The Daughter of the Baltic
Many years have passed since the first and only visit to Helsinki. Very long time to remember, not to mention how young I was. That long ago I was only starting my first year at the university of architecture so I have to admit I was not even too impressed and demanding about the architecture in the city, or any city. Totally opposite as how I am now wherever I travel. But something that has never changed in all this time is my passion for art-deco and art-nouveau styles. And yes, that’s right, Helsinki has one of the largest collection of art-nouveau buildings in the world.
Returning back to this city was as exciting as for the first time. Gladly to find out it is still as cute and well cared, clean and elegant as I remembered. A big down side, the much higher costs for everything in overall. Back in 2002 they were only starting to use the Euro as currency merely 6 months before my arrival and I remember the people already telling how much the prices went up. But now, everything has changed, and although it is not as expensive as its neighbors (Sweden and specially Norway), there is a clear steep increase in prices.
So this time, I got to see how the city looks like in winter time. Fair enough it’s not very true as it was already spring and not the peak December/January; but still, was it was freezing cold. Quite the opposite as how this was the first time I came to the city at over 30 degrees in the middle of the summer. But don’t take this for granted, the weather over here even in August could be very bad and cold. I was perhaps very lucky, but it’s not the norm.
The architecture in this city is a great plus. It is virtually intact, with all the art-nouveu buildings beautifully preserved. The reason for this is that while most of the other European cities suffered the destruction during wars, or even earthquakes, Finland has never been at war and although it was part of the Russian Empire, back then whet it was captured there was not even blood spilled. It is in fact that the Russians created such an elegant city with grand buildings to mirror those in Saint Petersburg.
A weekend is the most optimal time to visit the entire city. No rush in going here and there but plenty of time to enjoy walking everywhere, museums and the sights. A day as I was in my first visit was way too short, and I realized I missed way over half the city back then compared to what I saw this time. Helsinki is not only about the area around the Cathedral and South Harbor, but also the northern elegant districts, parks and lakes which surround the entire city.
For more information about Helsinki check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Finland’s currency is the Euro (EUR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Helsinki
- Senate Square Designed by Carl Ludvig Engel at the time Helsinki was founded as the new capital of the country, with neoclassical buildings of the same style to resemble those in Saint Petersburg, city which Helsinki always had very strong links. It is the center point in the city where the most famous landmarks are.
-Cathedral Completed in 1852 dominates the entire square plus it’s one of the city’s major landmarks.
-Palace of the Council of State or Governmental Palace was completed in 1822 it is home to the prime minister’s office.
-University Main Building Completed in 1832 and on the opposite side of the Governmental Palace.
-Sederholm House The oldest building in the city from 1757.
-Statue of Emperor Alexander II In the middle of the square stands as a monument to Finland’s relationship with Imperial Russia.
- Market Square Second in importance after the Senate Square, is where the city meets the Baltic Sea, with glorious houses along the promenade.
-South Harbor Very picturesque with the nice buildings at one side and the water on the other, full with fishing boats selling very fresh fish.
-Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral Is the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe.
-Havis Amanda Fountain Along the promenade.
- North of the City Basically the area to the west from the Senate Square. Beautiful and elegant avenues where you will find many art-nouveau buildings.
-Sibelius Monument Dedicated to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and placed in 1967, it is composed of more than 600 steel pipes creating a wave pattern.
-Central Train Station Built in marvelous art nouveau style, pay attention to the giant statues on the façades and the beautiful lamps. The station itself is located at one of the largest squares in the city.
-Finnish National Theatre Built in 1902 in art nouveau style designed by architect Onni Tarjanne, is located across the road from the train station.
-Kallio Church Located farther to the north from the Central Train Station, was designed by Lars Sonck and built between 1908 and 1912. The entire façade is covered in grey granite and a large tower.
- South of the City Around the area to the west from Market Square.
-St. John’s Church Is the largest church in the city, built in Gothic revival style.
- Suomenlinna Fortress Include this place only if you have enough time in the city as otherwise it will be time consuming. Located in 6 islands it is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally built in order to protect the city from a possible Russian invasion, it was in in 1808 that the Russians invaded the city with almost no hesitation nor destruction and annexed Finland to Russia. In order to reach it you can take a boat from Market Square.
Vantaa Airport is the only international airport serving Helsinki, located 19 km from the city center. The only possibility to move to/from by public transportation as of 2015 are buses. Very reliable and normal prices. Of course you can always opt instead for a taxi but that will set this unnecessary cost much higher. Buses 615 and 620 run every 15 minutes from both terminals 1 and 2 and cost €5.00 per way. They connect with the Central Train Station in around 30 minutes where you can continue your journey to your final destination either by tram, metro or city buses using the same ticket as it allows for transfer.
Arriving to the city by train from other European countries is possible, notably neighboring Norway, Sweden and Russia, this one having connections to Saint Petersburg and Moscow. But arriving by boat is perhaps one of the easiest ways most of the tourist do while on a Baltic tour. It takes no more than 50 minutes from Tallinn!.
Within the city there is a good network of trams and buses and a more limited metro network at only one line. In any case, everything around the historical area of the city does not involve the use of public transportation. You can walk pretty much everywhere.
As for any Nordic country, finding a good deal is almost impossible being your only choice to lower your expectations in hotel star rating or to consider going for a hostel instead of a hotel. Furthermore, if you are visiting the city during summer months which is pure high season, the costs will be over the clouds.
When I first visited the city in 2002 I did not even stayed overnight. I returned to Tallinn where my hotel was, and therefore saving me lots of money after all. But on this occasion we went to spend the full weekend, not just a day trip hence the need for a place to sleep in the city and preferably centrally located. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Scandic Helsinki Park; very near the heart of the city extremely great located few minutes north of the central train station. A 4 stars property with great reviews and great level of comfort and amenities, including a nice size swimming pool and sauna, not to mention their private sauna and jacuzzi in the rooftop that can be pre-booked in advance should you wish to treat yourself to something extra. We were lucky on this occasion as we found this great hotel as part of the flight and hotel deal through the British Airways website. Sometimes it’s really worth the package deals they do as we saved at least half of the price than if booking flights and hotel separately, not to mention BA flights on this occasion were cheaper than any other airline.