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May 12, 2016 / oneworld82

Three days in Helsinki

Helsinki has always hold a special place in my heart. This was the first place where I effectively lived abroad, in what seems a distant 2005, when I was an Erasmus exchange student during my second and final year of my MA in Cultural Anthropology. I remember being very excited and scared at the same time the day before leaving home for this adventure, and I remember waiting to land in Helsinki on my way from Nice, on my first-ever Finnair flight. I remember the fear and anxiety easing up as a welcoming host student picked me up from the airport and brought me to my small studio in Kamppi, near the city center. I remember exploring Helsinki on a cloudy Sunday in late Summer, and become fascinated by this familiar yet different city. I remember the snow in late September, walking to the university every day passing through the main bus station and the train station, I remember the cod casseroles at the school cafeteria, the pungent wind that chilled my bones every day during the long winter; I remember the snow in late April, I remember studying Suomi every day – I remember enjoying every single bit of my first time really living far away from home.

Now, almost ten years later, work gave me the chance to go back, this time with my wife who accompanied me along this trip. She was 7 months pregnant at the time, but the chance to catch a glimpse of the Scandinavian Fall was too good to pass on.

After an uneventful flight on American Airlines to London, we connected on Finnair to Helsinki, where we arrived around 11:30pm. This was my first flight ever in Finnair’s premium cabin, and while it was only a short haul flight, I was impressed. Good service, multiple rounds of drinks, a printed menu, rabbit as main dish… The approximately 2h45m of the flight were very enjoyable!

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The seats were standard European business class seats, that is normal economy class seats with middle seat blocked.

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On our way we had a 3h layover in London, which gave us the chance to try the Cathay Pacific business class lounge at T5. The lounge was nice, spacious – so were the showers. The decor was reminiscent of any other Cathay Pacific lounge, with ample seating space, computers, and a good buffet spread, including a made-to-order noodle bar.

In any case, after catching a cab we checked in at our hotel for this short trip, the beautiful Hotel Kämp. This is the most elegant hotel in town, a true five-star hotel part of SPG’s Luxury Collection. The hotel lobby is relatively small – space comes at a premium in central Helsinki – but everything looked very classy and chic inside – including our spacious deluxe room.

Hotel Kämp Deluxe Room

Hotel Kämp Deluxe Room

The bed was comfortable with luxury linen; the TV and minibar were in the central part of the room, with a comfortable sofa and coffee table facing it.

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On the side, there was a nice desk.

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The highlight of the room was, though, the spacious bathroom. This had double sinks, a separate stall with a toilet, and big shower and a big bathtub with a huge rubber ducky.

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We did not have the time to try neither the hotel’s restaurant – which apparently is very good – nor the fitness facilities, but I have no doubt that they lived up to the standard of this great property.

Back to the city, though. Helsinki is not on the radar of many travelers, mostly because its Nordic neighbors – Copenhagen and Stockholm – take the spotlight; also, Finland is renowned as a country of lakes, forests, and reindeers, so that tourists come here more to immerse themselves in nature than to visit cities.

Yet, Helsinki is a remarkable city. It features a splendid Lutheran cathedral, nestled in Senaatintori between the University and the Senate building; it pays homage to its Russian past with the Russian orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, visible from many parts of town, with it’s towering brick-red towers; it’s well laid-out, with the Esplanadi the most vivid example of good urban planning.

But there is much more than that to Helsinki – you just need to dig a bit deeper. Take Tempelliaukio Kirkko – a Lutheran church completely excavated in solid rock. Or the modernist, post-WWI Rautatientori (train station) and its annexed square – one of the true centers of Helsinki’s life.

Earlier I mentioned the Esplanadi: this is a magnificent boulevard, spanning from Mannerheimentie to the Kauppatori – the market square. Luxury shops, trendy eateries, and Ravintola Kappeli are all situated along this green road.

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At the end of it, the City Hall and the Market square are other highlights of the city – especially because they are situated over the city port – giving a great view over cruise liners, ferries, and the many islands dotting the bay. The market, in particular, in fascinating, housing cafes, restaurants, and shops selling everything from French baguettes to smoked salmon.

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Earlier I mentioned churches. Helsinki has at least three remarkable ones. The Lutheran Cathedral – sitting in the Senate Square – is likely the most remarkable (and most recognizable) feature of the city – a true landmark. Finland is predominantly a Lutheran country, and the majestic building is incredibly bare inside – in pure Lutheran fashion.

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View from the steps of the cathedral

View from the steps of the cathedral

Senate Square

Senate Square

View from the steps of the cathedral

View from the steps of the cathedral

Then, as mentioned earlier, the Orthodox cathedral towers from a distance on a small, rocky hill. This is a heritage of the Grand Duchy of Finland, a Russian “protectorate” for the better part of two centuries across the 1700s and 1800s.

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For how imposing these two churches are, nothing can beat the astonishing Tempelliaukio Kirrko – a Lutheran church built in solid rock. Visiting this structure – tucked away in the residential neighborhood of Töölö, is a sight to behold; since it’s underground – technically, under a small rocky hill – there is no visible landmark for it. What’s astonishing is how the interiors are designed and how lights come in and out of the building, creating a nearly-magical effect.

Top of the church

Top of the church

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The church, originally designed by J.S.Siren, opened in 1969, and ever since has been a true highlight of any visit to the Finnish Capital. A video of our short tour can be found here.

Sights aside – and Helsinki has plenty more, including the Arts Museum or the Sibelius monument – the best way to know and enjoy Helsinki is by walking around, exploring the various central neighborhoods. You won’t find too many offices here, but a lot of nice apartment buildings instead, with a very nice coastline dotted by parks.

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Rainy evening on the Esplanadi

Rainy evening on the Esplanadi

But there is another aspect that it’s very intriguing of Finland: its food. The country, nestled in the North between East and West, developed a unique cuisine, featuring reindeer, salmon soup, rye bread, (lots of) salmon, bear, berries, sausages, casseroles… The flavors can be quite different at first, but they are absolutely rewarding. While reindeer is a must, lomikeittö (salmon soup) is absolutely surprising and delicious.

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Pfazer chocolate - a Finnish obsession

Pfazer chocolate – a Finnish obsession

Cafeteria Finnish food - yum!

Cafeteria Finnish food – yum!

Reindeer, lingonberries, and mashed potatoes

Reindeer, lingonberries, and mashed potatoes

3am munchies

3am munchies

So, this was a short work trip that brought me back to Finland after 10 years. Boy did I enjoy it! This is a country that will always hold a special place in my heart, and I can’t wait to go back to explore more of Lapland and of the lake region. I encourage everyone to visit this wonderful country, that will reward you with some incredible experiences beyond your imagination.

Tervetuloa Suomeen!

One Comment

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  1. Sartenada / May 13 2016 12:17 am

    Wonderful travel report! I enjoyed reading very much and Your photos are crisp and beautiful to watch. Well, I always wonder why tourists want to stay in Helsinki, why they do not want to see the real Finland outside it and have cool experiences. Think that You could have made easily a gorgeous side hop to the Arctic Circle and meet Santa and reindeers there!

    Arctic Circle in winter:

    Arctic Circle in winter.

    Anyway, happy and safe travels!

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