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Discovering the Helsinki Secret
Helsinki in winter! Experience a Winter Wonderland and discover all the secrets of this Northern European capital city.
My first trip to Helsinki was on a Baltic Cruise in September 2014. After a brief 8 hours exploring this European capital city in classic tourist style (racing through major sites), I knew that I wanted to come back as I had barely scratched the surface of all the possibilities of Helsinki. There was just something intriguing and special about this city – it is a thriving city in Europe with all the amenities of a capital city, yet still retained a quaintness.
Fortunately in January 2016, I was invited to visit as a guest of the VisitHelsinki Tourist Board. From their viewpoint, Helsinki is Europe’s best kept secret and I was given the challenge of finding out why. This visit I would be living like a local at the #HelsinkiSecret Residence, a hotel apartment at the Aallon Koti, located in the Helsinki City Center. For 6 days and 7 nights, I would live like a local and discover all the possibilities and endless adventures in this under-rated and under-visited city.
My travel trip planning usually incorporates three elements in each city or area I visit: (1) history, (2) culture, and (3) nature. After a week of exploring places and experiencing Helsinki, I found all three and more as I discovered the #HelsinkiSecret:
The #HelsinkiSecret – There is something for everyone to enjoy in this European capital city.”
Most tourists and travelers visit Helsinki for just 1-2 nights en route to Lapland or as I did the first time as part of a day-trip off a cruise. I easily filled up an entire weeks itinerary in Helsinki’s Winter Wonderland and have many more recommendations and discoveries of places and experiences to explore on a return trip in Summer.
As I talked to tourists during and post my stay and told them how long I stayed in Helsinki, what I did and what was still on my must get back to this city to see list – they also were making plans for a return visit as they “missed” many items. Don’t short-stay this wonderful city!
Top 10 Secrets about Helsinki
Here is the quick list highlighting all the possibilities I discovered in this city. As you can see, there is something for every age group, activity level, and a variety of interests. Check back as I highlight more of each of these adventures I took in Helsinki.
The architectural layers of cities tell the story of its history and Helsinki is no exception. Founded in the 16th century, Helsinki was not developed heavily until after the Russian rule in 1809. While it lacks a medieval history & cobblestone streets, the architectural layers quickly accumulated in the last 200 years giving Helsinki an interesting perspective.
As I walked around the city center, I quickly discovered Neoclassical buildings at the Senate Square, Market Square and Esplandi built under Russian rule by a German architect. This gave the core both the Russian feel of St. Petersburg (Dr. Zhivago was filmed here) and a European feel.
Surrounding the central Russian core are Art Nouveau masterpieces highlighted by the a magnificent train station said to have inspired Batman’s Gotham look. As an Art Deco/Art Nouveau fan – this city was a treat for me!
And then came Alvar Aalto’s Modernism fusing form and function highlighted by Finlandia Hall in 1971 (Shown Below). Finnish personality and uniqueness continues in the unique building of Church of the Rock, carved out of stone, and the 2012 Chapel of Silence, a wooden arc and sound proof chapel in the middle of the busy city.
As highlighted by the architecture in the city core, Finland was under Swedish and Russian empires jockeying for control of the Baltic. Both regimes contributed to building Suomenlinna fortress on 6 islands off the Finland coast. Helsinki flourished as it supported the fortress. A 30 minute ferry ride over to the fortress will take you through this history as you walk back in time through the military buildings, some of which have been converted to museums, and see the extensive barracks. It’s beautiful in the snow and even more popular in the summer for sun-tanning & picnics.
You can also find out more about the history of Helsinki and the Finnish people at the National Museum of Finland. The museum illustrates Finnish history from medieval times to the 19th century. My favorite room was the traditional wood carving showing wedding gifts, craftsmanship, and unique items used in this culture.
I love exploring cities, but by favorite days are often getting out into nature in the countries I visit. There are several parks in Helsinki, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was access to Finland’s archipelago just 30 minutes outside the city. Finland’s Archipelago boasts 179, 584 islands and I was excited to explore a few.
