Helsinki, Finland's capital, is one of Europe's most interesting and enjoyable cities. Many first-time visitors associate Finland with extreme cold, but the summers—especially in the south—can be magically warm and flooded with light. Even in the depths of winter, daylight is short but present. Although sometimes the skies may be overcast, there are clear, sunny days when the city is illuminated by the sparkle of snow and the dazzling, frozen Baltic Sea.
In recent decades, many inhabitants of Finland's rural regions have migrated to the Helsinki metropolitan area, which has been growing at an amazing rate since the mid-1990s. Helsinki's citizens may have close ties to their rural roots, but they also have fallen in step with the urban beat. Their sense of style, innovation and design is evident throughout the city.
Visitors can stroll through any local park or square and will probably stumble upon an impressive piece of contemporary sculpture. Helsinki's sparkling nightlife and lively cafe culture add much to its travel appeal. Its terrace cafes are often packed with Finns and visitors alike.
Although not generally a city that wears its history on its sleeve, Helsinki offers fine examples of neoclassical architecture in the historic center around Senate Square. Although the city was founded in the 16th century, most of its architecture dates from the 19th century or later. The Helsinki skyline is still evolving as striking buildings emerge downtown.
Helsinki's bold architecture mirrors a national willingness to adopt new technologies and innovations. The head office of Nokia, the mobile-communications giant, is housed in a gleaming glass palace in Espoo, just west of Helsinki. But Finland's traditional roots are never far away. Finns, including Helsinki residents, regard cell phones and other wireless-based technologies simply as what they are: tools.
For relaxation, Helsinki residents and visitors turn to cross-country skiing, ice fishing, sailing and relaxing in the sun by the lake. Finns love fresh air and, even in winter, can be found stepping briskly through Helsinki's parks, around the islands and across the frozen harbor and lakes.
And after a brisk walk, what could be better than a hot gloggi (spiced wine) in one of the city's many bars? (Some even provide blankets for customers who wish to sit outdoors, though it is more common to find propane heaters—especially as smoking is not allowed indoors.)
Visitors to Helsinki shouldn't miss out on the national pastime—a sauna. It is usually followed by a jump into a nearby (chilly) lake to help keep the blood flowing.
Sights—The old island fortress of Suomenlinna; the view of the city from the tower of the Olympic Stadium or the sightseeing tower in Linnanmaki amusement park; the imposing walls carved out of the bedrock at Temppeliaukion Kirkko; the majestic Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square area including the harborfront market square.
Museums—Finnish modern and classical art, especially from the Romantic movement, at the Ateneum; the open-air museum of traditional rural buildings on the island of Seurasaari; the presentations of Finnish history at the National Museum; modern art at the spectacular Kiasma.
Memorable Meals—Muikku (a regional fish) with reindeer-liver mousse; crayfish, when in season; blini, or a bear steak; fried herring, beetroot and mashed potatoes at the earthy Sea Horse; sirloin of reindeer; Karelian stew; Finnish style tapas; salmiakki, local salty licorice candy.
Walks—Lazy strolls along the islands of Suomenlinna and Seurasaari; a walk around Kaivopuisto Park, with stops at various waterside bars; a walk around inland bay Toolonlahti.
Especially for Kids—The rides and attractions at Linnanmaki amusement park and the adjacent Sea Life aquarium; Suomenlinna toy museum; the Korkeasaari Zoo; exhibits, concerts and theater at The Cable Factory; in winter, sledding on the slopes of Koff park; The Heureka Science museum.
Helsinki is a good city for walking: Many of its sites are close together. The city is built on a peninsula, and its coastal promenades trace the shoreline. Forests that extend to Lapland in the north and Siberia in the east also reach close to the heart of the city.
Although Helsinki spreads east and west over several islands, the center of the city stretches north past the railroad station and south to the water, where several fingers of land jut out into the Gulf of Finland. There are a few attractions that will draw you farther north, but most places of interest lie in the city's center. The main north-south axis is Mannerheimintie on its west side, Hameentie on the eastern part of town. The east-west axes are the shopping streets of Bulevardi and the Esplanade. The intersection of these routes roughly marks the city center.
Even though the city has many prominent landmarks, such as the Olympic Tower and the Helsinki Cathedral, they are only sporadically visible, even though few city blocks extend higher than six or seven floors. Of infinite help are the street maps found at most major intersections. For a quick way to get your bearings, hop on a 2 Tram, which passes by most of the major landmarks.
