When discussing plans to visit the Baltic countries, folks often recommend tacking on a day trip to Helsinki. It’s certainly easy to do, given that the Finnish capital is a mere two hours from Tallinn by ferry. But I think there are enough interesting things to do to make a weekend in Helsinki worthwhile.
During the warm summer months, artisans and farmers sell their wares in Market Square next to the harbor. You can find everything here from handmade jewelry and toys to fresh produce and fish. The nearby Old Market Hall is stocked with all manner of Finnish delicacies, including smoked salmon, reindeer jerky, and a special salty licorice called salmiakki. My friends and I put together a picnic, then hopped aboard a ferry.
Our destination was 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 herself. No longer used for military purposes, Suomenlinna – which means “Castle of Finland” – is a grass-covered haven for tourists and locals alike. Around 800 people live on the island year round, with some operating shops and cafes out of their homes.
Back on the mainland, I sought out the Sea Horse restaurant for dinner. It has been serving up Finnish fare since 1934. My feast of pickled herring, meatballs, and pancakes was as traditional as it gets!
After the meal, I returned to my cell, er, room, at Hotel Katajanokka. This unique lodging used to be a prison until 2002! Although the historic red-brick building has been tastefully updated into a modern boutique hotel, many of the prison’s features were left intact. Where else can you spend the night in jail and not have it show up as an offense on your permanent record?
I began my explorations the next morning at Uspenski Cathedral. The redbrick Orthodox church was built in 1868, its golden onion domes a striking visual reminder of the century Finland spent under the Russian Empire. The interior is absolutely stunning.
A few short blocks away, Helsinki Cathedral couldn’t be more different. Its neoclassical white columns and green domes make it one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city. The stairs leading up to the cathedral are a popular hangout spot for locals in warm weather. During the winter, the square is home to the Helsinki Christmas Market.
To explore the unique Finnish design aesthetic, head to the Helsinki Design Museum. The permanent collection of over 75,000 pieces is arranged by decade to illustrate how styles have changed over time. The objects on display range from tea sets and chairs to telephones and computers. Colorful and unusual fashions are the highlight, though.
Many of the designers featured in the museum have stores in Helsinki. Famous brands include Marimekko and Iittala, while Helsinki’s Design District is home to up-and-coming designers. It was fun to peruse the latest styles in fashion and home decor, even if I could only afford to window shop.
Pushing boundaries in the culinary world, Restaurant Kuu gives a modern twist to classic Finnish 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 ice cream and all the Fazer chocolates.
Are you ready to spend a weekend in Helsinki?