Nordics Part Two: Helsinki

Thursday 15 – Sunday 18 November 2018

After another inevitably delayed flight, my friend and I arrived in Helsinki from Copenhagen some time after 11pm. I didn’t know the public transport situation in Helsinki but I did know how expensive everything (which in this case would be a taxi) would be so I was a bit nervous. My fears were confirmed when my friend said that the last train would be leaving in about 5 minutes and we didn’t have enough time to get to the station – but there would be a bus. It turned out my friend was wrong, there were still trains but it looked like they would take a similar amount of time so we opted to stick with our bus plan, since we were already by the bus stop. This turned out to be wrong too and we ended up actually at our destination, somewhere around the centre of Helsinki, at about 12.30/45am.

Both my friend and I disembarked feeling a bit motion sick but my spirits at least were lifted when I saw what our bus had dropped us off next to – a McDonald’s. I know this isn’t the most cultural option for my first Finnish meal but I was starving and it was open. We got food to go and headed in the direction of our WeHost flat. We found the place easily enough and were greeted with the most technologically advanced / creepy welcome I’ve ever had. The gate into the blocks of flats, and into our block itself, both required codes instead of keys but our flat took this one step further. There was no keypad for us to enter the code required here – instead we had to enter the code online and then (and here comes the creepy part) we had to knock on the door 5 times for it to open.

We knocked and heard the sound of a lock unlocking but there was no door handle for us to pull open the door. We pulled at the sides of the door and then at the letterbox but the door wouldn’t move. I started to worry a little bit – no one would be coming to rescue us at this time of the night. Thankfully, on a second attempt, we pulled at the letterbox and the door opened. We walked inside to find what was essentially a studio flat but a very well organised one. There was a bit of a split between the kitchen and the living room, although there was no door between them, and then there was a mezzanine over the living room where the bed was found. There was also an Apple TV so we were able to crash out in front of Netflix while we munched on our Maccy D’s.

Day One

The next morning, we left to do some more Finnish things. I googled good places for brunch and found a place called Fazer. This turned out to be a chocolate shop chain with a cafe (like a less fancy version of Rausch in Berlin) and a branch close-ish to our flat. I started with an open sandwich with salmon and egg (nice but would have been nicer warm) and then, given the surroundings, I had to have a dessert. Even if this was only breakfast. I went for a very chocolate-y looking chocolate cake which was delicious and surprisingly light for something that looked so rich.

I didn’t finish my cake as I was getting full and didn’t want to end up in a sugar coma as we had some sightseeing to do. Our first stop was Helsinki Cathedral which sits above Senate Square. This was impressive albeit the interior was very stark (but at least free to get into). Our next stop was the Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, the (also free to enter) interior of which was much more decorative.

Uspenski Cathedral was right by Market Square, which contained a few market stalls, and the Old Market Hall. I expected to find some kind of old-style cockney-esque food market here but instead, much like the food market in Copenhagen, I found something more modern. Here there were several little cafes and stalls, selling things like meats, cheeses and some more house-y stuff. We stopped for a drink at Robert’s Coffee before picking up some Danish cheese which we would eat on our sofa later.

We left via a weirdly technologically advanced public toilet which was overly complicated with various buttons to press to get doors to open and things to work. I’d heard the design district was an interesting part of the city to visit, filled with lots of artsy shops, and so as we both had some shopping we wanted to do I thought this would be a good destination. We arrived off a bus by St. John’s Church and spent a while looking to see if we could find a way in but it seemed closed.

Instead we wandered off in search of the design district. This was certainly a part of town with a different feeling and different architecture and we did pass several little shops but they were all so scattered and we were so clueless as to where we were actually going that we didn’t really find what we were looking for and so walked back into the centre of town.

We did manage some shopping before we went home – at the Moomin Shop in the Forum Shopping Centre. The moomin stories were written by a Swedish-speaking Finnish illustrator called Tove Jansson – a fact which the Finns seemed particularly proud of. My friend wanted something for her baby niece. I wanted something for me. We both came away successful.

We emerged later from our WeHost – after having snacked on some Danish cheese – for dinner at a fine dining restaurant & cocktail bar called Emo – which doesn’t have a Michelin star but does appear in the Michelin Guide (we knew Finland was not going to be a cheap holiday and decided to embrace it). I ordered pumpkin soup with an arancini ball to start and then tried elk for my main. With a cocktail thrown in. And we were also given some homemade bread, including chocolate malt loaf. It was all unbelievably tasty and worth every penny. Not that it was actually extortionate.

Day Two

We spotted a bakery called Gateau nearby our flat for breakfast the next morning. I treated myself to some kind of cinnamon pastry, which was easily the best baked good I’d had on my trip so far (sorry Denmark). We emerged fed and coffee-d and walked over to the botanical garden in a park nearby. Probably due to the time of year, the gardens didn’t seem particularly luscious and you had to pay more than we wanted to in order to get into the greenhouses so we decided to keep on walking.

Instead we caught a bus over to the Sibelius Monument, which is a set of seemingly floating metal pipes made in tribute to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It was impressive and made all the better by the fact there was an adorable little cafe on the water nearby called Regatta. There are few words to describe how quirky this place was. The girls behind the counter had a piece of string they could pull which would open the door for people across the room if they had their hands full.

