Helsinki doesn’t feel like a capital city. There’s a rule that no building can be higher than five floors, so there’s none of that oppressive claustrophobia that so often haunts big cities. In fact, with their wide boulevards, and roads catering to pretty much all types of transport there’s a great sense of sky, air and openness. The air, blown in from the sea feels alpine and Scandinavian: fresh, crisp and with a slight wind chill. Granted, I was there over midsummer, which is when everybody in Helsinki leaves. The Friday, Midsummers Eve was a bank holiday and so shops and tourist attractions closed down as the natives made the countryside. The fact that the city was essentially vacant means it’s unsurprising that a feeling of emptiness pervaded for the weekend. Options for where to go, what to do, where to eat were limited, but in all honesty that’s not exactly why I was there.
The weekend was a reunion with three of my best friends from university and so it was always going to be more about the company than the entertainment. We decided to take the bull by the horns though and made like the Finns and bailed on Finland. It turns the best thing to do in Helsinki is leave. The number one thing recommended to do in the capital city, is to get on a ferry and head to Eastern Europe. Tallinn to be precise, in Estonia. And why not, a days return on the ferry will only set you back around €30 and once you get there the prices are lower and the old town is fairytale picturesque. It is a long, full, exhausting day but it is entirely worth the 2 hour jaunt across the Baltic Sea. With Disney style churches and brightly coloured, cobbled streets it is a darling of a place to wander around. We clambered- fearfully up to the top of St.Olaf’s tower to enjoy views across the city that included both the Old Town, and the glass plated buildings of what I assume is the New Town. The entirety of Tallinn Old Town is a cobbled maze of back alleys and churches- some of which we marvelled at, others in which we feared for our lives (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was manned by a young boy and had ominous looking objects in display cases in the basement. There was a definite creepiness about the whole thing. I highly recommend a visit). We returned to Helsinki, loaded down with cheap booze, though admittedly we didn’t have nearly as much as the Finn’s who needed to purchase delivery trolleys to cater for their thirst.
Like many cities, a waking tour with a guide who knows their way around is the best way to explore. Fortunately I was lucky enough to have one of these in Helsinki, a highly organised Finn-friendly bestie who’s spent the past three months scouting out the best things to do- and how to get to them. Armed with our three day travel passes which allowed us to hop on and off unlimited amounts of public transport (trains, trams and buses) we saw some of the best Helsinki has to offer! There’s a market by the towns central harbour which sells overpriced strawberries and an array of food. We dined on enormous portions of reindeer and goats cheese stuffed crepes. Super tasty. I always think food is one of the best things about travelling, and trying local specialities is something I am always well up for (hence the reindeer- sorry Santa). The Finns seem to do pastry well, and though I was doubtful about their Karelian pies- a sort of rice pudding filled savory flat pattie thing( I ate it in a bunker, hiding from the rain on an island that was once a military base.) I highly recommend their Cinnamon Buns! Stodgy, warming, filling goodness. Perfect with a cup of tea hiding from the rain on a Sunday afternoon. Blueberry pie is apparently another firm favourite in Helsinki, and we ate both a blueberry gateaux concoction on Suomenlinna and an amazing blueberry cake with whipped cream by an idyllic lake.
When we first arrived, as we drove from the airport to the bus station, my friend and I reflected that we knew next to nothing about Finland. Save for their love of heavy metal and the names of a couple of racing drivers and the worlds most successful sniper we were factless. After a weekend in the country the two facts I’m taking away with me is that they are incredibly proud of being the country behind The Moomins and Angry Birds. Like any country that hasn’t got a lot to shout about, it makes the most of its only international exports. I reckon the reason they hold on to cartoons in such a patriotic way, is because they’re childish, cheerful things, and when you live in country tormented by eternal darkness in winter and everlasting light in the summer you need something to keep you thinking positive.
I liked Helsinki. The fact that everyone spoke impeccable English and that the whole place ran like clockwork made it easy to get around, and to relax into. It had random churches, my favourite being The Rock Church, essentially a hybrid of a set piece from Tracey Island, Mars Attacks and a 60s James Bond Villain’s Lair. There was good food, and more importantly, great company. A lovely weekend all round.