In 2016, Helsinki’s tourist board, along with a start-up company, created a slogan in order to welcome participants to a festival: “Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November. Except you, you badass. Welcome”. If we had not already decided to travel through Scandinavia in November, that catchy slogan would have me jumping on a plane. So, here we are, in Helsinki, in November 2023.
Helsinki has been known as the Daughter of the Baltic or Pearl of the Baltic, and over the past decade, it has been named as one of the great places in the world, one of the most liveable cities, and one of the friendliest. They’re not wrong. I love it here.
I am not going to get into politics, or financial structure, or social welfare programs, because I’m not that knowledgeable, and those are contentious issues. But I can say that Helsinki presented itself as very clean, organized, prosperous, stylish, civil, healthy, physically fit, and confident. It has one of the highest standards of urban living in the world. The Finnish are consistently rated the happiest in the world, although ‘contented’ might be a more appropriate word. It apparently has something to do with all factors combined - healthcare, education, human rights, democracy, volunteerism, trust, working together, and freedom. Of course, every society has its issues and Finland is no exception, but Helsinki does seem to have a worldview or vibe that contributes to feelings of satisfaction.
Helsinki is the capital and largest city in Finland with about 664, 000 people in the city and about 1.5 million in the urban area. Helsinki sits on the tip of a peninsula that consists of some 330 islands. It has a history dating to the first settlers in 5000 BC and, as with most European cities, has a lengthy story worth researching. It is now Finland’s centre for politics, education, finance, and culture. The majority of Finland’s largest companies have their main offices here.
We arrived in Finland by plane, after 10 hours of flying, at the Helsinki Vantaa Airport, or the “flygplatsen” which is such a great word. From there, either the I or P train takes you to Helsinki’s central station for just over 4 Euros. So easy. (By the way, you’ll love the bird chirps playing non-stop in the airport bathrooms.)
As usual, we stayed in a small hotel within blocks of the central station which made for easy access to anywhere in the city. Like the majority of Helsinki residents, we walked everywhere but did occasionally take the easily navigable 11-line tram system to cut back on time. Riding the trams is the main form of transportation, next to walking, in Helsinki - car use is really not necessary. We often remarked, “Everything is so close.” We loved seeing the younger youth just hopping on and off the trains as their normal routine or groups of small children going on school field trips. And the trams are immaculate and prompt. We even rode at random when we had a couple of hours left on our 24 hour pass.
It’s really hard to get lost in Helsinki. Central Station is a good starting point. Two points of reference are the Senate Square just to the east of the Central Station and the Esplanade, a long, lovely, narrow park that runs west to east just a couple of blocks south of Central Station. If you know where these are, you can’t get lost!
We were impressed with what Helsinki has to offer. It‘s a combination of history and cutting-edge design. Ornate buildings are combined with art nouveau (my favourite) and with brand new contemporary structures. Interestingly, several movies were shot here using Neoclassical buildings to replicate a Russian city before filmmakers were able to shoot films in Russia. Do you remember The Kremlin Letter from 1970, Reds from 1981, or Gorky Park from 1983?
Contrasts in architecture - the old, the new, and the in-between.
There are so many reasons to visit Helsinki. I’m going to start with one of my favourite experiences.
You could go for the libraries. Finland is one of the countries in the world with the most libraries, and Helsinki has some 40 of them, many traditional but one, in particular, that is state of the art.
The National Library on Senate Square is a building of beauty and worth a visit. It’s Finland’s largest research library with a collection containing over three million books beginning from the year 1488. The building dates to the early 1800’s. The high, ornate, and beautiful Rotunda was built in 1906. It is a traditional library, indeed:
But it is the Central Library of Helsinki where I could spend my days. The Oodi, as it is known, opened in 2018 and immediately became world-known for its design and purpose. Oodi means ‘a lyrical poem’, and the museum sits across from the parliament house as a sign that it promotes equality. The museum has four core values for everyone: equality, respect, comfort, and promise of safety. Do you remember the old days when you were forbidden to eat or drink or loiter in the library? Not here. All of that is encouraged. There are cafes, live trees, funky seating arrangements, and areas for persons with sensory issues. The first floor is a meeting space with games and hang out areas, especially for teenagers, the second floor is an amazing design space with areas for any type of designing - arts, crafts, technology, printing, movie production, music - and the third floor is a reading area. And we loved the robot delivering books! This is truly a magical space and a symbol of Finland’s values. Everything is free.
