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Did You Know…?
- The 1952 Olympics in Helsinki were the first at which the Soviet Union participated.
- The Finnish language doesn’t have a future tense.
- Nokia, the global telecommunications company, was a riverside paper mill at its birth in 1865.
- Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium was built for the 1940 Games, canceled due to World War II.
- Lenin, in exile in Finland, first met Stalin in Tampere near Helsinki in 1905.
Finland’s capital, Helsinki, appeals to prospective visitors on several levels, but we will start with the geography. This city sits on a peninsula in southern Finland and stretches across several islands. It faces the Gulf of Finland, a finger of the Baltic. In addition, forests that stretch to Lapland and to Siberia are near at hand.
Because this is northern Europe, winter daylight lasts only a few hours, but summer days are deliciously long — and, seasonally, temperatures are very pleasant. In this milieu, visitor choices range from sightseeing cruises or canoeing to hiking and cycling — or ice fishing and cross-country skiing in winter.
Helsinki, with a population of around 600,000, has the diversity of a city, too, with a special claim to fame as a design center. It was designated the World Design Capital in 2012.
Helsinki’s sense of style is most evident in the architecture — such as the Church in the Rock, carved out of bedrock, Finlandia Hall or the ultramodern Kiasma museum of contemporary art — and in the art seen in public spaces. The city’s design prowess comes indoors to include ceramics, cutlery, fabrics, furniture and glassware.
These things add to the city’s eye appeal and, it almost goes without saying, enhances the shopper’s vacation.
Sightseeing also encompasses the not so modern, especially the iconic buildings dating from the 19th century when the much smaller port city was designated Finland’s capital. Attaining status as a capital called for some appropriately impressive new construction. The Helsinki Cathedral is the best-known example of this, and its location, Senate Square, the starting point for a walk down history lane. Such an itinerary also must include a ferry ride to the Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress.
Other experiences for the Helsinki tourist can be as varied as Midsummer’s Eve events, arts festivals and concerts, quality indoor or outdoor museum visits, lively nights out involving a lot of vodka or, for a somewhat tamer experience, an evening meal featuring reindeer or bear. And, not to be overlooked, the quintessentially Finnish experience, the sauna.
Things to do for Venturers
- Sightsee by bicycle — there are nearly 600 miles of bike paths in and around Helsinki. In winter, clip on cross-country skis and use the city’s more than 80 miles of trails; the only cost is ski rental.
- Eat traditional reindeer stew (an acquired taste) or smoked reindeer liver. Or try the bear steak. Crayfish is a favorite in season (late August), but by Finnish tradition, generally taken as follows: one crayfish, one glass of vodka, one crayfish, one glass of vodka. You get the idea.
- Join a canoe safari in Helsinki waters, or rent a sailboat for your own explorations.
- Go dancing, but be prepared to join locals at their favorites — Helsinki’s version of the tango or the humppa, a fast-paced version of ballroom dancing.
- Or, leave town on a one-night roundtrip ferry cruise to Tallinn, Estonia. Such cruises are generally clubbing and gambling trips, not transportation or even tourism.
- Fish in the city; one spot right in the city center is the Vanhankaupunginkoski rapids (fish for whitefish, not the trout or salmon, which are protected). In winter, make that ice fishing.
Things to do for Centrics
- Arrange a sauna at the last of the public saunas, the 1928 Kotiharju. It is a traditional wood-fired facility.
- Follow the walking route for tourists, starting at Senate Square, locale for many government buildings and Helsinki Cathedral, passing the Kiseleff Bazaar and ending at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral.
- Hop a ferry to see Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress on the eponymously named island. Swedish overlords built the fortress, one of the world’s largest intact citadels, in the 18th century. Hike on the island, being aware this can involve some rugged terrain.
- Take a party cruise, with dancing. Also, take a tourist cruise for touring the Helsinki archipelago.
- Time a visit to Seurasaari Open-Air Museum for Midsummer’s Eve when one of the country’s many traditional bonfires is lighted on the island site, and a traditional wedding takes place in the Karuna Church. Throughout summer, the museum, which depicts Finnish rural life of the 18th century, offers folk dancing and craft displays plus shops selling handicrafts and traditional foods.
- For a quick orientation tour, ride the 3T Tram, which takes you past most of the major points of interest.
Things to do for Authentics
- Search out examples of works by Finland’s best-known architects. In Helsinki, see Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall and the Church in the Rock by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. Also, Eliel Saarinen’s famous designs include the railroad station and the National Museum.
- Take a guided tour of the Marimekko textile factory. Or, on a day trip, take a guided tour of Nokia in Tampere, a couple of hours away. See the Lenin Museum while in Tampere.
- If visiting in winter, look for the snow church sometimes built in the Senate Square. Time that visit to shop at one or more of Helsinki’s Christmas markets, and listen for one of the city’s a cappella choirs, which perform in restaurants and in the streets in the weeks before Christmas.
- Discover Helsinki as a passenger on a Baltic Sea cruise.
- Make time for the Ateneum, repository for Finnish art from the 18th to mid-20th centuries. Cross the street, too, for the Kiasma modern art museum. The building itself features a striking and sometimes-controversial design.
- Shop for Finnish-made glass, cutlery or other items that reflect the Finnish design sense. Arabia ceramics and Marimekko fabrics have factory outlets.
For more information, consult Helsinki City Tourist Information at www.visithelsinki.fi and choose your language if necessary.