A Few Packed Days in Helsinki
For most travelers, Helsinki is not at the top of must-see lists, often being overshadowed by its neighbors Copenhagen and Stockholm. But take a chance on the Finnish capital and you may well end up being surprised by all it has to offer. With summer fast approaching, it's the perfect time to consider tacking on a few days in Helsinki to your next European adventure.
Last summer I had the pleasure of visiting three unexpectedly wonderful cities that are rich in history, nature, and art. Helsinki was just one of those cities, but it was the first stop of my trip. What I came to understand while studying and living in Japan is that Italians and Japanese imagine Finland in different ways. Talking about those northern lands, here in the south of Europe we immediately think about the realm of organization and efficiency and, above all, the place where Santa Claus lives throughout the year. While many Japanese have similar impressions, I also learned about some other very important Finnish inhabitants: the Moomins!
Helsinki is very well known all over the world as a design capital, and this is no coincidence. Finland has given the world many wonderful designers and brands, perhaps the most notable one being Marimekko. With its original and brightly colored patterns, it has gained a cult following all over the world, not least in Japan. Helsinki is home to a plethora of Marimekko boutiques of all sizes, located all over the city. Other great shopping can be had in the Hakaniemi Market Hall, an old, two-floor, red brick building housing about 70 booths selling all kinds of Finnish handicrafts and souvenirs. At lunchtime have a warm lohikeitto, a delicious salmon soup, or any other freshly caught fish served every day in the very central Old Market Hall next to the harbor.
You can easily discover the city center on foot. After strolling around a bit you will find yourself in front of the stunning white cathedral that, with its grand stone steps, is impossible to miss. Climbing up the stairs and reaching the entrance, it is even possible to see, beyond the roofs of the buildings, some ferries and icebreakers waiting for colder months in the harbor. This neoclassical cathedral is not alone: there is also the Uspenski Cathedral, which is said to be the largest orthodox church in Western Europe.
If you want an overview of the city with less effort, an original and very cheap solution is to get on board tram number two (changing to number three at the end of the route), which will drive you through so many different neighborhoods, allowing you to get to know the many sides of the city for the cost of a single ticket.
Don’t miss a stop in the Kamppi district and be sure to enter the Kamppi Chapel, located in a corner of Narinkkatori square, at the entrance of the Kamppi shopping center. The round, windowless chapel is intended to be a place where people can have a moment of silence and meet each other, offering some calm in the middle of perhaps the busiest area in Finland.
It is difficult to choose (if you have to, of course) one museum out of the many offered, but I think Kiasma is particularly worth a visit. It is the reference point for Finnish design, with a huge quantity of astonishing pieces and an extremely contemporary taste. Otherwise, less artistic but surely unique is the Olympic Sports Museum, which houses a collection of equipment, garments, medals and trophies that belonged to big names from the past and present, as well as various gadgets, documents and pictures that let us feel much closer to the events we usually only get to witness on television.
Helsinki is also a green city, with wide open spaces and nature all around, in addition to many possibilities for day trips. One I suggest is a true time slip to the Seurasaari Open Air Museum. This is a long journey through old, mainly wooden buildings transplanted from elsewhere in Finland and placed in the densely forested landscape of a small island. From the windmill to the little church, you will be constantly surrounded by a sort of “Little House on the Prairie” atmosphere, which is also thanks to the traditional costumes of the museum staff.
Talking about television series, another recommended trip is almost like arriving at King’s Landing, if you are a “Game of Thrones” fan. Even if you’re not, this is a magical place echoing with history. After a very short and pleasant trip on the ferry among the countless rocks and little islands populating the gulf, you will land in Suomenlinna, a special UNESCO World Heritage Site where, in 1700, a fortress was built to tackle Russian expansionism. This is a real protection outpost, with bunkers and cannons still facing the enemy coming from the sea and ready to protect their country. The most interesting aspect of this place is its silence. Ferries come every hour and the island is very well connected with the mainland, but nonetheless, people continue to live peacefully in a kind of isolation and full immersion in nature.