My First Visit to Helsinki

I interrupt my series of posts about Tallinn to mention a city outside Estonia’s borders. Two hours away from the Estonian capital, on the other side of the Gulf of Finland, lies its Finnish counterpart – Helsinki.

Having visited Iceland and the Faroe Islands, I must’ve subconsciously thought that Helsinki wouldn’t look too different. Somehow I was even half expecting its buildings to have lawn roofs and rows of colourful, wooden houses.

I was right on one count – Helsinki’s buildings were indeed colourful. For everything else I was dead wrong. The city looked very different from what I expected. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Helsinki isn’t a dreary city at all.

To get there, I took a Tallink ferry from Tallinn in the morning. Once I arrived at the Helsinki port, I walked outside with the other passengers and immediately decided that I didn’t want to pay for the bus. So, I walked to the city and walked back to the port in the evening. (It’s very doable by foot, I promise you!)

Large cranes in the port of Helsinki.
One of the first things I saw after getting off the ferry from Tallinn

The first thing I did after leaving the port area was to find a supermarket and get a bottle of water. This is where the language barrier began to rear its head. The Finnish language is special in that it’s not a European language and doesn’t have as many recognisable loanwords as Estonian, its Uralic cousin. For example, I was walking on a bridge in Tartu and saw a sign with a few words on it, including the word trepp. Immediately I knew it had something to do with stairs, because the equivalent German word is Treppe. In fact I soon noticed the English translation below its Estonian counterpart, which confirmed my initial guess.

In Helsinki, however, I recognised absolutely nothing. This made for an interesting trip to the supermarket, where all I wanted was a bottle of still water. It took me a few minutes to deduce from the words printed on the bottles which ones didn’t have carbon dioxide in them. I can’t remember anymore how exactly I did it, but it probably had to do with guessing with of the words in the list in ingredients/minerals seemed most similar to carbon dioxide.

After that little linguistic adventure, I chanced upon a flea market. This was somewhere in the Punavuori district. I say ‘somewhere’ because I didn’t know where exactly I was.

Glass and ceramic wares on display at a flea market in the Punavuori district of Helsinki, Finland

Having bought nothing I continued on, walking along some street and admiring the buildings and everyday scenes around me.

Pastel-coloured residential buildings in Helsinki, with a cyclist leaving the frame on the left.
Such colourful buildings!

After awhile I decided to make my way to the seaside. My plan was to get to the water and walk in an anti-clockwise direction along the waterfront to Kaivopuisto park, and then into the city centre, before heading back to the port.

Along the way, I saw a cool-looking Lutheran church named after a man known as Bishop Mikael Agricola. I don’t know who he is, but I do know the board game with the same name.

Large brick spire of the Mikael Agricola Church in Helsinki, Finland.
Mikael Agricola Church

Wikipedia has an interesting fact about this church’s tower – its 30-metre spike is fully retractable. This was meant to deny enemy bombers a potential navigational aid during World War II.

Soon after encountering the Mikael Agricola Church, I found myself in the expensive, posh district of Eira. The houses there were rather pleasing to the eye and I recommend walking through this district just to admire them.

A building with yellow-painted walls in the Eira district of Helsinki, Finland.

While walking along the waterfront I realised that the Finns really love their boats. I saw plenty of sailboats, both on land and in the water.

Various sailboats in Helsinki, all of which have some amount of blue paint.
Sailboats painted in Finland’s national colours (probably not on purpose, but who knows)

Eventually I found myself at Kaivopuisto park. I didn’t explore much of it but what little I saw impressed me. It’s a good place for a quiet walk and to enjoy some greenery. There was also some kind of rocky hillock in the park, on which I saw several Finns sitting about and reading or chatting, taking in the sunlight which must not be in large supply that far north of the equator.

People reading and lying in the sun on a rocky surface in the middle of Kadriorg Park in Helsinki, Finland.
Notice these Finns keeping as far away from each other as possible – this is normal in Finland

Having been charmed by the greenery and quietness of Kaivopuisto, I made for the city centre. Along the way I stopped at a café and had a cinnamon bun and passionfruit cake, both of which were delicious. By the time I got to the centre it was abuzz with activity. The evening rush hour was well on its way and people were everywhere.

I thought I’d head towards the Finlandia concert hall and the nearby Kiasma contemporary art museum before going back to the ferry terminal. As I walked in these buildings’ direction, I made a little detour to explore a Marks & Spencer store, in the hope that there’d be some tasty biscuits I could buy, but this one didn’t even have a food hall! (The food hall is the only reason I’d drop by a Marks & Spencer outlet.)

Hugely disappointed, I walked off and had my attention drawn to a building with an unusual exterior. It turned out to be the city’s railway station. I didn’t go inside because I was in a hurry, but still the station was, for lack of a better word, noteworthy (and not in a bad way).

Entrance of the Helsinki railway station.

Eventually I saw the Kiasma and Finlandia buildings. However, they shan’t feature in this post. Why is that? Well, to start with I’ve not got round to editing the photos of those buildings yet (there aren’t many but I’ve had to work on other photos). Secondly I think they’re better off having their own posts.

From where the Finlandia concert hall was, I walked in the direction of the ferry terminal. The walk went by quicker than I expected and before I knew it I was boarding the ferry. By that time the sun was low in the sky and the port area was bathed in its soft, warm light. We had such beautiful weather that day, really, and I think that played a large role in forming my positive impression of Helsinki.

View of vehicles entering the hold of a Tallink ferry in the port of Helsinki, on the way back to Tallinn, Estonia.

Considering I only had half a day to spend in Finland’s capital, I think I did rather well. I’d certainly visit it once more. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing today. A few hours after this post is published I’ll be on my way to Helsinki. Autumn photos of the city shall be shared here soon enough!


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