Updated: Jul 30, 2019
Wanderous Affair's editor-in-chief, Emily Fata, expounds upon her week in Helsinki, Finland with #MyHelsinkiResidence. From the food, to the saunas, to the thrill of walking along the Baltic Sea at sunset, Helsinki has something for every traveller to fall in love with.
This January, I spent my time unearthing the beauty of Europe’s most northern continental capital, Helsinki, in partnership with #MyHelsinkiResidence. With so much to do, see, and taste in this lively Nordic city, it quickly became evident that their rich culture is what truly makes this city a location everyone must visit at least once in their lifetime.
After being under the control of Sweden, the nation was taken over by Russia in 1809, where the status of Helsinki was quickly ‘promoted’ to the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland’s capital a short three years after its colonization. They only gained their independence as a country in 1917, with Helsinki assuming the title of capital in its new republic. Regardless of the fact that Finland is such a young country, it is one brimming with a rich design and architecture culture; this manifests before the naked eye right on the city streets, with layers to every building’s façade. The combination and contrast of varying designs — from the Neoclassicism of Senate Square, to the Byzantine-Russian style of Uspenski Cathedral, to the Art Nouveau within the Etu-Töölö district, and the Modernism of Finlandia Hall — all complement one another in the loveliest way. That is, these façades are never in competition, but rather work together to give viewers the true feel of ‘Helsinki’.
This marriage of optical splendour becomes especially evident when exploring their many art galleries and museums, as well as simply walking along the network of streets to appreciate the beautiful buildings that surround you. The Finnish are a people passionate about their homeland and its many achievements, with Helsinki often referred to as the “White City of the North,” thanks to the fact that many of its buildings are constructed of a local, lightly coloured granite.
This visual magnificence also translates into the art, a fact I learned while spending my first day in the city wandering between art museums. Grasping a better understanding of Finnish art history served as a guide for me in my adventures to come, as it gave me a rounder comprehension of what Helsinki has to offer culturally, as well as how this culture manifests within the Finnish nation as a whole. Someone visiting Helsinki for the first time, who wishes to get the most out of their trip, would definitely want to visit at least one or two of their museums to fathom this.
The Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) features a lovely permanent exhibit on Tove Jansson, including her frescos Party in the City and Party in the Country, as well as works of modern art. If modern art is of interest to you, visiting Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, which is home to a great deal of intriguing contemporary art, is a must. They also have a rotation of fascinating temporary exhibits.
My favourite museum, Ateneum Art Museum, was the perfect headway to an adventure in the visual arts. One of three museums that form the Finnish National Gallery, it is conveniently located in the centre of Helsinki on the south side of Rautatientori Square (close to Helsinki Central Railway Station). It has the largest collection of classical art in Finland, something that blissfully shot me right into art heaven (see more about Ateneum Museum by clicking here).
Though museums such as Ateneum offer delicious food options at their adjacent bistros, further examples of prime Finnish cuisine can be uncovered all around the city. Eateries like Fazer Café (where I had my first breakfast in Finland) are an absolute dream. From Fazer, I ordered a slice of rye toast topped with a beet spread, half-moons of avocado, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. To accompany this, I ordered my all-time favourite beverage to drink in Europe: a steaming cup of hot cocoa topped with whipped cream. I’m definitely not the norm in this coffee-drinking city, where kahvi, typically with milk, is a staple part of the diet. When considering how Finns enjoy this beverage multiple times a day, it’s no wonder that coffee has become the most popular drink to accompany meals. As a result, their café culture is thriving!
Fazer Café made such a positive impression on me that I returned — this time to their original location on Kluuvikatu 3 — to stock up on their seemingly endless confectionaries. This is what I opted to bring home for family and friends, in lieu of typical souvenirs.
Because Helsinki is a coastal city (with 130km of seashore and an astonishing 300 islands), fish is the most typical dish to find here; that being said, their delicacies are certainly not only limited to seafood. A great spot for both lunch and dinner is Ravintola Lasipalatsi, a restaurant situated in a subdued Art Deco style building, built in the 1930s in preparation for the Olympics (which were cancelled due to the Second World War). The interior is currently furnished with a modern design, reminiscent of the 1970s. Because my trip was during what’s known as ‘Blini Season’ (blini being a round and golden pancake-like buckwheat dish that symbolizes the sun and a promise for a new beginning), I ordered just that!
