Last week I went to Helsinki, Finland, on business. It was a bit of a whistle stop trip but I did find time to take in a few of the sights and sounds of the city whilst there.
Travelling in early December I have to say I was expecting to find it bitterly cold and with snow on the ground. I’ve heard about their heated pavements, the need to wear layers and warm boots. But on landing at Helsinki airport and getting off the plane, I was pleasantly surprised how mild it was. Well apart from when we left a restaurant at gone midnight – then it was cold, windy and damp – but there was no snow. I also thought it would be dark most of the day. It got light sometime between 8am and 9am and dark again about 2pm – so not far off what it’s like at home. I know I was quite south in Finland so would probably find more extremes if I had gone further north.
One thing I did notice was the plethora of Christmas trees and lights adorning the streets and businesses across the city. It was great to see – simple but quite stunning decoration in places, it made me feel really Christmassy. We’d been tipped off about a Christmas market, quite a famous one apparently, with goods and food and all sorts of things. It started the Friday we were there so as soon as my meeting finished at lunch time I headed over to see… But only found a load of unmade huts. I was quite disappointed! No idea if we were in the right place really but a couple of the locals said we were. I guess I’ll have to stick with the Lincoln one, which I’ve actually never been to anyway (I must rectify that next year, although it’s really crowded).
I did manage to fit in a little sightseeing. I went to the Church in the Rock (Temppeliaukion Kirkko) which is just stunning. It was just round the corner from the hotel so it would have been rude not to. It was free to get in, and is basically just a church carved out of the natural rock, with a copper domed roof. Absolutely gorgeous. The copper is highly polished inside and the rock is bare. There was a small group setting up for a concert that evening and I could tell from their tuning up and rehearsal that it was going to be just a beautiful sound – but I had a table booked at a restaurant with my business colleagues. Just outside the Church was a couple of souvenir shops, and I noticed a selection of postcards for a Sibelius Monument – so I took a walk to find it on behalf of my musician family. It is a fantastic sculpture by Eila Hiltunen incorporating some 600 hollow metal pipes, some all jagged and open, which as a whole is supposed to represent Silbelius’ music. It looked like you might be able to play them somehow, but it was pitch black – worth seeing in the dark as its all flood lit, but perhaps also worth a look in the daylight to get a proper idea of what it “does”.
The Museum of Design is supposed to be an excellent place to visit. But unlike in London the museums charge for entry and as I only had a very short time I decided not to. Shame as I would have liked to see the comic exhibition. Talking of cartoons there was one character that was everywhere – Moomin – remember them? There were shops full of merchandise (quite expensive mind!). I remember my sister being just a little obsessed with the white hippo-like cartoon creature when she was little – I wish I could have afforded to buy her a little something for Christmas but unfortunately not.
There are two cathedrals – Tuomiokirkko and Uspenski Cathedral, both of which are beautiful from the outside (I didn’t go in either). The steps leading up to the white Cathedral are steep but worth the climb – you can see right across the water.
What else did I learn? The Finnair City Bus from the airport to the centre of Helsinki was an excellent service (not just for Finnair passengers). At €6.20 each way it’s a bargain compared to about €45 for a taxi, and is really easy to find and use. Oh and don’t worry about English – people were really friendly and they learn English from a very young age, meaning communication wasn’t a problem. Finland is a bilingual country anyway – Finnish and Swedish – so all the signs are in two languages (and the words are long!), but many restaurants had English translations for their menus, and the staff everywhere I went were more than happy to help out an uneducated English lady without making me feel useless!
Lappi was a Lapland traditional restaurant I ate in. We had an amazing meal there – including Reindeer, which is a local favourite. It wasn’t cheap – and actually eating and drinking is quite expensive all round, but I only had good food.
Worth the trip? Well yes because I was travelling for work, but I’d say it would be worth a long weekend or short city break for pleasure at some point. The flight is less than three hours from Heathrow or Gatwick, so it’s very doable for a two or three night stay. If I went back I would go prepared to spend lots on food and go into some of the museums that looked really interesting.
Next time I wanna go and see the northern lights… oh and I’d take my DSLR because the snaps on my iPhone don’t do the place justice.