Hello there! It has been quite a while, in fact almost a year, since I last posted. This happened for a variety of reasons, including getting quite lazy. But we are now back at it and am going to try my best to make up and post about the many trips I have taken since my last post from July 2021!
Starting in summer 2021, many countries began easing COVID-19 restrictions and entry requirements. This combined with a delayed return to office due to Delta variant last summer meant I began to traveling internationally again, and even took a few longer than a weekend trips to certain places.
One such place in August 2021 was Helsinki, Finland.
I had never been to Finland, and it the last of the Scandinavian nations I had to visit. Helsinki is both further north and further east than one might think. Helsinki left a very good impression on me. Perhaps its because I went in August and just as COVID restrictions were being relaxed, so not too crowded and near perfect weather everyday. Further, it is smaller and has a quainter vibe than its other two Scandic capitals of Oslo and Copenhagen. It is also a bit cheaper than the other too though still expensive. Over all, I enjoyed my 3 nights here and would recommend Helsinki. However, I definitely have to return in the midst of winter to explore the Northern Lapland regions, aka home of Santa Claus.
Getting There and Around
Helsinki is relatively easy to get to and is not a terribly long flight from either the U.S. or Asia. Finnair operates flights to the U.S. and many places in Asia like Seoul, Bangkok, Singapore and Tokyo. Further, all major European carriers operate flights to Helsinki and so its an easy one-stop connection at a major European airport. You can also arrive by ferry from the likes of Tallinn, Estonia (or visit Tallinn from Helsinki).
Getting around Helsinki is also super easy. From the airport, you can take the taxi, bus or the easiest is the 5 euro train from the airport to Helsinki Central station, which takes about 30 minutes (though the train/subway hours are more limited than the bus, for example if you have an early morning flight from HEL, you will likely need to take the bus which also departs from the central station or take a taxi). From the central station, most neighborhoods and hotels are within easy walking distance, or a bus/tram ride away. I walked for most of my stay, nothing was longer than a 20-30 minute walk from any given location. The tram system is also very easy to navigate, and kiosks sell tickets (not all stations have ticket machines). Getting to the islands that dot the bay is also fairly easy, however be sure to know which ferry you need to take to get to which island and be sure you get to the right dock. Though everyone in Helsinki is friendly and most speak English so help is always there/ ticket kiosk personnel can always point you to the right direction.
Where to Stay
Helsinki has many options for accommodations. International chains, a handful (but not many) or luxury hotels, and many design boutiques as well (which is fantastic given the fam of Finnish design). I chose Hotel Lilla Roberts, 1920 Art deco themed hotel in Art Deco building right on the edges of the Art and Design district, it is also an affordable American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts property so you get all those perks too. The location was great and within walking distance of essentially most of Helsinki’s attractions.
What and Where to Eat
Just because Helsinki has not exactly made a name for itself in the gastronomic world compared to Copenhagen or Oslo, does not mean food here is not good! In fact, you’ll find great variety of food here, from Scandic classics, to uniquely Finnish foods and even cuisine from Lapland.
Reservations required. One Michelin starred restaurant atop what was once the Palace Hotel built for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Serving Finnish-Asian fusion gastronomy. Absolutely fantastic. 180 euro for the 12-15 course tasting menu (exclusive of any supplements), 170 Euro wine pairing and a 75 euro juice pairing to choose. Not inclined for a multi-course meal? Why not just come up for a drink and the views from their bar/balcony? Well worth it. I highly recommend you supplement the meal with the 20 euro House Bread Service: Finnish rye Blini served with Slightly smoked and salted Small whitefish, whitefish roe, Pickles cucumber and mustard seeds.
Service was great, friendly, not at all pretentious. They were very accommodating to me as a solo diner who was also on a time crunch (weeknight, working U.S. Hours, meant only 2 hours maximum for a fancier dinner, they team at Palace delivered while still creating a well paced meal).
Hakaniemi Market Hall
Is a nice modern indoor and outdoor food market/hall. Stalls selling fresh baked Finnish goods, cured meats, seafood and packaged goods. Here I sampled some Karjalanpiirakka, or Liperi i guess, a pastry made of rye/rice is either filled with rice or potatoes and served with butter, its everywhere in Finland. Lihapirakka, meat pie meets donut, very tasty. Finnish speciality, Cinnamon Rolls, super cinnamony, not sweet or rich like the American versions. Another food hall closer to the center is Vanha Kauppahalli, though it felts a lot more touristy and less local, but it does have a lot of ethnic cuisine which all looked delicious if you are craving for that. Market Square right by the main ferry docks and in front of the Presidential Palace, is a nice open air market selling produce as well as with many stalls selling foods to eat.
a restaurant specializing in Lappish cuisine, reservations recommended. You walk in and you’ll be transported to a log cabin in Lapland, it felt like Christmas in August (without the decorations). Staff are dressed in traditional Sami dress, and are super friendly and welcoming and will gladly introduce you to Lapland food and culture. I had a shot of Reindeer’s Tear: Finnish Koskenkorva (Finnish Schnaps) with cranberries to start. Followed by Assorted Lappish appetizers:
Reindeer blood sausage
Reindeer heart jerky
Whitefish puree with whitefish roe
Salmon puree with onion
Finnish Leipajuusto (squeaky cheese) with cloud berries
Pickles and pickled onion
Then the National Finnish Dish: creamy Salmon Soup. Followed by another National dish: Sauteed reindeer with mashed potatoes and lingonberries, it was super tender and not gamey at all. All paired with a Lapland Lager, and finished with Lappish coffee: brandy + coffee served in a wooden mug, the wood is aromatic and adds to the flavor.
