Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Month: November 2015

A morning in Amsterdam

20150914_030430

There are times when I can be my own worst client, ignoring sensible suggestions in favor of rash, spur of the moment decisions and a recent layover in Amsterdam was one such occasion.

Having tried mightily to avoid a six hour layover at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on my return from Helsinki when reserving the ticket but failing as there was only a single combination of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flights that would work I had planned to hunker down at the airport enjoying some light bites and beers before comfortably going through security ahead of my 2 PM nonstop flight home to Edmonton but on final approach seeing a sunny day instead opted to head into the historic city center for a quick visit.

After landing and taxiing for what seemed an eternity to the terminal I found lockers to store my small carry-on and bought the same day return ticket to Amsterdam Centraal Station and was into town by 9:30 AM. The weather was gorgeous and it was a treat to leisurely wander the canals without encountering much traffic.

Helsinki 279

As I’ve been to Amsterdam a number of times over the years and know it fairly well found my way to the Westerkerk and nearby Anne Frank House before turning to arrive at the recently reopened Rijksmuseum but rather than join a long entry line-up relaxed in a garden with works by Matisse.

Helsinki 283

The Van Gogh Museum is a few short blocks from the Rijksmuseum and wandered by it noting the new side entrance but lengthy line to enter so kept on with my unscripted walking tour.

The Hard Rock Café was a stop on my return to the train station as buying their souvenirs is one addiction I have yet to give up but after carefully selecting a t-shirt and sitting down for a bite & beer realised it was almost noon and had to get moving if I was to make my flight so double timed it back to the train station which had by now become swamped with masses of participants in a charity fun walk/run. Dodging the crowd I jumped on an intercity train whose first stop was Schiphol Airport as luckily there are up to 10 trains per hour that make the 15 trip to the airport. Cursing myself for not having left the city earlier I knew I would be pushing my luck to make the flight as I wouldn’t arrive until almost 1 PM and still had to retrieve my carry-on bag from the locker before proceeding through both customs and security which can take some time at the best of times. I navigated the queues while trying to rein in my impatience, found my gate with the help of some friendly airline staff as it hadn’t been assigned and wasn’t on the boarding pass issued to me in Helsinki early that morning and arrived to happily find the familiar throng of passengers waiting to board.  A gate agent advised boarding would begin within 10 minutes so exhaled a huge sigh of relief on the way to a nearby washroom to freshen up having become soaked in perspiration from both the strenuous speed walk on a warm day weather and nervous excitement at having come so close to missing my flight home.

The unplanned adventure was in hindsight more expensive and far more stressful than staying at the airport would’ve been and while it was nice to walk the shady, quiet canals of Amsterdam one more time it was a lesson that even what seems a long layover can go by quickly if not enough attention is paid to the time. No doubt I’ll recall the day every time I wear the souvenir t-shirt.

Creative Commons Licence
Little Secrets of Amsterdam by iFly KLM Magazine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Thinking of Paris

Many memories have flashed to mind in the days since the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November, 2015 and so thought I would share a small slice of “the city of light” I’ve come to know and love.

After exploring Paris with my two sisters two decades earlier I returned for a longer ten night stay in May 2012 and wanting to live like a local rented a small apartment on Rue Gros Caillou a scant few blocks from the Champs de Mars and Eiffel Tower.

caillous map

IMG_3040

The ground floor apartment on the right of the main entrance was my little home for the stay and while perfect for a single traveller the front shutters and windows that opened onto the street allowing mosquitos entry and passersby a look in took some getting used to.

The fashionable 7th arrondissement, or 7er  for short, features many monuments such as Napolean’s resting place Les Invalides, Musee Rodin and Musee D’Orsay.

IMG_3307

IMG_3237

The dome of the Les Invalides is just visible over the garden of Musee Rodin and got me thinking…

IMG_3250

These sights while an absolute pleasure to explore on a sunny late May afternoon couldn’t compare to staying in the shadow of the Tour Eiffel and seeing it from dozens of different angles day and night and it was a part of the trip that will stay with me forever it was that memorable.

IMG_3210

I purchased a behind-the-scenes tour of the Eiffel Tower to see it from inside and really enjoyed the guided tour not the least for the ability to bypass hours long lines that snaked around the base of the landmark.

