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It’s early morning in Helsinki’s Market Square. On the harbour quay a small fishing boat has moored to the dock and a stocky fisherwoman with eagle eyes (to combat the gulls) and a booming voice is selling fresh fish such as mullet and salmon to local wives and mothers. Behind her tiny vessel, long ferryboats are lined up next to piers, ready to whisk commuters and tourists to one or more of the many islands that form a barrier between the city and the Gulf of Finland, a giant inlet of the Baltic Sea. In deeper water on both sides of the harbour, massive cruise liners are docked – the Baltic is said to be the second most popular destination for cruises after the Caribbean Sea.
Close by and for a few hundred metres along the harbour front, open-air market stall owners are busily setting up in readiness for the long summer day ahead. Some sell a cornucopia of fresh fruit and other local produce, others the typical souvenirs of the region – from razor-sharp Finnish knives sheathed in soft reindeer leather to warmly coloured carved wooden spoons and bowls. Ice cream and coffee stalls compete with those selling heartier fare such as merenherkkulautanen, or “sea gourmet plate”.
Though it’s only 7am, the city’s residents all seem to be up and eager to make the most of the good weather and long summer day – Helsinki gets an incredible 22 hours of daylight in midsummer… of course the downside of that means in the depths of winter only two hours of daylight are on offer, so summer can take on a real “party hard” atmosphere.
Finnish focal point
Helsinki may lie on the northern fringes of Europe, but thanks to Finnair’s successful expansion into Asia, the city has become a popular hub for travellers between Western Europe and Asia. Since 2016, Finnair has partnered with Visit Finland in tempting travellers to break their journey – if only for a few days – with a Stopover Programme that offers a range of interesting activities bundled neatly into a short space of time, and at no extra cost to their air ticket.
Though I’m intrigued by the chance to fly into the Arctic Circle and perhaps see the Northern Lights on a three-day trip, I choose a shorter two-night/2.5-day option that encompasses highlights in and around Helsinki itself, as well as a day trip to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, just a two-hour ferry ride to the south. Landing at Helsinki Airport very early in the morning, I take the easy and efficient train into the city (lines I or P; €5/US$5.8), arriving at Central Railway Station 30 minutes later and walking to the stylish Hotel Lilla Roberts (lillaroberts.com) to drop my bags, before heading straight down to Market Square and the harbour.
I wander past the city’s famous Allas Sea Pool, a spa complex with large swimming pools of different temperature (from a constant 27˚C to mind-numbingly cold) on pontoons that jut out into the sea, as well as saunas, cafés and outdoor decking offering panoramic views over the city. On a small knoll nearby stands the impressive Uspenski Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox creation of gilded onion domes that’s one of the largest in Western Europe, with an interior that’s just as colourfully decorated as any you’d find in Russia.
A short walk away, the inside of Helsinki Cathedral is plainer by comparison, notable for a statue of Martin Luther gazing seriously down on visitors. The cathedral towers over the broad slope of Senate Square, which is bordered by atmospheric streets and alleys that remind me somewhat of Vienna – though Helsinki was in fact modelled on Paris and St Petersburg.
I walk up Aleksanterinkatu, passing the grand Kansallissali building that houses the Sibelius Finland Experience multimedia show as in turn rattling trams pass me, then turn back down Esplanade Park. This long expanse of green boasts a 200-year history; once the domain of wealthy merchants and their families, who promenaded up and down its paths enjoying the colourful flowerbeds, green lawns and statues of famous local luminaries, today it plays host to office workers grabbing lunch and soaking up the sun. The bar inside Hotel Kamp on its northern side was where independence was fomented early in the 20th century, while at its eastern end Café Kappeli was a musicians’ hangout for centuries.
Back on the waterfront the old Market Hall houses traditional shop stalls selling salmon gravlax and other tasty foodstuffs. “Hey!” says one shop owner when I stop to browse, which is Finnish for “hello!” (To the amusement of many tourists, goodbye is “hey hey”.) I’ve stopped because a jar has caught my eye – it’s labelled “bear grease/tar soap” and I’m sorely tempted to buy it, but eventually decide the price is too high for what, for me, would be a mere novelty – I doubt whether my wife would use it…
In order to see as much of the city as I can during my brief stay I buy a 24-hour myHelsinki Card (€48/US$56; helsinkicard.com) that gives free travel on public transport and access to regular Hop-on Hop-off buses making a circuit of the city’s major attractions. Helsinki has the highest concentration of early 1900s Art Nouveau buildings in Europe, and a top-deck drive through districts filled with Art Nouveau and Art Deco architectural highlights is a great start to the tour.
I hop off just down the road from the Temppeliaukio Rock Church, an architecturally unique place of worship built directly into a solid rock hillock, with an incredible copper ceiling dome comprising 22 kilometres of wound copper tape. My next stop brings me to the Sibelius Park and Monument in a lovely green park by the sea. Its curious design comprises 600 hollow pipes of gleaming silver metal that create a humming noise when the wind is right. It looks like a dozen church organs have had their pipes mashed together. Small birds flit in and out of them, occasionally with an insect held greedily in their beaks. Soon after I arrive a Chinese package tour group descends, taking a thousand pictures within the space of minutes, then as quickly as they arrived they are gone, and peace returns.
The bus curls round onto the city’s main thoroughfare, Mannerheimvagen, and I jump off between Finlandia Hall, created by the legendary architect Alvar Aalto, and the grey stone edifice of the National Museum of Finland. The national symbol is a bear, and a large grey-stone statue of one sits by the stairs up to the museum’s entrance. Inside, the various exhibitions lead you through the story of Swedish and Russian domination, the struggle for independence, and elements of modern-day Finland, throughout which the uniquely Finnish concept of sisu – meaning “guts”, “grit” or “hardiness” – shines, highlighting the courage and resilience needed for people to survive in the harsh climate and conditions of this northern land.