On a SnowMobile Safari with Burn Out City Events, I was treated to stunning views as we raced across the frozen lake exploring the islands and inlets.
Many Helsinki residents have cottages here and we saw several out cross-country skiing and ice-fishing. My guide Kenny treated me to a fire in the forest, some smoked sausages and a warm berry drink for a wonderful Finnish experience. I felt pretty lucky to get out into nature so close to the city and enjoy the archipelago as these Finnish locals do.
See more Winter Activities to enjoy while in Helsinki. –> Read More
I knew that Scandinavian/Nordic countries was generally known for its unique minimalistic design, but was surprised by the expanse of Finnish designers as I spent one morning walking through Helsinki’s Design District.
This included: Clothing designer Marimekko, leather goods of Lumi, wooden jewelry and designs by Aarika, sleek home goods at Ittala, clean-lined Artek furniture founded by Aalvo Aalto (think of the clean lines of Ikea furniture but made to last a few generations), porcelain by Arabia, and Globe Hope‘s designer clothes from recycled goods.
My favorite find – this beanie by Costo. The merino wool beanie with a fun “bobble” on top comes in different color combinations. And if you are ready for a new combination, you can replace the “bobble” with another one as they are attached with a button. The bobbles also work on other versions of their hats.
Fish is one of my favorites so I was excited to taste all the Finnish food. In Helsinki, I was able to taste many variations of fish all seasoned wonderfully with herbs and accompanied by cheeses, pastries, and pickled vegetables. Restaurants such as Savotta and Nokka also serve traditional Finnish food including the Lapland specialty, reindeer, which is delicious (Sorry Rudolph).
My favorite though: Smoked Salmon. The best salmon you have ever tasted! Hands down! I love fish so I knew that I would like the Finnish cuisine, but salmon is honestly the last fish on my list – until Helsinki. The smoked salmon is so fresh and deliciously prepared that I was seeking it out more than once.
I was mostly diving into cafes and restaurants to warm up, but I did also visit some of the city’s Food Halls where you can buy the ingredients fresh and either make it yourself or use for a picnic.
Museums & Concerts
Helsinki also has quite a selection of Museums highlighted by the Ateneum Art Museum, where you can see Finnish artists as well as international artists such as Cézanne, Chagall, Delacroix, Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and Rodin.
During my visit, they had a special exhibition of photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson who is considered one of the pioneers of street photography and photojournalism. This photographer documented some of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century including the Spanish civil war, the liberation of Paris in 1944, the fall of the Kuomintang in China to the communists, the last day before Gandhi was assassinated, and moments at the Berlin Wall by East Germans. A moving experience to see his candid snapshots of life.
If you like coffee, this is your city. Finn’s drink the most coffee per day at 5-7 cups. There are cafes everywhere to serve it up and keep you going with a caffeine overload. Many of them have an Art Deco/Art Nouveau decor making it a very glamorous stop. Highlights of my breakfast spots & coffee 2pm pick me up stop-offs included Cafe Ekberg, Fazer Cafe, Cafe Socis, Strindberg Cafe and a coffee cocktail with the best views of the city high atop Hotel Torni at the Ateljee Bar.
My favorite cafe though was the one I visited on both my first and second trips to Helsinki. Cafe Kappeli, built in 1867, dates back to the Victorian time period and the green metal and glass looks like a gilded birdcage. I loved tucking into the circular bay window with a cappuccino and gorgeous views of the Esplandi for a few moments of people-watching.
Helsinki is also a great base for day trips. On this trip, I took a day-trip to the village of Porvoo just an hour bus-ride away. Dating to the 1400’s, the medieval village of Porvoo has lovely wooden houses and a historic cathedral where the first Diet of Finland was commenced in 1809, declaring Finland an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia.