The inside was very snug but thankfully we were able to grab some seats. There was a fire pit outside but it was really cold. My friend ordered a mulled wine while I went for hot chocolate since I usually don’t like mulled wine. Hers, however, tasted more like hot ribena so I was a bit disappointed – my hot chocolate was nice but how often do you get the chance to have an alcoholic hot ribena?

From the cafe, we walked off and stumbled across a nearby flea market (where I was able to do some necessary birthday present shopping) and towards the Temppeliaukio Church – a church which looks like a UFO in the rock. (Spoiler: it is not). Annoyingly, we arrived during a window in the day where the church was closed. However, since I’d only had something small in Regatta and my friend had just stuck with her mulled wine, we were kind of in need of food anyway.

We walked down one of the roads leading away from the church and found a salad bar called Pupu, it was very expensive for salad (we’re talking between €15-20) but the portions were huge. I went for a salmon and feta salad and couldn’t finish it all. I would rather have paid less for a smaller amount but it was very nice.

By the time we finished eating, the church was due to be open again. We walked back up and had an explore. I’d definitely say it was worth hanging around for – it wins an award for being one of the most interesting churches I have ever been to and I have been to many.

We left and walked over to see the Chapel of Silence, which was less UFO and more IKEA flatpack / sauna-esque but still falls into the interesting church category. From there, we went onto the activity that I was most keen to do in Finland – a Finnish sauna. We had come across the Allas Sea Pools when we had been in Market Square the day before but since we didn’t have our swim stuff, we decided to come back the day after. We’d checked in to see if we needed to book in advance and the guy behind the desk told us we didn’t but warned us there was some kind of event going on the next day meaning that it would be busy.

That first day, there had been no one in sight. When we arrived with our stuff on the Saturday there were people everywhere and a queue out the door. Eventually we made it into the very much not big enough women’s changing rooms, where we had to queue for a locker (and the first one we got turned out to have a broken lock), and finally we were able to go into the sauna. There were several people in there but not so many considering how many were in the changing rooms.

As the sauna started to fill up more, we decided to head out into one the pools. There were three, two of which seemed to be open. One of these had steam coming off it while the other was just a cordoned off part of the river. We decided to go into the steam one. For obvious reasons. This involved us having to run out of the building, into the cold air, in front of people at this event that seemed to be some kind of drinks thing / concert, in our towels. To make matters worse, the steaming pool wasn’t nearly as warm as it looked. We floated in there for a little while (avoiding the swimming lanes) before getting out into what now felt like freezing cold air and dashing back into the sauna, which was packed.

I don’t know why I decided to do it to myself but I once again decided to run out in the cold for another lukewarm pool dip before coming back in for one more (now emptier) sauna session to dry off a bit before getting dressed and letting someone else have a turn with my locker.

We did have some kind of intention of going home, cleaning up and coming back out again for dinner but everything was expensive and we’d enjoyed our cheese session the night before and so went via a supermarket and came away with multiple packs of cheese, meats and breads. It was only meant to be a pre-dinner snack but of course it ended up being dinner. Having said that, we did still emerge at some point and went for a drink at Ateljee Sky Bar.

The bar was small and packed so we ended up on the cold, windy balcony but here there were views and I was able to warm myself with some of that ribena-esque mulled wine and blankets. Needless to say, we still did not stay long before we left for our warm and cosy flat.

Day Three

We awoke to what was our last day in Finland. We had to check out of our flat but our flight wasn’t until later so we had time for an activity. We decided on the National Museum – having visited the Copenhagen equivalent it seemed only fair to check this one out.

Since I ended up in charge of directing us there, we obviously didn’t arrive without getting lost. This wasn’t ideal since it was cold and we were dragging our bags around but thankfully I at least didn’t take us too far out of the way. It was very quiet when we arrived which meant we had no issue finding enough lockers for all our stuff. We popped to the cafe for sustenance before we started looking around. We had had leftover cheese and meat for breakfast but I still got a token mini macaron because they were there and I wanted it.

Sadly I did not like this museum as much as I had liked the one in Copenhagen. Again we spent a while in the prehistory section but there wasn’t so much stuff here (although there were things you could touch which was quite cool) but my main problem with the place was that the layout was quite confusing. For starters, from the prehistory exhibition, you came up in the middle of the medieval exhibition which was disorientating.

I decided to skip this bit as I wanted to know a more about modern day Finland. In particular, the city’s architecture seemed a bit stark and almost soviet and so I wanted to learn more about the connection here (I’d Googled enough to find out there was one). I went to the “Story of Finland” collection but this seemed to involve a random series of exhibits which lacked, for want of a better a word, a story running through them. It probably made sense if you already knew the story of Finnish history but, since that was why I was at the museum, I was lost. I tried going back to “The realm” exhibition but by this point I was running out of time so had to whizz round. My friend said she found something about the Russia connection (it was once the Grand Duchy of Finland and part of the Russian Empire) here but I missed it.

After the museum, it was time for us to wave goodbye to our little Nordic adventure and head to the airport for what turned out to be yet another delayed flight back home.

Read about the rest of my trip:

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