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Heading to Helsinki? Here's What You Need to Know

Thinking About Taking Your First Overseas Trip? Try Helsinki

Helsinki Cathedral_edited-1
Helsinki Cathedral in Senate Square.

By Lisa Brunette

We Americans aren't known for our propensity to travel much overseas. While some of us have had the courage to venture across the border to Canada or Mexico, less than 5 percent of us travel overseas to Europe or beyond. 

That's crazy.

While on an individual basis, high travel costs can be a stumbling block, in the aggregate, we can't really blame the expense, since we're one of the world's most affluent societies. Hopefully it's not due to a lack of curiosity. Maybe it's just fear.

I love a good wingshot, and this one showing the Finnair logo doesn't disappoint.

I've seen the fear flag raised many times, and I've flown it myself. Yeah, it can be pretty intimidating to travel to a distant land where you might not speak the language or know the customs or rules. I can tell you horror stories about getting ripped off on my honeymoon in Barcelona--or about the exhausted panic that set in when I couldn't find my hotel on a rainy Sunday morning in the narrow, vacated streets of Copenhagen after flying all through the night.

But there's so much to be gained from traveling abroad: a fascination with another culture's food, history, language; a sense that we all come from somewhere; a delight in the commonalities despite our many differences; maybe even a renewed pride in your own culture. This all makes it worth examining the fear--being prudent and careful in your travel plans, of course, especially if you're a woman traveling alone--but choosing to go anyway.

When you fly to Scandinavia from the Midwest, you get to fly over Greenland!

So go ahead plan your first trip to Europe, and let me put in a plug for an easy first destination: Helsinki, Finland. Here are 5 reasons why.

1. English is spoken everywhere. This makes things easy for a first visit abroad, not that later you shouldn't explore non-English-speaking cultures. I just know how we Americans are (75% of us speak English-only): We're not well-versed in non-English verses. While the primary languages spoken in Finland are Finnish and Swedish, and you will see signs, menus, and brochures expressed in both languages in that order, Finns for the most part speak fluent English. They've been studying it since the second grade and consider it a necessity for doing business. Which is not to say that there aren't some quirky takes on English; we submit the below breakfast menu card as evidence.


2. The money thing is easy. Finland has adopted the Euro, and while the exchange rate favors the Euro over the dollar, it's a pretty straightforward currency. Not that you have to do much with it, as you can basically just use your credit or ATM card for everything anyway, just mind any foreign transaction fees, which are dictated by your bank/credit card company.

For just under 130 Euros, you can buy a reindeer pelt. I'm not advocating that you do that, just pointing it out.

3. Crime is minimal. Speaking of money and credit cards, mobile card readers are used universally across Helsinki, so there's no need to have your card taken out of your sight at any time. Waiters will bring the reader to your table for a swipe or chip insert. Beyond this, I have to say I felt about as safe as I've ever felt, walking around Helsinki alone. There didn't seem to be any areas with illegal drug sale activity or the criminal activity that can accompany illegal drug sales. (All street drugs are banned in Finland, including cannabis. I point this out for reference only and not as argument in favor of their approach.) Not that homelessness equates to crime, but just as a measure of the general city atmosphere, we saw only one panhandler during our weeklong visit, and he looked as if he might have had somewhere to sleep indoors at night. Locals tell me the treatment programs for drug addiction are robust and include long-term housing. (It's worth thinking about the Finnish model, and that's all I'll say about that.)

4. It's a terrifically clean city. The sidewalks in Helsinki practically gleam, the public restrooms are surprisingly spotless, and no one seems to litter. We saw little Cushman sidewalk cleaners motoring through like little dust Zambonis, so that's part of it, but I also think there's an industriousness in Finnish (and maybe all Scandinavian) culture that produces on the whole a society of non-littering folk who generally take "clean up after yourself" seriously. It's also possible that the employment structure supports this cultural cleanliness, as it doesn't seem that janitorial duties are borne by low-wage workers and/or undocumented illegals. At our hotel, the desk staff and bartenders took turns attending to the lobby "water closet," which they cleaned thoroughly and frequently. We noted that hotel staff tended to be seasoned employees who'd been in their positions for some time, earning livable wages and benefiting from Finland's strong social services, with free health care and retirement at age 64 guaranteed. Side note: They all spoke not just two but at least three languages, and one of them spoke five fluently.

Helsinki street
A typical Helsinki street.

5. It's an easy place to get around. People are generally polite, helpful, congenial. Navigation in and around public spaces, from the Helsinki Airport and train station to the average restaurant, seems to have been designed with a user-friendliness we don't often see in the States. Indeed, arriving to a nightmarish O'Hare after nearly 10 hours in the air, I turned to my husband and said, "How is it that we navigated an airport in a foreign country with total ease, and here we are in our own country, and it feels like we've entered some third world madness?"

Helsinki Central Railway Station
Helsinki Central Railway Station.

So what are you waiting for? You just don't know what you're missing if you don't go to Helsinki. I can't wait for my next trip to Finland myself, as we left so much still to be discovered. If you go, let me know!

This is first in a 5-part series for "Helsinki Week" here on the blog. Look for the next post, "Heading to Helsinki? Here's What You Need to Know" tomorrow.


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