IMG_3073

 

IMG_3081

There is much more however to Paris than the Tower and purposefully avoided some of the big museums such as the Louvre to instead wander Montmartre, catch an organ practise at Saint-Sulpice in the Latin Quarter, or linger over a croque monsieur a few blocks away in my favorite café, Les Deux Magots.

IMG_3092

So many warm memories of warm days have come flooding back from finding a comfortable bench from which to soak up  the leafy leisure of a Canal Saint-Martin afternoon

IMG_3443

to escaping a sudden downpour in Shakespeare and Co. book store

IMG_3314

to wandering the Seine quays for quiet vantage points to capture the beauty of this famous city.

IMG_3118   

Paris, like New York, London or Tokyo, is a city that deserves to be explored in-depth and on more than one occasion so see my few trips as a good start, an introduction or prelude and very much look forward to finding myself happily lost in her streets one day soon.

Creative Commons Licence
Little Secrets of Paris by iFly KLM Magazine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Hotel visit: Hotel Kämp, Helsinki

1173px-Pohjoisesplanadi_29

As Helsinki’s only five star luxury accommodation the Hotel Kämp blends heritage and sophistication with its choice location to deliver a world class yet very Finnish product.

While the hotel has the look of a preserved landmark it’s façade is a 1965 replica of the original 1887 hotel which was demolished to make way for a modern office block. A 3 year conversion was completed in 1999 converting the office block back into a hotel which while currently locally owned is a member of Starwood Hotel’s Luxury Collection.

The Hotel Kämp is ensconced in a prime location along the elegant pedestrian avenue or Esplanadi and a few short blocks to both the harbour front Market Square and Senate Square with its centerpiece white cathedral. It’s 179 rooms range from the newly renovated Deluxe rooms to larger Executive, Junior Suites and Suites including the Mannerheim Suite named for famed Finnish military and independence hero Carl Mannerheim. All rooms are similarly well appointed with deep grey marble accented tubs and separate shower stalls, heated bathroom floors, writing desks and work from  the Imprimo Collection of contemporary Finnish graphic art.

20150917_011156

The signature green rubber ducky may be found in every bath and have become a huge hit with children and the inner child in all guests.

20150917_011954

20150917_011746

20150917_012004

The suites all feature large window that overlook the Esplanadi. In touring the various room categories all had a similarly warm design with comfortable furnishings but without the stuffy old hotel feel.

The Brasserie Kämp offers both indoor and terrace seating, weather permitting, for breakfast, lunch, dinner or afternoon snacks with coffee.

20150917_012551

20150917_012543

The Kämp Bar was the preferred gathering spot for a number of late 19th century artists and intellectuals including Jean Sibelius, Finland’s most famous composer. Japanese Restaurant YUME just off the stunning circular main lobby is another dining venue worth visiting for its authentic cuisine. A full service spa, Kämp Spa,  a gym and requisite sauna round out the luxury hotel amenities but an adjacent shopping arcade is definitely worth a peek especially in the evening with live musicians and an intimate, cozy ambiance with casual mood lighting.

20150919_003922

20150919_003511

Prices for the hotel start at EUR300 per room per night for the lead-in Deluxe room category and rise from there however promotional rates do appear at times but watch the fine print on these offers as the low rate may be prepaid and highly inflexible.

The Hotel Kämp’s rich history lends an air of an old world palace that pampers guest like aristocrats but is secretly a  a contemporary hotel in the very heart of a very modern city.

The staff of the Hotel Kämp were gracious enough to conduct me on a  guided tour of this landmark for which I am grateful.

 

Hotel review: Holiday Inn West Ruoholahti

The power of points is the one and only reason I stayed at the Holiday Inn West Ruoholahti in Helsinki during a recent trip to this Nordic capital and I’m not ashamed to say it as paying with points beats paying out of pocket.

As a quick background Holiday Inn is one brand within the larger Intercontinental Hotels Group, or IHG for short, and operates what it calls the world’s largest hotel loyalty program IHG Rewards where guests collect points on their stays and redeem them for merchandise or hotel award nights. I’d built up a molehill of points over the last few years but not enough to redeem for all four nights in Helsinki, or not enough that is until IHG Rewards released their Summer PointsBreak promotion which halved the number of points required for hotel award nights at this Helsinki hotel and left me with just enough available in my account to redeem for the four nights. As this hotel normally is around EUR100/CAD$150 per room per night redeeming points can be a significant savings but requires some time and attention to manage your account, follow periodic promotions and read the fine print to maximize your value. If there is a catch it’s that you don’t often have much choice of available hotels in some cities for the lower promotional award night hotels so have to be somewhat flexible and willing to compromise on amenities, brand and/or location.

