Finnish word of the day: Suomi = Finland
It’s been some time I’ve had the idea of writing an article about the wonders you can find in Helsinki. This has no claim to being a touristic guide, nor an insightful report of what I saw there this year. It is simply a candid introduction to sights I enjoyed; you’ll find many pictures here, and a few explanations. I restricted myself to places inside Helsinki itself. Nuuksio (a national park 30 km from the city) or Otaniemi (where Aalto University’s campus has settled) are located in Espoo, so we won’t talk about them today. Later, maybe 😉
Finnish place names are often made of nature/geographic words like bay, peninsula, island… Ruoholahti, for instance, means Grass bay.
tori = square, market
linna = fortress
puisto = park
niemi = peninsula
ranta = beach
satama = harbour
kirkko = church
tie = road
katu = street
talo = house
lahti = bay
Senaatintori, Kauppatori and the harbour
In 1808, Helsinki was largely destroyed by a fire. One year later, the Russian, new masters of formerly Swedish Finland enthrust the reconstruction of the center to Engel. The Prussian architect designed a geometrical city with imposing Russian-styled buildings. The Senate Square is surrounded by buildings from this time, and the cathedral looks down on the square. When the weather is genial, people gather on the monumental stairs.
A few strides to the south, by the harbour, lies the market square, where you can buy berries and eat salmon and potatoes (or eat berries and buy salmon and potatoes, for that matter). The ferry to Suomenlinna (which you can pay with an ordinary travel card) leaves from there. Manta, a statue of a naked woman stands guard nearby. It was a highly criticized sculpture, at the time, because it was said that the artist, Ville Vallgren, was inspired by a prostitute (among other complaints). Every year, on Vappu (April 30), Manta is crowned with a student cap.
Behind Manta is Esplanadi, a large avenue with a park in the middle and many luxury shops. I don’t like the area so much, but many people meet here. At the end of it is the Swedish Theater (Svenska Teatern).
To get a good sight on the harbour, I liked to go to Tähtitorninvuoren puisto. From there, you overhang the harbour and the ferry terminal of Silja Line. If you go there during summer, I encourage you to go there enjoy the sunrise. The sleepy city is quiet, making you feel alone in the world, and the sunrise is as beautiful as its evening counterpart. You can either wake up early, or travel there before going to bed (remember, the sun rises early in the summer).
A peninsula to the east of the harbour, the main attraction is the Uspenski Cathedral, the main orthodox church of the city. The ice-breakers are “parked” there, and the housing buildings there are quite good-looking. A pleasant walk.
Kaisaniemi is situated next to the railway station, in the direction of the north-east. This lively district is home to the University of Helsinki, which was created 375 years ago. Further away, Hakaniemi is famous for its old covered market (Kauppahalli), not as known by tourists as the one near Kauppatori. Like in several parts of Helsinki, and like Aalto University’s campus in Otaniemi, many buildings are made of red brick. I like this!
Punavuori, Ullanlinna, Eira
These are district located to the south of Helsinki. I enjoyed walking in Fredrikinkatu at night, watching all those lit up shops. During the day, you can see many typical building from the National Romantic period. The walk along the shore is also very pleasant.
Moreover, when walking in the area without a precise goal, you can discover nice places, including several churches. The hilly terrain adds to the originality of the area.
This is another lively district, located north of Kamppi, where you can find many shops and sometimes traffic jams too. There are a lot of buildings made of red brick in the southern part of the district, around the two business schools that face each other: the Swedish school Hanken and the Finnish school which has joined Aalto University in 2010 but is much older.
The main avenue of Helsinki, Mannerheimintie (from Mannerheim, the most famous general in the Finnish army), lines Töölö to the east. On the other side of the street lie many imposing buildings with interesting architecture, like the Opera (Ooppera), Musiikkitalo or Finlandia talo. Behind these buildings, you will find a small lake called Töölönlahti, on which windsurfing-on-ice is practiced during winter.
To the west of Töölö, along the bay called Seurasaarenselkä, is the cemetery of Hietaniemi. Behind it is the beach of Hietaranta, where Metallica played in May 2014. The area is quite relaxing, it’s quite appreciated by birds, and, most important, you can witness breathtaking sunsets. Too bad the highway is so close, to the south.
This is the entrance to Helsinki downtown when you come from Espoo or Lauttasaari. The highway arrives here. The district was created in the beginning of the twentieth century when small islands were connected with earth fill. From an industrial district, Ruoholahti has evolved to shelter housing and office buildings.
The west harbour Länsisatama is built there; you can take a ferry to Tallinn or Saint Petersburg there.
This is THE big park of Helsinki. 10-km long and covering 10 square kilometers, it is a perfect area for walking, jogging or cycling out of the city, while still being inside the city. During winter, paths turn into cross-country skiing tracks.
When going to the north, you have to cross several important roads. In the southern part of the park, nice bridges for cyclists and walkers have been drawn from one side to the other, so that people don’t have to wait for the green light. And because we are in Finland, these non-driving bridges are often quite good-looking. Further to the north, it’s not as elaborate.
One day, I went to the far-north of Keskuspuisto (which means central park, by the way) by bike. I was impressed by the number of possible paths, as I wondered many times whether I was lost. I managed to find my way but, as far as I remember, I did not come back on the same path… but it wasn’t on purpose.
There are many islands in Helsinki, and Suomenlinna is definitely my favourite one. It is a fortress-island, built in the 1750s by the Swedish as a protection from Russia, but it surrendered without fighting in 1808. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it offers beautiful sceneries, either to the sea or to Helsinki harbour or to the island itself (which actually is made of six islands).
It feels good walking along the rocky shore, watching gulls gliding in the everlasting wind (don’t forget gloves and knit cap -even in June) and geese feeding on the grass with goslings. The wake of the boat attracts innumerable gulls, offering excellent opportunities for the enthusiastic photographer.
I’ll write a detailed article about Suomenlinna one day.
Another island, situated to the north of Seurasaarenselkä this time. It is accessible only to walkers, for cyclists and cars are banned. There is an open-air museum gathering old houses from all over Finland. If you pay the fee, you can visit some of them, but all the buildings are visible from the outside to everyone (the museum is not enclosed in a fence).
On the island, you’ll also find feeding stations aimed at squirrels. These curious creatures might well eat directly from your hand if you offer them peanuts. If you are lucky, you may spot a woodpecker nest.
Yes, another island! It’s almost as quiet as Seurasaari, even though the highway crosses it from east to west. Lauttasaari is mostly occupied by housing buildings and parks, especially on the shoreline. Be it to the north, to the west or to the south, you’ll certainly see birds and feel the tranquil pace of the inhabitants, who come there with kids to enjoy the sun -when it’s sunny. I have seen hares in the parks, so keep your eyes open!
To close this article, I’d like to add these small islands located to the south of Ullanlinna district. They may have nothing really outstanding, but I enjoyed my walk there, to witness one of the first sunny sunshines after the winter.
On Liuskasaari, an anchor and a flag pole will make you dream of travelling on high seas. A peaceful destination.
Here we are. This was my personal experience of Helsinki. Don’t hesitate to comment! Would you want to add something to what I said, or to ask a question, be welcome =)