London summer 2018 will go down in history as the year we all baked in the craziest of heatwaves. How can I escape this, I thought? I’ll go to Finland. Images of snow, the North Pole, Santa and reindeers crossed my mind. Perfect. So one Friday evening after work I headed to the airport and made my way to Helsinki; Finland’s capital city. In hindsight perhaps I should have checked the weather forecast first…
The flight from London to Helsinki takes about three hours and with the time difference I landed in Helsinki shortly after midnight. I hopped in a cab and took the half an hour journey or so into the city centre where I was dropped off outside my accommodation; the Töölö Towers. As is the running theme throughout Scandinavia; Helsinki isn’t cheap – particularly for accommodation. I had come across the Töölö towers on a hostel booking site advertised as an ‘apartment hotel’. What I hadn’t realised until I arrived was that it was actually the University of Helsinki’s halls of residence which are rented to visitors during out of term time. The room honestly was perfect though; ok, a single bed, but it was super clean and modern with all the amenities you need for a short city break. Even better, it was right in the centre of town.
Having arrived and unpacked, I settled down for a good night’s sleep before getting up early the next morning ready to get exploring.
The next morning, up and about, I hit the pavements and got wandering. Erm… what did I say about checking the weather forecast? It was just as hot here as London – if not hotter! Gah.
I wandered up past the Government buildings and up past the impressive Helsinki Central Station. As much as I wanted to stand in awe, I hurriedly made my way across to the Cathedral where I would be joining one of the city’s free walking tours. My instructions? Look for the man in the moose hat…
…found him. He went by the name of Emil.
The incredible Senate square (”Senaatintori”) was the perfect place to start the tour and Emil explained that this is often referred to as a ‘Mini St-Petersburg’ having been built by the Russians who ruled over Helsinki until fairly recently; well, the 18th Century. Helsinki therefore has a really interesting mix of architecture merging Finnish, Russian and Swedish style and design. Even nowadays the road signs are written in both Finnish and Swedish.
We stood at the foot of the incredible Cathedral (”Helsingin tuomiokirkko, Suurkirkko”)’ which was built in 1852.
Just across from the cathedral stands the National Library of Finland (”Kansalliskirjasto”) on what used to be the Old Main Street of the city. Assigned by the state the prestigious responsibility of preserving any and all printed and audio-visual material produced within Finland’s borders, the library is the gatekeeper to the country’s cultural heritage. The largest library collection in the country, the main building and annex of the complex contain over 109 kilometers of shelf space, home to over 3 million books and periodicals.
The next spot which Emil took us across to visit was the Old Parliament building.
Whilst we sat here, Emil told us a little about of Finnish people’s favourite pastimes – the sauna. Now did you know that we have been saying this wrong all our lives? It is actually pronounced:‘sow (rhymes with wow) – nah’. Interestingly, regardless of our national mispronunciation, sauna is the only Finnish word to have made it into the English Language.
The Finns were originally a nomadic group of people and the first ‘sauna’ (meaning bath, or bath house) was probably much more like a North American native sweat lodge. Skins and hides would be used to make a tent inside which a fire would provide heat and water would provide ‘löyly’ – the burst of steam that cleanses and purifies. In those times the simple state of being warm and clean was so rare that it certainly attained great significance.
As the Finns ceased to wander and began to settle, the sauna began to change into something more structured and permanent.
The first fixed sauna was perhaps nothing more than a pit dug in the ground containing a fire and covered with hide or branches but it soon became a more permanent structure and as its solidity grew, so did its significance.
The next evolution of the sauna was an enclosed cabin with a fire heating a pile of stones. Once the fire had burned down and the smoke had cleared, the residual heat in the stones would keep the sauna warm for hours. This type of sauna was the norm for hundreds of years and it was during this time that most of the original sauna traditions and beliefs developed.
There is an old Finnish proverb that says, ‘If tar, vodka or the sauna won’t help, then the disease is fatal’. ‘Tar’ in this case meant distillations of pinesap that were used as an antiseptic. The trust in the health giving properties of the sauna is clear. Such was the importance and the sanctity of the sauna that another Finnish saying goes, ‘In the sauna, one must conduct themselves as one would in church.’
In Finland, with a population of about 5 million people, there are an estimated 2 million saunas. So it must be said that the people who invented the sauna, are still in no doubt about its benefits.