Location is a very good place to start with this hotel as it’s a 30 minute walk west of the downtown core so not a preferred location for sightseeing but that said there is a metro stop two short blocks away and the ride down the escalator to the platform is almost as long as the ride a few stops to the city center so good public transit helps minimize the suburban location. A one day transit worker strike midway through the stay made access a little more difficult but luckily front desk staff had warned me in advance so was ready for a walk to the downtown.  The second stop on the metro is at the city’s main railway station which is a 5 – 10 minute walk from there to most of the city center sights and while trams and busses are also available are a little harder to navigate easily so would recommend sticking to the Metro. The metro stop is in front of a large shopping complex with ground level K-market smaller grocery store that was open weeknights until 11 PM so made for a handy stop to pick-up sodas and snacks cheaper than in the central district.

The room itself was comfortable enough with a queen bed on a higher floor with a view of the next office building.

20150916_065817

The décor seemed a little dated but functional minus a bundle of wires beneath the nightstand.

20150917_232822

The TV being out throughout the whole hotel for a day was a drawback as was the warm room temperature which started at 77 F but luckily cooled off to a less sub-tropical norm after it was mentioned to the front desk staff.

The bathroom featured user-friendly touches such as a well placed hook above the vanity for toiletry bags and a shower stall with nice adjustable shower wand holder that could be extended to around 7 ft. making it seem like a fancier rainfall showerhead. This feature no doubt comes in handy as I’d noticed the Finns are taller than average North Americans. The one quirk about the bathroom was no fan but water pressure was good especially in the shower and the hot water was quick and plentiful even at peak times so overall a very useful space.

The award rate excluded breakfast so didn’t eat on-site or use the hotel sauna but did use the free computer  access in the business center to send some emails and do my airline check-in. I would however ask at the front desk or bring your own blank pages if wanting to print your boarding passes as none were in the printer on in the desk.

Having researched this Holiday Inn and knowing its location I was willing to trade a convenient central hotel for  the savings the point redemption represented so in that respect received full value but wouldn’t otherwise recommend this hotel as its in a suburban business district and for leisure travellers to Helsinki there are a number of locally owned and operated hotels within the city center of comparable quality and price.

Find yourself hungry in Helsinki? Try the reindeer

Helsinki, Finland may not be among the culinary capitals of the world but that doesn’t mean the city is without good food and native specialties worthy trying.

A good place to start is right in the center of the city at Market Square by sampling some of the tasty treats on offer in stalls under orange tents such as the reindeer meatballs.

20150917_025750

20150917_045933

20150917_025808

The reindeer meatballs with potatoes and beer proved a huge lunch but am glad I ventured outside my comfort zone for something completely different. The big reindeer meatballs are much leaner than ground beef so don’t drip with fat as hamburger would and had a bit of a gamey taste, sweet more than spicy.

20150917_050458

In a city noted for its design and sleek modern aesthetic the orange tents are paradoxically practical and utilitarian but have become a familiar local landmark so ate my hearty lunch at a measured pace with a number of locals.

Helsinki’s venerated retail institution Stockmann occupies a supremely central square block and has an eighth floor Fazer Food Market and small café that offers an affordable light breakfast so is worth a detour.

stockmann

photo by katieker/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The original Karl Fazer Café is a few short blocks away and is another worthwhile stop for its myriad of diet destroying chocolates, pastries and deserts as much as the art deco design. This flagship of the Fazer chocolate empire dates back to 1891 and is near the Hotel Kamp and Esplanadi.

Before embarking on a harbour cruise another day I arrived early to have lunch at the restored 19th century Old Market Hall which has vendors selling everything from cheese to fish to vegetables and cakes but it was the soup at Soppakeittiö that stopped me in my tracks.

soppa

20150918_031139

After much debate went with the chorizo bean soup which was hearty and with the free bread filling. The little soup stall has seating for a dozen so finding seats can be hit and miss but the soup is definitely worth waiting for.

Directly across from the Old Market Hall is Sundmans Krog, a cozy, casual restaurant serving fine fare at prices easier to swallow than the more formal Michelin-rated dining room within the same harbour front building.