They’re served fresh off the frying pan with an array of toppings; traditionally, this is smoked salmon and sour cream (or smetana, a Russian-adopted word that the Finnish also use). However, I ordered the vegetarian option served with Russian-style gherkins, smetana, forest mushroom salad with marinated red onion, beetroot salad, apple tartare, and a small bowl of honey. It was absolutely divine! (See more restaurant options in Helsinki by clicking here).
With a full belly, and after filling your day wandering about such a visually impressive (and tasty) city, one cannot help but want to unwind at the end of it all. With saunaing being a substantial part of Finnish culture (the earliest versions believing to date back as far as 7000 BC), it seems to be the ideal way for even visitors to unwind, as well. There are five million inhabitants in Finland and over three million saunas, averaging an astonishing one sauna per household. These wonderful wooden structures are places for entire families or groups of friends to gather, typically in the nude, so that you are enjoying the experience free of restrictions.
In the most idyllic of situations, you would be completely surrounded by nature with a large window overlooking greenspace, the sea, or better yet: both. Even though Helsinki is growing from its city centre (from Central Library Oodi and the Töölönlahti Park), the harbour areas, and Pasila (which is a mere five-minute train stop away from Helsinki’s current city center), at least one-third of the city will always be kept preserved in greenspace. Even with the many services of a capital city, one can always find nature present and close at hand.
While visiting Allas Sea Pool (read more on Allas here), I was able to have the ultimate saunaing experience: soaking in the 27°C (80°F) thermal pool, followed by a leap into the 0°C (32°F) frigid sea water pool, and then straight into their 80°C (176°F) indoor sauna. The idea is that your body is not only made to withstand such drastic temperature changes, but that it thrives whilst doing so. Truth be told, when I finished that final sauna, I was in complete relaxation mode. I just wanted to sit down, close my eyes, and breathe slowly… it was an almost meditative encounter.
When I finally managed to muster the energy to return to my hotel for the night, I was able to quickly catch a direct tram. Despite Helsinki covering a whopping area of 715km2, the city is extremely walkable. Where distance is an issue, their incredible public transportation system is a backup method that will get you to and from your destination as quickly as possible. Everywhere we travelled while visiting the main peninsula was accessible by just one tram. Even our day trip to Tallinn, Estonia was super easy. One tram and a short two-hour journey across the Gulf of Finland aboard the incredible Tallink Shuttle and you’re in a completely new country (read more about Tallinn here)!
In addition to being the Gate to Tallinn, Helsinki is strategically located in between both St. Petersburg, Russia and Stockholm, Sweden, making both accessible to tourists via an overnight ferry trip. Of course, perhaps most importantly, Helsinki is the central point to deliver you to the stunning perfection throughout the rest of Finland! Because of its advantageous position, there are heavy influences in Helsinki’s culture from both the Nordic regions and Russia, which surround it to the east and west.
Though my short time in Helsinki certainly gave me an experience that I will never forget, without a single doubt, I would love to go back and further meander through the extensively unique streets, galleries, restaurants, attractions, and saunas that this Nordic city has to offer. Helsinki is a metropolitan oasis that unfortunately, tourists tend to forget about, not realizing that they are missing out on the trip of a lifetime; without a moment’s hesitation, I would happily return to Finland time and time again. Through both the stories of locals and photos I have seen online, it’s obvious that the breath-taking Winter Wonderland I experienced in January is an entirely different trip than visiting in the warm sunshine of Helsinki’s vibrantly green summertime. Of course, I will have to return, for this wholly novel experience.
It’s only a matter of time before the nation pulls me back under its spell and I’m once again in a state of bliss by the Baltic Sea.
To read more of our posts on Helsinki, click here.
* This article was featured in Wanderous Affair: Volume 2, Issue 1