3 Days in Helsinki: The Finnish Capital is Far from Just a Layover City

View of Helsinki from the market square

I hardly prepare for a trip in advance. In addition to finding the cheaper flights* and booking a hotel*, little more happens between then and packing. Part of it, it’s because I really hate planning. The other part it’s because there’s a reason this blog’s called Tripper. After looking at the city map countless times, I wondered if three days in Helsinki would be too much if I should take time to explore the islands around it, or even if I should hop over the Baltic sea to visit Tallinn in Estonia.

Every blog post in English I came across either painted the picture of Helsinki as that place you go to en route to someone else or extended their trip behind the Finnish capital to accommodate the neighboring islands. I had no intention to leave Helsinki. I also had no plan to explore the sauna culture, despite everyone under the sun telling me it was the strongest trait of the Finnish culture.

View of the steps leading to the Helsinki Cathedral

I don’t believe this has happened to me since Barcelona, but I didn’t find Helsinki. The city found me and put me on the right path every time I stranded (and there were a few times).

Now, this could be an itinerary listing all the things to do and see in Helsinki in three days, where to eat, where to stay, tips for day trips. But you know what? There are so many of those posts out there already. As 2019 approaches, a specific direction for the blog has been dawning on me. And I believe it started here, in Helsinki. Somewhere between being disillusioned by a tourist trap and finding warmth in the middle of a cold September morning.

Wood Map of Helsinki at the Design Museo

This wood map of Helsinki at the Designmuseo shows how compact the city really is

Day Zero: Arriving in Helsinki

After a very early morning flight from Lisbon and a very fast-paced layover in Paris (with an airport employee confused if I could travel to Helsinki with just my Portuguese citizenship card…), the nearly empty Finnair plane was a blessing.

With the HSL app previously installed on my iPhone, I believed I had a firm grasp on the train travel between the airport and the city center. I still bought the tickets from the vending machine on the platform, though (here’s a tip: the machines upstairs between the airport and the platform are always the most crowded because those are the first ones a first-time passenger will see).

I agree with what Paul Theroux wrote about train travels on his book “Riding the Iron Rooster”*. Most of them lack the romance we anticipated, without much of a view beyond the back of people’s houses. The trip on the P train from Vantaa to Helsinki Central Station wasn’t much different, and a huge part of it was me trying to make sense of the stops’ pronunciations in both Finnish and Swedish. Quite the pointless exercise considering ours was the final stop (the train route is a loop).

About half an hour later, we were getting off the train at our destination, moving in the opposite direction of a crowd of commuters. My need to travel sustainably and minimize my negative impact on a destination means I’m particularly sensitive to how I move in a group of commuters. In part, because it also annoys me in Lisbon, having to navigate absent-minded tourists pulling their trolleys with their faces glued to the Google maps on their smartphones. I moved to the left of the crowd, the side closer to a wall.

We spotted our hotel, Seurahuone Helsinki*, immediately as we stepped out of the station. On the map, I had seen it was close to the station, but once there I could fully grasp how close it was. Then again, as I was about to discover in the next days, everything in Helsinki is pretty close.

The Helsinki Central Station at the end of the street

After a long trip, I usually want to unpack, rest, scout for the nearest supermarket, and find a place to eat. I unpacked. And then I looked out of our bedroom window that faced the train station, the orderly lines of commuters navigating the bike riders, and the traffic of green and yellow trams. It compelled me to go out. I wanted to meet Helsinki for the first time. The European capital everyone insists on advertising as a layover city but that became the 2019 European Capital of Smart Tourism.

While the architecture around me wasn’t striking, besides the train station, there was something beautiful about the symmetry and straight lines. Which I guess is something we, Southern Europeans, identify as being a very Nordic trait.

I circled the Railway Square (Rautatientori) while talking to my father on the phone, him insisting he was feeling better and that I shouldn’t worry. He would repeat this a lot in the next month and now, looking back, I wonder if we could have avoided the unavoidable if we had disregarded his claims of feeling healthy. In hindsight, maybe that phone call is one of the reasons why Helsinki will stick in my mind for longer.

After a quick research showed me the importance of the author behind me, Aleksis Kivi*, I stood in the middle of the square in an attempt to take a reasonable photo of the Ateneum in front of me. I regret not including this art museum sooner in my itinerary, always with the certainty that it was right next door to the hotel so I’d visit before leaving.

Walking down Mikonkatu (the suffix -katu in Finnish means street), to the left of the Ateneum, I didn’t know (as I know now) that if I hadn’t turned right on Aleksanterinkatu, I would’ve walked straight into one of the most beautiful spots in Helsinki, Esplanadi Park. Somehow, at the time, returning to the hotel seemed like a safer option. I’m glad I returned because considering my tendency to wander off I might have lost all my energy (and will) to explore Helsinki the next day.