20150917_112115

I arrived at what I thought was a choice time for dinner, 7:30 PM, to find the place empty but was given a warm welcome and so having my choice of seat picked a window booth to admire the view. The waiter explained that the austerity protest march by large city transit workers planned for the next day was likely keeping many locals at home so revelled in the pampering of being the only patron in the whole Krog.

I started with the Caesar salad which came with fresh baked bread that tasted almost like sourdough.

20150917_112400

The main course was steak cooked medium with mushroom side and French fries with a garden salad.

20150917_113651

While I normally prefer my steak on the well done side I let the chef do his thing and it came out cooked perfectly and was a rare meal I had to slow down to fully savour. The whole 90 minute meal with tip and beer wound up around EUR40/CAD$60 which isn’t too much more than I would pay for a comparable dining experience in Edmonton. I’ll recall this meal not only for the outstanding flavours and local specialties but the luxury of having the whole place to myself. When I reluctantly left the restaurant after a fabulous meal I was completely satisfied which pretty much was the same feeling I left Helsinki with.

 

 

Distill this: Guinness updating its filtration process for first time in 256 years

As one who has become quite fond of Guinness since a trip to the Dublin in 2014 I was conflicted upon reading in an Independent article that for the first time since its 1759 founding the Irish institution will become vegan friendly and will no longer use fish bladders in its filters.

Apparently bowing to beer-loving vegan pressure Guinness will adopt a different filtration process in 2016 and while still enjoying the samples of a morning tour of the Jameson whiskey a short walk way don’t recall fish bladders being mentioned on my afternoon tour of the Guinness Storehouse in the sprawling St. James`s Gate factory. I shall endeavour to taste test Guinness periodically over the next year to ensure the change in the manufacturing process hasn`t altered this timeless tipple.

For those who have not toured the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin enjoy this video.

For another view of Helsinki just add water

While nothing beats cycling around a city to experience its neighborhoods coming in a close second is seeing coastal cities from the water and Helsinki is one such city that should be seen from a different perspective to appreciate its natural beauty.

Some 330 islands make up the Helsinki archipelago and while some of the most popular recreational islands such as Pihlajasaari have limited Summer ferry service year round service operates from a pier at Market Square to the fortress of Suomenlinna.

Helsinki 269

While the weather wasn’t ideal with a light mist and whipping winds I couldn’t bring myself to hunker down in the enclosed cabin and braved the elements out on deck with a few hardly locals. Note that as the Suomenlinna ferry is operated by Helsinki regional transport it’s integrated with bus, metro and tram lines so the Helsinki Card or transit pass will work on this ferry route.

One of the perks of the Helsinki card is the complimentary Beautiful Canal Route, a 1.5 hour harbour tour operating between May 1 and 30 September with running multilingual commentary of the sights gliding past such as Suomenlinna, the Helsinki Zoo, and the leafy green Degerö Canal that gives the tour its name.

helsinkimap

This was another occasion I couldn’t confine myself to the limited vantage point of an interior cabin and stayed topside alone for far more amazing views. The rain had coated the outdoor plastic seats but travel as with most things rewards the resourceful so pulled out my plastic bag I kept handy for stops at the supermarket (you pay for plastic bags so either use an environmentally cloth shopping bag or reuse a plastic one) and placed it on the seat.

Helsinki 170

A number of the islands have been preserved for recreation and are dotted with quaint cottages Helsinki residents escape to in summer. I liked the colours and variety of the cute little seaside saunas with requisite ladders to haul yourself out of the water after having run from the sauna and jumped in the chilly water.

Helsinki 192

Helsinki 189

Slow down to transit the Degerö Canal brought us out of the wind and to a more leisurely pace to wave to folks on shore.

Helsinki 196

After exiting the canal we headed back toward Market Square but not before passing idle icebreakers and a picturesque little island with a small house and big tug boat at anchor.

Helsinki 198

Helsinki 199

While the weather could’ve been worse and was thankful for that reflected on how nice it would be to return for a harbour cruise in the middle of summer with longer days and sunnier skies. I`d highly recommend this tour operated by Helsinki Sightseeing as it leaves right from Market Square and offers a really interesting look at greater Helsinki from a different perspective than travellers might glimpse on their own.

Historic Helsinki

While in close physical proximity the gulf between sister Baltic cities Tallinn and Helsinki in terms of their respective histories is almost as wide as the Gulf of Finland and so offers travellers considering a two-city holiday a curious contrast.

