Helsinki, as we mentioned previously, is a great way to initiate your new overseas traveling habit. But there are 5 things you need to know ahead of time, rather than just winging it.
Language. You can totally get by with English, and no one will bat an eye. But why not try out a few Finnish phrases? Here's an easy one for you: Hei. It means hello, so that should be a cinch, right? It sounds a bit different, though, more like the American "hey." You can also say hello by saying moi. (The Finns pronounce each letter distinctly, so it's more like "mow-ee.") Here's another one you can pick up and master: kiitos. It means thank you, and when you say that to your Finnish friends, they'll appreciate it. Since most Americans don't learn other languages (75% are English-only), saying just these two words might feel to you like bricks in the mouth, but do it anyway. Soon you'll be shouting Kiitos! like it's the best word you ever heard, like my husband did. One shop clerk said she thought he was Finnish, but maybe she just wanted him to buy something.
2. Money. Before you go, call your bank and find out what their foreign transaction fee is. This will likely be a percentage. If it's high, try another card. We called around and found that our business credit card would charge 3 percent, but the ATM card linked to our business would incur a minimal fee. Amazon Prime assesses no fee whatsoever (...and that's another reason why the Zon is taking over the world). Also, here's a tip: Finns don't really tip. It's customary to round up the bill, but the big 10-20 percent tips we're used to in the States will only just make you super popular with service staff. Trust us on this; we experienced it first-hand.
3. Helsinki Card. Get one. This is sort of an "all-access" pass that you can use to gain free admission to museums and attractions, as well as discounts at restaurants. It's definitely worth the price, and the sole drawback is that it's good for only 72 hours. We had a weekend plus an extra day and a half to explore, but these were broken up by onsite work days in between, so we didn't get to take advantage of it as much as we would've liked. (They have a card reader system that activates it the first time you use it.) But even so, we still got our money's worth on the museum entrance fees alone, and then we leveraged it for 20% off our restaurant bill twice. I was worried the restaurants included would be too touristy, or international chains, and there is a Hard Rock Cafe on the list, but we went with Savotta, a superb Finnish-themed restaurant (I had the reindeer) and Samrat, where you can eat Indian food that for me was in the top 10 I've had anywhere. By the way, you will see the Finnish world ravintola in signs all over Finland. It's the Finnish word for restaurant (the more you know).
4. Weather. Helsinki is the northernmost big city in Europe, and that's something to consider. This is a place where the sidewalks are heated to keep from having to shovel them through long winter months. I understand that tourists flock there during the one-and-a-half months of true "summer" weather. But don't let that stop you from going at other times, when you're more likely to experience it like a local. You can avoid the crowds and enjoy lower prices during off-season as well. We went in May and had both days of lovely weather and not, which is fine. We got snowed on while out on an island off Helsinki, but we were prepared, and now we have a good story to tell! No matter what, pack so you can dress in layers, as even summers can be cool. In this way it reminds me of Seattle or even the northern Midwestern states in the U.S.
5. Transportation. The train system in Helsinki is ridiculously good, especially considering you can just walk across the city if you have to. We took the HSL into the city once we landed, which was easy to figure out from the kiosk at the airport.
There you have it; it's really as simple as that. Get yourself some salmon soup, say yes to the salty licorice, and try not to have a heart attack when you see the alcohol tax itemized on your bill. And remember, Yksi kieli ei ikinä riitä (one language is never enough)!
Check back on the blog tomorrow for 5 Cool Things to Do in Helsinki.
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