Until our recent visit, I mainly knew Finland from the Monty Python song “Finland, Finland, Finland, the country where I want to be, you’re so close to Russia, so far from Japan, quite a long way from Cairo…” which, let’s be frank, is poking fun about there allegedly not being much else to say about Finland except that it’s close to Russia and far from Japan.
This is, of course, completely wrong, and we really enjoyed our trip. The first thing that strikes one upon arrival, is that there is water everywhere, the city is built on a myriad of peninsulas, and from most points in the centre of old town you can walk in three of four directions for no more than 15 or 20 minutes and you’ll hit the ocean. The city is relatively small (just over 600,000 residents, metropolitan area is 1.4 million, but feels a lot smaller) and new (founded by the Swedish king Gustav I. in 1550 to end the dominance of Tallinn, the capital of today’s Estonia, but it took forever to grow into a major city, less than 7,000 residents in 1700, less than 30,000 in 1870, and roughly 275,000 in 1945). Helsinki is located some 80 kilometres north of Tallinn, 400 km east of Stockholm, and the same distance west of Saint Petersburg, Russia, still retaining close links with all three of these cities.
We stayed at the Apartment Hotel Hellsten Helsinki Senate (Kauppiaankatu 5), and would recommend it, if you get a good deal, like we did (£65 per night). Most of the time there is no manned reception, everything goes over the phone, where they instruct you how to access the building, how to activate one of the blank room key cards, and how to find your room. The ventilation is not effective, but you can open the large windows anytime. The hotel is located in a nice old, renovated building with high ceilings and we had our own kitchen (which we didn’t use, but still, nice to have a large fridge and cutlery and plates for snacks).
My wife was flying in from London and arrived on Saturday at around lunchtime. I had already arrived the day before from Dusseldorf, Germany, close to Essen, where I’m working at the moment. I spent the first night in another hotel, just five minutes’ walk away (our hotel, which we had booked before I took over the assignment in Germany, was only available from Saturday).
We had lunch at Lappi restaurant, which was not exactly cheap, but worth every penny. We focused on starters and mainly got our nutrients from their Lappish plate to share, which ranged from lovely salmon tartare, via delicious marinated whitebait, salmon mousse, whitebait roe, and cranberry compot, to reindeer liver, marinated berries on cheese, hearty air-dried reindeer heart, reindeer carpaccio, marvellous mushy mushroom salad, and perfect pickles. As you will have guessed by now, the cuisine is from Lapland in northern Finland, home of Santa Claus and Rudolph, the Reindeer.
The afternoon we spent strolling around town, looking at all the main sites, the churches, the Senate building, the marina, the ice breaker wharfs (70% of the world’s top class ice-breakers are being built in Helsinki, try that at the next cocktail party as an ice-breaker), checking out the famous and very stylish Löyly Sauna and the area around Allas Sea Pools.
The following day we did a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia’s fantastically beautiful medieval capital city, which we enjoyed very much.
On our last day we did more sightseeing, checked out various markets, and, just before we took the train back to the airport, had lunch at one of Helsinki’s finest and most established institutions: the Ravintola Kappeli restaurant. I had reindeer fillet with boletus topping, Finnish almond potato croquettes, carrot puree, caramelised carrot, panfried mushrooms and onions, dark rosemary sauce, my wife had Atlantic smoked salmon with dill potatoes and broccoli, and creamy seasonal white mushrooms. My wife wasn’t too impressed with her meal (I liked it when I tasted it), but I found mine mind-bogglingly tasty and a real discovery.
We would recommend Helsinki, but considering how close it is to the even more beautiful Tallinn (less than 1h 40m by the fastest regular passenger boats (hydrofoils), and only 2h with the gigantic 12 storey-car ferry we took, and at less than £25 per person for the return ticket, there were no complaints), unless you’re travelling from nearby, we would strongly recommend combining the two cities, and maybe base yourself in Tallinn, and do the day trip from there, rather than what we did, which is do it the other way round. When it comes to the region, our priority would be: (1) Stockholm, (2) St Petersburg, (3) Tallinn, (4) Vilnius, (5) Riga, and (6) Helsinki. But don’t get us wrong, Helsinki is just very unlucky to be surrounded by some of the best European destinations, and by the fact that it is one of the more pricey destinations, it’s still pretty cool, we mean it.