some random buildings that were not on my “amazing list” like House of the Estates and The Bank of Finland (Suomen Pankki).
I could not enjoy the Tuomiokirkko and the Senate Square as much as I would have liked because it was getting so bitingly cold I could not hold my camera steady enough to take a non blurry photo nor could I just stand there for 5 minutes to take in the surroundings. It was time to continue with my journey and find a warm place to wait for my ferry.
One thing you all need to know, Helsinki looks super festive adorned with Christmas decorations. Even with the cold it was really nice walking through the streets following the Christmas lights that gave the city a warm glow. I walked through the Esplanadi park. It looked spectacular with all the Christmas lights on. Finns use the reindeer as their best weapon for holiday cheer; they decorated the lampposts with branches covered in fairy lights to make them look like antlers and it works perfectly.
My trip ended when I found a café I had visited when I travelled to Sweden back in March. I knew it served mouth-watering hot coffee and cinnamon buns. I was done for the day, I spent the time I had left before the ferry back sipping on the delicious liquid of life and catching up with my messages that piled up during the day.
I found Helsinki absolutely lovely and would love to see it again for a couple of days and preferably in summer time. Maybe I can make a better list next time.
*back in 2018 Google was showing the Moomin café as permanently close. Another quick search in November 2020 shows that the café is actually open! If you’re ever in Helsinki, it’s another place you can visit 🙂
Is Finland one of the countries on your travel list? What interest you most about it? Start a chat in the comment section below, I’d love to know how people see this country.