I’ll admit, Helsinki was the port on my Northern European cruise that I was least looking forward to. I didn’t think it would be bad by any means, it was just at the very bottom of the totem pole because how could Finland possibly win out over a world renowned city like St. Petersburg or a destination like Tallinn whose Old Town rivals Prague’s? When it came down to it, I simply had never given a place like Helsinki much thought. And even though it came after visiting two awesome ports, Tallinn and St. Petersburg, it proved to be the best of surprises. So if you’re like me and knew next to nothing about the Finnish capital, here are five things that will surprise you.
1.) Helsinki is really pretty
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting but I didn’t think Helsinki would be as beautiful as it was. Chalk it up to sheer ignorance but I thought it would look more stereotypically “Scandinavian” as in street scenes you wouldn’t see unless you were in a place like Prague or Tallinn. But then there was Huvilakatu Street which in many ways reminded me of Charleston’s Rainbow Row with its bright and beautiful buildings. And then there’s Senate Square which is simply gorgeous between the striking architecture of Helsinki Cathedral and the magnificent views it offers of the city center from the top of the steps.
2.) Don’t knock the food till you’ve tried it
Scandinavian food often gets a bad rap and even though I didn’t have the time to really delve into Helsinki’s food scene, namely because there wasn’t a glut of food tour companies like you have in other cities, I still got to have a sampling. If your time in Helsinki is limited (as mine was), then make sure you at least visit the Old Market Hall which is a five minute walk from Senate Square. It’s a great place to check out to see and discover authentic Finnish foods like reindeer meat, bear meat (this was super expensive), and of course fish. We had the time for a quick lunch and I got to try karjalanpiirakka which is a type of pasty that originates in the region of Karelia. It’s essentially rye crust filled with rice porridge; mine was topped with egg butter. It was delicious. And of course there was time for the ubiquitous and popular Scandinavian cardamom roll.
3.) The Finnish people really do march to their own drums
Whether it’s the monument to the country’s most famous composer which features just his head, or the Ferris wheel in which one of the passenger cabins is a sauna (yes, sauna is a Finnish word and it’s where the concept originated), or a chapel that’s intended to be a place to calm down and have a moment of silence in one of the busiest areas of the country, the Finns do their own thing and that’s what makes them so wonderfully unique and different. Did I mention how during World War II, the Finnish soldiers actually fought against the Germans traveling on cross-country skis, attired in all white clothing for an advantage?
4.) There’s a little bit of Russia everywhere you look
Throughout the course of history, Russia has occupied Finland several times, the most recent being in 1917 with the dissolution of the personal union between Russia and Finland after the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, thus prompting the evolution of modern and independent Finland. In Senate Square there’s a rather prominent statue of Czar Alexander II. If you’re wondering why a bit of “old Russia” is on display, well, to the Finnish people it’s simple. He was the first Russian ruler to initiate a series of reforms that led to autonomy for Finland. In addition, the Finns consider him to have been the “good czar,” unlike his grandson Nicholas II whom they did not care for at all (and odds are, any statue of him would likely have come down following the Russian Revolution).
Since you’re so close, consider taking a ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg visa free. And what better place to learn about monumental historical figures like Catherine the Great and Anastasia than in St. Petersburg?
And then there’s Uspenski Cathedral, the country’s largest Eastern Orthodox cathedral. As the story goes, Czar Alexander II, while on a visit to Helsinki, didn’t appreciate that the city’s main Orthodox church was dwarfed in size by the more prominent Helsinki Cathedral (a Lutheran church). So hence came the construction of Uspenski Cathedral which naturally dwarfs Helsinki Cathedral.
5.) The Finnish language is mystifying
Okay, this one shouldn’t surprise anyone. But I had to include a point about Finnish all the same. Thankfully, because Finnish is such a difficult language for anyone to learn other than Estonians and such a small number of people actually speak it, the Finns speak English fluently (although I was somewhat surprised to hear children don’t start learning it until almost double digits because in Norway I remember being told children start learning it at age six). With the exception of a word like sauna, most Finnish words are extremely long-i.e. karjalanpiirakka and Äitiyspakkaus which is a Finnish cardboard maternity box. Our guide actually had the “nerve” to say Swedish is easier to learn and understand than Finnish. To my English brain, how so?
And if you’re lucky enough to have a longer period of time in Helsinki, here are ideas for ten day trips you can take from the Finnish capital.
Have you ever been to Helsinki?
Tips on visiting:
I booked a private tour with Walking Tours Helsinki. This allowed me to customize the tour to include all that I wanted to see and do. Walking Tours Helsinki is part of Happy Guides Helsinki whose sole focus is to provide tours using sustainable means. Maria, our tour guide, was fantastic. She picked us up right outside of the cruise terminal in Helsinki (and returned us there at the end of the day) and took us around the city using our feet, trams, and buses. Our private walking tour lasted about five hours and included an all day public transportation pass, guiding, and coffee and a pastry, costing just under 170 Euros.
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