As Europe’s only capital without a medieval history Helsinki is a much more modern creation than Tallinn whose Old Town surrounds you with preserved medieval architectural masterpieces at almost every turn. That isn’t to suggest Helsinki is without any history as Vikings sailed these waters a millennium ago but it was little more than a tiny village in a large Swedish empire until the mid-18th century when the Swedes with French financial backing began constructing a huge fortress spread across four interconnected islands they named Sveaborg to guard the approaches to the fine natural harbour while helping check Russian territorial advances gained under tsar Peter the Great. Work on the fortress was begun in earnest in 1748 with as many as 10,000 labourers overseen by Swedish military officers and proved both a cultural and economic boon to Helsinki and it grew rapidly as a result. Renamed Suomenlinna or Castle of Finland upon Finnish independence in 1918,  the mighty bastion was never really completed when it was besieged Russian forces  60 years later surrendering. The fortifications were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 and have become the city’s top attraction for both visitors and locals alike.

Helsinki 249

A short 15 minute ferry ride from Helsinki’s Market Square conveniently brings visitors to the dock on Mustasaari just steps away from a visitors information center with Suomenlinna brochures showing suggested walking routes. Map in handy I set out to explore a little on my own before joining a free guided tour a few hours later and counted myself lucky the gloomy grey clouds had given way to sunny blue skies for my outdoor afternoon visit.

Helsinki 257

The free hour long guided tour helps add much historical colour not found in guidebooks or museum brochures so would highly recommend joining one if able. You are able to see and hear about the primitive living conditions in the early years of construction, the zeal of commander Augustin Ehrensvärd in completing the fortress which became his final resting place after his death, and the ship dry dock which was cutting edge technology when built.

Helsinki 254

The dry dock remains operational serving as a repair facility for wooden sailing ships that ply local waters.

I would budget an afternoon for a visit to Suomenlinna preferably in fine Summer weather when local families pack a picnic lunch and swim off the island’s rocky shore. It was a little too cool by my mid-September visit for watersports so contented myself with a slow stroll along seaside paths and gun batteries while feeling the full force of the wind coming off the open water.

Helsinki 262

If your timing is better than mine you may see one of the large Baltic ferries glide by Suomenlinna on its way to Tallinn or Stockholm.

Easily visible on the ferry ride back from Suomenlinna as it is from most of the city is Helsinki Cathedral, its stark white façade and green domes dominating Senate Square which lies at the bottom of a monumental staircase that’s a popular meeting spot and people watching perch.

Helsinki 135

The statue is of Tsar Alexander II who while liked by Finns for not forcing ‘Russification’ on its Finnish duchy in the mid-19th century was less well liked by some Russian subjects for his brutal secret police as he was assassinated in 1881.

The square underwent a complete redesign a decade after an 1808 fire by German architect Carl Ludvig Engel who was sent from St. Petersburg by Tsar Alexander I and saw the cathedral finished in 1852 as well as an administration building that later became the university of Helsinki and National Library. The little blue building on the left dates from 1757 and is one of only two buildings standing in Helsinki that predate Russian rule of Finland.

20150916_090910

Helsinki 137

A few blocks away at the harbour end of the fashionable Esplanadi is a statue in a large fountain known as Havis Amanda which caused a stir when unveiled on the spot in 1908 for the naked female form rumoured to be the Finnish sculptor’s Parisian mistress.

Helsinki 147

Havis Amanda

photo by Kimmo Kulovesi/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The racy nature of the mermaid statue is said to have delayed the work’s payment by the government of the day but as always seems to happen the artist had the last laugh as the lady’s posterior faces a building that long housed the Finnish finance ministry.

The second cathedral looming over the Market Square is the red brick Finnish Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral which has remained the largest in Western Europe since its completion in 1868.

Helsinki 156

Sadly the building was closed  for renovations during my visit so wasn’t able to view the interior but having seen Tallinn’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral days earlier could imagine the ornate decorations and gilded icons.

Luckily one of Helsinki’s most visited places of worship that remains open while under construction is the famous ‘rock church’, the Lutheran church whose interior was literally carved out of solid rock.  Temppeliaukio  Church attracts half a million visitors per year and once inside it’s easy to see why as the space is so rough and austere yet warm and welcoming thanks to the natural light that shines in from skylights.

Helsinki 209

It is a space worthy of spending some time in quiet contemplation before jumping back into the fast pace of a thoroughly modern city in a modern world.

