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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
The green domes of the large white Helsinki Cathedral and red brick orthodox Uspenski Cathedral are visible looking toward the harbour and Market Square.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It seemed I wasn’t the only Canadian enjoying the green space as I noted these Canadian geese relaxing at the water’s edge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.