Morning of Day One: A Lebanese Woman Saves me from “Tourist Traps”

After a hearty breakfast (I believe I had pancakes for breakfast at that hotel every single day) I was excited to go see the new tourist hotspot everyone was raving about and Instagramming like crazy: Amos Rex. I set off to explore the site, armed with my digital weapons of choice – the Lonely Planet City Guides app, Google maps, and a selection of My Helsinki locals guides bookmarked on my browser.

As a freelance travel writer, taking a wrong turn could mean hours of lost work trying to get back on track. It’s particularly frustrating if I’m too close to a deadline. As a travel blogger who writes about sustainable cultural tourism, detours are welcome. To be clear, the map put me in the right direction, and I passed the site twice, going up and down the street. The map was insisting I had reached my destination. And twice I dismissed it because it looked nothing like the place I had seen on Instagram. Ha, have you heard this before? Or experienced it yourself? There I was, a victim of the same trap I warn tourists in Lisbon about.

Determined to find the “real” Amos Rex (clearly Google maps was wrong), I chose to continue further up Mannerheimintie. A series of photo-worthy sites and places to see later presented itself: the Kiasma (Museum of Contemporary Art), the Finnish Parliament, and the National Museum of Finland (Kansallismuseo).

The Finnish Parliament in Helsinki

The Finnish Parliament in Helsinki

If I hadn’t sat for a few minutes at the city park near the Parliament, Helsinki is full of city parks, and that quickly became one of my favorite things about the city, I wouldn’t have taken a hard look at Amos Rex. Could it be what I had been looking for after all? All this time and all I would’ve had to do was turn the corner…

Determined to get Instagram shots as pretty as this one, I stood waiting for the light to turn green to cross the street, this time knowing how to not take up the space on the bike lane (something you learn pretty quickly, after just a couple of hours). As I reached closer, my heart sank. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t see beyond the parking lot that it clearly was (and that they, quite straightforwardly, tell you it is).

City park near the Finnish Parliament in Helsinki

Then, in slow motion, like I was in the middle of a horror movie, I walked around it to find another site that looked remarkably better on Instagram: Kamppi Chapel. I was horrified, but it’s none of Helsinki’s fault. I had simply created an unrealistic image of how the city was. And, truly, every city has its list of must-sees that for some are tourist traps and for others are unforgettable sites.

Kamppi Chapel in Helsinki

Slightly desolated, I climbed the stairs behind the chapel. Faced with the challenge of deciding to turn right or left, and unwilling to look it up on the map because I frankly didn’t know where to go next, my instinct told me to go right. Along that street, that I now know is Urho Kekkosen katu, the smell of spices and coffee woke me from my (quite exaggerated) lethargy. Behind me, a young woman pushing a baby stroller and an older woman walked into a small café with a floor-to-ceiling window. I stopped to confirm the homey smell came from there. Not in the mood for lunch yet, I figured I could use a cup of coffee to go. Inside, a dark-haired woman speaking Finnish with an accent (how I realized she had an accent still baffles me) warmly greeted the two women suggesting specials off the menu.

– “English, honey?”, she asked me after telling the women’s order to the kitchen staff.
– “Yes! Thank you.”
– “Do you want something to eat or to drink, dear?”
– “I think I’ll just have coffee. A large coffee to go, please.”
– “Okay dear.”

Throughout our brief conversation, she never stopped smiling. I paid for my coffee, and she gave me a paper cup and a lid. Up to this point, I had no idea customers serve themselves in most cafés. Most of them offering free refills.

– “I’m sorry to ask, but are you Italian?”, I asked.
– “No! But everyone thinks I am! I was born in Lebanon but have been in Finland for many years. I tell everyone I’m Lebanese child but a Finnish woman.”

Embarrassingly struggling to pour myself a cup of coffee, a staff member takes over and does it for me. I feel my cheeks turning red but then realized there’s a set of unscripted rules that you only learn on your own when visiting a foreign country.

– “Have a nice day! It was nice meeting you”, I shouted to the back of the café.

Stepping out of the kitchen, the woman I would later learn from my Instagram follower is called Maggie, tells me cheerfully “you too, dear!”

Unknowingly, this woman completely changed my perspective of Helsinki just when I was about to give up. Falling out of excitement with a city on your first full day exploring is frustrating, to say the least. The effort of adjusting your expectations could easily make the rest of your trip feel like a chore.

After finishing my coffee near Kohtauspaikat (a work by Ernst Billgren that appropriately translates into “Meeting Places”), I decided to do a pit stop at the hotel to recharge and replan.

