Port city Helsinki generally strikes peoples mind when talking about Olympics, the Finnish capital being the venue of the mega sporting event in 1952. Otherwise the Nordic city is perceived as an off the beat tourist spot. However during my recent day trip there I amazingly discovered the metropolis to be exciting and vibrant with all the ingredients necessary to make modern day travelers happy.
I fell in love the moment her amazing silhouette began blooming before my eyes , as our ship M/S Star from Tallin across the Gulf of Finland in Estonia started gliding into its spectacular harbour, crowded with several giant sea vessels that daily carry passengers and cargo to Stockholm, Tallin, Riga and other nearby ports.
Founded by Swedish King Gustava in the 16th century, Helsinki grew as a settlement on a peninsula surrounded by an archipelago of islets. It became the capital of Russia occupied Finland in 1812 and continued retaining that status after nation’s independence in 1917. During the Cold War the city became a haven for spies because of its straddle between the Eastern and Western Blocks. All of that is legacy and Helsinki today lives as the commercial and cultural epicenter of Finland, ranked in 2011 by US magazine Newsweek as the planet’s best country according to education, health, quality of life, economic competitiveness and political environment.
A little taste of that comes when I arrived at harbour-front Market Square. Even on a week day the place is bustling with locals and visitors alike, eating, drinking and shopping from several stalls selling mainly traditional and seasonal food, handicrafts and souvenirs. One of the shop owner told me living in Finland is like winning the lottery and myriad of cheerful and smiling faces surrounding us aptly testify that.
Not knowing exactly what to see in Helsinki I asked the locals and ended up drawing a list, long enough to tick mark in one visit, particularly when there for a day. It included several churches, museums, parks, forts, palaces, and joints for high fashion retail therapy and culinary experiences. Rather throwing my arms in despair I began my sojourn visiting Helsinki Cathedral which is regarded as the city’s landmark. The steps leading up to its door are one of the best places to get a sense of the city’s unique atmosphere.
Crowned with blue domes, this striking white edifice with twelve apostles from the top watching the world below dominates the Senate Square, which displays a cohesive example of Neoclassical architecture. With the stature of Tsar Alexander II in the centre, the paved piazza is surrounded by important buildings, Government Palace, Senate House, Prime Minister’s Office and the Main University building are just a few to mention.
Other architecturally stunning buildings in the neighborhood worth having a look at are the City Hall, Presidential Palace, Parliament and the Music Centre.
All guidebooks recommend a visit to Suomenlinna, a cluster of islands which played an important role in Finnish history when Russians seized it from the Swedes in 1808. Only a 15 minute ferry ride from the harbor, this UNCESCO World Heritage site has something for everyone – walls, cannons, tunnels, a submarine, museums, cafés, restaurants and even a brewery.
Like any other European city, Helsinki is powdered with so many museums that can keep art aficionados occupied for weeks. If time is limited just visit two of them – the Ateneum to experience the golden age of Finnish art and Seurasaari Open Air Museum to cherish art under the sky. Being a music lover, I bypassed them to visit the monument dedicated to legendary composer Jean Sibelius. Also considered as one of city landmarks, the welded steel made monument resembling 600 organ pipes is a mandatory port of call of any visitor to Helsinki, from Heads of States to regular tourists like me.
When feeling tired, the best place is to recharge batteries is one of the classic Finish Cafes at the Esplanade where two trendy promenades with a park in between is lined with restaurants, bars and boutique shops. The park is the meeting place for locals for relaxing and socializing while it’s also used as venue for street theaters and other public events.
The sentiment of many Finish people will be hurt if you leave Helsinki without visiting the venue where Olympic Games was held 61 years ago. Wandering around the site, I could imagine the din and bustle in and around the stadium from my personal experience of being at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Outside I noted crowds gathering in front of a statue. Getting close I found that to be of Paavo Nurmi, Finland’s legendary athlete who has been the source of motivation for several top Finish sports persons. A local informed me that Nurmi’s outstanding contribution for sports inspired the Finish Olympic authorities then to select him to bring in the Olympic torch into the arena.
A highlight of the Helsinki trip was the sea voyage between Tallin and Helsinki, operated by Tallink Silja Line (www. tallinksilja.com). The two hour journey was more than just a ferry crossing. Our modern ship with 11 decks could carry 1900 passengers, offering comfortable journey in three classes – Star, Star Comfort and Business with several options for eating, drinking and some shopping as well.
The combination of the cruise and the exploration of the Nordic capital city, all in one day finally ended up very rewarding for me.