We arrived in Helsinki on Midsummer Day, a national holiday in Finland. Most of the stores, museums and restaurants were closed and the streets were devoid of locals and filled with travelers like us. Although the weather wasn’t on our side during our first weekend in Helsinki, we left happy and impressed with this charming place, a telltale sign of an excellent city.
Influences from neighboring countries Russia and Sweden abound through the language, food and architecture of Helsinki. The seamless integration of history and modernity are perfectly displayed through two of the main tourist attractions, the Helsinki Cathedral (Tuomiokirkko) and the Kamppi Chapel of Silence. The former is a relic from the early 1800s, built originally for the Tsar of Russia; the latter was constructed as a part of the World Design Capital program in 2012. It offers a space for meditation and reflection in the middle of a bustling area of the city.
Along with cathedrals, museums, and parks, Helsinki boasts a seemingly endless amount of design stores and coffee shops. We were able to experience a handful of both simply wandering around the many neighborhoods; they offered respite from the chilly, wet weather, and a welcomed pick-me-up from long days of travel. The neighborhood of Punavuori was particularly charming to explore with its cobblestone streets and adorable shops. The Kallio District, known to locals as the “hipster” district, is exploding with new bars and nightlife catered to the young of heart studying or working in the city.
Certainly one of the most unique and memorable architectural sites in Helsinki is Temppeliaukion Kirkko, also known as the Rock Church. It features an interior that was built straight out of solid rock. Light spills in through glass panels and reflects magically around the room. Many of the elements — such as copper roof and organ — are equally stunning.
Just outside the city of Helsinki, Suomenlinna Island is a quick ferry ride from Market Square and is a definite must-visit. Suomenlinna is an inhabited maritime fortress built on a group of six small islands. Construction started on it in 1748 and in 1991 was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Historically, it’s been used to defend the city against forces trying to conquer Finland. Today, hundreds of people live and work on the islands and many more visit each day. Along with its fascinating history, the islands offer several charming cafes, and a wide-array of picturesque views. Plan to spend at least half a day here and try to time your visit with good weather — locals flock here for picnics, and you should consider doing the same!
The weather definitely made our experience in Helsinki an interesting one, but what made the trip so unforgettable were the “other” things: the beautiful cobblestone streets; the laughs with new Finnish friends (do not go based on heresay, Finns are far more friendly than they are thought to be!); the simple and authentic aesthetic that permeates every aspect of the city. While Helsinki may not be the tourist destination that is Paris or Rome, it offers a quaint and cozy cultural get-away that begs to be explored. As they say in Finnish, “Hei hei”! (HAY-hay)
Danielle Haigh and Zach Glassman were invited to Finland by the Finnish Tourism Board.