It turns out I’ve been saying Helsinki wrong my whole life. It is not Hel-SINK-i, but HEL-sinki. Now you know.
After a couple of chaotic days in St Petersburg we were looking forward to a more leisurely pace in Helsinki, and getting away from the crowds. It certainly was less crowded, but “leisurely” might have to wait till we get home! Helsinki is one of the smallest and youngest cities we visited, and has a more designed and laid out feel as a result. Under Swedish or Russian control until independence in 1917, it is full of Neoclassical and Art Nouveau architecture, as well as splashes of modern design, art & creativity. We headed off with our trusty Rick Steves and our local public transport app and enjoyed dodging the tour groups and exploring this fun city.
The cruise shuttle bus dropped us at one end of the Esplanade (“Esplanadi”), a lovely green space in the middle of the city, filled with floral displays and statues. There was a display of large floral arrangements attached to the lampposts, part of the “Lovely Helsinki Festival”. We strolled through the Esplanadi to the famous Helsinki Market Square. I think I could have happily spent all day in the Market Square! We arrived as they were setting up so it wasn’t at all crowded, and I loved browsing the stalls – there were lots of berries for which the region is renowned, but also souvenirs (both tacky and tasteful), clothes, reindeer everything, and several local designers and craftspeople selling their gorgeous creations. I may have bought one or two small items.
It’s a short walk from the Market Square to the Senate Square, which is probably Helsinki’s best known sight. Following a major fire in 1808 when the Russians invaded, the tsar sent a German architect, Carl Ludvig Engel to redesign the city’s main square. As a result it has more harmonious appearance with its Neoclassical elegance than most European town squares. The gleaming white green-domed Lutheran Cathedral dominates the square. Because we visited on Sunday there was a service happening so we weren’t able to go inside. In the centre of the square is a large statue honouring Tsar Alexander II. Though he wasn’t popular in Russia (his was the “spilled blood“, remember) he was a big hit in Finland as he gave the Finns more independence and autonomy. In the statue he is holding Finland’s constitution.
The three Blacksmith’s statue is somewhat of a landmark. The base of the statue shows bullet holes and damage still remaining from WWII. I was a bit worried about them smithing with no protection! The train station was designed by Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) and marks the beginning of Art Nouveau in Helsinki. Two iconic pairs of massive statues holding spherical lamps flank the entrance. Saarinen migrated later to the US and his son Eero designed The Gateway Arch in St Louis, amongst other things. Rick suggested popping inside the railway station to have a look at the Eliel Restaurant – sadly it is now a Burger King! The Kamppi Chapel of Silence is a non-denominational church in the middle of the city. They don’t have services but it is a place for contemplation, prayer or to seek help. It is a beautiful, somewhat organic timber structure.
There was a 10k run taking place the day we were there. Thousands of pink-clad women, major disruption to public transport but a fun carnival-like atmosphere. We battled the crowds past the Kiasma Museum of modern art, the Helsinki Music Centre, and Alvar Aalto’s famous Finlandia Hall then wandered through the suburbs till we reached the Temppeliaukio, or Church in the Rock. Dating from 1969 this modern church was excavated into solid rock. A huge copper dome and skylight ensures the church is flooded with light, and there is almost no decoration apart from the natural beauty of the granite walls. Quite unique (and almost impossible to get a good photo of!).
Our last planned stop of the day was the Sibelius Monument. Jean Sibelius is of course Finland’s most famous composer. The monument was erected in 1967, and consists of a series of more than 600 hollow steel pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern. Allegedly Sibelius had stated he did not want any monuments, and I think he looks pretty cross about this one. The artist was forced to add the unusual bust after critics complained about the original abstract work.
We planned to catch a bus from Sibelius Park back to the Esplanade, where the Viking shuttle bus would be waiting for us. We knew which bus we would need to catch to meet the last shuttle. However we had not taken the marathon/fun run into account, and the bus did not arrive. The next bus (if indeed it turned up) would be too late, and cruise ships do not wait for latecomers. In somewhat of a panic we walked to the nearest busy road and after an anxious while managed to flag down a taxi. The driver drove us directly to the port, and we made it with only a few minutes to spare!