When I looked down at the city of Helsinki (afore mentioned HEL) which was the first leg of our trip, from the plane, it took my breath away. We had arrived to the Winter Wonderland. I had never before in my life seen anything so frozen. That there is life in this part of the world, only makes you think about and marvel at the resilience of human beings.
We left for Helsinki from Bangalore on a Lufthansa flight. I had heard a lot of praise of the airlines and was pleasantly surprised when they offered us an upgrade to business class at only 10% of the cost. The trip had started with a good omen. I highly recommend anyone travelling lufthansa to try to look for an upgrade. Its easier to get one from India (we tried on the way back, but they wanted full cost). Traveling Lufthansa Business class is an experience like no other.
Lufthansa switches you to their domestic flights at Frankfurt airport, which is huge – huge is probably an understatement – massive! And German security checks use actual x-ray machines! So make sure to get a minimum of 60 mins of layover, else you just might miss your connecting flight. Also, be ready for opening your entire hand luggage and keeping it in trays.
Landing in Helsinki, the first thing we did after baggage claim was wear more clothes before we could dare to step out of the airport. We found an R-kioski (Finnish version of 7-11) at the airport and bought 5 day travel cards (valid on all public transport including airport metro) and sim cards with unlimited data for 13 days. This was a recommendation from our Airbnb host and it prevented us from having to wander around in the cold city with luggage. Thanks Elianne!
Travelling in Helsinki is quite easy if you have a travel card. We only travelled by trams throughout the city and walked the rest of the way. There were times when we just got into a tram to get away from the cold (they are heated :D) and plan our next destination. That was cheaper than stepping inside a cafe and paying for coffee for doing the exact same thing 😉
The days were pretty short that time of the year, totalling about only 5 hours of daylight in Helsinki. We would leave our apartment by 9, at sunrise and return by 5 with groceries to cook dinner and enjoy sauna and basically defrost our bodies. The bottle of water we carried around became ice in about 2 hours 🙂
There are some must-see places in Helsinki and we spent about 3 full days in the city which was a good estimate.
Senate square is the official city centre, surrounded by parliament buildings, national library and the oldest building of Helsinki (1700s). The white cathedral makes one full side of the square. There is a small board telling about the history of the place. The cathedral is massive and really really beautiful.
Walking distance from the senate square, is the promenade which hosts the market square, with ferry terminal of the left and the old market hall on the right. Here we found hotdog stands (we had been looking for these ever since we landed into Europe), lots of fish stalls and small movable shops selling caps and scarves and some food items in the open.
While roaming around, we accidentally entered the old market hall, which was a pleasant surprise. Its indoors! No more freezing! Apart from fruits, veggies and meat, there were also cafes for snacks and lunch. We tried our first caviar here.
From The ferry terminal, there are hourly ferries to the island of Suomenlinna. This is a beautiful island with lots of history. The island’s museum shows a movie about the whole history of Finland and their independence. There are war sandbanks and artillery and beautiful views. Its a very windy place and there are lots of small hills for kids tobogganing. We spent a whole day here and it was quite educational.
We learnt that no amount of layers will help you when it is that windy, that there is no place to eat after crossing half the island and that king’s gate is not a gate at all 😛
Near the ferry terminal, in Helsinki, is a huge blue ferris wheel called Finnair wheel. It has heated cabins and goes really slow, so you can see the whole landscape of the city (tinted blue). Its pretty!
There is an orthodox cathedral (Uspenski) on a hill near the market square. It is so majestic and red. It was the first church I saw with a decorated altar and no seating arrangement.
We also had a chance to visit the zoo In Helsinki. Its on an island of its own. Its also a good way to spend your day with friends but you have to get there early as it closes by 4. There are loads of insects in the tropical houses and we saw tigers and lions and a little mink.
But probably the weirdest thing we did was going into this restaurant up 13 floors and looking out through the bathroom window to see the most amazing view of the city. It was the brainchild of my friend who had come to meet us that day. It is the only place with the best view of the city while you are sitting on the can 😀
Finland is an expensive country to eat out in. We preferred to shop for groceries and make our own food more of the days. Having an apartment with a functional kitchen was probably the best decision we made. But we did try out some places.
There was this lappish restaurant where we tried all sorts of elk and reindeer meat. And on the last night we ended up for dinner, at this hotel which used to be a prison and had dinner in the “dining hall”, drinking out of “steel mugs” (I had a “Jail Burger” 😀 ). We also had the best pizza ever, in a little bistro near the rock church.
Which reminds me, Rock church was on every must visit list in Helsinki and with good reason. We reached a place which kinda looked like a giant igloo and spent some 15 mins trying to figure out where its entrance was and lo and behold, we were inside the rock church. It was beautiful with a skylight, carved into a huge rock.
There are also amazing museums nearby. The contemporary art museum Kiasma is not to be missed. There is an actual-real-honest-to-god artwork on display at Kiasma called “Tsss”, which is basically a leaking AC over a hot pan kept on a stove and on every leak the pan goes “Tsss”. Someone found a way to solve their leaky AC problem without having the throw the water away. 😀