I have just paid my first visit to Finland (my 68th country) and to its compact but option packed capital. Definitely felt at home, after a very short time.
Regular readers will know, I rate every airline and every city I encounter.Helsinki was easy to rate!
My Overall Rating: 85.6%
Ranking out of my top 200 Cities: 8th place- Narrowly behind Wellington (New Zealand) which has a very similar look and feel to Helsinki
The Economist Ranking: 9th Most livable city
Why it should be visited: Stunning architecture, easy to get around, brilliant museums, great art, food and culture scene
Negatives: Cold climate, expensive hotels and restaurants
Location and Orientation
Located almost right at the top of Europe, Helsinki is the second most Northern national capital after Reykjavik, Iceland. In technical terms, it sits on the 60th parallel which St Petersburg also sits on. The 60th Parallel forms the border for Yukon, Northwest Territories, and the Nunavut mainland and runs through the Shetland Islands off the Scottish coast.
Founded in 1550 as Helsingor by Sweden, it was initially a trading port designed to compete with the Danish controlled port of Tallin. The city grew slowly and was burnt down a few times dues to its construction materials being predominantly wood! The oldest building in Helsinki is the blue-grey Sederholm House, built in 1757 which si now part of the Helsinki City Museum. This museum, I believe should be the starting point for every visitor to Helsinki. It is free and if you have kids, has one of the most innovative children’s sections I have ever seen in a museum. We had a great time at this Museum and learnt a lot.
Russia conquered Finland in 1809 and Helsinki became the capital of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. In 1917, Finland became independent which resulted in the tumultuous civil war of 1918. 2017 is their 100th anniversary of Independence and the city has many special activities to celebrate. Helsinki was bombed a few times in World War Two. Since then, Helsinki has continued to grow and develop. The 1952 Olympic games were held here and in 2000 Helsinki was the European Capital of Culture.
The city’s population is now about 605,000 with the Greater Helsinki region being home to about 1.3 million. The region consists of
- Helsinki, capital area
- Vantaa, an industrialised municipality north and east of Helsinki proper. Helsinki airport is located here
- Espoo, suburban municipality west of Helsinki, which everyone in Helsinki seemed to make fun of. I did not get to visit the area which will be connected by a new Metro extension sometime this year to Helsinki
South of Helsinki is the Gulf of Finland leading out to the Baltic Sea
Getting there and around
I flew to Helsinki from Bangkok (see my post from Tuesday). Finnair has aimed to position Helsinki as a gateway between 40 European destinations and their Asian and US destinations. There are not a lot of cheap airfares to the city, however. Norwegian has a couple of routes as does Air Berlin. Neither Ryanair or Wizz fly to Helsinki and Easyjet stopped their services a few years back.
Many people arrive by ferry from Stockholm, Sweden, Tallin, Estonia or St Petersburg, Russia. There is a so a high-speed train ride from St Petersburg which I would love to do being a train nerd.
Transport in the city is a dream with trams (streetcars), trains, metro, ferries and buses all offering very reliable frequent services. One of the best systems I have encountered. Tickets were available from machines, kiosks (convenience stores) and on board buses and trains. Despite what you may read or be told, you cannot buy tickets on the trams. We did not see any ticket inspectors but we saw lots of very honest Finns paying their way.
A very regular train service connects the airport with Central Helsinki station for just five euro in about 20 or so minutes. One of the most impressive rail systems for getting to an airport.service, globally.
Taxis stands are located around the city. Uber seems to operate but drivers have been warned by Finnish police, they face fines for operating illegally. One of my friends caught an Uber and the driver asked him to ride up front so it appeared they were two friends out for a drive.
The Russians chose to build Helsinki in a neoclassical style in the 19th Century, intending to turn it to be a stylish modern city along the lines of St. Petersburg. This was to show off the power of the Tsar. The result is that with the amazing waterways and forests around the city, Helsinki is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. Street after street revealed more stunning architecture and or water views. My head was literally spinning from the beauty of the place. I walked 20km (12 miles) on one of my days and was not bored for a second. The city is also very clean. I saw almost no litter nor any dog droppings.
One of the city’s most recognisable landmarks is the Helsinki Cathedral which looks like a confusing mix of multiple styles on the outside. The Cathedral has five green domes, multiple Corinthian columns and twelve three metre tall zinc statues of the 12 apostles. inside the cathedral is much plainer and almost austere. its free to enter but you can make a donation. The central dome of the Cathedral is a dizzy eighty metres above sea level. It is a short walk from the City Museum and everyone needs to stop on any tour they are making of Helsinki.
The Church is built on Senate Square which appears to be the centre of Helsinki’s parades, protests and celebrations. The steep steps leading up to the cathedral frighten many tourists but the views are well worth the trouble. In the middle of the square is a statue dedicated to Emperor Alexander II of Russia, a leftover from the days of Russian control. After Independence, some wanted the statue removed but it has stayed!
