Helsinki, Finland – Tuesday 6th to Saturday 10th June
We whiled away our last few days in Tallinn with a mixture of working, walks and reading. One thing we hadn’t sorted out was what we were going to do in Finland, so we both spent hours pouring over what might be possible with such little notice. The first thing we discovered that it could very quickly get very expensive, especially in Helsinki! However, Finland came fifth in the World Happiness Report 2017 rankings, so we felt it important to give it some time.
We took the Eckerö Line ferry across the Gulf of Finland from Tallinn direct to Helsinki (£11.70 each). Weirdly, to us, the ferry was kind of a party boat! There were bars, restaurants, gaming machines, live music and nowhere to sit where we weren’t being entertained in some way. Not that ideal when all we really wanted to do was have a coffee and read!
The party boat:
We were lucky enough to find a relatively cheap Airbnb, for £26.50 a night, though out of the city centre in the Vantaa suburb. Fortunately, Helsinki has a brilliant public transport system, so a tram, a train, and a short taxi ride later we were able to settle in.
Not wanting to head straight back into the city, we decided to have a little explore there. What stood out was how new everything seemed to be. As in, there were no old buildings at all. Helsinki has faced rapid urbanisation since the Second World War as it has transited from a mostly agrarian society, so the city is now surrounded by modern planned towns and suburbs. Developed on top of old forests and farmland, Vantaa is now the fourth most populous city in Finland.
On Wednesday we headed into Helsinki proper. We decided to purchase 72 hour tickets for the HSL transport network (£25 each) which gave us the freedom of the city. Our first stop was the Sibelius Monument. Inspired by a church organ, the monument was so controversial when it was unveiled in 1967 that a smaller bust was added right next to it, to appeal to the traditionalists.
The Sibelius Monument (smaller compromise sculpture on the right):
Phil’s friend Rob had told us about a great little café, Regatta, really close to the monument. It’s in a tiny shack right on the water’s edge, with a great outdoor seating area which has a fire pit in the middle where you can grill your own sausages. They serve super cheap coffee (for Helsinki), and amazingly they even paid us five cents when we went to get a refill!
Hannah had been contacted by Virginie Loy, a writer who wanted to chat to her about blogging and the like, so coffee’d and picnic’d we made our way back to the train station to meet her. Virginie was kind enough to give us an impromptu tour of the city by car; showing us the harbours, parks, main districts, and some key sights. An unexpected, but totally brilliant treat!
Hannah with Virginie Loy:
To finish the tour she drove us across to the Seurasaari Open Air Museum. The museum, which fills an island, looks like an ancient forest village; traditional dwellings, barns and churches from all over Finland have been painstakingly deconstructed, transported to Helsinki, and rebuilt exactly as they would have been. It also makes for a wonderful venue for an early summer stroll; so, after more coffees and saying goodbye to Virginie we explored and circumnavigated the whole island.
Seurasaari Open Air Museum:
With Thursday came rain. Thankfully we had rain proof plans for the day. First business was getting to the Mongolian consulate to pick up our Mongolian visas. For some reason, they’d decided to put the consulate 30km from Helsinki in the small town of Kirkonummi. So off we went on the commuter train, then had to traipse twenty minutes in the rain to get there from the station. Five minutes later, visa-filled passports in hand, we began the traipse back.
Back in the city we went straight the Helsinki Art Museum, HAM, for a little culture. We were treated to an exhibition of the Finnish national treasure, Tove Jansson’s, work (she created the Moomins); and were both mesmerised watching some ball bearings rolling around. Art, right? Our Moomin curiosity piqued, after stopping by the Lutheran Cathedral and the Central Library, we headed to the Moomin Café for an afternoon respite.
Hannah goes full method in the Moomin Café:
We’d been planning on heading out to an island in the harbour for dinner, but that idea was rained off, so instead we grabbed a drink at Tommyknockers Craft Beer Bar on trendy Iso Robertinkatu (cheap by Helsinki standards), then a pizza dinner at the Old Skiffer pub nearby.
Come Friday the sun was back out again. After a lazy morning we headed back to Iso Robertinkatu for a delicious hipster lunch at Café Number 9. Sated, we made our way to the harbour to catch the ferry across to the island fortress of Suomenlinna. A UNSECO World Heritage site, the island has been fortified for centuries to protect the city against invaders. Not too successfully, it would seem, as both the Swedes and the Russians managed to take over just fine.
Relics of Suomenlinna’s fortified past:
We decided against actually heading into any of the museums. Through just strolling around and exploring the island gave a little insight into just how vital (and vulnerable) Helsinki was in the past.
We’d arranged to meet up with a friend’s brother, Ange, who has lived in Helsinki for the past six years. We’d found out that the city was putting on a public air show to celebrate Finland’s centenary; so we headed to Kaivopuisto park to try and secure a spot for the evening. Planning the trip, we could never have guessed we’d be sat watching the Red Arrows in Helsinki, discussing the merits of Finnish society with a Cornishman; but at the same time, moving around with little plan and taking small opportunities as they arise has already brought us so many rich and unexpected experiences, so this was simply another one to add to the list.
The Red Arrows cut it a little too close for comfort at the Helsinki Air Show:
Helsinki really impressed us in our short time there. Yes, it is expensive, and yes there are issues as there are anywhere; but something about the city and its people caught our attention. We had been warned that the Finns were reserved and closed, but we discovered quite the opposite.
Saturday, and our time in Helsinki had come to an end. Next week, we head north to spend a bit of time Wwoofing in the Finnish countryside. Until then…
Hannah and Phil x
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