Helsinki was chosen as part of our Nordic trip as a stopover before travelling on to Rovaniemi in the Arctic Circle. Deciding to make the most of the opportunity, we stayed three nights, giving us time to see the city as well as a day trip to the historic Estonian city of Tallinn.
The flight from Stockholm to Helsinki was by SAS. Check in was quick and easy with self-serve check in machines and baggage deposit. Landing at our destination, we took a taxi to our hotel. As there were four of us, this was a cheaper option than the bus or train options. The journey into town is quite dull and the city looked old and dreary. Unfortunately, this proved to be an accurate first impression for the rest of our stay.
Our hotel the GLO Hotel Art appears to have been recently renovated. It spans two buildings, and used an access card to open doors between the two buildings. Reception was very friendly and helpful with advice and maps. The hotel itself is located centrally, and was walk able to all the places we wanted to see. Breakfast, although not as extensive as some other hotels, was still plentiful.
To recover from the plane trip, we took a walk to the Church of the rock (Temppeliaukion kirkko). This church has been built by excavating a hole into the surrounding rock and placing a dome over the top. Certainly one of the more interesting churches we have seen. The interior still has bare rock walls, lined with wood. A very atmospheric church and worth the visit.
The next stop on our walk was the National Museum of Finland (Suomen kansallismuseo). The museum contains a comprehensive collection covering the history of Finland. However, at this stage of our trip we had seen several other very good museums. Unfortunately, we did not find this one all that interesting, especially when compared to the national museums of Denmark and Sweden.
Not far from the museum is a statue of Finland’s national hero Mannerheim. He is seated on a horse and the statue is near the Museum of Contemporary Art. We saw the statue as we were passing it on the way to the Railway Square. This area contains the railway station and major bus stop. The square itself is surrounded by some very nice buildings. As it was winter, not much else was happening here.
From the railway station, we walked to the docks via Esplanadi, a park area. It was decorated for Christmas, and very festive. On the way, we stopped at the Havis Amanda Statue and took the obligatory photos. This is a well-known statue of the scantily clad female. The nearby docks were interesting, as were the views of the Uspenski Cathedral and the Office of the President of Finland.
There was a market at the docks. We wandered around for a while and bought some snacks and a drink before heading back to our hotel.
On our second day, we went to Helsinki’s number one attraction, the island fortress of Suomenlinna. To get there, you need to catch the ferry from Kauppatori. Tickets can be purchased at the dock from a ticket machine. It was very easy to operate, with on-screen step by step instructions in many languages. The ferry trip is only 15 minutes, with no stops on the way.
We spent three hours walking around the island, but were disappointed that some of the museums were closed, due to the time of year. The fortifications themselves were quite impressive and the one museum that was open had comprehensive displays of the fortresses’ history. There are many old cannons and defensive guns on display around the island as well as the old fortifications.
On returning to Helsinki, we went to the Uspenski Cathedral. The cathedral is outstanding, being set on a hill overlooking the city. Unfortunately, they were undertaking renovations to the interior and it was full of scaffolding. The iconography inside was amazing and would normally be very impressive, but much of it was obscured during our visit.
Nearby is Senate Square, which was set up for a Christmas market. The whole square was full of stalls and we spent an hour looking around them.
Directly above the square is the Helsinki Cathedral. This in impressive looking building, made even more so when you enter, as there is very little interior decoration, in keeping with its Lutheran faith.
Last stop for the day was the Museum of Finnish Military History. If you like military history, you will love this museum, as I did. If not you will be bored as my wife was. This is a very comprehensive museum, with a huge section on Finland’s involvement in World War 2 as well as more recent events. I was particularly interested in the Hungarian section, detailing Hungary’s association with Finland during the second world war. Something I knew nothing about.
Our final full day in Helsinki, was a day trip to the Estonian capital of Tallinn. We caught the ferry from West Harbour Terminal 2. It took around three and a half hours for the trip. As it left very early in the morning, we arranged a taxi through the hotel, which was waiting promptly for us at the arranged time. The trip was smooth and despite usually getting sea sick, my wife was fine. The ferry has many bars and food outlets, so getting breakfast after being too early for the hotel’s breakfast was easy.
We were met at the terminal in Tallinn, by our tour guide. Due to the time of year, we were the only ones on the trip. The first part was a trip around the greater city of Tallinn, with quick views from the bus of the sites. The only place we stopped, and really the only one that interested us was the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds. It was here that Estonians gathered to protest and sing patriot songs, leading to their independence.
The guide then took us on a walking tour of the old city. This was the real reason we had visited. She took us to all the major places of interest and was extremely good at explaining their history and significance. This was far better than walking around ourselves, as we would probably have gotten lost in the twisting streets.
The old city of Tallinn is a UNESCO World Heritage Listed Site. The whole area is full of fascinating buildings, towers, city walls and churches. It would take many days to see everything, and by then you would become jaded with the experience. Having only one day, we saw the major sections and came away with a good appreciation of the city.
We started with the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. This is one of the iconic buildings in Tallinn and is very impressive from the outside. Inside, it is even better. The icons and altar are magnificent. Unfortunately, photographs are not permitted inside. We then moved on to Toompea Hill. This provides spectacular views over the old town.
The tour took us through narrow winding streets, past old city walls and buildings. When we finished with the guide in the town square, we had several hours to look around ourselves. We found a nice restaurant for lunch, had a few beers and explored for a while.
We walked back to the terminal for the ferry. It was an easy 30-minute walk and the ferry trip back was uneventful.
Helsinki was probably the least memorable part of our Nordic Trip. There wasn’t much that interested us in the city itself. Even Suomenlinna was not that different from other fortresses we had seen, apart from being an island. If we could do this trip again, we would have taken another day trip to St Petersburg, as well as the one to Tallinn. This would have left enough time to see some of the sites in Helsinki, while potentially seeing other destinations with more to offer. Alternatively, we could have transited straight through and not stopped, as our real destination on this leg of the trip was Rovaniemi.