To be completely frank I was petrified that I would not like Finland and I wondered if I would like any of the things to do in Helsinki.
I seem to gravitate toward Latin-based countries or those with an interesting indigenous story. I was worried Finland would feel cold and sterile like Austria.
My only reference point has been Ikea – and oh wait Ikea is from Sweden and Finland is not technically part of Scandinavia because it is a different culture.
I blame my Finnish friend Petri, he warned me that Finns were not outgoing and probably would not talk to me. He also warned me that everything was so expensive and I could not find a beer under $10.
I adore Petri but he was oh so wrong.
I have only spent a few days in Helsinki but I already have a completely different perspective on Finland. After a quick bus ride from the airport to the city centre it appeared that the hotel was a bit difficult to find. Locals get an A+ for stopping to see if the tourist with the map, luggage and confused look knew where they were going.
So here is a beginner’s guide to Helsinki with all the things I wished people had told me.
The Capital of Finland
Helsinki is a grand city that is by far the largest urban center in the country. With Finland lying between Russia and Scandinavia, it is no surprise that this traditional trading city has elements of both cultures.
Helsinki is famous for the sophisticated and vibrant cultural and artistic scene and is one of the best cities in the world in terms of standard of living.
Under all the snow it remains a beautiful city. I have heard from many people that they believe beautiful design isn’t meant for special occasions or only for the rich. Everyone should be able to enjoy beautiful things every day.
It really is wonderful to wander around and just people watch but it can be distracting as you are always looking up looking at the architecture. Fortunately Helsinki isn’t a dangerous city so I don’t have to watch out for being mugged.
Having an idea about the city’s history will really help to animate the attractions for visitors. The city was established as a trading town by King Gustav, a Swedish king who wanted the town to rival the success of Tallinn in nearby Estonia. However, during the Russian occupation, after the Finnish War with Sweden, Helsinki was designated as the new Finnish capital.
Some of the leading Russian architects were brought in to add some grandeur and gravitas to the center of the city, and it has continued to grow and to develop throughout the years since. The Finnish Civil War in 1918 saw Finland change from a Grand Duchy of Russia to an independent state. Later on during the Winter War of 1939-1940, Helsinki was also bombed by the Soviet Union.
Helsinki’s Vibrant Culture
I have only encountered lovely, helpful people. Traveling on my own can be daunting but I have become a pro at sitting at a bar and talking to strangers. While checking out the microbrewery across the street from my hotel I met these lovely guys celebrating a friend’s birthday and a generous bartender who tried to teach me how to pronounce Finnish words.
An unexpected but memorable point was learning that one of my new friends was pagan as it was the religion of his ancestors the vikings, taught me all about the connection between paganism and nature and then with an amusing turn of events also shared that he loved MacGyver so much he had a tattoo. The best part was that he laughed along when I was laughing so hard I was crying.
If you want to see more formal culture explore the area to the west of the city center to find the Parliament House, Olympic Stadium and the dramatic Church in the Rock. The Church of Silence (photo above) in the Kamppi district is amazing to visit even if you aren’t religious. If you’re a nature lover you’re just a short drive away from the northern lights in Finland.
As for the price, it is true this is not a bargain destination but it is nowhere near as expensive as London and frankly, it is much more interesting and the food so far has been much better. Also it’s absolutely possible to just spend one day in Helsinki if that’s all you can budget. This has been a pleasant surprise, I am really looking forward to seeing the rest of Finland.
I had a chance to visit Helsinki last May as a trailing spouse when my husband was invited to speak at a scientific conference there. Like you, it was hard to know what to expect. We had a lovely time. In early June, it was not fully dark until midnight. Through a friend of a friend, I had a peek into a vibrant expat community. I had my first taste of reindeer and lingonberries. We celebrated our 30 th wedding anniversary there. I can’t say I saw that one coming—“I know, let’s spend our 30th wedding anniversary in Finland”, said no one I know—ever.
I would love to go back in the Summer, I am sure it would be beautiful. I find for North Americans we don’t really consider countries like Finland because they are cold but really it is so beautiful.
I have never thought about visiting Finland, but now that I know there are men with MacGyver tattoos there… well… that changes things. BIG TIME.
I thought that might convince you. They are also tall, does that help?
Glad that you liked it Ayngelina! I do feel like I sometimes give Finland a bit of a bad rep when I talk to foreigners about it. It’s not all bad, except the cold winters, and the darkness, and umm. Sorry, yeah, it can actually be pretty nice. And many Finns are actually really nice people, even if some of them are a bit shy.
I sense the shyness but I think it is similar to Canadians – maybe it’s a cold country thing?
Glad you liked Helsinki, it is one of my favourite cities in Europe…I am going back there in summer and I can’t wait!
I would love to see the city in the Summer.
Petri is one of the friendliest and fun guys I’ve met so I’m not surprised! And let’s not forget you are tiny and adorable. Everyone will help you.
How was the marimekko store? Did you buy anything? There was an exhibit at the textile museum here last month. Loved it.
I was kind of disappointed by the store, a lot of the items had really cheap material and paying with Euro made them too expensive to justify but I love the designs.
I love Marimekko! It was one of my favourite stores in Finland and when I got home and told my Aunt about it she was thrilled because it is one of her favourite design stores! Did you happen to go in?
I did go in. I love the design, did you catch the exhibit while you were in Toronto?
