Have you ever visited a new destination and felt instantly at home, as if you could move there tomorrow and your life would fit in seamlessly? I’ve traveled through over 40 countries, but only felt that sort of serious connection to a handful of places, including Riga, Dublin, Budapest, Paris, and New York. Another city I’d be happy to move to is Helsinki, Finland. It’s quiet, unassuming, and a little quirky – like me! I only spent a weekend in Helsinki, but it left an imprint on my heart. Here’s how I made the most of my short time there, and why I’m so eager to return.
Helsinki is a shopper’s paradise, with boutiques and designer stores at every turn. Famous names like marimekko and iittala might be the big draw, but Helsinki’s Design District boasts more than 200 venues where one can peruse the latest in fashion, jewelry, and home decor. I loved being surrounded by that level of creativity, even if I could only afford to window shop!
The distinctive Finnish aesthetic can be further appreciated at the Design Museum. The ground floor takes visitors on a walk down memory lane through showrooms filled with innovations by decade. Upstairs, it’s all about fashion. It’s really a shame some of the styles never caught on!
During the warm summer months, artisans and farmers sell their wares in Market Square next to the harbor. This is a great place to pick up affordable souvenirs, seasonal produce, and fresh fish. Nearby in the Old Market Hall, you can find all manner of Finnish delicacies. My friends and I put together a picnic of cured reindeer meat, crusty rye bread, sea buckthorn jam, and cold pear cider.
We enjoyed our picnic on Suomenlinna, a UNESCO-listed island fortress not far from the city. Built by Sweden in the 1750s to protect against Russian expansion, the fortification changed hands several times over the centuries, as did Finland itself. No longer used for military purposes, Suomenlinna – which means “Castle of Finland” – is a grass-covered haven for tourists and locals alike. To get there, hop aboard the ferry which departs from Market Square harbor. Tickets cost €5 and are good for 12 hours.
Helsinki’s Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral is a striking visual reminder of the century Finland spent within the Russian Empire. The redbrick church topped with golden onion domes is perched on a hillside above the city where it captures the morning light.
It’s possible to visit Helsinki as a day-trip from Tallinn, Estonia, but I don’t recommend it. Helsinki deserves much more than a single day (as does Tallinn)! Plus, where else can you spend the night in jail and not have it show up as an offense on your permanent record? Hotel Katajanokka is located in a historic building that was used as a prison until 2002. Although tastefully updated into a modern boutique hotel, many of the prison’s interior features have been left intact. It was definitely one of my more memorable hotel stays!
As ever, I ate well during my time in Helsinki. The Sea Horse restaurant has been serving up traditional Baltic fare since 1934. I feasted on pickled herring, Finnish meatballs, and pancakes sweetened with homemade strawberry jam in the homey bistro setting. At the other end of the dining spectrum, Restaurant Kuu puts a modern spin on those classic flavors. Reindeer steak is updated with barley risotto and a port wine reduction; the humble salmon is elevated with a delicately herbaceous broth. I regret not sampling one of Kuu’s innovative desserts, but I was saving room for salmiakki, or salty licorice, ice cream and all the Fazer chocolates.
I think part of the reason I felt such a connection to Helsinki is that it reminded me of my beloved Riga, particularly the architecture. I had a constant crick in my neck from looking up at the unusually-shaped buildings decorated with unexpected details. Pear cider in a leafy park helped me recuperate.
Tell me: how would YOU spend 48 hours in Helsinki?