As if as a reminder that hard work never goes out of style even in modern times the Three Smiths Statue occupies a central location in front of Stockmann Department Store, Helsinki’s equivalent of Macy’s in New York or Harrods in London. The base bears the scars of shrapnel damage from Russian shelling in 1944.

Helsinki 214

While no one message was meant to be taken from the statue most locals say it represents the solid character of the Finnish people.

It’s always serendipitous when history sneaks up and taps you on the shoulder which was the case when pausing a bike ride to photograph the tall, twin spires of St. John’s Church when across the street was a beautifully ornate façade with Atlantes (columns in the shape of a man).

Helsinki 235

I ended my Helsinki visit with some living history at the Kotiharju Sauna,  the city’s last traditional wood-heated public sauna which has been open since 1928. After paying admission and towel rental you are given a locker key to store your clothes and strip completely before showering and entering the sauna which has room for about 30 on tiered stone terraced seating. Being in the buff the hot stone seats can prove uncomfortable quite quickly so a kind local offered me a wooden plank to perch my posterior.

Helsinki 272 The sauna, which has separate facilities for men & women, serves as much of a local gathering place where friends catch up and visit but increasingly has seen more tourists come as its notoriety has spread. Clad in only a towel and enjoying a beer right outside the sauna entrance as is the custom a local with whom I struck up a conversation said the Summer high season is when most tourists arrive, some lasting only a few minutes before running out. I offered my condolences on having the sauna overrun at times but said I felt of myself as a traveller, not a tourist and came to experience it for myself hopefully learn a little more about why the sauna is essential in Finnish culture. We talked a bit more and I left a little later after another spell in the sauna feeling completely relaxed and believe that beyond the social element it’s having a place to unwind both  mentally and physically that keeps the sauna tradition alive and well throughout Finland. In an age where technology has spread a global culture and things seem increasing more uniform around the world it’s refreshing to see Finland hold on to its history and values as it’s learning about these differences that make travel more rewarding for me.

Hello Helsinki!

Having bid goodbye to Tallinn after a short visit I was very much looking forward to a longer four day exploration of Helsinki with its walkable downtown and chic Esplanadi, outlying monuments and unique spaces.

After setting sail and wandering about the ship to kill some time in what would be a two hour journey I couldn’t help notice how seriously the Finns take their sauna as apparently they even have one for the cargo!

20150916_040417

Arriving in the port of Helsinki this Prairie boy not used to seeing these mighty ships at work couldn’t help but stop to watch what seemed an endless number of semi-trailers roll off the ferry.

20150916_063610

While checking into my humble Holiday Inn in the suburbs I picked up the complimentary Helsinki Card the city tourism office was kind enough to leave for me. This card offers unlimited travel on the city’s extensive above and below ground public transit system, entry to museums and attractions, Finnair airport bus transfer, a city bus and harbour boat tour, and discounts on shopping and dining so made navigating the city a breeze. I appreciated that the card validity ran for 72 hours  from the time of first use even if that was later in the day as other such cards I’ve used elsewhere in Europe are based instead on a calendar day from morning until night so validating one in the late afternoon wastes a full day.

Wasting no time using my shiny new Helsinki Card I somehow misunderstood the hotel front desk staff’s directions and jumped on a street level tram instead of the underground metro and wound up heading away instead of toward the downtown. I’d heard that it was a major faux pas to chat up a solitary Finn riding public transport in silence but risked a rebuke to find my way. Luckily the bearded stranger I approached spoke English and happily helped steer me straight as an upcoming tram stop was opposite a metro station that would take me to the downtown. I came to learn from this and numerous subsequent encounters that everyone in Finland speaks English and is exceedingly polite making getting lost almost an enjoyable experience.

While technically not lost one detour I am glad I took later that first night in Helsinki was down a narrow side street as I was heading to toward Senate Square before dusk as I stumbled upon a tiny bar with big spirit called Wall St. Bar and being a frequent visitor to New York City stuck my head in to check it out. The bar itself is barely bigger than a subway car with half a dozen bar stools inside and overflow seating on outdoor patio chairs but was given a very warm welcome from the bartender who it turned out was actually Swedish.

20150916_23321020150916_105053

 

The table made out of beer kegs was a utilitarian touch I appreciated and saw in action as the draft beer started going foamy meaning the keg was almost empty and so part of the table had to be sacrificed. It was a worthy trade however as none of the patrons preferred foam over function.

