Last year Helsinki celebrated its 200th birthday as the capital of Finland. It’s a young, vibrant and beautiful city, filled with wonderful surprises, incredible design and a multitude of coffee houses and cultural buildings. If you’re here for a day or a week you’ll find things to do and places to explore all year round. Only three hours by plane from London Heathrow it’s well worth a visit for a weekend break, so what are you waiting for?
What to do when you’re in Helsinki
1. Get some air at Suomenlinna
What’s the perfect city break without a little fresh air and green grass? If the weather’s good and the sun is out take advantage of it on the island of Suomenlinna, a former maritime fortress only 15 minutes from Helsinki by ferry. After a pleasant boat journey with excellent views of the city, you’ll arrive on the island, which is free of charge to visit. Take a guided tour or go explore on your own. There are five different museums, a submarine to dive into and an open air theatre. If all of this has tired you out you can even stay at the island’s hostel from 25 euros a night. It’s best to visit in the summer because many of the island’s activities shut down in the winter, but if you’re there out of season it’s worth a visit for the outstanding views and refreshing sea air.
2. Brush up on your Finnish history
The Finnish National Museum is a good place to start if you want to get a feel for Finland as a country – the history and culture of the land and its people. This museum makes learning fun; beginning with pre-history and working its way to the 20th century it allows visitors to discover Finland with an array of interesting artefacts, from jewellery to medieval church art to vintage toys. Almost all of its information boards are in English, Finnish and Swedish, and there are plenty of staff on hand to answer any questions, so don’t worry about the language barrier. Don’t miss the ‘Suomi Finland 1900’ exhibition, an interactive display about the lives of those living through the 20th century, or the beautiful frescoes on the ceiling of the central hall.
3. Sample Finnish coffee at Stockmann department store
Stockmann is the Finnish John Lewis; stylish, elegant and full of delightful things to suit every taste. Beautifully crafted chocolates, flawless cosmetic stands and even a sushi bar can be found within its walls. As a bonus it has an underground passage which connects to the Stockmann bookstore to save you from going outside. Once you’ve finished shopping you should head back to ground floor and stop by the delicatessen for a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. If possible get a seat by the window and watch the many faces of Helsinki pass you by. A word of warning, the coffee is strong! If you prefer it mild why not substitute coffee for a delicious whipped-cream hot chocolate?
4. Soak up some silence
Situated on the busy Narinkka square in central Helsinki is the Kamppi Chapel of Silence, an odd looking building where you can find tranquillity amongst the bustle of city. If you’re tired of the malls and the trams and want to rest your mind for a while then duck into this spectacular building and take a few minutes off. Gaze at the beautiful, curved wood or close your eyes and find your own place of peace inside. Described as an ‘urban chapel’ it was completed in 2012 to compliment Helsinki’s World Design Capital programme of that year. It’s a unique piece of architecture that is well worth a trip and, conveniently, is situated right across the road from the Moomin Shop, where you can pick up an array of quirky Moomin souvenirs.
5. Add a lock to the bridge of love
If you pass the market square next to the South Harbour (where I would recommend buying some delicious Finnish bread and cakes for lunch) and walk in the direction of the Katajanokka neighbourhood, you’ll find the restaurant ‘Ravintola Sipuli’, which translates literally to ‘Restaurant Onion’. Right in front of this and in something of a contrast is the famous bridge of love. These bridges have become popular in recent years after an Italian movie showed a couple securing a padlock to a bridge and throwing the key in the river, an act meant to symbolise the strength of their love. Whereas many cities have banned these ‘love locks’ Helsinki welcomes them, and the Public Works Department of Helsinki is said to have extended well-wishes to any couple who choose to affirm their devotion to each other in this way. How romantic! Take a lock with you to add to the collection and leave a symbol of your love in Finland. A short walk from the bridge one can also visit the impressive and lavishly decorated Uspenski Russian Orthodox Cathdral.
About the Author: Sara West
Sara has always known that she wanted to do two things in life: be a writer and travel the world. She’s written articles for her university paper and reviews for music websites such as ‘Thank Folk for That’ and ‘The Grapevine’. A student of literature and history, she’s currently on exchange in Finland and, being new to travelling, is trying to broaden her horizons as much as she can. When she’s not out immersing herself in new experiences you’ll find her with her nose in a book or catching up on her blog. Follow her adventures at ‘Finland and Back’ or via her Twitter account.