Highlights from Helsinki
So, there’s this bench.It’s pretty ordinary as far as benches go. It would probably fit four people comfortably, maybe a little more with some snuggling. It’s made of glossy wooden slats on top of wrought iron legs. There are several others just like it scattered along the paths of Old Church Park.
For some reason, Pete became a little obsessed. (To the point where I became a little worried.)
But it’s just a bench.
“It’s the way the light hits it, look!” he said every time we passed it in the evening. And then when heavy flakes of snow began to fall around us on the way home from dinner one night, Pete sprung into action. He grabbed his camera and was gone again – an hour, maybe two – returning to happily show off how her angles glowed under the soft lamp with the fresh snow glistening around her.
That bench, unbeknownst to us at the time, became a symbol of Helsinki for us.
At first glance, I found Finland’s capital to be quite daunting. Granted, my previous handful of days spent there, mostly as a layover from one point to the next, enabled me to make superficial judgments only. And they were mostly introspective in the face of my surroundings: I’m not stylish enough to be here, not slim enough, not pretty enough. The people, all stylish and slim and pretty, also seemed distant and aided in my mounting self-consciousness as I took their indifference as a slight. We rounded the center only briefly but I left feeling like it was too large to be learned and too complex to be understood. And while I was very excited for this return to Finland two years later, it was mostly to explore the gorgeous wilderness it offers. Helsinki, I expected to just endure.
Um, yeah. I was being quite ridiculous.
The center of the city is actually quite small – it’s not at all the unending metropolis with the harshly judging populace that I conjured up. The people are still all stylish and slim and pretty, but are also incredibly helpful and generous once a connection is made.
This latest experience is one of many testaments to slower travel and getting to know a place better than at first glance. (And, something to be said for my self-esteem, I suppose.) Regardless, with over a week spent in the city and a staunch dedication to get to know it, we both found so much to love.
It started with the bench.
Scoping out the beauty
Helsinki is attractive, without question, and especially Helsinki in winter. But it doesn’t have the obvious jaw dropping beauty that other European cities offer. It’s not a city you wander through and feel compelled to take a hundred different photos at a hundred different wide angles – its beauty shines when you look a little closer. It’s in the Kamppi Chapel – also known as the Chapel of Silence – a small but sleek fixture of the busy Narinkka Square, a non-denominational space intended to provide a place of calm and quiet for all those who need it. It’s on the steps of the Helsinki Cathedral – not necessarily for the structure itself – but for the life that buzzes around its edges. For another unique place of worship, look to the Temppeliaukio Church, which was quarried out of natural bedrock. The beauty is along any stretch of the waterfront, especially when the sun chooses to shine. And finally it’s in the store fronts – while plain and polished on the outside – the glamorous style, quirky antiques, or the multitude of other beautiful displays inside are instantly magnetic (I’m not a shopper or window-shopper by any means, but I was in Helsinki).
It’s at that bench. Loving Helsinki is about finding that little piece of the city that speaks most to you.
One reason to feel an immediate kinship to the city and country is for the adoration of a hot steaming mug of coffee. Or several throughout the day, to keep pace with the locals – I thought I liked coffee, but I obviously don’t like coffee like the Finnish like coffee, for they top the list of the highest consumers of coffee per capita, by a massive margin.
One of our favourite things to do as tourists is to pretend we’re locals by settling into a cafe to work diligently whilst consuming large amounts of coffee. We fit right in, and found our favourite spot on the waterfront.
I am not sure that there is any other city in the world we’ve visited for longer than a week where we can say that we’ve never had a bad meal. But in Helsinki, we never had a bad meal, not even close. From international cuisine to the most local of dishes, we were continuously wowed.
I’ve never heard Finland referred to as a culinary destination and perhaps that should change, what with their dedication to such traditional foods as Karelian patries, a savoury and yeast-y pancake called blini, and of course, succulent reindeer on nearly every menu.
Nature all around
It’s possible, within just a few minutes, to go from bustling city to nothing, from rushing trams to the sound of slightly swaying tree limbs. All it takes is a walk towards one of the many parks, a quick drive to the city limits, or a ferry to a nearby island. In ten minutes we completed a brisk crossing to Suomenlinna, the “Finnish Fortress” and World Heritage Site that remains as a beautiful windswept spot to wander.