Definitely worth checking out
A centrally located restaurant just across from the Cathedral. Reservations recommended. Specializing in traditional Finnish dishes, including the delicacy of bear meat, only a handful of restaurants serve this as its rare and only licensed hunters can hunt bear meat. Platter of Finnish appetizers with Finnish Rye Bread: Karjalanpiirakka (rice pies), smoked salmon, potato, white fish, fish meatball, asparagus salad. A shot of Koskenkorva (Salmari), Finnish schanps/brandy shot served from a ski. Braised Bear neck, super tender and not gamey at all, was served with Finnish chanterelle mushrooms, “game sauce” and potatoes.
A historic Finnish chocolate shop and cafe, sadly almost exclusively milk chocolate. But the rich hot chocolate I got to go was quite good.
On Lonna island, which is a stop on the ferry to Suomenlinna Island/Fortress. I would recommend coming here for a light/easy lunch or dinner paired with a trip to Suomenlinna. The menu changes seasonally. But the small, yet filling Perch with tomatoes and rhubarb dish I had was delicious and refreshing. The island also has a sauna, reservations required.
Ekberg 1852: a cafe I wanted to visit but was sadly closed by the time I got there. Supposedly has amazing desserts.
What to Do and See
This UNESCO World Heritage cultural activity is a must in Finland. There are plenty of options in Helsinki. From brand new modern ones wherein swimsuits are the norm/required. To old-school wood/coal fired saunas where men/women are separated and you go fully nude. I personally would recommend Kulttuurisauna Public Sauna, a mix of Finnish minimalist architecture inspired by Alvar Aalto style. It is an amazing traditional wood fired sauna. Super relaxing and calming. During COVID it was by appointment only and open from 7:30AM-1PM, 15 Euro admission and comes with a seating towel, so be sure to bring your own towel from the hotel. I am not sure the hours and requirements at this time. But their website is in English and is pretty clear. Inside, once you remove your shoes, is a very soothing living room area and reception. You can order tea, coffee, beer, water at extra cost to enjoy on the outdoor deck or inside the living room. Shoe racks separate the men and women’s sauna. Once you enter the sauna, you walk past the toilet, on to the locker area (keys provided). Here you change out of your clothes. Hooks in this area are for your drying towel as well as swimsuit. Then the next area is the shower area, soap is provided but you can bring your own too. You MUST shower before entering the sauna. After you shower, walk into the sauna, place your seating towel on a spot you like, sit down and just unwind. Probably should not exceed 15-20 minutes in there. Then you come out, shower again, and put on your swimsuit, wrap yourself in your drying towel and head out to the deck where you can then jump or climb into the icy cold waters of Helsinki Bay. If not, you can just cool off and relax in the zen of the deck. Then you rinse and repeat until you are ready to leave. There is no time limit to your visit, though most people stay for around an hour. After I showered and got dressed, I had a cup of Tyrni berry juice, it was super sour but tasty.
Finnish Design Museum
Well worth a visit to see the various visionaries of Finland that have contributed to the world of design, culture and more. Learned a lot about Finnish design and some of the most famous names.
Finlandia Hall designed by Alvar Aalto
Was and continues to be temporarily closed, but walking around it is more than enough to appreciate the stunning architecture
The National Museum of History
To be honest, only go if you have extra time. The exhibits were a bit disappointing and I did not learn as much as I had hoped about the various histories of Finland.
Also known as Rock Church, a church carved into the natural rock formation in Helsinki. Tours are available on weekdays. Check their website for information, but bookings are required. Sadly, I walked by on a Saturday.
Helsinki Central Library Oodi
A must visit. The architecture is incredible. The interior is also just as fantastic. And it has great views.
It is a place known for design after all. There are many boutiques in the city selling locally designed clothing, furniture and more. litalla, Marimekko both have stores in Helsinki. There is also a Moomin store. For men’s clothing I stopped by Frenn in the design district, and actually got something, its very nice minimalist Finnish design, mostly organic Finnish cotton too, and yes, they do ship internationally if you want to just shop online
One of the best parts of Helsinki are the islands that dot the bay. And summer is a perfect time to visit them. Many are private. Some just have 1 restaurant to visit. The biggest and most popular one to visit is Suomenlinna, which is home to a historic fortress, a hotel, and actual local residents. The ferries run on time and schedules are available online. You can purchase your ticket onboard with cash or card. On Suomenlinna there is a cute little Toy Museum, that I found is overlooked by most visitors, but it is well worth checking out as it houses a very impressive and historic collection of toys and trinkets and is still run by the family. The fortress itself is quite large and spread out. There is a museum to the right of the ferry dock which is worth a quick visit. The rest of the time is better spent wandering the fortress and its many nooks and crannies. It can easily be done in 2 hours, but you can also definitely spend more than that as well.
Well, there you have it. These are the things I did, saw and ate during my 3 night visit to Helsinki. I lucked out with weather. The only day wherein it was bad was my last morning, with a rain shower. I thus splurged on a taxi ride from the hotel to the airport that cost me 50 euros. Well-worth it to skip the stress and hassle of walking in the rain to catch the bus as the train was not running at that time.
I hope you enjoy Helsinki as well!