Somewhat controversially I decided to take a solo trip straight after getting married, so with two fingers up to the patriarchy I boarded my Norwegian Air flight to Helsinki. Not having done a huge amount of research and expecting something similar to other Nordic countries I have visited, it was pleasantly surprising to be wrong.
Arriving in to the city the first thing you will notice is the train station, the Finnish Jugend style influenced by Russian national romanticism. I saw it often over the weekend and it became my favourite building, reminding me of Fritz Lang’s film ‘Metropolis’. Helsinki is an architecture lover’s delight with such a variety of historical influences and styles, on top of a clear desire to embrace the modernist movement.
My do not miss list – Kiasma, Senate Square, Uspenski Cathedral, Kamppi “Silent” Chapel, Finlandia Hall, the Esplanadi, and Temppeliaukio “Rock” Church. Helsinki is reasonably sized and very walkable so the above can be done in 1 day, alternatively you could take the vintage Soviet trams for a brief glimpse in to a bygone era.
Something else you might pick up on is that the street signs are not only in Finnish but Swedish too, even the capital city is officially called Helsingfors (the Swedish for Helsinki). With the Finns having traversed political tight ropes with Denmark, Sweden, and the Soviet Union for centuries I’m not surprised they appear indifferent to such concessions. In fact if you are planning to visit then 2017 is opportune – being the centenary year of their independence. I headed over to Suomenlinna Fortress Island very early the next morning to learn a little bit more about this history.
Suomenlinna (or Sveaborg) was conceived by the Swedish in 1748 as a working sea fortress, taken over post-war by the Russians in the 1800s and finally repatriated to the Finns after independence. Arriving at 9.30am the island was inconspicuously serene and I wandered around undisturbed until boat loads of tourist groups turned up, squawking and papping anything from fortress architect Augustin Ehrensvärd’s grave to the ferry ticket machines. Hastily escaping the crowds, I found the Southern tip of the Island and stared out to the Baltic Sea. Near by were some suspiciously hobbit-like houses.
Back on land at the opulent Esplanade Cafe I ate a cheap, plentiful version of the famed Finnish salmon and dill soup. Carb heavy and filling it was just the trick after all that walking outdoors. Generally though, aside from the soup and cinnamon rolls, the food was pretty uninspiring. During a very tired sugar-low moment, I managed to pick up a tasty treat which turned out to be a chewy rice pudding / potato skin creation resembling an ear. Yum.
Eschewing some of the larger attractions, the Design Museum was my top choice for culture. Superbly curated, it is a concise but fascinating exhibition which demonstrates how the Finns used design as a way of forging a new national identity after long spells of being colonised. Even if that isn’t your cup of tea the surrounding Design District is an area chock-full with cool artisan boutiques and cafes. For the coffee geeks like myself the Kaffa Roastery is near by and as the name suggests there is a micro-roastery on site.
On my way back to the centre taking a detour through one of the city’s many green spaces I stumbled upon an informal jumble sale. Mostly second hand high street wear and household knick-knacks, likely a few gems amongst the tat for those with the patience. Seemingly this was not a one off event, whenever I came a to a neighbourhood park there was another jumble sale. Oddly endearing, especially when one lady tried to sell me an old Spice Girls book for 1 euro.
A big regret – though I suppose an excuse to return – was missing out on the legendary Finnish sauna experience. Nearing the end of my trip I turned up at 2pm to the local Kallio district sauna, it remained shut despite the website indicating otherwise. No matter though as it gave me an opportunity to peruse the hipster area which unlike most cities (I’m looking at you Shoreditch and Brixton!) has not undergone a significant amount of gentrification yet. Drunks slumped against closed pubs, next to a plethora of peep shows and massage parlours, next to vintage shops and a vegan cooperative. Seedy and a little bit weird, I enjoyed it.
I have every intention of going back to Helsinki someday; it may not be as cool as Copenhagen, as rich as Oslo or as beautiful as Stockholm but it is certainly cheaper and has its own “je ne sais quoi”, or whatever the Finnish equivalent is!