You can gauge a lot about a country when you dive into the nearest loo after entering the airport and hear birdsong playing through the speakers.. A few moments later, standing by the baggage carousel, you encounter several glass containers showing stuffed animals in their native habitat. This is a nation that loves the outdoors.
A population which spends many months coping with cold, short days and a distinct lack of light, can’t help but come alive in the Spring, with the promise of endless, sun-filled days ahead of them. We noticed this on our trips to other Nordic countries: they embrace the natural world and need to spend as much time as possible enjoying the sunshine while they can. However, they are realistic about the weather. Restaurants put tables outside but always with plenty of fleece blankets available. In the UK we sit and shiver outside then go inside at the first opportunity, wishing we’d brought a warmer cardi.
Helsinki was a complete surprise to me. I had no clear idea about what to expect and there were no definitive must-sees on our sightseeing list. We had four nights in the city; plenty of time to explore but also time to absorb the atmosphere.
|Olympic Stadium Tower
(a passing cloud not a puff of smoke!)
The city is small yet spacious, the traffic is light and there never seems to be any crowds. The Russian and Swedish eras in its history have left their mark on the handsome, low-rise buildings and the wide, bike-friendly boulevards help the capital breathe. There are lots of parks, including some right in the centre and there are even beaches within walking distance.
The two structures which do stand out on the horizon are the Finnair Sky Wheel and the Olympic Stadium Tower. Both of these attractions had no queues to buy tickets and when we did get the chance to see Helsinki from above, it was the green spaces which caught our eye and the amount of water that surrounds the heart of the city.
The harbour is the main focus of activity in Helsinki. The market stalls selling street food and souvenirs do a steady trade and the regular ferries plough the gulf of Finland across to Estonia and the nearby islands.
One of the most popular day trips by ferry is to the island of Suomenlinna, 15 minutes away. Built when the country was under Swedish rule, this 18th century fortress sounds as if it might only be a hit with history buffs but, in reality, it’s a mini-paradise with craggy headlands, secluded bays and beaches. Tourists head to the museums to learn more about the history: the locals, on the other hand, bring blankets and picnics before spreading out on the grass.
The highlight of our day was a tour led by Michael, a very amusing and informative Helsinki University graduate. Michael told us fascinating detail about the battles that had been fought here and the dedication of Field Marshal Augustin Ehrensvärd. We also learned that 1952 was a marvellous year for Finland: the Olympics were held in Helsinki, wartime reparations were completed and Coca Cola arrived from the United States.
You won’t need a ferry to reach another popular island destination, Seurasaari, as the Number 24 bus will take you as close as possible. Walk over the pretty white bridge and this delightful wooded island is there to explore. Wander around its coastal paths or take a peek at the collection of old farmhouses and cottages which are dotted around the island as part of the open-air museum.
During the summer months, Finland is naturally bathed in light until the wee small hours so there is ample time to take in the sights and explore. But it’s also important to do as the Finns do: find a quiet spot, kick off your shoes and just listen to the birdsong.
|This is as busy as it gets down at the harbour|
|Tiny island spotted just out of Helsinki harbour|
|Vessels negotiating the narrow channels around Suomenlinna|
|View from the top of the Olympic Stadium Tower|
|Bridge across to Seurasaari island|
During our stay I was given a free 72-hour Helsinki card thanks to Visit Helsinki. My husband bought his and we were able to use these cards on the ferries and buses throughout the city, as well as gain free entry into many museums such as those on Suomenlinna and Seurasaari.
More to come on the blog soon – Cultured Helsinki, Foodie Helsinki and the Churches of Helsinki.