Very nice photos. The MacGyver one is up there with some of the most comical I’ve ever seen. But hey, to each his own. All the power to the guy for inking what makes him happy.
It was so interesting, he had all these hard core tattoos and then MacGyver – go figure?
that tattoo is awesome
I knew you’d like it.
You and I are SO alike! I’d pick traveling to a Latin destination over any other destination in the world. But, I’d still give Finland a try. Though it looks pretty cold!!!
I thought I would struggle with the culture but they are far warmer than I would have expected.
Finland is very different depending to which town or area you go. Helsinki is by far the most international, and it’s getting better and cooler every year. I love the summers in Helsinki, and in Finland in general. People sit, read and party in parks, on beaches, and many islands everywhere. Lots of gigs, parties and stuff happening all the time. All the hibernation and passive comatose atmosphere explodes into activity and action. Lost of underground parties going on in Alppipuisto and Suvilahti throughout the summer, and also several music festivals in Helsinki. For English-speakers Helsinki is really easy as all the youth and most middle-aged speak very good English, and are happy to speak and communicate with foreigners, especially after a few beers or glasses of wine. Helsinki is a great summer town. I totally recommend. During winter the only enjoyable place in Finland in my opinion is Lapland. All the silence, snow, and the empty sky is impressive there. If you have more time then the former Soviet towns Tallinn in Estonia and Vilnius in Lithuania are really awesome places, also much cheaper, poorer, historically and architecturally impressive. It’s also very cheap to get there from Helsinki, 20-70 euros to both.
I’ve been waiting to hear about Finland from you!
The city looks pretty and I’m surprised to find out that it’s less expensive than London. Really? All I’ve heard about Finland is its incredibly high prices and the horrors that accompany any kind of monetary transaction. Teehee!
Looking forward to the rest of the stories.
You opinion is just that what everyone everywhere thinks about finns.Almost allways those opinions are negative.I really dont know why and why peoples dont bother to clarify these prejudice?
And when someone does and find out whats the truth, guys like u pauline still dont believe about nothing positeve(really?) 🙂
No hard feelings but thats kind of approach makes me sad.Heres some fact to you.
The most expensive and
richest cities in the world
A report by UBS
15 September 2012: Oslo, Zurich and Tokyo are the most expensive cities in the most recent UBS survey.American cities have moved up the table mainly due to the rise of the US dollar compared to other currencies, in particular the euro. However, the measures taken by the US Federal Reserve in September 2012 may reverse the rise of US cities in the tables of most expensive cities.
The most expensive cities in the world
6.New York City
No, no, that was not my intention at all. I believe what Ayngelina said. I was merely expressing my surprise on the fact that it’s not a very expensive city, after all. I guess emotions don’t come through very well over written words. Thanks for the clarification, though!
London is definitely far more expensive. Some restaurants can be expensive but I thought hotels were pretty standard prices and if you look around you could do it on a reasonable budget.
So glad to hear you liked Helsinki! I don’t know much about the city or Finland but would visit based on this post. the MacGyver tattoo is a crack up!
Helsinki is just the beginning, Finland is so much more interesting than I had expected. I am really looking forward to sharing it with everyone.
Helsinki really does look beautiful architecturally! And I so agree, there is beauty in every day little things.
Those are the things that make a place special.
A few years ago, I unexpectedly spent a couple days in Helsinki–also in the cold. Loved it and loved wandering around looking at the architecture. However, I did, unfortunately, miss out on seeing any MacGyver tattoos.
Well to be fair it was on the back of his calf, next time ask the men to raise their jeans.
Somehow you made me want to go there as soon as possible – great pictures and a really interesting, because different destination in good old Europe!
btw: I miss the snow atm 🙂
You are crazy! I missed two winters being in South America and I loved every moment of it.
I am glad to read all these information about Helsinki. Your post removes many misconceptions about Finland. You clicked beautiful pictures of Helsinki. Really Finns are very friendly.
So much friendlier than I had thought, really wonderful people.
I don’t think I’d ever considered visiting Finland before but the sights now look absolutely gorgeous. You always make me want to go to places I’d never thought about before. Haha.
If I hadn’t known Petri I’m not sure if I would have wanted to go to Finland either. It seems like it would be the opposite of Latin America but not really at all.
You had me at Marimekko! There is a Marimekko design show on at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto until April 21. Great photos of the architecture, I’d love to visit Helsinki.
I just saw the sign on a streetcar for the exhibit. I may have to go take a peek.
I have actually heard great things about the Fins and Helsinki. Very excited to go meet them now myself! 🙂
Well it was all true. It’s a fantastic place.
I would really love to visit Helsinki,well Finland in general. Especially interested in the craft beer.
I would really to visit Helsinki someday..<3<3 I’ve been waiting to hear about Finland,and its really interesting..
Cant wait..^^I am sure it would be beautiful.
Sorry, but your comment about Helsinki being cheaper than London is way off base. I’m a resident of central London (and currently in Helsinki) and Helsinki is much more expensive and whilst it’s not as expensive as say Zurich, be prepared to shell out the cash when it comes to food, drink and hotels.
Absolutely my intention was not to say Helsinki is cheap, because it’s not. But as someone who is visited both cities as a tourist I found it to be cheaper. It sounds like the next time I visit London I need to get your recommendations.
are you ever go to Indonesia.? in indonesia you will find many beautuful panorama
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