While the main streets are plowed (I was amazed at how efficiently everything works in snowy weather in Helsinki and Porvoo), there are marked streets that are not and highlight a time gone by when residents slid down the snowy streets enjoying a slower-paced village life.
Other options for day trips also include Turku, the former capital of Helsinki, which is a 2 hours bus ride away OR Tallinn, a ferry ride across the Baltic and several other villages around Helsinki. Helsinki is also in proximity of St. Petersburg for an extended trip.
Each place you visit, you naturally look for the differences. Finn’s definitely have some passions that make for some quirky interests and traditions to experience.
First, we will start with their love of Heavy Metal. This was confirmed for me on my flight from JFK to Helsinki with some of the band Suicidal Tendencies. The music continues with the Finn’s love of Karaoke. I visited Pata assa to hear quite a selection of Finnish ballads – they love their karaoke!
While I did not get to experience these, I took notes on some of their crazy contests: World Wife Carrying Championship, Mobile Phone Throwing World Championship, Ant-nest sitting competitions, and the World Air Guitar Championship.
Sauna – Enough said as this IS what the Finnish are known for. As one new Finnish friend told me when I admitted I was having a hard time learning the Finnish words – “Sauna is the only word you need to know”. Visit a public sauna dating to 1953 in Helsinki at Sauna Hermanni.
Finally, we will get to their love of Moomin’s – a very popular cartoon and book series created in the 1930’s. Everyone seems to have a Moomin character (Similar to how American relate to Winnie-the-Pooh characters) and though the books are for children there are political undertones (Similar to American Dr. Seuss books). But what I can tell you is that they are everywhere in Helsinki!
Read more about my observations in Helsinki –>>> Uniquely Finnish
The Finnish People
As I travel, the history, cultural events and natural places will fill an itinerary quickly. But what makes you want to return and creates the memorable stories are the people you meet.
The Finn’s are a hard one to figure out as there really is not a strong stereotype about them in popular American culture. It’s a country far away that does not come up in the news on our radar often. After a week, my observation in three descriptive words – Reserved, Nature-loving, Strong sense of identity.
I quickly found though that their understated reserve might just be the best thing about their culture – they just seem to enjoy their lives rather peacefully in an understated manner lending to their nature-loving tendencies and strong sense of individual identity.
Looking at Finnish history, it was mostly a farming culture that navigated two domineering powerhouses that ruled over them from the West (Sweden) and East (Russia) since 1300’s. Regaining their independence in 1917, it seems as though while influenced by the Swedes and Russians, they still maintain a strong sense of Finnish identity and continued to keep their calm reserve while navigating East and West during the Cold War during the 20th century.
The locals I encountered in Helsinki are some of the nicest people you will meet while traveling. First of all, almost every Finn speaks English, so travelers (especially Americans) will find this an easy city to both navigate and interact with. They are polite to answer questions and welcoming to visitors offering suggestions and sharing their city.
When I asked most of the locals about their favorite thing to do, it usually included being in the outdoors (all seasons) and I had a sense that their rural history was still with them – enjoying the great outdoors and having very peaceful & reserved demeanor. But as shown in their Finnwhackiness – that calm outer reserve hides a fun-loving culture right under the surface.
Spending a week in the city gave me the opportunities to have leisurely conversations, accept invitations to impromptu dinners, and get to know this culture. I am glad to have discovered it, take a little piece of that calm with me, and hope to return for a summer adventure to see more of Helsinki!
BlueSkyTraveler was welcomed as a guest of Visit Helsinki, however all opinions are my own.
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Teri Didjurgis is a full-time traveler for over nine years visiting all 50 US States & 70+ countries. After 15+ years working in corporate America, she took the leap & started her own location independent businesses. She now explores the world looking for luxury escapes, historic destinations and ways to connect with communities on her travels through local traditions & cultural experiences. Welcome to her re-imagined American Dream: an inspired lifestyle with "Blue Sky" possibilities.