I’m looking for the heart of Helsinki. It’s January, it’s snowing, it’s been snowing since I got here and it will still be snowing a week from now when I leave. And that is fine. I hate hot weather and I really hate crowds. Helsinki, January. I’ll be the only tourist in town.
I start to realize by the third or fourth day that no one actually talks to me unless we’re doing business. Bus driver, hotel clerk, waiter, bar man, the lady at tourist information, it’s the same all over. Everyone is very polite and nice, but they just don’t talk much.
It’s not just me, and it’s not because I don’t speak Finnish. Everyone I meet speaks perfect English. But nobody talks on the tram. No one pulls out a cell phone and has a chat. The school kids don’t giggle, the Mums don’t talk to their babies. It’s very, very quiet. On top of this, the snow layer muffles the street sounds to the point of an urban silence I haven’t experienced in any big city before. I go out and wander around every day, and it doesn’t change.
In Your Bucket Because …
- You’ve seen London, you’ve been to Paris, and so have all your friends. But who has been to Helsinki?
- Helsinki is compact, walkable and visually appealing in any season.
- In winter, it’s a romantic, safe city perfect for couples or solo travellers. In summer, you don’t have to go far to find waterfront fun for the family.
On Saturday, I could take the tram to the harbour, and the ferry to Suomenlinna, Helsinki’s famous historic sea fort. I don’t, because it’s so windy that an outdoor tour of the island would leave me feeling a bit too intrepid and hardy. I’m probably wrong not to go. If you get to Helsinki, visit Suomenlinna. I would like to come back and see it.
Helsinki Card Sightseeing Bus Tour
The way I choose to see the major sights of Helsinki, and what I recommend, is to get the Helsinki Card and use it for lots of rides on the tram. Early in your stay, take one of the included tours. For me, it’s going to be the bus tour, where I learn I’m not the only tourist in town after all.
There’s a family from Germany sitting at the front, a man from Sweden right ahead of me, three Italian men behind, and across the aisle a couple: she’s Swedish and he is too, but he has a western U.S. accent underneath the Swedish, and in my only non-commercial conversation of the day, I find out he was born in Montana.
That’s it for the talking. We put on our individual headsets and listen to the tour on tape, each in our own language. It’s just me and Helsinki, in our own private world.
We leave Esplanade Park, which looks more Parisian than Paris, and go to Senate Square for a close-up outside view of the Lutheran Cathedral, Tuomiokirkko. Brilliant white, the Cathedral is an icon of Helsinki, more angelic than ever against the fresh and falling snow. It’s the most notable of a large collection of Neo-Classical buildings, some in buttery yellow, one in pale blue. Earlier, I watched three workmen doing something to scaffolding up high on the roof of the pale blue one (the City Hall) in a 60-kilometre wind. Scary.
The Church in the Rock and Sibelius Monument
Driving along the water’s edge, we pass the outdoor market, the inner harbour, and the red and white brick Old Market building, where I later discover that alongside the fish, bread, fruit and veg, I can get a piece of dried reindeer meat, a reindeer sandwich and a reindeer pelt in one easy go.
There’s 100 kilometres of coastline in this city, water and land interlaced like the fingers of two hands. Little inlets make wrinkles all along the shore, and many low islands sit in the water nearby. At the pier on our left, the people of Helsinki used to wash their rugs after the long winter.
We turn back to face the land and the buildings, fine examples of the Neo-Classical, Art Nouveau (or Jugend), Functional, and Modern styles of architecture. The Post Office is so Functional you’d think Howard Roark designed it.
There is another special building, away from the centre of Helsinki, with a style completely its own. The church in the rock, Temppeliaukio Kirkko has literally been carved into the bedrock like a great cave. We are given five minutes inside to appreciate the unique, spiritual atmosphere of rough rock walls and soft candle light.
From the sacred to the nationalistic: the tape in the bus is now describing the epic poem of Finnish mythology, The Kalevela as we travel to the monument to composer Jean Sibelius. The conjunction of The Kalevela and Sibelius is deliberate. It was only in 1917 that the Finns gained independence from Russia; Sibelius’s Finlandia of 1899 was influential and still embodies the people’s pride in their country. We hear the rumbling opening measures as the bus pulls into Sibelius Park. The Sibelius Monument, an abstract metal sculpture, looks like a floating pipe organ, with a bust of Jean Sibelius gazing from a nearby rock.
There are more sights – the 1952 Summer Olympics tower and stadium, the Opera House, the National Museum, Kiasma (modern art museum), and more – and by the end of the tour, I feel better acquainted with Helsinki and also better educated about the Finnish spirit. “We aren’t Russians and we aren’t Swedes, we are Finns” sums up centuries of history.
But in this city where no one talks, where is the heart of Helsinki?
And then I think of the restaurant Kappeli, a glass jewel box, all chandeliers and prisms, gracing the Esplanade with the guileless elegance of a young Audrey Hepburn.
When he first saw Kappeli, one of the Italian men behind me on the bus murmured to his friend, “Bella! Come musica”. He was right. The heart of Helsinki is in the combination of the natural setting and the careful design of everything that’s “beautiful like music” in this poised, uncluttered city.
Practicalities: Seeing Helsinki the Easy Way
- Get the Helsinki Card early in your trip and use it to ride the city trams everywhere, as well as for entry to more cultural attractions than you will have time for.
- Visit the Ateneum to see the national collection of Finnish art, and Kiasma for the latest modern art exhibition.
- The National Museum has galleries full of artifacts from prehistoric times, through the Middle Ages and the period of Russian rule. There is a very interesting film showing traditional ways of hunting in the snow in Lapland.
- Don’t fear the winter! It is not terribly cold, but it is snowy. Watching the Finns handle masses of snow is impressive. Bring winter clothes, particularly warm winter boots you can walk in. The people of Helsinki are absolutely unfazed by the snow, and you should enjoy it too.
- Do try and visit Suomenlinna, Helsinki’s famous sea fortress on an island. In winter, the hours for tours may be limited to weekends.
- In summer, come prepared for some time at the beach and perhaps on the water too.
- English is widely spoken.