Compared to the traditional European city getaways such as Paris, Barcelona, and Rome, Scandinavian cities such as Helsinki, Finland can be a much more laid back and relaxing experience.
Cities like Helsinki are clean and safe, the lifestyle is slower paced, and the amenities are modern and well maintained.
Scandinavia has a reputation of being extremely expensive, but my husband Sean and I found it to generally be comparable to London prices. We spent two days exploring the beautiful city of Helsinki, Finland and fell in love with its culture and natural beauty.
The highlights of our time in Helsinki included:
- Taking the short ferry trip to the island fortress of Suomenlinna, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The fortress dates back to the 1740’s and was built to help defend Finland, which was then a part of Sweden.
- Going on the free walking tour where we learned about Finnish history, culture and explored the sights of Helsinki.
- Experiencing the Vappu festival with the locals. It just so happened that the weekend we were in Helsinki the largest festival of the year – Vappu, or May Day – was taking place. This is mainly a student celebration which Finns of all ages can enjoy.
One of the things we learned on our walking tour is that Finland has relatively little history compared to other European countries. Finland was part of Sweden in the 17th century, and then part of Russia before becoming an independent country in 1917. Suomenlinna has acted as a defense base during each of these three eras.
The ferry to Suomenlinna was a short trip from Market Square in central Helsinki. The ferries run about every 15 minutes and cost about 5 Euros each for a return trip. Once on the island, we spent a few hours walking around and exploring the sights of the fortress.
Suomenlinna is actually home to about 800 permanent residents. The island has all the amenities of a small community as well as lots to offer for visitors. You can take a guided tour, visit museums, or just wander around exploring the sights on your own as we chose to do. We walked through underground bunkers, visited a 1930’s Finnish submarine which was used during the Second World War and got lost in the beautiful sights of this now tranquil island.
Free walking tours are one of my favorite ways to see and learn about a new city. The free walking tour in Helsinki is offered on weekends at noon starting on the steps of the Helsinki Cathedral. This Lutheran Cathedral is a beautiful piece of architecture which stands out among the Helsinki skyline. Approximately three quarters of the Finnish population are Lutheran.
As part of the walking tour we visited the stunning Orthodox Church. This impressive church was built during the time of Russian rule and despite having this magnificent church, only 1% of the Finnish population are Orthodox.
Along with the two magnificent churches, we also visited one of the most unique churches we have come across during our travels. The Temppiaukio Church, or “Rock Church” as it is commonly known in English, was actually built into solid rock. This Lutheran church was built in the 1960’s and really has no historical significance other than being very unique and a great tourist attraction!
When walked into the Rock Church a man was playing the organ — the sound as it echoed off the rock walls was breath-taking.
Walking tours are also a good time to learn fun facts about the places you are visiting. We learned that the current day Finnish National Anthem was actually written in Swedish! We also learned that a huge part of Finnish culture is the sauna. Finns love a good sauna. While they are a reserved culture, they are very comfortable being naked, whether in the sauna, or jumping in the fountain in the main square after winning a gold medal in Ice Hockey.
We also learned a bit about Vappu, which is the festival that was taking place on the weekend we were in Helsinki. This is a student celebration where students will wash the statue of Havis Amanda in the Market Square of Helsinki and put a student cap on her. Once the statue is properly capped, everyone in the crowd waved their own student caps and puts them on as well.
The turnout for this event was incredible with Finns old and young enjoying the atmosphere. It was very cool to see older Finns with their hats on – some caps a bit more worn out than others. The Finns will party all night and then the following day, May 1, they gather in local parks for a picnic. The photo below shows the park on May 1 and the sheer number of people taking in the celebrations. I would not be surprised if over half the population of Helsinki was in the park this day.
We joined in the festivities and enjoyed taking in the culture of the Finnish people.
The next day, we were up early for a three-hour ferry ride across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, Estonia. The Baltic Sea has such a high concentration of salt that it never freezes so the ferry trip is available year round!
The atmosphere on the ferry itself was entertaining! It was 8 am and the beer was flowing, bands were playing and people were dancing. It was an absolutely beautiful May day and the views along the route were magnificent.
For more information on planning a trip to Helsinki, visit www.visithelsinki.fi/en.