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5 Cool Things to Do in Helsinki

Rock exterior
The Temppeliaukio Church, (The Rock).

By Lisa Brunette

We only had about three-and-a-half days to explore Helsinki around the time we'd scheduled for onsite work for Brunette Games. So we felt we'd barely scratched the surface. But I think we chose well, and that our trip was a good model for others to follow when visiting Helsinki for the first time. Here are the top 5.

5. Sinebrychoff Art Museum / Kunsthalle Helsinki

We put these two together as sort of polar opposites, for those looking for a Helsinki-specific art experience but open to both experimental/contemporary and a much more traditional style. I recommend bookending a day with these two and having lunch in between.

The Sinebrychoff Museum is part of the Finnish National Gallery and houses the country's largest collection of paintings by the Old Masters. The museum building was once the residence of the Sinebrychoff family, several generations of successful 19th century brewers. The home and its extensive art collection were donated to the state in 1921. The second floor is almost entirely a recreation of the family's apartment suite over the old brewery that had been housed downstairs. This part of the museum is free every day, and the Helsinki Card will get you into the rest for free as well.

Sinebrychoff ceiling

The Kunsthalle is on the opposite end of the artistic spectrum from the Sinebrychoff, as its focus is living artists with contemporary or even experimental expression. The Kunsthalle has no permanent collection of its own but is a lovely space for 5-7 special exhibitions and events annually. We toured the Young Artists show and were impressed that artists at such early stages of their careers were given the opportunity to showcase their work in such a grand hall. Notably, a recurrent theme across the art was a certain dark angst that seems to lie at the heart of Finnish culture, in opposition to the clean, friendly, safe quality of the lifestyle.

4. Waterfront Walk

It's not an official tourist designation or anything, but our business clients recommended that we simply walk along the Helsinki waterfront, and it proved to be the perfect way to spend our last day there. We started at Kauppatori. There you can walk across the Bridge of Love, a wide bridge festooned with padlocks bearing the names of lovers, a common phenomenon in many European cities.

Bridge of love2

The Old Market Hall is worth at least a walkthrough with its stalls of local food and gifts. From there, we followed the perimeter of Helsinki along the waterfront past cruise ships, sculpture, architectural wowzers on nearby islands, and stopped for a glass of wine at a picturesque cafe called Ursula's.

The whole southern tip of Helsinki has been devoted to parkland, and the view across the water over massive rocky outcroppings is something you shouldn't miss. This is a full afternoon's walk, but don't rush it. We saw Finns on bicycles, a man walking his cat, and a young boy zoom by on hoverboard. 

Pano waterfront

3. Suomenlinna

Suomenlinna is an island off Helsinki that is only accessible by ferry. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the island is home to an 18th century fortress and several museums and restaurants. The fortress, which dates back to Sweden's 600 years' rule of Finland, boasts 100 cannons and four miles of stone walls. We wandered the fort, which reminded us a bit of Fort Casey on Whidbey Island, though of course much older, and tried to imagine a Swedish king stepping through King's Gate at the island's far end.

Kingsgate
King's Gate, on Suomenlinna.

Cannon

The island is fascinating, with an impressive drydock, Suomenlinna Church, and the quiet habitation of its 800 residents. One cafe worker remarked to me, "I hardly ever leave the island; I have everything I need here." There's a long waiting list for people who wish to move to Suomenlinna.

Drydock
Suomenlinna drydock, one of the oldest operating drydocks in Europe.

The weather ranged from sunny to fluffy snowflakes to overcast and sleeting during our day trip there, so we were glad we were prepared. Still, we took refuge at the Suomenlinna Toy Museum & Cafe, which was both cozy and chilling, and not just because of the snow.

Creepygnome

Sadly, the Suomenlinna Church is now devoid of its original onion domes, as designed by the Russians when they held the fort. When Finland began to assert itself after becoming independent from Russian rule, down came the domes. But at least Suomenlinna boasts some fine examples of Finland's characteristic Mid-Century Modern design elements in the chandelier and other features.

Suomenlinna church
Suomenlinna Church.

You can catch the Suomenlinna ferry from Kauppatori, and fare is free with the Helsinki Card.

2. The Rock (Temppeliaukio) Church

Let's carve out a rock and set a church down inside it, they said. And the idea took hold, so they did.

Rockchurchgalleryshot

Called "the most interesting church in Helsinki" in our guidebook, the Rock for me is probably the most interesting church anywhere. It came about as winner of a design competition in 1961. The dome was constructed out of one continuous copper strip coiled into the dome shape, with windows to let in natural light. The light radiates around the dome, throwing deep purple reflections from the pew fabrics onto the copper panels of the gallery. 

Rockpurplecopper

The acoustics are well known for their excellence. We stumbled onto a children's band's dress rehearsal when we went, and the sound filled the space with a copper-like clarity.

This is a popular destination, so the guidebooks recommend an afternoon or evening visit in summer. We had no problem getting in mid-morning during the first week of May.

1. National Museum of Finland

National Museum

I know, you're probably wondering how we could put a history museum in the top spot, but this place blew us away. We actually went back for a second visit after getting only a glimpse before closing time the first day. Maybe it's because as Americans, our nation is just so dang new, relatively speaking, so we were totally transfixed by Medieval housewares and church artifacts from the 16th century.

National Museum2

But most of all, we couldn't get enough of the prehistory exhibit. It traces back the Finnish people some 10,000 years, giving a startlingly vivid picture of life in the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. It's not often I feel called to read every bit of text in an exhibit gallery, but this one, I did. We lingered a long time during our second visit, drinking in the experience of getting to touch a Stone Age offering rock and gaze upon the impressive gilded burial costume of a Bronze Age woman chieftain.

Offeringrock
It's believed that people left gifts for their spirits on this rock, and the water that collected in its impressions was thought to hold magical properties.

This certainly isn't everything Helsinki has to offer, but it's a good list. Take your time for a deep dive in one area of interest, like we did with the history aspect, rather than pressuring yourself to see and do everything. I guarantee you'll have a much better time.

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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.

Wingshot
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.

Flightplan
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.

Menucard

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.

Reindeerpelt
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.