Swedish King Gustaf Vasa founded Helsinki in 1550 as a commercial rival to Estonia's Tallinn. The idea was not an immediate success, and King Gustaf had to force people to migrate from the rest of the country—especially the west coast—to the new town, which was first located where the river Vantaa flows into the sea, several miles to the north of the present center. The anniversary of this edict, 12 June, is now celebrated as Helsinki Day.
In 1748, fearing the growing power of Russia, Swedish authorities began to fortify Helsinki's offshore islands, creating the impressive fortress of Sveaborg (now Suomenlinna). Nevertheless, in 1809, Russia took over Finland, ousting the Swedish rulers. The Grand Duchy of Finland was created, and Helsinki was declared its capital in 1812. In keeping with the city's new status, its wooden buildings were gradually replaced with landmarks made of stone. Most of them are standing in downtown Helsinki to this day.
During the turmoil of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Finland declared independence from Russia, and the Sovereign Republic of Finland was created, with Helsinki as its capital. Unfortunately, this move precipitated a short but vicious civil war between those who wanted a Communist state and those who did not, but Helsinki escaped the conflict unscathed. Ever since, Finland celebrates its Independence Day on 6 December.
The city then grew rapidly, with lots of new construction, such as the Olympic Stadium, which was originally intended for the 1940 Olympic Games. However, World War II broke out—during which Russia attempted, but failed, to regain the country—and the stadium did not host the Olympics until 1952. Helsinki was badly bombed by the Russians during the war, but the damaged areas were quickly rebuilt.
Since the 1950s, Helsinki has grown rapidly and has hosted a number of important intergovernmental conferences, especially between the former Soviet Union and the West.
Finland had extensive trading links with Russia and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, suffered an economic recession. It rapidly recovered, however, and in 1995 the country joined the European Union. Four years later, the country adopted the euro as its standard currency.
Unemployment, once a problem in Helsinki and other parts of the country, has fallen to European levels following Finland's integration with Western Europe. Culturally and socially, the city is as alive as it has ever been. In 2000, Helsinki was one of nine European Cultural Capitals, and in August 2005, it played host to the World Championship in Athletics, a major event that drew thousands of visiting athletes and spectators to the city. In May of 2007 it put on the Eurovision Song Contest, and in September 2009 it hosted the UEFA Women's Championship of Soccer. In 2012 it took on the role of World Design Capital.
Helsinki's two main passenger harbors—the South and West Harbors (Etelasatama and Lansisatama) are some distance apart. The Olympia Terminal at the South Harbour is close to and can be reached on foot from the downtown area—it's where the enormous Stockholm ferries (Viking and Silja Lines), many cruise ships and hydrofoils, and fast boats to Tallinn dock. Larger Tallinn ferries run from the West Harbor; Tram 9 from the railway station runs there. Both terminals are served by taxi ranks, which are well supplied when ships arrive. Both terminals have cafes but no tourist-information booths; there are mobile tourist-information services during the summer season.
Cruise ships dock in and around the South Harbor, as well as at Munkkisaari Quay in the Hernesaari area, with small souvenir shops. Taxis need to be ordered in advance to this arrival point, although most cruise operators organize shuttle buses to the city center. The downtown district is a 20- to 30-minute walk away.
Typical shore excursions include tours of Helsinki's notable architecture and historic sites (by foot, bike or bus), a boat tour of the Helsinki archipelago, an excursion to the medieval town of Porvoo, or a hiking-and-canoeing adventure in Nuuksio National Park.
In general, Finnish cultural practices differ little from those of the rest of Europe. It is customary to remove your shoes on entering a private house. This is not for religious reasons but merely a practical consideration to keep dirt out of the house. In wintertime, when the sidewalks are covered in slush and grit, many people carry a second pair of shoes to be worn indoors, changing from their outdoor shoes at the door.
The sauna is a way of life for Finns. Anyone staying with a family may be invited to join in the weekly sauna. These are usually taken in the buff, but bathing suits are permitted. Afterward you will almost certainly find yourself jumping into a cold lake. Business meetings often end with a sauna. These are unlikely to be coed, however.
Cell phones are widespread in Finland. They should always be turned off during meetings and at formal occasions.
Some Finns invite visitors out for a drink with the expectation that the host alone will pay. By all means offer to buy a round in return, but if the host refuses the offer, do not press it.
Do not be surprised—whatever your gender—if you are presented with flowers at a formal function. Accept them gracefully, take them back to the hotel, and ask the concierge to take care of them.
The tallest building in Helsinki is the 282-ft-tall Cirrus apartment building, a "skyscraper" of only 28 floors.
The ferries from Helsinki and Hanko to Stockholm and to a lesser extent, Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia, are much more popular as party cruises than transportation. But the cruise from Stockholm also meanders through some of the world's most beautiful archipelago scenery.