It is a short stroll from there to Market square, where some uniquely Finnish items and foods can be found every day.
Ferries leave from here to the Fortress of Suomenlinna– (“The Castle of Finland”) which as built in 1748 and for many years was the key defensive position for the city.
From the waterfront, I strolled a few times through the relaxing Esplanade Park toward the main shopping streets; Aleksanterinkatu and Mannerheimintie.
Climate and Weather
Helsinki is one of the coldest cities I have ever been to! Winter lasts from late October right through to March or if the city is unlucky (like this year) until April. Temperatures can plunge to -20c and the daytime will sit between -5 and +2 . While I was there I enjoyed sun, wind, rain, sleet, hail and snow. On one day, we had all the types of weather in just a few short hours! Here is me walking in some Helsinki weather:
Spring seems to be just May, from what locals told me!
Summer is June and July with highs around 22°C (71.6°F). The temperature can reach 27°C (80.6°F). and some Finns told me of the times it has reached 31°C (87.8°F).!
During winter the days are very short but in summer, the capital turns into the land of the midnight sun with just two hours of fuzzy twilight marking the darkest part of the day.
A good three-star hotel starts at around $US150, four-star $US200 and five star $US85. Hostels should cost $US30 to $US50 for a bed.
Restaurants are more expensive than they are in many other countries but all service charges are included so there is no tipping. We found we spent around $US to $100 for a three-course meal in a mid-range restaurant. A McDonald’s meal cost around $US8
Checking out the supermarkets, food prices seemed similar to the USA, for most items.
A taxi ride starts at $US6.5o Monday to Saturday daytime and $US10 at night and Sundays. The distance charge is $US1.69 per kilometre.
There is a Helsinki card which gives free public transport and access to 28 attractions for a lower fee or free for either a 24 or 48 or 72 hour period. We assessed it and decided it was not worth it for us. The Heslsinki Card does include a hop in hop off bus tour if Helsinki. If you plan to do that tour, then the Card would be a good way to do it.
There is also Finnish Museum card which gives unlimited access to all 240 museums in the country for a year. If you are staying for a week, this could be worth it for you.
Crime and Safety
The theft and murder rates are low by US standards. We felt safe walking around day or night. I was a little more cautious around the train station, especially at night.
Exploring the City
The other stop many travellers make is to the Uspenski Cathedral, the Orthodox cathedral which is the other recognisable Helsinki landmark. It was built between 1862–1868. It is free to visit so, of course, we spent some time here. (you can make a donation and/or pay to light a candle).
I was fascinated by the Rock Church (Temppeliaukio) which has been built into a rocky hillside. It is a fascinating and peaceful place to visit. It was snowing while I was there and the snow was falling gently over the windows increasing my sense of peace.
The Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) monument was the result of a public fundraising campaign and a two-stage competition in the 1960s to commemorate Finland’s most famous composer. It was considered radical at the time it was built but is now one of the most popular attractions in Finland. Sibelius has several other pilgrimage sites.
For a city its size, Helsinki has one of the best collections of quality art galleries and museums that we enjoyed exploring:
- Helsinki Art Museum focussed on modern art
- Designmuseo- The Design Museum which has some pretty cool exhibitions looking back at 100 years of Finnish design and innovation as well as looking forward with some of the latest Finnish designs
- Ateneum Art Museum with a tremendous collection of Finnish and international art arranged by theme more than date.
I would have liked to visit the History Museum, Hotel Museum and Tram Museum or one of the many others available in the city but we ran out of time. Helsinki has Museums dedicated to Watches, Computer Games, Toys and Photography. Next time?
Another famous Finn is the Moomintroll author Tove Jansson. Her books, which I loved as a kid, have now been transalted into over forty languages. She has a Park named after her near the Uspenski Cathedral, which was frankly a little disappointing. It could be a real attraction with a statue of her and a Moomin or two. I did find her house though.
I was impressed by the quality of food across Helsinki whether it was in Cafes, restaurants or the markets. We were surprised at how many Japanese, Nepalese and Thai restaurants we found.
There are four Michelin restaurants across the city which we did not try this visit.
We enjoyed a traditional Finnish dinner and a traditional Finnish pub meal. The range included salmon, local fish, reindeer and lots of potatoes done in a multiplicity of ways.
A visit to one of the three market halls is a must. We loved the range and quality of food and the chance to people watch Finns (and others).
So much more to see! Have you been to Helsinki? My heart has been captured! What did you think if you have been?
- To HEL and back – two more (almost) Heavenly Finnair flights!
- The Many sides of Malé, tiny capital of the Maldives -with Top recommended sights
- Exploring Thailand’s Koh Samui – Review and Tips
- Cool Copenhagen
- Exploring the Red Centre of Australia