Another Port in the Storm: Helsinki, Finland

For those following the narrative of our eastward trek home from London, we said our goodbyes to Stockholm and made our way to Helsinki, Finland. When Jeff and I planned our trip toward home, we spent a crazy amount of time looking at world maps to decide where to visit. I’ll fully admit that Helsinki was not on our list of musts, but in order to see St. Petersburg, Russia, Helsinki was a vital location, but I’ll get more into that later.

First, here are the highlights and must-sees of Helsinki, Finland, “The White City of the North.”

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On to Helsinki, Finland!

We woke early in Stockholm to catch our morning flight. Even though the alarm was set for 3 am, the sun rose at 345 making the pain of an early morning bearable. As the sun peaked over the neighboring lake, we made our way to the train to take us to Arlanda Airport, and in a few short hours, we were landing in Helsinki, Finland.

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A view of downtown Helsinki from the Helsinki Cathedral steps.

Like I mentioned before, Helsinki was not on our list of must-sees. As we boarded the transport bus from the airport to city center, we realized the town looked strikingly like the other Eastern-European bloc countries we’ve visited with grey, shapeless, and oppressive buildings. In my mind, I imagined Helsinki to be a romantic town where the royal Romanov family visited on their summer holiday, but instead, we were in a construction-filled, port city struggling to rebuild itself from a deep recession from the 1990s, which tied closely with the Soviet Union collapse in 1991.

Transport Note: From the airport, I highly suggest grabbing the Finnair Bus. For €6.30 per person, it takes 30 minutes to get to Central Station. From Central Station, you can grab a train, tram, or bus to your final destination. This is also where you pick the bus back up for the trip back to the airport for the same fee. All tram tickets can be purchased at each tram stop.

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The Helsinki tram map.

Central Station Note: Central Station is where we saw a lot of “interesting” characters. While we never felt unsafe in the daylight hours, I wouldn’t recommend walking around here alone at night.

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The view from our flat. Gorgeous place surrounded by construction.

Because the next city on our trek was St. Petersburg, Russia via the Helsinki port, we found a lovely AirBnB near the West Terminal. Hidden in the middle of hundreds of other apartments and looking over acres of new construction, we were a bit out of the way for city center, but Helsinki is a small town, so getting from the port to anything we wanted to see never took more than 20 minutes by tram.

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The Bad, Bad Boy sculpture at West Terminal.

Suitcases in hand, we got off the number 9 tram and were met immediately with some modern art towering over us. The Bad Bad Boy Statue designed by Tommi Toija, is an 8 meter tall statue of a bald boy peeing into a drain. It seems to have hopped around town from the Market Square in 2014 to where it stands now in the port. When asked what it meant, Mr. Toija said, “To me, this is just a guy pissing in the river, no more, no less. All explanations depend on who is looking at the work. Some might think it’s a funny thing; others might be provoked by it. What do I know? I just like to work very much.”

The first thing we did in Helsinki after dropping off our bags and meeting our AirBnB hosts was hop back on the tram toward the Market Square for lunch. Situated right next to City Hall (where clean restrooms can be found for free), the Market Square is open everyday with varying hours. Orange and white tents line the water’s edge and sport everything from plump, red cherries to souvenir postcards (and stamps).

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Elk sausages with vegetables for €11 in the Market Square.

There were a few tents that had hot meals, but most of the food was fried fish, sausages with vegetables, and burgers. I thoroughly enjoyed my elk sausage with vegetables, but I can guarantee you it was not gluten-free. One stand offered gluten-free buns for a salmon burger, but they were sold out before I could grab one.

From the Market Square dock, there are two ferries that will take you to the famous sea fortress: Suomenlinna. The JT-Line will take you there and back for €7 per person, but for a cool €2.70 per person, you can board the HSL ferry line and get there in the same amount of time. You just don’t get a tour guide-type ride to the fort the JT-Line offers.

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The Suomenlinna Church on the fortified island.

We arrived at the little fortress-turned-residential-island after roughly 20 minutes on the open water. Covering six islands, Suomenlinna was originally constructed in 1748 to protect Finland against Russian expansion. It’s designed to adapt to the rocky islands but also withstand beachhead attacks. In 1808, during the Finnish War, the Russians took over, which paved the way for Russian invasion in 1809. The fortress was used until the end of WWI in 1918 and deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The bridge connecting the two islands on the sea fortress where you can see the original stone foundation.

Once you’re through the main stone gate, you follow the path through two of the six islands. The other four islands are either inaccessible or don’t offer much to see. With three main sections aptly named A, B, and C, the path continues past homes and small museums with a submarine that you can enter for an additional cost. We opted out after hearing the museums were not worth the money or time spent inside.

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The 1933 launched Vesikko submarine on display.

Here is a PDF link to the grounds map.

The main attraction to the island cluster is in section C where you see remains of the stone walls and the massive canons that protected Finland’s shores. Small huts dot the perimeter and are slowly being reclaimed by nature. It was haunting to see, and the open ocean was intimating. We certainly could not see Russia, but after researching the relationship between Finland and Russia, it was a bit remarkable to know just how close the two countries were and are.

We made our way back toward Helsinki after a few hours wandering around the fortified islands. The ferry dropped us back off at the Market Square, and we stopped in a small coffee shop recommended by our AirBnB hosts, El Fant. This quaint little shop sits directly opposite the magnificent Helsinki Cathedral and was a perfect respite. The coffee was strong and the tiny espresso macaron I paired with it was a delightful pick me up.