Or you could go for the churches. If you like European churches, Helsinki has its share, most of them dotting the skyline as frames of reference. It’s a debate as to which is the most beautiful. The magnificent neoclassical Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral is the centrepiece of the city, white domes standing high on Senate Square. The equally beautiful green domes of the Greek Othodox Uspenski Cathedral stand not far to the east. And the tall granite Lutheran Kallia Church, simple inside but known for it’s acoustics and organ music, rises up in the north.
The Helsinki Cathedral on Senate Square
The Uspenski Cathedral
The Kallia Church
Other churches worth searching out are:
1. St. John’s, a Lutheran church. It is the largest stone church in Finland.
2. Toolo Church, a pink brick Lutheran church completed in 1930
3. Mikael Agrilo, a Lutheran church from the early 1930’s. That spike top is 30 metres high.
We had seen a television program about the Lutheran Temppeliaukio Church or rock church as it is known due to being built into a huge rock in 1969. We went to the church, hoping to view the interior which is known for acoustics and for the stone walls and domed roof lined with copper but were surprised by the steep admission price and chose not to enter. We had to be satisfied with a window peek. It’s worth checking out.
Finally, to do with churches, a popular respite in Helsinki is the Chapel of Silence or Kamppi Chapel just west from the Central Station. This little church was opened in 2012 and won an award for contemporary architecture. It is spherical in shape. The outside is made of spruce, the inside is made of alder molded into shape, and the inside doors are made of ash. The little chapel welcomes everyone regardless of beliefs or denomination, and is a place of calm and silence in the city. It’s worth a pause.Unfortnately, no inside pictures are allowed.
Or you might like a museum trip. Helsinki has over 80 museums, ranging from small to extravagent, with something for everyone, as they will tell you. The most popular are The Seurasaari Island Open Air Museum, the Atheneum Art Museum, the National Museum of Finland, Amos Rex art museum, The Design Museum - the list goes on. We didn’t attend any, but it would be a great activity for a cold, rainy day.
The Helsinki Art Museum and the Amos Rex Art Museum
Maybe you’ll go for a concert. Helsinki has several theatres and music halls. The most notable is probably the Mussiiktalo, built in 2011, state of the art, and seating 1,700 people. We were able to peek in one noon just when a concert was ending. We attended a jazz concert by well known Ron Carter at the Savoy Theatre. And I see that Bruce Springsteen is playing in 2024 at the Olympic Stadium . . .
But if libraries and churches and museums and music halls are not your interest, you could travel to Helsinki purely for the shopping. This city has lots of style and pride of appearance. Helsinki is known for design, and clothing is no exception. The streets are dotted with small independent fashion stores. The downtown has competing department stores or shopping malls on every block, but the most famous is Stockmann’s dating to 1862. It is northern Europe’s largest department store with 50,000 square metres of selling space over about 10 floors. If you can’t find what you are looking for here, you might not find it anywhere. It’s a good place to visit, even if you just wander through, like we did; or you can stay the day - it has everything you need.
Or you could travel to Helsinki for the parks and neighbourhoods. It is said that about one third of Helsinki is covered in parks; and green space management is a priority. As mentioned, the Esplanade Park runs west-east just south of Central Station. The university’s large botanical garden lies directly east of the station. We visited several well-known parks, the Tahtitorninmaki or observatory hill south of Central Station, the large and one of the oldest parks situated in a very nice neighbourhood containing the homes of several ambassadors of foreign countries, Kaivopuisto Park, on the south shore, and the large Lapinlahti Park with the beautiful Hietaniemi Cemetary west of Central Station. There is a beautiful walking path around Toolonlahti Lake that takes you by the Central Library, Parliament House, the National Museum, the Music Hall, and the Opera House. The popular Sibelius Park and statue were closed when we visited. There are smaller parks and green squares everywhere you turn.
The Observatory in Tahtitorninmaki Park.
The beautiful Heitaniemi Cemetary in Lapinlahti Park. We loved the hedges separating the rows of gravestones and the little enclaves for family plots.
Night views from the Toolonlahti Lake pathway.