Afternoon of Day One: Looking for Carl Engel (and Finding Something Else Instead)

Typically, following the work of a local artist puts a city into perspective. Or so I thought as I browsed the list of buildings designed by architect German-born architect Carl Engel.

Knowing that I wouldn’t feel like finding all the buildings that afternoon, I narrowed down my list to Unioninkatu, starting with the University buildings and planning to end at the Helsinki City Hall (which, coincidently, was the original facility of my current accommodation Hotel Seurahuone).

There’s nothing remarkably striking about Engel’s buildings because they were meant to be state buildings anyway. And state buildings look more or less the same in European capitals. After a brief look at the University buildings, I noticed the tour buses parked across the street. I didn’t need the confirmation of the map to know I was near one of Engel’s most famous buildings in Helsinki for tourists: St. Nichola’s Church (Helsinki Cathedral).

Close up of the Helsinki Cathedral

I sat at the Senate Square for a while looking up to the Cathedral and the tourists sitting on the steps soaking up the sun. Very few people were going inside. And there I was, like them, looking at the building from the outside. At that moment, I realized clearly this was more of a reconnaissance trip, a way to note down the places I’ll probably only see once and the ones I’ll return to. Seeing Engel’s work without knowing much about him was not the right approach, and I now know it.

After my ears couldn’t bear the amateur opera singer at the square anymore, I walked down Unioninkatu towards the Market Square (Kauppatori) and the sea. Dhanish and I had been there the previous evening, and I assumed it was the night time that made it unappealing to me. Not quite.

Seeing the Uspenski Cathedral on top of the hill, I decided to walk there. I wasn’t sure the cathedral was actually what I wanted to see, so my path led me to another detour towards the marina.

Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki

After being lost in thoughts while photographing boats and buildings, I decided it was time to head back to the hotel except I wanted to take a longer route. Now, I suck at orientation. In my mind, the further I walked down Pohjoisranta, with the marina and the harbor on my right, the further I must have been from the hotel. How exciting! Spoiler alert: I was not.

Not being particularly enthusiastic about the industrial landscape that was unfolding in front of me, I decided to take a left on Kirkkokatu and see where the street would lead me. Minutes later I found myself back at the Helsinki Cathedral and, obviously, on my way to the Ateneum (just minutes from my hotel).

That day I realized the real dimension of Helsinki and how compact it was. Which, I will assure you, is not as bad as it sounds. For me it meant that I could easily navigate through it, I could take a better look at something I had just had a glimpse of, and I could walk every time. As far as I can remember, wherever I was in the city, I was never further than a 20-minute walking distance from the hotel. Some “crazy” utopic people say those are the perfect cities of the future.

Day Two: Lazy Day in Eira and My First Experience with Helsinki Café Culture

One of my Instagram followers had given me a precise itinerary that I intended to try on my last day in Helsinki. But on my second day, and after a late-start morning, the weather was perfect for a stroll by the sea.

I could have opted to walk all the way to Eira, but I felt I didn’t want to waste half an hour of my day that morning. Instead, I looked up the route on the HSL mobile app, purchased the ticket via the app and hopped on tram 3 towards Olympiaterminaali. From the stop (Eiran sairaala) to the seaside is just a few minutes walking.

Despite the wind and my perplexity with seeing people swimming in what for me was freezing weather, that mid-morning stroll was so appeasing. The shouts of kids at a school nearby, people jogging and walking their dogs, a couple arguing, a young man windsurfing, a couple of tourists trying to figure out the public restroom. It was like a return to normalcy. Something, I would realize the next day, Helsinki would do to me.

Eira in Helsinki

Still following my Finnish follower’s tips, I walked back to the city center via Korkeavuorenkatu. Admiring the buildings and adding the Designmuseo to my things to see on the next day list. As I got closer to Esplanadi, I instinctively knew where I was without double checking the map. It wasn’t in an anxious deja vu way, but as if I already belonged to the city. Boy, trust me, I know how pretentious that sounds coming from a tourist who’ll just be in Helsinki for three days!

All that walking had made me peckish so, since I was in the neighborhood, I headed over to Café Esplanad. But instead of going for their famous salmon soup that a friend had recommended, I ordered a smoked salmon sandwich. The super fast service made my head spin in such a way that I inadvertently cut in line (my apologies to all the nice Finnish people who didn’t say a bad word, at least in English, nor rolled their eyes at me).

While there, I learned two things: that table service is not a common habit (completely the opposite of Portugal), and that free coffee refills are common in most cafés. I found it odd at first, but by the next day, I was totally on board with the local culture. Too bad I was leaving Helsinki soon.

