Neither of us had any particular expectations for Helsinki, which is perhaps why it ended up charming us so much (that, and the spectacular weather). My previous experience, a conference from after Christmas and into the New Year, many years ago, gave me the impression only of winter, a truly interesting language and people who were rather quirky, some who looked like very tall elves. A few people who we met in other Nordic countries during this trip told us they hadn’t ever been to Helsinki… nor had plans to do so.
Our first impression was grim. Kallio, described as a hip and cool neighbourhood, at least by our AirBNB host, had big featureless apartment buildings. It seemed a bit Eastern bloc, and when we arrived in the afternoon, we couldn’t find anywhere to eat. We finally had a snack at a bar that had a carpet on each table instead of a tablecloth, returning to our flat past seedy looking bars. Kallio I think would have more charm in the summer (aside from the block of drunks outside the liquor store) with its secondhand stores and hip cafes. Still, our apartment was ridiculously stylish – and cheap! In the meantime, we found it a perfect location from which to explore. A cheap three-day metro pass allowed us to hop on and off the many extremely efficient trams which took us instantly into the city, and later to the Sibelius monument and the Arabia Factory.
The highlight of our trip turned out to be the food, two spectacular meals at A21 and Chef & Sommelier with personal service and amazing food (and also my classmate Tuulia and her husband served us reindeer and cloudberries, Finnish specialties…). Reviews to follow. But both of our days of exploring in gorgeous sunshine with the most beautiful clear blue skies were memorable: breakfast at Cafe Ursula after a walk throught the lovely park, Kaivopuisto, from there walking up to the South Harbour, a visit to the Uppsenski Cathedral with its wonderful golden domes, a ferry trip to Suomenlinna, an island sea fortress, and a visit to the Sibelius Monument, Olympic Stadium and Church in the Rock.
The design of the church in the rock, Temppeliaukion, was very beautiful. I would not have expected a sea fortress to make such a nice few hours. We also loved the Temple of Silence in the centre, a beautiful wood structure to allow a quiet space for anyone right in the middle of a busy downtown area. A visit to Yrjönkatu Indoor Swimming Pool, an old swimming hall with wet and dry saunas, was a fun thing to do as well.
The trip to the Arabia factory was a shopping highlight. The ceramics museum itself was fine but not spectacular, but the small Iittala outlet store (and there were several other interesting stores in the complex) was fantastic. We stored up on souvenirs ending up with savings from a few ‘seconds’, a bulk discount and finally a Tourist Tax Refund. Our gorgeous Alvar Aalto vase will always remind us of Helsinki. Woohoo.
The Design Store in the centre was also fantastic, a government-sponsored space where retail goods were displayed almost as if in a museum, the best and most current of Finnish design curated for the public. A good thing we got there, since we didn’t have time to wander around the vaunted Design District (I would have loved an extra half-day just to poke around!)
All in all, a fantastic three days and nights. We liked the food, shopping, and sites, and were able to explore in beautiful sunshine. And in our few interactions with the locals (and also meeting my classmate’s family), we liked the quiet, introverted and slightly eccentric energy of the Finns. A few days later my Danish friend told me this joke: What’s the difference between an extroverted and an introverted Finn? Answer: the extroverted Finn will be looking at your shoes. Heh heh.