While the Wall St. Bar may be the smallest it isn’t the only unique lounge to visit in Helsinki as the Atlee Bar offers unrivalled views over Helsinki from the 14th floor of the Hotel Torni.

20150917_093901

Located in the Design District the building the Art Deco bar crowns was the city’s tallest building for over fifty years after it was built in 1931 and after serving as a spotting station and command center in WWII is now a hotel in the Sokos chain. The sweeping skyline vistas from the outdoor deck help keep patrons from looking down at their bill too much which may be a good thing as prices up here are high, EUR 8.10 for a draft beer. Worth visiting are the washrooms which also offer equally as memorable views while seated.

atlee bar toilet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

photo by Tor Lillqvist/CC by 2.0

20150917_095230

The green domes of the large white Helsinki Cathedral and red brick orthodox Uspenski Cathedral are visible looking toward the harbour and Market Square.

20150917_095241

The low, grey clouds hide some sights although a closer look finds on the lake’s edge the white conference hall Finlandia designed by famed Finnish architect Alvar Aalto which I saw up close the next morning on a half-day spin around the city on a rental bike.

Helsinki 203

Helsinki 207

As in other European capitals many residents ride around Helsinki and city planners have made doing so easy and convenient with dedicated bike lanes or shared trails and it’s my favorite way to explore a city as you’re able to explore more sights beyond the downtown core and look like a local while doing so. At one point in fact while touring on my spiffy green upright bike was approached and asked for direction in Finnish so made me happy I’d blended in well enough to fool at least one resident.

Helsinki 225

The bikes may be rented from eBike Shack located in a central shopping plaza for a half-day (4 hours) for EUR25 or you may join organized bike tours daily.

20150918_02131920150918_021330 Not long after setting out on my city cycle a downpour forced me to take shelter under a car park awning at the Olympic Stadium built for the 1952 summer games. Happily a nearby  industrial sized fan provided some warm air to both warm and dry me off from the deluge that fairly soon dissipated.

Helsinki is almost completely surrounded by water so riding in any direction will quickly bring you to the sea and I encountered a number of vantage points worth stopping for during the ride including a nearby deserted stretch of sandy beach and nearby Café Regatta which made the Wall St. Bar seem spacious as there’s barely room for four tables in this cozy little cabin.Helsinki 240

20150918_050626

It seemed I wasn’t the only Canadian enjoying the green space as I noted these Canadian geese relaxing at the water’s edge.

20150918_051210
Within the same park is the Sibelius Monument is a 1960’s abstract art installation marking the contribution of Finland’s most famous composer Jean Sibelius and is tucked away in a public park. The work with its vertical pipes was so abstract intense pressure was placed on the artist to include the composer’s bust on a nearby rock ledge after the official monument unveiling to better identify who it was meant to honor.Helsinki 210

Marking the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth and a number of exhibitions and performances of his work is being held all year in various venues. I caught up with a much lesser known Sibelius sight at the Hotel Kämp as the young composer was one of a number of influential artists of the day in the late 19th century who gathered regularly in the grand hotel’s Kämp Bar.

kampbar

photo by phatfreemiguel /CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I toured the historic Hotel Kämp but will cover that in another blog post. The hotel’s prime location along the tree-lined pedestrian friendly Esplanadi, known to locals simply as Espa, is Helsinki’s equivalent of Paris’s Champs-Élysées and boasts luxury designer label stores, boutique shops and Café Kapelli, a beloved local landmark treating guests since 1867.

Helsinki 139

20150917_01480320150917_014206

The café’s ornate design lead to it being referred to as Kapelli (the chapel) and the name stuck. While a little pricey a mid-morning coffee and pastry make a pleasant pit stop.

A short walk away and later the same day another coffee shop tempted this traveller but take another short break but convinced myself I was merely following the Finns lead as they consume the most coffee per capital on earth downing twice as much per year as the average Canadian, a statistic I ponded over a Danish and cappuccino in the Academic Bookstore’s Café Aalto, also named for renowned Finish architect Alvar Aalto.

20150918_093329

The café has English magazines and the book store English novels so is a worthy detour from a day of touring whether on foot, public transit or by bike around Helsinki.

Some guidebooks recommend allotting only a full day or two at the very most to see Helsinki but would counsel visitors not to believe everything they read as there is so much more to this city waiting to be discovered and enjoyed than would fit into such a short stay.

 

© 2017 Canadian Wanderer

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