We arrived in Helsinki on Day 4 of our Moscow-St Petersburg-Helsinki-Tallinn-Riga trip, on the 11.30am Allegro from St Petersburg. The train journey itself was quite unremarkable except few flashes of the beautiful countryside with gleaming lakes and tall pine-y trees. The best thing about traveling by train is that immigration is done on the train itself while you are sitting an enjoying your coffee. And its a quick process too where in they check your visas, make a desperate attempt to match your passport photo to your actual face, ask a couple of friendly questions, take your fingerprints and stamp your passport.
We arrived at Helsinki station at 3pm and almost instantly got a mini van to go to our apartment in the Design District (for those who haven’t been following our trip, we were a family of 5 with significant luggage and hence our transport warranted to be a mini van). The apartment itself was easy to find and was in a great location. After having a very late lunch of sorts, we walked down the market square. It was a 15 min walk through the bylanes of Helsinki and what struck me instantly was how Helsinki didn’t look or behave like the capital of a country as big as Finland. There was hardly anyone on the streets and of the ones we met no one seemed to be in a great hurry of reaching anywhere. It reminded me of a rather laid back English countryside town. Things changed when we reached the market square though, but not so much as to change my perception of the city. It was 7pm, the sun still shining bright and almost the entire city seemed to have descended onto the Esplanadi which is the central park right adjacent to the market square. We idled around in the park for a while, listening to the music and me mostly looking up at the statue of Johan Ludwig Runeberg, wondering why most statues in the world have a head full of shit.
So here is a low down of the 48 hours that we spent in Helsinki before we sailed on to Tallinn. There is enough to do in Helsinki for about a week, especially, if you are a design lover but if you are on a time budget but still want to see the city and soak in the atmosphere as much as you can, you can still do it in about 48 hours.
Esplanadii Park and the Market Square
Take a stroll around the park and visit the stalls at the market square. Try out the fresh fruits or the lovely fish lunches available. Drink in the atmosphere at the adjoining restaurants along with your favorite bottle of wine. And if for nothing else then to just sit around and listen to the screeching sea gulls, looking on at the glinting ocean interrupted by the islets and letting yourself be engulfed in the quiet busyness of the Finnish milieu.
Just across the street and few hundred yards from the market square is the Helsinki Cathedral, the pure white imposing structure standing on a flight of stairs as if looking over the entire city.You are now in Senate square, which along with the buildings flanking it, is the oldest part of central Helsinki. The cathedral is open till midnight during summers so you could keep this visit for late evening. Do climb up the stairs to visit the church and also get some beautiful view of the city sprawling across.
Walking slightly east from the Helsinki Cathedral, you will enter the area known as the Tori Quarters, the meeting point of the old and new Helsinki. The suavest restaurants and the quirkiest fashion stores can be found here. For ones interested in the history of Helsinki, you can walk into the City Museum and come out richer than you would expect.
You can see the Uspenski Cathedral from the market square, a red brick building with the copper green dome on it, a quintessential Russian look without ofcourse the byzantine onion domes. Just as you exit the Tori Quarters into the market square, turn to your left and you can’t miss it. Its on a small hillock on the Katajanokka peninsula, with a beer joint right at the base and over looking the canal. The cathedral closes at 6pm even during the winters so make sure you are in time. The interiors of this church is in stark contrast to the striking simplicity of the Helsinki cathedral and will make you wonder how such differing architectures exist within just metres of one another. You can relax on the cathedral grounds or sip on your beer at the pub at its base while you soak in the atmosphere.
The Rock Church
The Rock church, properly named the Temppelixaukio Church, is a unique modern day church built in the 1930s directly into solid rock and opened to the public in 1969. It looks nothing like a church, neither from the outside nor from the inside. Sit and enjoy the organ playing, look around and feel amazed at the unconventional idea of the architects of carving a church out of a rock in modern times. This church is on the Hop on Hop off route and is also on the Tram 2/3 route.
