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krisek Helsinki - A travel report by Krys
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Helsinki,  Finland - flag Finland -  Etela-Suomen Laani
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krisek's travel reports

Helsinki on a very sunny weekend.

  6 votes
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Helsinki is a pleasant capital city, which is relatively small for walking everywhere. It has a pleasant architecture with some Russian imperialistic influence. It also boasts Europe's largest fort located on a few islands, 15 minutes boat ride away.


Helsinki's Market Square seen from the sea, the Cathedral looming in the back.
Helsinki's Market Square seen from the sea, the Cathedral looming in the back.
Helsinki had been on my list for a rather long time. I had made a couple of attempts to visit the city in the past, but all of them failed. I once landed in Helsinki enroute from New York to Warsaw as I flew with Finnair. Finland, therefore, had been the last country of the European Union that I had yet to visit. And one of the few last states in Europe, actually.

So, as I found myself working nearer Finland in 2011, it was an excellent opportunity to embark on a short escapade to Helsinki. Finally! The choice of the 6-8 May weekend was made. I did not do much planning, but from what I sketched, there was just about enough time to see everything over the weekend. Provided I could find everything.

I almost expected Helsinki to be a large place. It was not. The centre was compact and it was possible to walk everywhere. Weather was perfect for walking - about 15C and a lot of sunshine. The city was located on mainland and a number of small islands and islets. Some of the more interesting sights and beauty spots were actually based on islands, some of which were accessible by boat or ferry, others via bridges. The main airport was located some 18kms north of the centre, and the central train station was located almost in the middle of the central district, only a couple of minutes walk from the heart of the city, the main passenger harbour and the townhall. Local and suburban city buses had a hub at the eastern side of the train station and a metro (undeground, subway) station was located right beneath the two. A couple of tram lines also stopped at the front of the rail and bus stations.

My estimate was that a weekend, if one gets up early and goes to bed late, should be enough to see all of Helsinki's major sights at a comfortable pace, including visits to a couple of museums, but excluding trips to nearby national parks and lakes.

Favourite spots:
The Senate Square and Cathedral
The Senate Square and Cathedral
I had ambitious plans to see a small old town, some 30kms east of Helsinki and a nearby national park, and I failed. I did not do museums and there was definitely time to do this. I just got lazy, and stayed in bed for too long on the last day.

The Senate Square in the heart of the older part of the city was definitely a winner in terms of looks and ambiance. It was complete with a snow-white and imposing cathedral, a couple of palaces in Sankt Petersburg style and a curious monument to Alexander II, also known as Alexander the Liberator - a curious name for an oppresor of Belarussians, Lithuanians, Livonians, Poles and Ukrainians, who prohibited the use of their native languages. Yet, to be fair, Finland had it better during the Russian occupation under his rule. He increased Finland's autonomy and allowed their language. He is still considered a 'good tsar' in Helsinki.

Anyway, the Senate Square was a plesant spot with a large fleet of stairs used by visitors as a vast bench.

What's really great:
The Uspensky Cathedral with its golden cupolas.
The Uspensky Cathedral with its golden cupolas.
Helsinki stroke me with very little traffic. In fact, there was virtually no traffic at all. Not on Friday evening, when I arrived. Not on Saturday when I wandered about the city extensively. And not on Sunday, when I was leaving. Less traffic, less noise. This really increased the attractiveness of the Finnish capital.

In addition to this, weather was superb. And if weather is nice, it a place appears nicer, too. And the time spent on strolling or seating in a pavement cafe and talking to people create a very pleasant atmosphere. Much better one than a day full of rain and cold.

I also liked the fact that everyone in Helsinki spoke English. There was absolutely no issue with communication, and Finnish is amongst the harder and dissimilar languages in Europe. I had not realised that Swedish was one of Finland's official languages. Signage and written communications, were given in both Finnish and Swedish. Although I did not check how wide-spoken Swedish was in Helsinki.

Sights:
The sea fortress of Suomenlinna
The sea fortress of Suomenlinna
The city's most prominent sight was the snow-white cathedral at the picturesque Senate Square. It was visible from the sea, a few miles away from the shore.

The Uspenski Cathedral, the remains of the Russia's imperialist occupation, was slightly underwhelming. It did have 13 golden cupolas, but I would not call it 'an impressive red brick structure'. I was often labelled as 'the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe'. Yet, how could one call Finland 'western'? It is even in the Eastern European Time Zone, and a thousand miles east of Poland, which in turn was called Eastern rather than Central Europe?! Anyway, the most interesting sight of Helsinki, and the only one inscribed as the UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the Suomenlinna sea fortress. It was the largest fortress in Europe. It was located on a few islands and covered a considerable area. Many barracks, forts, bastions, ramparts, bunkers, as well command centres remained. In addition, the complex had a number parks.

Accommodations:
Room #733 of the Hilton Helsinki Strand hotel.
Room #733 of the Hilton Helsinki Strand hotel.
About 900 people reside permanently on Suomenlinna and they have lovely wooden houses.

Other sights, which I could not visit, were the Temppeliaukio rock church, the Seurasaari ethnographic complex with example structures across Finland and old Market Hall.