Emil explained to us that it is not unusual for families to all sauna together, parents, grown children, grandchildren, siblings etc; all naked. I can’t imagine it happening at home but he said here, it’s so normal that no one bats an eyelid.
We soon moved on and headed towards the water’s edge; the North Harbour of the city, and the old commercial port of Helsinki. Emil explained that a Finnish winter can reach temperatures of -20 degrees meaning the harbour here completely freezes. Apparently if you come here in the winter months, where you see boats now, you would see people ice skating and ice fishing. Sounds amazing, but I’m not sure I could live in that cold!
Whilst we stood by the water’s edge, Emil took the time to tell us a little about the society in Finland. Apparently the benefits offered by the Finnish Government are extremely good. Student’s do not pay for university, maternity pay is one of the highest in Europe and Finland’s unemployment rate is one of the lowest. Those Fins are obviously doing something right. Must be all those Saunas.
From here we continued walking up past the city’s orthodox cathedral (Upenski Cathedral) and across the city’s inevitable love lock bridge before finding ourselves at the city’s outdoor swimming complex – the Allas Sea Pool.
This incredible outdoor sea pool complex features three pools, several saunas, a restaurant & café, and multiple stepped platforms and decks where locals and tourists alike meet and chill out. The swimming pools are quite noticeably located right in the Baltic Sea! The main pool is filled with fresh water heated to a balmy 28°C all year round, and is ideal for both exercise swimmers and the more leisurely swimmers. The sea water pool next to it is filled with water pumped from much further out in the Baltic Sea, then filtered and treated using UV technologies, and is kept at exactly the same temperature as the surrounding sea. In winter you can have an authentic Finnish winter swimming experience – seriously, a lot of Finns swear by it. The third pool is the children’s pool, a shallow version of the main heated pool, open only for summer season. It’s really super cool and must be such an amazing thing to have on your doorstep if you live in the city.
I wandered up the platforms and enjoyed the views out to sea, and of course, down onto the neighbouring Market Square.
It wouldn’t be a Finnish leisure complex without a sauna of course, and here there are not one, but three, the women’s sauna, the men’s sauna, and a third reserved for public and private events, also used as a mixed gender sauna when there are no reservations.
If that’s not enough for you, you can even make your way up Helsinki’s equivalent of the London Eye (the Sky Wheel) which has one blacked out pod which has been converted into a sauna. Pretty cool.
From the pool we wandered down into the Market Square which sells everything from trinkets and souvenirs, food, drinks, flowers antlers and reindeer hides. It’s most definitely a good place to have a wander whilst you are here.
Looming over the Market Square is the impressive, blue hued City Hall building (the Helsingin kaupungintalo). This building was completed in 1833 and originally served as the Hotel Seurahuone before being renovated as the City Hall in 1913.
At the end of the Market Square you are greeted by the Havis Amanda statue; a bronze mermaid who stands on seaweed as she rises from the water, with four fish spouting water at her feet and surrounded by four sea lions. The statue dates back to 1906 and was sculpted by Ville Vallgren.
Emil explained to us that traditionally the Havis Amanda Statue serves as the centrepiece for the Vappu (May Day) celebrations when students of local universities put a cap on the statue in an elaborate ceremony.
From the market square we wandered through the Esplanadinpuiso (Esplanade Park, referred to as ‘Espa’ amongst the locals)
Espa houses a statue of Johan Ludvig Runeberg; the National Poet of Finland and the author of the lyrics to ‘Vårt Land’ which became the Finnish national anthem.
The statue was the first public monument erected in Helsinki. The unveiling on 6 May 1885, exactly eight years after the death of the poet, was a major event and was attended by the cream of society and 20,000 other patriotic Finns. Local residents lit candles in the windows as a sign of patriotism, beginning a tradition that continues to this day on Independence Day (6 December).
From Espa, we continued walking, admiring the typical romantic Finnish style of architecture. We soon arrived back at the Central Station where I had briefly walked past earlier in the day. This time, Emil took us inside and it really was beautiful. Designed by Eliel Saarinen, the station opened 1919.The construction however started in 1905. The station is used by approximately 200,000 passengers daily, making it Finland’s most-visited building. It is also estimated that over 400 000 persons check the time when passing from the 48.5m high clock tower daily. The station is covered with Finnish granite, and its distinguishing features are its clock tower and the two pairs of statues, the “Lantern carriers” by Emil Wikström, holding the spherical lamps on both sides of the main entrance.
