Helsinki, Finland

BALTICS OR BUST! At long last! This trip – postponed many moons due to the pandemic – finally, finally happened. We may have been one lady short (we missed you Ashley!) but Ashlyn and I made the absolute most of it together! First we flew to Finland, then took a ferry to Estonia, then rented a car and drove down through Latvia and Lithuania – an incredible journey. Follow along!

Ashlyn’s thoughts and travels can be viewed on her blog Middle World Adventures.

First I’ll focus on Finland! Helsinki, the capital city, has around 1.2 million people in the urban surroundings. It has close historical ties to nearby Stockholm in Sweden, Tallinn in Estonia and St. Petersburg in Russia and only gained its independence in December of 1917. It is known for being the happiest country in the world – easy, I suppose, when saunas are the norm, your education system is the best, and your air is the cleanest! Finland has been a leader in environmental sustainability for many years, and it is evident in the way the city is run. There is obvious decreased consumption and efficient waste management, great public transportation and recycling, as well as a general community consensus that lowing carbon footprints is essential. People are so polite here – everyone seems extra conscious of kindness and the wellbeing of others. I loved how helpful people were everywhere we went. Obviously we stopped and said hello to every dog we saw and their owners were always so friendly! I found it fascinating that signs in Finland are in Finnish, Swedish and English. Apparently these are the three most common languages spoken here.

We stayed at the Clarion Hotel Helsinki. It had a lovely breakfast, was close to the ferry terminal, and was a fairly easy walk to the places we wanted to see. It is located along a pier in Jätkäsaari, and is the tallest building in the neighborhood. The top of the hotel is a sky room bar with (expensive but) great drinks, yummy tapas, and a fantastic view over Helsinki!

One of the first and most memorable things we saw on our brief time in Helsinki was the beloved Sibelius Monument – a tribute to the legendary composer whose works inspire many. I was so captivated by this monument – made of 600 steel pipes with intricate details connected in a way that makes it look completely different from every angle! I loved walking around – and under – this impressive sculpture. It was almost as if, in 1967, Eila Hiltunen was able to conceptualize his music into one grand visual showpiece. Whether you see sound waves or sunbursts or piano keys or rain drops, this interpretive masterpiece is to be savored from all sides and in all seasons! I’m so glad we got to see it in the peak of fall foliage!

Speaking of foliage, we planned our trip at the end of September and early October, so there was a good chance to see pretty leaves…but we were not expecting THIS. Everywhere we went was positively exploding with color! This turned into the real highlight for me, and I probably sounded like a broken record and it must’ve been hilarious watching us walk around with heads on a swivel, dazed by the blaze of color surrounding us everywhere. I can’t remember the last time I saw foliage so fantastic – and I’m from MAINE! Thanks to this, I must simply recommend people visit in the early fall as I can’t imagine Helsinki without the vibrance! Below are photos from our walk around the city, including the beautiful Hietaniemi park and cemetery. Other great spots for foliage in the city are Kaivopuisto, Hesperianpuisto, and Suomenlinna island.

On our way back south through the city we stopped for lunch at the amazing Levain for mushroom eggs Benedict, and also to the nearby Cafetoria coffee shop for treats and beans! Both are definitely worth the stop!

These eateries are situated next to the Temppeliaukion “Rock Church,” so after lunch we made sure to explore this giant rock mound and peek inside the church. (If you want to tour inside you need to pay for a ticket.) The church was built directly into solid rock! It had just rained (as is common in Helsinki) so we had some great reflection puddles.

From there we made our way across town towards the famous Helsinki library by way of the National Museum of Finland. The art pop-up display outside (in the photos above) caught our eye so we went and took a closer look. The instillation is part of the Quelevala project, which is an artistic exploration of our ancestors’ worldviews and explanations. If you look closely you can see the different images in the round wooden structure entitled “Time of Miracles,” which says it was inspired by:

“…the myths of how the world was created in the Kalevala epos as well as according to modern scientific theories. The work challenges the viewer to stop and marvel at the fragility of life. “The miracle of life does not cease to preoccupy humanity. It is good for a person to stop and wonder every now and then. Bewonderment can lead to respect and respect in turn to the protection of life, which today is perhaps more relevant than ever. “

Frescoes by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

From the museum, we made our way to the Helsinki Central Library Oodi by way of the Hakasalmi Villa and nearby park. More impressive foliage led the way!

Near the library, the Armour (sculpture, below) reminded me of a tin-man tree or giant robot hand, welcoming us to one of the newest and most impressive libraries in the world: Oodi! Built in 2018 for the centennial of Finland, it has a distinct welcoming message: Come, visit, meet, read, relax, stay as long as you like. Inside the library we found a most amazing double spiral staircase that led all the way up three stories. On the staircase you will see hundreds of names as part of a project called “Dedication,” where people were able to dedicate the library to people or groups of their choosing – completely for free. This demonstrates that the library is “truly for everyone.” The architecture of the three stories are mostly open, with the bottom a lively area with an auditorium, cafe, and various unique items to check out. The middle floor is for sitting, studying, printing things out, and finding a cubby space all to yourself. The top floor is books, books, books! Find the books you want, and an area to sit, surrounded by windows and a humungous panoramic terrace if you need a breath of fresh air. The children’s area is lovely here, too. It has the most unique architecture!

The Oodi Library wasn’t the only library we wanted to see, but sadly, due to the pandemic, we were not permitted to enter the second one on our list: The National Library of Finland. Only library card carrying locals were allowed inside, so we headed across the street instead to the iconic Helsinki Cathedral, overlooking Senate Square. This crowning cathedral sits high on a hill and is of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran faith, built in the mid 1800’s as part of a decree from Alexander I who insisted two churches were built. This one is the most visited and iconic building in Finland!

Speaking of the two churches, the beautiful Uspenski Cathedral on the Helsinki Katajanokka waterfront is an Orthodox church built in the exact same time period as the Lutheran church. It was made with 700,000 bricks brought over from a fortress that was destroyed during the Crimean war in the Åland islands (located between Sweden and Finland) in the mid 1800’s. As with all Orthodox churches, photography is not permitted inside. However, this cathedral has been the subject of several thefts in the 21st century. One sacred icon, St. Nicholas the Wondermaker, was stolen in 2007 in broad daylight amidst hundreds of tourists, and it has still never been recovered. Another icon was stolen in 2010 and later recovered in 2011 after one of the two robbers had a change of heart in jail, admitted to the crime, and told authorities where it was buried. What a dramatic history! We didn’t make it to this side of town in time to visit, but we loved seeing it loom high on the hill and glow at night as we walked to dinner at nearby Shelter restaurant.

Shelter was recommended by Ashlyn’s friend who lives in Helsinki – and we were lucky enough to share a meal together in our short time there! It was absolutely delicious. I highly recommend it! They catered to every need, were jovial hosts, and the food was gourmet and fantastic. The energy of the place was great, too – and location near the water made for the perfect ambiance!

Of course, with only two nights in Helsinki, there were a lot of things we didn’t get to do that we would’ve loved to. Here’s my list for next time:

  • Take a ferry to Suomenlinna island.
  • Walk through Esplanadi park.
  • Visit Seurasaari Island and see the old Finnish buildings display.
  • Check out Old Market Hall.
  • Try an urban Finnish sauna.
  • Visit in July-August for the crayfish festivals.
  • Tour around town in a vintage tram.
  • Walk through the wooden house district of Puu Vallila.

Then we were on to Tallinn, Estonia! Check out the blog here: Baltics or Bust: Estonia!

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