Scandinavian cruise journal: what to see in Helsinki, Finland

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This post is the eighth installment in a journal of my cruise through Scandinavia and the Baltic states in 2012 on Norwegian Cruise Linefor an overview of the entire cruise and a map of the itinerary, go here. Throughout the cruise, I’m highlighting each port, with photos and tips on what to see and how. Today, the fifth port: Helsinki.

For years, my image of Helsinki has been a gleaming, progressive northern city, shining in the midnight sun. And cruising into Finland’s capital, my Petersburg mapimpression was: “Hey, it had it just about right”.

Finland is the outlier among the Scandinavian countries,  with its odd language, related to Estonian, and its close proximity to Russia, which ruled it until 1917. But Helsinki is unmistakably a Scandinavian city, with its eye to the sea and its flair for design and architecture.

In other ways, it’s just what a European city should be: a harmonious mixture of old and new buildings, past and present, and all with a very human scale. Better yet, most of its sights lie within its very walkable downtown district, and there are lots of places to stop and explore along the way.

Disembarking first thing in the morning, I decided to buy a one-day transit pass (8 euros). But as it turned out, I mostly used it to get into town and back, about a 20-minute drive. That’s partly because the subway was shut down the day we were there, but also because I found everything I wanted to see within walking distance. Here are the highlights.

What to see

Market Square: The ride downtown took me right to this iconic market, which is set right on Helsinki’s waterfront. And it was a good place to start the day, browsing the stalls selling fish, wool hats and sweaters, reindeer skins and some of the most colourful produce I’ve ever seen. The hot item was chanterelle mushrooms, which the Finns use to make a sauce: they were everywhere, adding a rich yellow to the vivid scene.

Shoppers buy chanterelle mushrooms at a market in Helsinki, Finland

Berries onn sale in Helsinki

Just behind the market, across the street, are Helsinki’s city hall and the presidential palace. And off to the right is the Orthodox Uspensky Cathedral. The Russian-influenced church looked to me as if it was springing straight out of the solid rock.

Suomenlinna: Market square is also very near the jump-off point for the ferry ride out to Suomenlinna, an old fort built by the Swedes back in 1748, when they ruled Finland. The island fort was later taken over by the Russians, who used it to defend St. Petersburg — from the Swedes. Later on it was badly damaged by an Anglo-French attack during the Crimean War, and later still used as a prison camp during the Finnish Civil War. That’s kind of Baltic history in a nutshell.

Suomenlinna fort in Helsinki, Finland

The ferry ride to Suomenlinna took about 20 minutes, and afforded some nice views of the city and the huge inter-city ferries that ply the Baltic. The island itself has some interesting buildings, and functions as a recreation centre, with a toy museum, a military museum, an arts and crafts centre, a beach and lots of restaurants. It also has an old submarine sitting up on blocks. The fort is a UNESCO site, but with only one day in port, is it worth taking the time to see it? Unless you’re interested in military history, it’s a toss-up.

The Senate Square: A couple of blocks inland from the market square is Finland’s impressive Senate building (at top), a huge, neoclassical structure that makes for great photo ops if you can shoot around the throngs of tourists out front — and their buses, which drive right into the great plaza. Surrounding the Senate are other government buildings, including the Palace of the Council of State, the University of Helsinki and the National Library. Well worth a few minutes to look around.

The railway station: Helsinki’s railway station, called Rautatieasema, is another imposing sight, with its four heroic stone figures guarding the massive arched facade. Downstairs there’s a modern shopping mall and an entrance to the subway. Across the street are the main Post Office and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The central train station in Helsinki, Finland

The National Theatre: Helsinki has a lot of cultural institutions, and this one commands a prominent spot in the middle of downtown. Out front is a statue of Aleksis Kivi, a noted author who wrote the first significant novel in the Finnish language. Next door is the Ateneum Art Museum, which has the biggest art collection in Finland.

The rock church: Properly called the Temppeliaukio Church, this downtown landmark, carved out of the living rock, is the most popular architectural sight in Finland. Designed by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and built in 1969, it’s cut right into a rock outcropping. I happened by just as a wedding party was coming out the front door.

A wedding couple emerges from the Rock Church in Helsinki, Finland

It’s a church like no other, with rough rock walls and a soaring roof that lets in an ethereal light. I found the building’s details amazing as well, including the copper-clad doors, the domed ceiling covered with 13.6 miles of copper strips, and its unique rock altar. Because of its great acoustics, the church is also a popular concert venue.

The Rock Church, or Temppeliaukio Church, Helsinki, Finland

The bicycle corridor: Not a major tourist draw, but I was surprised to look down from an overpass and see this below-ground corridor that serves as a cross-town route for bicyclists. Cycling really is a way of life in Scandinavian cities, but this is the most elaborate effort I’ve seen to make it safe. I had to wonder if it becomes a ski trail in winter.

Helsinki cycle route

Shopping: The city’s main shopping street is Aleksanterinkatu, which runs from the Senate Square, but there are lots of places to get your shopping fix, including the Kamppi Centre at the main bus station. Every major brand is here, as well as some high-end design stores (this is a big design centre, after all). But don’t expect many bargains: this is not a cheap city.

Getting around

There are other attractions farther from downtown, including the Finnish Opera, the Tram Museum, the Olympic Stadium, the Botanical Gardens and the Hakaniemi Market. If you’re interested in seeing those, or just a little more of the town, you can get the transit day pass or try the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus, which leaves from the Senate Square — reviews are mixed. Otherwise, you can do most of Helsinki’s attractions on foot in a day, possibly with a bus or subway ride here or there. I don’t see any need for an organized tour.

All aboard was at 4:30, and I was happy to put my feet up and have a drink. The evening fare included SHOUT! The Mod Musical and The Liar’s Club game show. And at bedtime, it was time to turn the clocks back an hour. We’re heading west again — next stop, Stockholm, Sweden!

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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