Come evening I board a Beautiful Canal Route water tour, which is also part of the myHelsinki Card deal. For 90 minutes the open-topped ferry sails through Helsinki’s harbour and waterways, passing the Suomenlinna Island Fortress, chugging through the Degero Canal, skirting Korkeasaari island where the zoo is situated, and finally slowing for a look at Finland’s ice breaker fleet – the country’s nautical engineering is very advanced and some of the best ice breakers in the world are made and stationed here. Loudspeakers provide a commentary in four languages, but the wind off the water can be cold, and underdressed tourists are given blankets to keep warm as they gaze from side to side at the scenery.
Estonia with ease
My first day has been replete with interesting excursions, so my second has much to live up to. A 20-minute tram ride from downtown is the dock for the Tallink cruise line (tallink.com), which offers ferry services to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia (among other exciting city destinations such as Stockholm). These ferries cater to the hordes of Finns who visit Tallinn at the weekends, many sporting small trolleys strapped to backpacks in readiness for shopping sprees for booze and other commodities that are much cheaper in Estonia than Finland.
Boarding the huge cruise liner Megastar I head for the comfort of the business lounge on the eighth-floor deck, whose large windows at the front of the ship offer views of the quiescent Baltic water as we glide smoothly on the two-hour journey from Finland to Estonia. St Petersburg is a few hours’ sailing to the east, while Stockholm is slightly farther away to the west, but also easily accessible.
Fast and efficient disembarkation in Tallinn is followed by a ten-minute walk from the port’s D-Terminal into Tallinn Old Town. This compact Medieval city was first marked on the global map by the Arab cartographer al-Idrisi in 1154. In 1997 UNESCO made it a World Heritage site, which seems wholly appropriate to me as I walk its centuries-old cobblestoned streets, all kept in superbly authentic condition (modern buildings have been developed in a new town area outside the ancient city walls).
It’s like a living museum of the past, perfect for a gentle but fascinating walking tour. I collect my 24-hour TALLINN Card (visittallinn.ee) from the tourist information centre in the middle of the Old Town, which gives access to many museums, free public transport, and more.
Over the next eight hours I visit the Town Hall and Square, quietly study St Nicholas’ Church and St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, climb to the bell tower of the Dome Church for wonderful views over the town roofs, and ferret around in the tunnels of the Kiek in de Kok Bastion and Carved Stone Museum. I sit in the Danish King’s Garden for a local snack of kiluvoileib, a sprat sandwich of grey fish on dark bread served with a boiled egg, then head for the Great Guild Hall, whose history museum explains the importance of the powerful merchant guilds in this region.
There’s St Catherine’s Passage and St Olav’s Church, the Old City Walls and Towers, and Fat Margaret’s Tower and Gate, but my lasting memory of this almost fairytale city comes courtesy of a festival being celebrated to mark the beginning of summer, with lots of musical and other events and performances filling the alleys, squares, coffee shops and halls. The theme this year is “One hundred steps of the century”, as the country celebrates 100 years as the Republic of Estonia.
In front of St Nicholas’ Church a Medieval tournament is under way. An old-fashioned Medieval “list” stages what many passing tourists imagine is a choreographed battle between fully armoured protagonists. Two fighters are pitted as a team against two others with different “colours”; when one goes down the victor joins his/her partner (both men and women take part as equals) to hammer the second warrior into submission.
However, the crowd soon realises, with gasps and squeals, that this is no staged fight but a real contest with some basic rules but allowing full-on blows to be struck by real (though blunted) swords and battle axes onto chainmail-clad arms, full-visor helmets and sheet-metal hip guards. It’s serious stuff – at one point one of the two referees calls a halt and summons the modern medics into the lists to check on a fallen and stricken fighter. Teams have come from countries all round the region – it seems that the old warrior ways of Scandinavians and other northern Europeans are alive and well.
Back in Helsinki, on my final morning I walk down to Market Square waterside one more time and jump on a JT-Line ferry for an Island-Hopping Experience. First stop is Vallisaari Nature Reserve, on the eponymous island that has been left in its rural state, and was only opened to the public in 2016.
It’s a lovely taste of a typical northern European forest, with oak, linden, beech and silver birch trees growing alongside evergreen larch and pines. Songbirds warble everywhere you go; in June the meadows are carpeted with flowers in yellow, violet and white, attracting insects that in turn feed thrushes, wagtails and other birds, which flit around fearlessly in front of walkers. This was an idyllic life for 200 villagers in pre- and postwar days, but now the houses have been abandoned. At the southern end of the island the 19th-century Alexander battery faces out to the open sea, the direction from which danger invariably approached.
Next is Suomenlinna Island and fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Finland’s top attractions. A naval bastion stronghold spread across five islands, it was founded in 1748 during the period when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden. Designed to command the sea approach to Helsinki, its most famous sites are the King’s Gate, the Great Courtyard and the large cannons dating to Russian rule located in the southern part of the largest island, Kustaanmiekka.
However, there’s much more to see: the main museum explains the building of the fortress and former life for those living on the naval base; there are interesting boat yards, a large church and restored wooden houses that were once used by the merchants who supplied the naval garrison. Add to this arts and crafts shops, cafés, a toy museum and a dry-docked submarine that you can explore, and it’s clear a whole day could be spent here alone.
My time is running out, so I have one final port of call at the famous café on Lonna Island, then it’s back to Market Square and my hotel to collect my luggage, and a pre-booked taxi back to the airport for a set fee of €35 (US$41). I’ve packed a huge amount into less than three days – but I know that’s just the tip of the iceberg.