Finns reportedly have the world's highest rate of coffee consumption per capita—as much as nine cups a day.
Finland maintains a system of national emergency sirens, which can indicate anything from a major forest fire to a full-scale nuclear attack. The sirens in Helsinki are tested every 15th day of the month at noon. If that day is a Saturday or Sunday, the test is made on the following Monday.
The Finnish language doesn't have a future tense. Speakers can overcome that problem by inventive use of the verbs "to come" and "to intend."
Until the breakup of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Helsinki was used as a backdrop for movies set in Soviet Russia. Many residents remember the giant portrait of Lenin that adorned one facade during the making of Gorky Park, while many others got jobs as extras when Helsinki stood in for revolutionary Leningrad in Reds.
In 2007, Finland's "Person of the Year" was Bubi, an eagle owl who frequented the Olympic Stadium tower and who took a keen interest in sporting events—especially soccer. His fame originates from his interruption of an important game between Finland and Belgium when the bird distracted the Belgian goalie by sitting on his goal. The Finnish national team has been nicknamed the "Eagle Owls" ever since.
Sightseeing in Helsinki is more pleasant when the sun is out, making summer the best time for tourists to visit, but Finnish buildings, including all museums, hotels and restaurants, always offer warm relief, no matter how cold it gets outside.
High points include some fine examples of 19th-century art and architecture, which reflect the Swedish, Russian and other international influences on Finnish culture—especially as seen in the government buildings and churches around Senate Square. A pleasant walking route starts there, passes the Torikorttelit historical center with the adjacent Kiseleff House and surrounding shopping area, and concludes at the Russian Orthodox cathedral.
The city also has more than 40 museums, from collections of sports memorabilia at the Sports Museum to the two main art museums, the Ateneum and Kiasma, whose exhibits span nearly three centuries of Finnish art. The ultramodern Kiasma—itself a stunning work of 20th-century architecture—often displays cutting-edge exhibitions, most of which draw inquisitive crowds. Both museums are also great places to have lunch. Their cafes have very good, reasonably priced food.
Beyond the museums, you will find an assortment of amusement parks, zoos, parks and memorials. No summer visitor should leave Helsinki without taking the ferry to the old fortress island of Suomenlinna. It offers several museums and galleries, as well as pleasant walking trails and a miniscule bathing beach.
We highly recommend purchasing a Helsinki Card, available at the city tourist office, most hotels and various shops, including the Stockmann and Sokos department stores and R-kioski. The card provides unlimited public transportation in the Helsinki area, free admittance to most museums, discounts on a variety of guided tours and a free gift. It costs 39 euros for an adult one-day card, 17 euros for a children's (ages 7-16) card. Two- and three-day versions are also available. Purchasing a card online can save you 3 euros.
Helsinki has an ever-expanding variety of restaurants to suit most tastes, and many bars serve good food. Many, but not all, of the better restaurants are concentrated in the area south of the railway station. There's also a group of good restaurants, mostly specializing in Finnish cuisine, northwest of the railway station in the Toolo district. Another place to try is the boutique and gallery area south of Bulevardi.
If the restaurant scene has a weakness, it's the tendency of many places to close on Sunday—the perfect time to dine out in large parts of the world. But the number of eateries that do open on Sunday creeps up each year.
Watch for restaurants participating in the Helsinki Menu promotion, with representative set menus of their best Finnish fare.
In general, eating well in Helsinki means enjoying Finnish or Russian cuisine. Russian cuisine tends to be more gourmet, with an emphasis on meat and greater use of sauces. A really good borscht (beetroot and meat stew) is most welcome on foggy autumn nights.
It is a common misconception that eating Finnish food means eating only fish. Game birds, beef, lamb, reindeer, elk and even bear are all popular and readily available (though bear and some game birds are quite expensive).
Popular Finnish dishes include poro (reindeer), usually as a steak, but the traditional reindeer stew is worth trying. Typically served with a lingonberry sauce, smoked reindeer liver is a great delicacy and forms the basis for many starters and main courses. Kalakukko (fish pie that is more of a snack than a meal and not always found in restaurants) consists of layers of fish and pork encased in rye pastry. It's highly recommended but is found mainly in the Kuopio area farther north.
In Helsinki's excellent Russian restaurants, blini (pancakes), usually served as an appetizer with fish roe, sour cream and chopped onion, are delicious. Lohi (salmon) and siika (whitefish) are both of very high quality and are served in many different ways. Mushrooms of all varieties abound in Finland and are often used to form the basis of sauces for both meat and fish. Made (burbot) is an excellent fish that's not often served in other countries. Burbot-liver stew is a rare delicacy.