Centered in the middle of downtown sits Helsinki Cathedral; a white stone marvel that towers over the storefronts and bay before it. Built in the early 1800s, this Lutheran church was originally named St. Nicholas’ Church as tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. When Finland won their independence in 1917, the church was renamed Helsinki Cathedral. The church was designed with a lot of Russian influence, and if you stay tuned to my next blog entry about St. Petersburg, I’ll include pictures of St. Isaac’s Cathedral which the Finnish architect drew a lot of inspiration from.

We walked up the inordinate amount of stairs to the top to get a glimpse of the snow white church. After entering, we realized the interior was quite modern but plain. We shimmied past tourists taking pictures and videos of the Finnish service, and we took a moment to take in our surroundings. The church reminded me very much of the Hallgrimskirkja in Iceland or the Frauenkirche in Munich with the stark white walls to match the exterior.

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The crypt of Helsinki Cathedral.

Toward the back, there was an elevator down to the crypt. Jeff and I love seeing crypts, so we had to explore it. But to our disappointment, the basement was merely a cafe with some artwork on display. No one has been buried in the church to date, so the crypt is just a space for tourists to enjoy a treat and some quiet.

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The Uspenski Cathedral; a Russian Orthodox church not far from Market Square.

Just a few blocks away from Helsinki Cathedral was another church that captured my immediate imagination. The maroon and teal Uspenski Cathedral stands tall above the Market Square with gorgeous traditional onion domes and gold toppers that sparkle in the sunlight. The church was designed and built in the 1860s by Russian architect, Aleksey Gornostayev.

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The inside of Uspenski Cathedral with the gold leaf and dark, rich wood.

Known for its sheer amount of religious icons, the church is only one small room which serves as the sanctuary. You’re completely engulfed with the dark, oppressive, brown wood, and the intense gold leaf of the religious images. But once you make the short square around the alter and back, you’re thrust back outside into the bright sun. It was so quick that I feared I had missed something. I was definitely more taken with the exterior than the interior of the beautiful church.

Right at the bottom of the Uspenski Cathedral is a small marina full of gorgeous, high-end yachts. This is not to be confused with the bay where the ferries pick you up for the Sea Fortress. On this side, where luxury and the glitterati play is a funky, hipster coffee shop called Johan and Nystrom. If you want Brooklyn style hipster coffee where you can choose Aeropress, pour over, or drip coffee to go with an over-priced, tiny pastry, this is your spot. The funky chairs and exposed brick made for a nice stop toward the end of our day, and Jeff had a lovely moment smiling at a young baby and then expressly making it well up and burst into tears.

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The Hakaniemi Market Hall in the “hipster district” of northern Helsinki.

Before we tore the place down with infant screams, we headed out to our last stops in Helsinki. The Hakaniemi Market Hall is far north of the center of the city in the “hipster district.” It actually says the “hipster district” on the tourist map, but we found nothing hipster about it. We got off the metro at Hakaniemen Metroasema and found the red brick building that looked like anything but a food hall. After trying to see if anyone else was going inside, we finally just decided to dive in, and we were pleasantly surprised.

Stalls after stalls were lined up featuring any array of food, delicacy, produce, knick knack you could possibly want. The smell of freshly baked pastries wafted through the air as we slowly shuffled past counter after counter. On the first floor, in stalls 106, 108, and 110 is a small shop called Keliapuoti. This corner is dedicated to those with celiac disease or are gluten-free. I couldn’t believe my luck. I instantly bought a wonderful roll that was flaky but also hollowed out in the center for making a light sandwich.

Just around the corner from Keliapuoti was Marja Natti, a fish shop selling gorgeous looking smoked salmon. My meal was sorted. I ordered a few slices of smoked salmon with pink peppercorns and folded it delicately in my small roll. I enjoyed this meal so much that it was the first time I didn’t even consider to offer my husband any.

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The Hietaniemi Cemetery on the west side of the city.

Helsinki is not a massive town. As the crow flies, it’s roughly 3 miles from the far west side of town by the port to the far east side near Market Square. So, from the hipster district in the north east portion of the city, the was on the north west side. We took the tram over to see what was described as a “nice and beautiful” area of the city.

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Headstones on small garden rocks inside the cemetery.

Once we got to the cemetery itself, it was absolutely gorgeous and breathtaking, but the trek over there was a bit questionable. It is another area I would not necessarily recommend walking alone at night in. But once we walked inside the cemetery, we were in awe with how manicured and pristine the grounds were. In London, I’d grown accustomed to nature reclaimed graveyards with green moss on broken stones. But this location was so clean, I questioned some of the death dates. It is a lovely place to walk and see Hietaniemi Beach on Lapinlahti Bay and search for stillness in a loud and building city.

We didn’t know anyone notable buried on the grounds, I hate to say, but the war memorial on the north side of the complex ranged from small plaques resembling garden stones to columns in black marble to headstones mounted in the earth. There were only a handful of other people wandering around, so it was quite peaceful. But then, our moment of peace was interrupted by a hare the size of a small fox dining on some laid flowers. We laughed at the sight and made our way back to the flat.

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A hare munching away at some flowers planted near a headstone in the cemetery.

The following day, we boarded a cruise ship to St. Petersburg, so do not miss out on the next tale of our trek where we lost the concept of the Roman alphabet, experienced some fascinating and interesting cuisine, and went on a wild goose chase for a battleship.

A note about the Port of Helsinki, West Terminal: Whether you are in Helsinki to travel to Russia or not, I always find it helpful to know where I can store luggage if we are early to a hotel check in, or we have to check out early. To ease our burden to Russia, we decided to leave one of our bags in a locker at the Port of Helsinki for €4 per day. Because the trek to St. Petersburg had to be done via this cruise (more details in the next blog), we knew we’d be coming back to this same port.

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Left luggage lockers inside the West Terminal in Helsinki Port.

Helpful Links for Helsinki:

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