You might go to Helsinki just to walk around the neighbourhoods. All of the neighbourhoods we visited were clean and colourful. One of the loveliest areas of Helsinki is Katajanokka, easy walking distance from downtown by the Uspenski Cathedral. This is a refurbished port area with beautiful art nouveau buildings and cafes. It was interesting to see the huge and rugged Artic icebreaker boats docked on the northern side. There is a walking path on the coast all around the are
We did not come to Helsinki for the food but Helsinki has a long food history since 1862 when the first pubs and inns became popular. Now, there is any manner of restaurant. Being a port city, fish is popular everywhere, especially salmon in any form (thankfully, that’s my favourite), including a delicious smoked salmon tomato lasagne, and there are many ethnic restaurants, especially Asian-influenced. The breakfast in our hotel was top quality, and we were informed that the hotel prides itself on fresh ingredients with options for any desire, allergy, or food intolerance. There are three main food halls in Helsinki: The Old Market Hall, Hakaniemii Food Market, and Hietalahti Food Market. Of course, supermarkets are readily available, but if you want a more authentic and traditional experience, try a food hall.
The Old Market Hall and Hakaniemi Food Market were quite different from each other, but each stellar. The Old Market Hall in Market Square in the city centre east of Central Station attracts tourists from incoming cruise ships and ferries, but it is also traditional with numerous food stalls and many varieties of fish. You might also get to sample reindeer jerky or bear or moose pate. The Hakaniemi Food Market, though, was our favourite. It is out of the downtown and is considered the most authentic, where the locals shop and eat. It was built in 1914 but refurbished between 2018 and 2022. We enjoyed the ‘best‘ salmon soup and sampled spruce tree jam. The Hietalahti Food Market southwest of Central Station attracts pop-up shops and food booths, especially ethnic, and was almost empty when we visited but is apparently busier in the summer with outside stalls.
The Old Market Hall on Market Square
The Hakaniemi Food Market
By the way, did you know that Finland consumes more coffee per capita than anywhere else in the world? (It might have something to do with the five hours of light in mid-winter and gloomy skies.) Coffee shops are everywhere; and as for any food in Helsinki, you’ll probably be paying at least one and a half times what we pay for a cup and a snack.
You might visit Helsinki to go island-hopping. One very interesting fact about Helsinki is that it `sits on an archipelago which, as I said, means there are about 330 islands in the area. From the shore, you can see them dotting the water in the near distance, and you can visit many of them by ferry. They combine nature with homes and restaurants, called ‘urban nature’. One of the most popular island visits is the UNESCO Suomenlinna sea fortress which you can access with your public transportation ticket.
A island within easy distance.
Being a port city, Helsinki is really a gateway to many other great places. You can catch a ferry to other parts of Finland, to Sweden, to Estonia, to Latvia, to Poland, or to Germany. One very popular day trip by a short, half hour, ferry ride is to Tallin, Estonia, a beautiful city with a well preserved old town. We spent a few days there several years ago, and it’s well worth the trip. A couple of years ago, you could catch a ferry to St. Petersburg, Russia, stay for 72 hours, and return without a Russian visa which some of my family tell me was an amazing opportunity (I remain envious), but for obvious reasons it appears that ferry is no longer running. There might be other ways to get to St. Petersburg from Helsinki, but check with your own government as to current travel restrictions.
I’ll give you a couple of final tips about travelling to Helsinki. The currency is the Euro but they are really phasing away from bills and coins, so make sure your credit card taps anywhere. Also, don’t worry at all about language - everyone is fluent in English (and I don’t mean tourist English, but full-fledged fluency in English), and most also speak Swedish. And, yes, Helsinki is more expensive than we are accustomed. But you can be a savvy traveller and save money by eating heartily at the hotel breakfast and using the local supermarket for lunch food and the delicatessen for take away dinner (that’s where we found the amazing smoked salmon tomato lasagne).
And the weather in November - the harshness depends on where you come from. If you are from North America, you might say, “You call THIS weather?” as Helsinki does not generally receive the blood curdling cold and mounds of snow that we receive. But that cold rain and wind off the water can be viscious. Waterproof jackets, shoes, and pants are in fashion here. (The little kids are so cute in their waterproof onesies.) And if you carry an umbrella, get a good one. Suffice it to say, there is a broken umbrella stuffed in a garbage can somewhere on the docks in Helsinki as I write this.
So, that‘s what I can tell you about Helsinki. We are smitten with this city and highly recommend a visit if you are able. It’s such a great combination of history and cutting-edge modernity, culture, nature, arts, style, logic, efficiency - and coffee. And you don’t have to be a badass.
Yes, Helsinki, you are one smart, cool, and good looking date.
Here are some final photos:
*I hope this blog gives you some ideas about Helsinki. Always do your own research.*