I have to admit this was one place Kat was not looking forward to. First impressions for her of Finland were marred by the 2010 Iceland volcano Eyjafjallajökull which meant 6 days trapped figuring out which way back to the UK would work. As a result this review is largely my first impressions given I could leave when we wanted as opposed to those of someone who had to live off cafes and museums for a week because they have no escape with limited funds!
Arriving in Helsinki, Finland was as smooth as you could ask for. The precision parking of the ferry, disembarking that took minutes, and well placed trams meant from docking to sipping Blue Lagoon cocktails in the Hard Rock all were able to be done in under 30 minutes!
Travel tip: you will need to know the trams do not take cash or card onboard since February 2018, so you will need to use a pay machine. Easy enough, but the tip from us is know which station you want, and follow the stops. None of the maps are in English and nowhere does it say “centre” etc. It isn’t apparent and Google Maps doesn’t have an immediate answer either.
For anyone repeating a Ferry to Helsinki journey we got on at Landsiterminaali T2 and off at Rautatieasema using the Number 7 tram. That particular stop we suggest is 2 minute walk from Aleksanterinkataru Street from which you are by the Central Station, 2 minutes from the Cathedral and Russian Orthodox Cathedral, harbour, market, and university.
Our first stop was the Hard Rock Cafe, right in the heart of things, as Kat had not seen one before. There isn’t much to be said except be warned the prices for drinks and food will make you wish for a better job, bank balance and pension! For the grand total of €23.90 we had two cocktails. Minus ice, I figure that worked out that is basically 0.76c per sip or about £0.85p per sip at today’s rates. You wouldn’t be so quick to let your friend/wife try your drink at those rates now would you?
Free was the order of the day at this point given a small mortgage and left kidney being left as deposit on the drinks and food we had consumed. And with several churches nearby it made sense to walk around and see them. We started at the main Helsinki Cathedral.
The theme of free continues as we walk the side streets and interesting architecture that I love to look at. It’s always interesting seeing the different cities and how the apartments and buildings and architecture meld with personal space and local life. Away from the bustle of the boulevards, quirk and calm seem to permeate through the pavements.
Helsinki has a myriad of harbours and water being located on the Baltic coast. This contrasts nicely from the tramways and cobbles and Hygge-lined streets and cosy apartments.
As cityscapes go, Helsinki has height but doesn’t dominate. Standing by Uspenski Cathedral over the skyline you can see a sense of order and quiet acceptance of a general peaceful life awaiting the inhabitant willing to part with the high costs required to live here.
Over to Uspenski Cathedral and we are struck by its dominance and the rugged crust it sits atop. Typical golden adornments and high vaulted ceilings with a massive dome, chandeliers replete. The heating seemed cracked up to full mind, perhaps a reaction to the inbound storm from the Baltic, or perhaps a nod to the tourist to remove jackets and hats before entry.
By the harbour we passed a little sign that there may be more life in Helsinki when we saw a bridge adorned with love locks. This craze seems to have spread globally faster than McDonalds or Burger King (of which you can find on all major ferries operated by Tallink!). Much as I wouldn’t recommend the later unless in need for fast food, I cannot understand the need for the former unless to serve the purpose of locking a gate.
Walking past grand buildings and clean facades you get a real warm happy feeling. The people are nice, the food good, and the walks are safe and secure. Tourists flock the main square but manageable, not overwhelming.
We have heard about Trump and Putin constantly referring to fake news, and travellers amongst you may have heard of Skopje and it’s fake facades, but walking in 18c heat during September you don’t expect to inadvertently photobomb what we can only surmise is H&Ms latest Christmas range being photographed. Kids in winter jackets posing for the camera and literally tonnes of fake snow lining a street? Hmm.
Unlike H&M, we are not likely to stay, given we have tickets and a ferry to catch. Off we head to the port and some great pictures of water and big boats.
As we wave off Helsinki we reflect on the visit. The city lacks a warmth we found elsewhere in the Baltics. No character or flair perhaps. Sure, it’s got huge literacy, standards of living and frankly beats most in almost every index of measure but does that make a city? The people were nice, the streets clean, the buildings pretty. But again, the sense that this isn’t a place where things happen. This is a place things pass you by.
I think of it like being in a wam cosy room, fireplace lit, thick wool comforter draped around shoulders with a mug of hot chocolate and a glass or three of a nice wine perched next to a box of chocolates. Peaceful and perfect. But it isn’t anymore. Like a yacht on a flat calm, it just bobs along hoping it doesn’t get caught in the wake of progress.
All in all, come and see, but bring plenty of cash and prepare not for all night bars and lute-playing Medieval jesters as you eat half a wild boar. This isn’t traditionally “Old Town” like Prague or Kotor or Krakow. This is more London-lite, a quite Sunday in the park, a winter palace.
As we depart we do get to see the impressive Sapphire Princess. Okay, so our ferry might not be as impressive as one of the worlds largest cruise ships, but it’s fast and on its way back to Estonia …. Kiitos!