Crayfish are very popular when in season (typically late August). Be advised, however, of the Finnish custom: one glass of vodka, one crayfish; one glass of vodka, one crayfish; one glass of vodka, one crayfish, and so on. Hernekeitto (pea soup) is popular and tasty, prepared following a traditional Finnish (and nonvegetarian) recipe (although vegetarian versions do exist). It is traditionally served on Thursday and often followed with sweet pancakes.
The city also has a number of ethnic and international restaurants that are often a little more affordable than the Finnish places. Be aware that the food might not taste as you expect, as the ingredients used are not necessarily the same as those found in an original recipe. Burger and pizza restaurants are also extremely popular in malls and shopping areas, in Helsinki and across the whole country. These are good value for budget travelers, if not from a nutritional point of view.
People with food allergies will have little problem finding food in Finland. Most restaurants offer lactose-free and gluten-free versions of their dishes. If these are not specifically indicated on the menu, just ask.
In Finland, the government has a monopoly on selling alcohol, which affects retail as well as restaurant beverage prices. However, alcohol prices have fallen since Finland joined the EU; low- to medium-strength beer is sold freely now. Spirits and stronger alcoholic beverages can only be purchased through state-supervised Alko stores or in restaurants.
Breakfast is usually served 7-11 am and is almost universally included in hotel tariffs (in which case it is available earlier in the morning). Restaurants rarely open for lunch before 11 am—later on weekends—and lunch is generally served until 3 pm. Dinner is served 5-10 pm. Note that the majority of Finns dine early, so do not be surprised if you are invited to dine around 5 pm.
Dos & Don'ts
Do take flowers for your hosts if you're invited to a private home. Any good florist will advise on what is appropriate.
Do remove your shoes as you enter somebody's home unless specifically invited not to.
Don't be afraid to try speaking a few words of Finnish. Though most Finns in Helsinki speak excellent English, saying a few words will probably get you more than just a smile back.
Do remember that Finland was dominated for several hundred years by both Russia and Sweden and lost much land after World War II. Even though Finland is fairly well-off today, many Finns are still very sore about this fact. Do not speak flippantly about military history or make open comparisons between Finland and its neighbors.
Don't go overboard with drinking. Although heavy drinking may seem to be de rigueur for Finns, doing so as a visitor is not a good way to recommend yourself to your hosts, although it is polite to accept and try regional drinks, which are also often homemade, such as berry liquors.
Do accept an invitation to the sauna, but don't lose any sleep if you are not keen on the idea—most hosts will not be offended, although they will be very enthusiastic for you to sample this most Finnish of rituals. If you're skittish about nudity, it's fine to wrap a towel around yourself or wear a bathing suit. Most nervous first-time visitors usually wonder why they were nervous once they have taken the plunge.
Winter is long, dark and cold. It can also be spectacularly beautiful. First snow in Helsinki can be as early as October. Snow instantly brightens up the city, making the winter darkness much more bearable—especially on a clear and sunny day. Because of its closeness to the sea, Helsinki tends to be significantly warmer and damper than places inland, where winters tend to be cold, clear and crisp. Hours of daylight in winter are short, typically 10 am-4 pm, and decrease as you go north. Temperatures can fall rapidly as you move out of the urban environment, and a drop of five degrees over a mile or two is not unknown.
Spring is brief, usually lasting April and May. Change is very rapid, and plants can spring into bloom in a day. However, because of melting snow, the season tends to be damp everywhere. March-early May is probably not the best time to visit Finland.
Summers are long and sometimes surprisingly hot, with temperatures of 85 F not uncommon. Daylight lasts about 3 am-11 pm. In fact, at midsummer in Helsinki, there may be almost complete daylight. Some people have difficulty sleeping. Fortunately, most hotels and apartments are fitted with lightproof blinds.
Fall is short but beautiful, with wonderful displays of foliage on the trees. The colorful part of Finnish fall is called ruska. When the skies are clear, temperatures can fall rapidly at night, though this is less noticeable in the city itself.
Passport/Visa Requirements: Citizens of Canada and the U.S. need passports but not visas. Proof of onward passage and sufficient funds are needed for all, but rarely asked for. Reconfirm travel document requirements with carrier before departure.
Languages: Finnish, Swedish; many urban residents speak English.
Time Zone: 2 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+2 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is observed according to EU standards.
Voltage Requirements: 220 volts.
Telephone Codes: 358, country code; 09, city code;
Copyright ©2017 Northstar Travel Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
See More Sunsets Travel