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.