I would bet that to query recent visitors about their favourite thing about Helsinki would result in an array of different answers, along with the guarantee that some feedback will surprise. For while no one thing stands out as the reason to be there, a dozen little things do, and maybe those favourites will even change with each visit.
Maybe there’s even another prettier bench waiting to be discovered.
where we stayed
This post was produced by us, brought to you by Visit Finland.
So, I am actually from Karelia. Helsinki is just a few hours by car from my hometown. I have wanted to visit forever — all of my friends, have been! I never realized how much some of the architecture and surroundings (including that bench!) resemble those of St Petersburg and Petrozavodsk (my hometown). So neat!
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We always tend to skip over the things that are easy and close. We really would love go to St Petersburg and your hometown as well – if only for the bench spotting! 🙂
We’ll be stopping in Helsinki on our first cruise in May. This is a great overview of city. I’m looking forward to finding out what I love about it, and trying some of those delicious looking blinis. I’ll say hello to the bench for you!
The Blinis are so good! But only in small doses. 🙂
“I’ve never heard Finland referred to as a culinary destination and perhaps that should change”
For some reason Finnish food seems to have a quite bad reputation out there. Maybe it’s because Gordon Ramsay once called the Karelian pasty (among many other foods) disgusting..? Well, I hope not, but I think we do have good food in here, but you just don’t really find it in the restaurants. A Finn’s home or summer cottage is the best place to experience Finnish cuisine. 🙂
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Yes, we enjoyed some cottage time as well (story coming soon). We ate so good across the whole country!
Gorgeous photos! Random details can mean so much when you travel, even if they don’t have significance for anyone else. Great piece 🙂
you’re so right, Finns are so stylish and pretty and almost perfect! When I lived there it took me a while to fight the overwhelming uncomfortable feeling when I was around them! And in the exchange, when we got to know each other better, they opened up and turned out to be one of the best people ever. I studied there 8 years ago, I’m still really good friend with some people back from that time!
And Helsinki is pretty awesome once you take the time to get to know it. It really is one of the most underrated capitals in Europe and definitely the coolest one! I want to return so badly! 😀
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Underrated – I absolutely agree with you there!
All blog posts about Helsinki that I have stumbled upon always have the images of the cathedral and this set of giant pipes, some sort of musical instrument I suppose. I have never seen Helsinki the way you captured the city. Despite lacking the grand buildings other European capitals have, Helsinki seems to provide peacefulness any travelers need.
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I will take this as a compliment Bama. 🙂
I like “small” big cities. And I totally understand the bench obsession 🙂
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Great article and pics..planning my third visit to Helsinki this spring -all the way from Boston, Ma US.
Helsinki is the one place that I regret not staying longer, especially since it’s a little off the beaten track… I loved the people and the culture. I’ve been dreaming of going back just to get the chance of “looking a little closer” and discovering what makes this place so enticing to me.
I’m from Finland (not Helsinki but not that far away) and I can say that I am very surpriced that you think Finns are stylish (because I have never seen a Finn wearing anthing nice, except like teens in our capital) and Finns do have a reputation of not being very stylish to put it gently.
But I haven’t spent that much time in Helsinki, so I don’t know the city taht well. And not to sound pretentious or anything, blinis are actually Russian, not Finnish (but because we border to Russia and the biggest group of tourists in Finland are Russians, a lot is Russian inspired. In the Swedish we speak here in Finland [yes, we have two languages] there are a lot of words borrowed from Russian).
Otherwise it was a great article and made me want to explore the capital more beyond Mannerheimvägen 🙂
You were lucky with the food – I have so far mostly had horrible food here, at the lunch buffets =) I guess it comes with being vegetarian and budget conscious in this city (food in Helsinki is bloomin expensive), so you had an advantage being hosted by Visit Finland. Although there are certainly yummy Finnish dishes, like the Karelian pies.
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Speaking as a Finnish person myself, I would recommend going to a themepark called Linnanmäki, a waterpark called Serena or a themepark called Särkänniemi. All of them are great for spending the day! And Linnanmäki has a “special” thing they do after dark; they turn on all kinds of lights and it becomes almost like a festival.
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