Back at the hotel (considering the short distances, the hotel became my daily pit stop between itineraries), planning the afternoon was easy. Although it had all the signs of a tourist trap (part of all the top X and must-see lists in the world), Temppeliaukion kirkko was nearby. And I confess I was intrigued to see a church carved on a rock.

The closer I got to the “Rock Church”, the more I saw signs for tourists advertising where to buy souvenirs, cheap tours, and a special discount where you could buy the entry ticket for 10% off at €3 (the actual price of the ticket is… €3*. Yes, the same as the “discounted” one).

The Rock Church in Helsinki

Architecturally, the church is, in fact, remarkable but the crowds of tourists make it difficult to enjoy. The acoustics is great for concerts, which our tour guide told us they do, often. The constant requests of the staff to be quiet and the tourists completely ignoring it suddenly reminded me of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. That was the sign I had seen enough and had to leave.

On my way back, I tripped upon (I don’t stumble, I quite literally trip) Arkadia, a hipster-looking bright bookstore selling old and used books. A fascinating conversation ensued making it the best moment of my second full day in Helsinki. A conversation I shared briefly with my newsletter subscribers two months ago. (Yes, it’s not a publicity stunt; newsletter subscribers have some perks.)

Day Three: Rain and Going with the Flow

Waking up to a rainy morning wasn’t a surprise. Nor it was a deterrent for my plans for the last day in Helsinki. I only had two more must-see spots on my list, and I was done: Vanha kauppahalli (the Old Market Hall) and the Designmuseo. Everything else that happened that day was a bonus.

First stop, the Old Market Hall. As far as I knew, this was more a market for tourists than for locals, but I was still curious to see the wood stalls that everyone talked about. With my compact purple umbrella in hand, I made my way down Keskuskatu, then crossed the Esplanadi park towards the market. For the very first time, without a map.

Old Market Hall in Helsinki on a rainy day

The market itself wasn’t a spectacular experience, but I had no expectations. Instead, I chose to sit at one of the cafés with a giant mug of coffee and a book. I was used to self-service by now, so I was taken aback when the waitress told me she’d bring my coffee to the table. With one hour to spare before the museum opened, I figured I’d spend the time searching for another Engel building nearby: the Observatory.

After acknowledging the building and walking up a slippery slope, I sat at a sort of viewpoint looking at the harbor. It’s not the most amazing of things to see unless photographing harbors is your thing, but I always find a city’s activity soothing. It can be a busy train station, a restaurant on lunchtime, or, this, a harbor at work. It’s that kind of place that is hardly mentioned in guidebooks, but that reminds us it’s reality, not fiction.

But I’m rambling.

View of the permanent exhibition at the Designmuseo in Helsinki

The Designmuseo had been on my plan since Lisbon and since coming upon it the day before. Besides knowing that Helsinki has been World Design Capital in 2012, I didn’t know much more about Finnish design. On the first floor, the exhibition Utopia Now – The Story of Finnish Design is quite revealing of its dimension, from the Nokia mobile phones everyone used ages ago (I did) to the recent digital hit game Angry Birds.

Immediately I realized the importance of glass and how it’s such an essential part of Finnish culture. Had I gone to the Designmuseo earlier, maybe on the first day, and I would have explored the impact of glass design in Helsinki life.

Famous cafe in Helsinki for its chocolates and pastries, Karl Fazer

Attracted, in part, for its art deco façade but mostly for the chocolates, I stopped at Karl Fazer Café on the way back to the hotel from the museum. While waiting in line, my brain told me a sandwich would be a good option for lunch, but my eyes convinced me that three-layer cream-filled cake was better. Plus, with free coffee refills, I could take all the time in the world to enjoy my cake. And coffee pairs better with cakes than with sandwiches. And they have a window into the chocolate-making station.

With the rain completely gone, I followed my Instagram-induced curiosity to the mythical beasts on the Pohjola Insurance Building. And then a momentary sadness hit. I was leaving Helsinki the next day. I definitely felt I was far from exploring everything. What if I had missed a crucial site that could unlock all of what makes Helsinki, Helsinki? Should I have not skipped most of the museums? Should I have crammed all I could see in Helsinki in three days and leave the detours out of it?

I could have, but then this blog wouldn’t be this blog.

For the first time in those three days in Helsinki, I chose elsewhere for my last pitstop. A place I had discovered the evening before on a casual stroll past the train station: Töölönlahti. At first sight, it’s just another park with a lake in the middle of a city. As in Eira and as with the harbor, here I felt that normalcy. I never walked all the way around the lake, so I have no idea how long that would take. But I wasn’t there for the walk. I was mostly there for the people watching and, on my very last day in Helsinki, to say goodbye.

Töölönlahti in Helsinki at dusk

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