Sibelius Monument and Park
The Sibelius monument is a short distance away from the Rock church but is not on Tram 2/3 route. However you can hop onto a bus that will leave you at the park which hosts the monument. You will need to cross the street to reach the Sibelius monument which sits in the centre of a park. You wont possibly miss it if you just follow where everyone if headed towards. The monument was unveiled in 1967 and was built dedicated to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It consists of series of more than 600 hollow steel pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern the significance being to capture the essence of the music of Sibelius.
Once done with the Sibelius, you can move further north to the Seurasaari island and the Open Air museum but we skipped it mainly because time was short and also the weather was playing truant with heavy bouts of rain. However if you do plan to visit it it may take a better part of the day to do so.
The Kamppi Chapel of Silence
The Tram 2/3 stops right across from the Kamppi Centre and the Kampii Chapel of Silence is right at the entrance of the mall. Just walk through the mall to arrive at a large public square, and you can’t miss the almost-coffee-cup like structure. This was built as part of the World Design Capital program in 2012 and is more a place to seek peace and quiet than religious enlightenment. I highly recommend visiting this unique place, a kind of place I have never come across in all my travels. You can just sit for hours together inside this chapel and it will transport you into a parallel universe which is filled with vacuum. There was a football match being played in the public square outside and packs of people cheering and having fun but none of this even touched me whilst I was inside.
Suomenlinna Fort and Island
Lastly, the one place you just can’t miss along with the Helsinki Cathedral is the small island of Suomenlinna which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its houses the Suomenlinna Fortress which was built in the mid 18th century by the Swedish and has defended three different sovereign states over the years: the Kingdom of Sweden, the Russian Empire and most recently the Republic of Finland. I will not delve into the historical importance of the site here, but do read it at their Official site.
Its a 10 minute ferry ride from the market square and ferries leave at an interval of about 40 mins and has a space for about a couple of cars in case. Although the grounds are open almost round the clock, do check the opening hours of the museum in the winters. You will need atleast 2 hours to see the bare minimum of the island and you can easily spend upto about half a day here. I saw a few people fast asleep by the water right across from the souvenir shop. The ferry ride will cost you EUR 5 and is valid for 12 hours. The ride is free with a Helsinki card and is also included if you buy a day pass (EUR 9 and valid for 24 hours).
- Buy the Helsinki City Transport’s Day Ticket for EUR 9 Adults, EUR 4.5 Children of age 7 – 16. These tickets can be bought from drivers (cash only), vending machines, R-kiosks and Tourist Information centres. All modes of public transport is included here including the ferry ride to Suomenlinna. The ticket is valid for 24 hours from when it is first swiped.
- The Tram route 2 and 3 takes you to almost all the tourist places in Helsinki and is often dubbed the Tourist Tram. It runs across Helsinki in an 8 shape and starts from the Market square. Use this to hop on and off wherever you wish to go to.
- Due to the nature of the route that the Tourist Tram takes, you may sometimes confuse which direction it is headed towards, especially near the Forum mall. It is always advisable to ask the driver if the tram is headed in the direction that you want to go to. We almost missed our ferry to Tallinn because we got onto wrong one.
- There aren’t too many souvenir shops in Helsinki unlike other european cities which are dotted with such shops in the city centre. So the best place to shop for souvenirs are the stalls that get put up in the market square. There is a Moomin store in Forum though, if you wish to purchase Moomin merchandise. Moomin ofcourse is the famed Swedish Finnish cartoon character televised in the 80s.
- Finland, as with most of Scandinavia, can be quite expensive. So if you want to save some bucks on lunch or dinner and eat healthy too, I would suggest you visit the nearest supermarket and mix up some to-go salad I had tried the salad bar at K-Supermarket near Esplanadii and it was great.
- Don’t forget to taste the unique and famous Salmiakki flavored icecreams, the quintessential salty liquorice that is said to be in every Finns luggage. Visit the SalmiakkiKioski on Unioninkatu street for all things Salmiakki else just go to the local store and get a Salmiakki flavored ice cream stick.
Day 1: Esplanadii -> Market Square -> Uspenski Cathderal -> Helsinki Cathedral -> Tori Quarters
Day 2: Rock Church -> Sibelius Monument -> Soumenlinna fortress -> Kampii