Helsinki, Finland

It’s been a break from the blog – a whole year, in fact! I forgot how much I missed posting, and wanted to record for myself the memories from my recent trip to Europe. I spent the first week alone, traveling through Finland, down through the Baltics, into Hungary, and then back to western Europe via Slovakia, Austria, Italy, and Portugal. My  European adventure started with a very long flight itinerary, hopping across the pond to Hamburg, Germany (where I managed to catch a couple minutes of sleep in the business lounge!) and on to Helsinki after a brief stop-over in Stockholm, Sweden. I have to say, the flight in and out of Stockholm was glorious – I stopped in Stockholm briefly back in 2016, and would love to see more of the city.


After an extremely gusty landing in Helsinki, it was off to explore this tiny city I’d spent so long hearing about. After a short taxi ride through stately homes and alongside the gorgeous port, I arrived at my Airbnb in a residential neighborhood set back from the main city area.


Upon unpacking briefly, I headed back out to begin my first day of exploration. I walked to the center city area, stopping to marvel at the different architecture, and looking at the beautiful churches that take prime residence in the city. On the way, I stopped at what appeared to be the local “pub” in the neighborhood, Ravintola Seahorse. They recommended the salmon soup as the best lunch for the value, so I tried it. The soup is something foreign to an American palate – both cream and fish in soup, served with rye bread and plenty of dill (this was before I realized that dill would become an ever-present component of my time in Northern and Eastern Europe!). Needless to say, it tasted better than it looks.


In addition, I wandered through the food market sitting on the port, and noted some amusing Finish delights, including the reindeer pancakes and a reindeer sandwich, as proudly proclaimed by an abused looking toy.



As it was already halfway through the day, my primary activity was simply wandering among the different shops, and then stopping into a “traditional” restaurant – the goal is to highlight the culture and food of the peoples from Lapland, in the upper peninsula of Finland. The food was absolutely delicious, and I tried the traditional whipped potatoes, pickles, and fried herring. It was a great end to a first day in Helsinki.


The next morning, I started bright and early with a tram ride up to the Toolo area, where the government buildings and national museums are. It turns out that most things open late despite being a weekday, so I stopped by a small bakery to grab some breakfast. I had a beef and rice pastry which was delicious, and a coffee which tasted a bit like chicory.
Then, I went to the Temppeliaukio Church, which literally means “Church of the Rock”. Essentially, the church is built into a massive boulder, and as a metallic domed roof. It also has beautiful paned glass. Fortunately, every Monday at 10am, they have a piano recital which I was able to listen to – really beautiful and well done, despite the tourists milling about in the background.
Then, I meandered over to the National Museum, which despite what it says online, is closed on Mondays. Unfortunately, that meant I really didn’t have much else to do in the area, so I continued on my trek, heading for Kaampi, which is a trendy area on the mid-west side of Helsinki. I ended up getting a stir fry for lunch at a very trendy cafe, where I spent some time reading and enjoying the ambiance as well.
After striking out on most of the main sights, I took another extended tram ride up to the Puu-Villala neighborhood on the north-east side of the city, which I had initially planned to leave off of my sight-seeing, but which I had time for since the first museum was closed. It is essentially a lower working class neighborhood, where the old wooden row houses still stand. There wasn’t much to see, as the architecture was really only visible for a couple streets, but at least it was a change from the touristy downtown area.
Then, figuring that at least the City Museum is open every day, I’d head back to tourist central and see some Helsinki history. Apparently, today is the only day they are closed. So, I walked up to the beautiful Orthodox cathedral, and closed again!
However, from the cathedral side of the bay, I was able to see one of the public saunas – keep it mind, it maxed out at about 51 degrees here, and people were swimming away outside quite happily! Then, I returned to one of the sights which was closed yesterday, the Russian food hall on the pier. There, I saw many amusing Nordic foods, including a reindeer sandwich, advertised by the saddest looking reindeer toy imaginable. They also boasted things like bear pate and reindeer jerky.
Finally, I had exhausted enough time to head to the planned activities: a trip to the sauna, and dinner! The sauna was incredible – basically a huge facility devoted to relaxation (two saunas: one which is “traditional” with steam, and one that is a “smoke” sauna – I couldn’t figure out the smoke sauna, other than it smelled like a campfire and had clearly darkened the cedar seating planks) – also a very social activity, as I would find out from the groups chatting together during the steam sessions. This sauna facility is especially interesting as they encourage you to go for a quick swim in the Gulf of Finland in between sauna sessions. As you can imagine, the Gulf of Finland (the water in every photo) is quite cold – I think it was at about 50 degrees when I took the plunge. However, it’s actually pretty pleasant once you get back in the sauna.
Then, I treated myself to a fantastic dinner at one of the best restaurants in Helsinki, called Ragu (not sure why, it was Finnish food). I had white fish with potatoes, caviar, and cauliflower to start, followed by a venison with butternut squash, and then a creme brûlée with raspberry gelato. It also came with an incredible bread basket, with about 6 types of bread, from focaccia to the black bread I’ve heard is famous in Estonia to the rye bread, which is the national dish of Finland (with butter of course, and lingonberry jam, goat cheese, a carrot hummus). Overall, it was an incredible meal.
The following day, I traveled on to Tallin, Estonia, crossing the same water I swam in at the sauna the previous afternoon!

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