We soon exited the station and Emil showed us briefly around Sanoma House, the media centre of the city, housing newspapers, tv and radio stations alike.
We exited the media building onto Mannerheim street where Emil took us to the base of another statue; Mannerheim himself; the namesake of this major thoroughfare.
Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim was a Finnish military leader and statesman. He served as the commander in chief of Finland’s defence forces during WW2 and was, for two years, the sixth President of Finland.
From Mannerheim street we continued wandering until we reached Narinkkatori Square which houses the beautiful Kamppi Chapel.
Also known as the “Chapel of Silence,” this weird-looking round structure is hard to recognize as a chapel, and in fact no holy events like baptisms or wedding ceremonies are held there. No, this bizarre little space is singularly devoted to providing some peace and quiet within the bustling city. The entire space is designed to be calming, from the round walls to the spacious, high ceiling, it’s almost so comforting as to be ‘womblike’. The interior design is kept spare with the natural warmth of the smooth wooden walls left clean and unadorned. The only objects in the space are the futuristic altar, a simple candelabra, and the rows of basic, blocky pews.
As weird as the silent room may appear, it’s innovative design won a number of awards, making a lot of noise for something so concerned with being quiet. The space has been a hit since it first opened in 2012, and it is estimated that some 250,000 people had visited the space in less than a year. Just a year after that, the number had doubled to around 500,000 That’s a lot of quiet time, especially in an alien egg.
That pretty much brought our tour of the city to an end. I would definitely recommend the free walking tour if you are short of time in the city as I certainly feel like we packed in a hell of a lot. Just remember – look out for the guy wearing the antlers…
Having left the group, I wandered into the Kamppi shopping centre on the hunt for some lunch. I actually wound up in the supermarket and bought myself a big pot from the buffet style salad bar. Why are foreign supermarkets always so much better than ours! I took my lunch outside and enjoyed whilst soaking up the atmosphere of the square. Whist I was in the supermarket I also decided to try a Finnish delicacy; a Karjalanpiirakka, or Karelian Pie.
These pastries are traditional in the Karelia region, a town that occupies a large area shared between Finland and Russia. The most traditional recipe is made with a thin rye base and a rice filling accompanied by ‘munavoi’ a mixture of butter and chopped hardboiled egg – a popular innovation in Finnish cuisine.
The evening soon started to drag in, and I was excited as it was the quarter finals of the world cup and England were about to play Sweden. I headed back towards the Sonoma building where there was an outside bar streaming the match on a huge screen, in the sun, with all the beer. What more could you want? A win? Well, luckily for me England won and the atmosphere in the bar was fab (even if there were a lot of disappointed Swedes!).
Once the football had finished, I wandered back towards my accommodation, sitting out in one of the parks for a little while, enjoying the last few moment of sun, before heading back to bed. What a fab day!
The next morning I did have a little bit of time as my flight wasn’t leaving Helsinki until midday ish. I checked out the hotel, and wandered back into the main area of the town.
There was one site which I had read about prior to visiting Helsinki, and one which Emil had mentioned, a couple of times in the tour, that I didn’t want to miss whilst I was here: The Church of the Rock – ”Temppeliaukio Church”.
Excavated directly into solid rock, the Temppeliaukio church is situated in the heart of Helsinki, at the end of Fredrikinkatu. Because of its special architecture, the church, completed in 1969, is one of the main attractions in Helsinki. The church hall is covered with a dome, lined with copper and supported on the rock walls by reinforced concrete beams. The interior walls are of rugged rock and rubble wall. Before noon, the light spreads from the row of windows surrounding the roof periphery to the altar wall, where an ice-age crevice serves as the altarpiece. Due to its excellent acoustics the church is a popular venue for concerts. I’m in no way a religious person, but found the architecture and design of this place absolutely incredible. Certainly worth a visit!
That pretty much brought my visit to Helsinki to an end as I had to dash off to the airport for my flight home. It would have been a bit nicer to have a slightly longer time to explore the city but I certainly feel like I packed a lot in and certainly got a good flavour of a fantastic city.