Hilton Helsinki Strand put me on the Executive Floor, in room #733, few steps away from the tiny Executive Lounge. My room was not particularly large and it was not too small. I was slightly disappointed with the small TV set, although I did not switch it on at all.

In addition to all the typical amenities of 4 or 5 stars hotels, this one had, of course, also a sauna. It was located on the 8th floor. The Hilton had a decent location. It was just outside the core centre o the city, 5 minutes walk to the Senate Square and the seafront Market.

The personnel were very helpful, spoke English and knew a lot about the city and the surroundings, and could assist with tours and independent logistics, like the Helsinki Card (see below).

Nightlife:
The Hemingway's Bar
The Hemingway's Bar
Helsinki normally does not have very cheap accommodation base. Even hostels, of which there is a good number, tend to charge more than €20 for a bed in a multiple-bed dormitory with shared bathroom, plus extra euros for bedlinen, which is obligatory due to local laws and regulations. Hotels tend to be expensive, too. One should be prepared to spend over €50 a night in a basic hotel outside the centre.

Nightlife in Helsinki was more low key than I had expected. I read in a few guidebooks a few years ago that it should be very lively. I was not so, when I visited. The Helsinki Club and the Trend Bar in the Sokos Hotel building were more prominent than others on Saturday night. The Hemingway's Bar in the same area seemed popular and busy, too.

I heard about the IceBar, made from clear ice transported from Lapland, but I could not locate it. There were no signs for it, and I think one had to enter via a restaurant that would never suggest a bar like that would hide behind/inside it.

Hangouts:
On The Rocks and Baarikärpänen bars at the Järnvägstorget square.
On The Rocks and Baarikärpänen bars at the Järnvägstorget square.
The eastern side of the Järnvägstorget square, across from the central station, had a few bars with tables in the pavement: On The Rocks, Baarikärpänen, Public Corner, and a few others, which were very popular on Sunday afternoon. I tried the first and the second as they were the busiest. The bars normally had average lager from draft, a dubious cider - also from draft, and red and white wine, served from .... draft! The latter, I found very interesting, if not a little shocking, actually. I tried the larger and wine. Both tasted cheap, I have to admit. Although they were not cheap price-wise (€5-€6 per pint or glass).

The tables at the north-eastern corner, at the Maya Bar & Grill (Latin American) as well as the Everest (Nepalese) restaurants on the same square were busy, too. If weather was good, and one had time before hopping on the #615 bus to the airport, whose stop was just a few yards away from the bars, then this large square had a relaxed atmosphere for a beer or two.

Restaurants:
Grilled white fish and the Keisari EloWehnä wheat beer at the Aino restaurant
Grilled white fish and the Keisari EloWehnä wheat beer at the Aino restaurant
After a longer consideration, it was the Aino Finnish Restaurant that fed me late Saturday lunch. The menu was relatively short. My choices were Keisari EloWehnä wheat beer, traditional creamy salmon soup, and grilled white fish with wheat beer sauce. The service was a bit chaotic and slow, but that might have been because of my table selection - outside on the pavement in the sun. Yet, once ordered, food did not take too long to arrive. The beer was superb, the soup was very tasty, and the fish was grilled to perfection. With 3 bottles of beer, the bill came to €52, including the people watching.

How peculiar that many restaurants in central Helsinki were self-service, or perhaps they turned like that for Sunday. I understood the bars and pub-like eateries would practice this, like the Amarillo. But for the others along the Pohojoisesplanadi, which looked upper range, this appeared very strange. I never discovered why this was like that.

Other recommendations:
The Olympic Stadium
The Olympic Stadium
The Helsinki Card was a great idea for visiting the city. Once bought, it gave unlimited travel on all public transport, and that included the Soummenlinna ferry; entries to a number of museums and exhibitions; and a sightseeing bus tour (normally costing €27). If one planned an extensive sightseeing and museum hopping, the card was an invaluable tool and saved one's a small fortune. The 24h card was €35.

From the airport, there were four options to get to the city. Strangely, there were no rail connections. The cheapest option was the city bus #615 or #615T (€4), which took 35-45 minutes, and ran every 20 minutes. Then Finnair Bus (€6) was slightly faster and more comfortable. The two taxi options were: Airport Taxi, which was shared, could take over an hour, depending on how many people shared, and cost up to €27 (if a single traveller took it with no-one to share). The price rose for more passengers, although per person costing less. Regular meter taxi was €45 or so.

Published on Monday May 16th, 2011


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Sun, May 22 2011 - 09:45 AM rating by mistybleu

Another great read; and has made me want to go to this city even more now.

Mon, May 16 2011 - 03:43 PM rating by porto

I agree Krys, good weather on any break makes a difference and is also a friend of the camera. :) Great tip about the Helsinki Card, I will keep that in mind for future reference.

Mon, May 16 2011 - 03:43 PM rating by porto

I agree Krys, good weather on any break makes a difference and is also a friend of the camera. :) Great tip about the Helsinki Card, I will keep that in mind for future reference.

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