Helsinki (Helsingfors) is in many ways the Nordic capital that tourism forgot: especially, for reasons of both light and weather, in winter. Keeping the aforementioned factors in mind, however, I surely wasn’t disappointed by the city in November. Following six hours of flight delays out of Reykjavík due to bad weather, losing and locating my luggage mid-journey, a brief nap (a little over an hour) in Copenhagen, and another – extremely early morning – flight out of Denmark, I finally arrived in the Baltic Sea-side city. Snow was falling heavily as we made our descent (I couldn’t see the ground until the plane was about three metres off the runway).
After a slippery cab ride to my new Finnish home, the fantastic (seriously) Hostel Erottanjanpuisto in Helsinki’s city centre, I took a walk in a nearby park. My efforts to build any part of a snowman were foiled by lack of moisture, though some nearby kids managed to make a significant number of snowballs. In summer, Helsinki’s parks play host to numerous live concerts and events. By November, with temperatures and daylight hours dwindling, they are slightly more sedate. People-watching on this particular day I learned that the Finnish regularly use umbrellas in the snow (huh?). With this exception, as well as that of the goth-punk youth contingent who seem to take their hairstyling cues from Sharon Osbourne, the aesthetic in Helsinki is almost invariably business chic and well put together.
The home of Marimekko and Alvar Aalto, Finland is big on design and aesthetics in general. Both art museums and good shopping are in no short supply. The architecture, perhaps what Helsinki is most famous for, is undeniably impressive in scale and kept as surprisingly clean as the city streets. Snowfall that preceded my arrival made the urban landscape all the more picturesque.
The layout of Helsinki’s city centre, and many of the buildings for which she is most recognizable, were designed by the German Carl Ludvig Engel in the 1800s. When Russia defeated Sweden in the Finnish War in 1809 the country changed hands and Helsinki, a struggling city with few tall buildings, became the new capital (previously Turku). Engel’s neoclassical architecture was an effort at mimicking St. Petersburg, part of a Russian attempt to put its own stamp on Finnish culture. Almost 200 years after Russia’s capture of the easternmost Scandinavian state – Finland has been officially independent since 1917 – visitors can now see Finnish-designed Art Nouveau and Functionalist buildings from the early 20th century mingling harmoniously with the older neoclassical edifices.
Like most European capitals, Helsinki is bigger and busier than Reykjavík, where my journey began. Greater Helsinki is home to over a million people, almost one-quarter of Finland’s population. Busses, ferries, a metro, and electric trams make getting around the city easy on both travellers and their wallets. In fact, the comprehensive public transit system had me dodging traffic several times when crossing the street – cars, trams, more cars. To get a better idea of Helsinki’s layout, on my second day I took a ride on the 3T, a tram that makes a loop around the city: past the university, an amusement park (complete with Ferris wheel), the Olympic stadium, one of the lakes that bisects the city, a port, an uncountable number of beautiful buildings, under the railroad going out of town, and through the downtown area. Though it takes over an hour to ride, including one cigarette break for the driver, the 3T is well worth the price at only two euros.
Seeking out a Finnish obsession, sauna, prompted my evening journey to a local indoor pool. How was I supposed to know that the pool segregated their hours by gender because everyone swims and takes saunas naked? Moving back in time a couple of weeks, I fell into a hole outside my new apartment in Reykjavík and sustained a rather gruesome, grapefruit-sized bruise on my hip before going to Finland. Having forgotten this, I couldn’t fathom why locals at the pool were staring at me in the sauna, and could only assume they had somehow sensed my foreignness.
Upon realising I looked abused, I departed the saunas and made for the pool. Getting used the idea of swimming nude might have been easier if it weren’t for the women on the second floor balcony drinking tea in bathrobes. Perhaps the most surprising discovery of the experience, though, was that the lack of self-consciousness extended through generations. If you thought that only old women do water aerobics you were wrong, at least as far as this pool goes, and needless to say without swimwear. Difficult as it is to imagine high demand for a crowded naked pool, on my way out I ran into a mad – apparently after-work – rush at the door.
Obviously I couldn’t leave the capital without going in search of the Finnish karaoke phenomenon. The next day proved that it’s not hard to find. After arriving in the area my hostel advised I try for such entertainment, I followed some of the loudest noise into a bar. A surprising (for me anyway) percentage of songs were Finnish rather than English pop. Perhaps more shocking was the unpatronising enthusiasm palpable in the crowd. Clearly, the collected company thoroughly enjoyed dancing to karaoke and, perhaps, even more so than to the original versions of the tunes. The occasional singer pausing, pointing to his buddies, grinning and gesturing, didn’t seem to bother the audience in the least. Amused, but completely unable to participate (yeah, that’s my excuse), I departed when the performers began to recycle themselves for encores.
On my final day in Helsinki I dropped by the Senate Square (Senaatin Tori) to see Engel’s Tuomiokirkko church, pristine outside and austerely beautiful inside, before making my way to dinner. Zetor (“tractor”) is a restaurant and bar decorated with exactly that. My delicious, though strong, reindeer dinner would kick off my Saturday evening in the midst of Finns of all ages letting loose on the enormous, not yet full, dance floor.
After meeting up with my photographer for the trip, Sari Peltonen, we made our way to Erottoja Bar. The turquoise brick interior, live DJs, friendly bartenders, and Sari’s friends filling me in on the specifics of Helsinki’s karaoke scene, formed an eclectically pleasant atmosphere. They said, by the way, that home karaoke is becoming increasingly popular and that there are, in fact, bars catering to most genres so that one can choose a karaoke venue to suit their musical tastes.
About an hour later, Sari, her friends, and I headed on to the next (my last – I swear) bar for the evening, We Got Beef. While waiting in line to pay a two euro entrance fee I noted that the bar’s opening hours were listed under the enigmatic heading “Hammertime”. Once inside, we found ourselves in the midst of a couple of Finland’s more prominent musicians, several girls dressed in poofy dresses and fairy wings, and the usual collection of jovial drinkers. This might be a good time to point out that the reputation Finns have for being cold is completely untrue in my experience. The only Finns who weren’t eager to talk to me on my trip and share tips on Helsinki and other travel advice (generally consisting of “go to X place outside Helsinki” – Estonia seems to be a favourite) were those who didn’t speak English. This particular location was no exception and certainly a good way to end my stay in Finland’s largest city.
After capping off my night out with some Danish hot dogs I bought on the street, I returned to my hostel to rest up for the next day. Regardless of specific advisories on where to go, my skis and I were off on a gruelling 15-hour train and bus ride in the morning. The scene in our destination, Levi, a ski resort in the Lapland and well above the Arctic Circle, is another story entirely.
The best way
to get to Helsinki:
Icelandair flies directly to Helsinki in the summertime.
Icelandair flies to Copenhagen in the wintertime, where connecting flights to Helsinki are abundant.