Our February escape to Helsinki began with a delayed connecting flight to Frankfurt and a subsequent 15-minute scramble across the length of Frankfurt Airport to catch the second leg. This momentary crisis though turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as we met an English woman also travelling to Helsinki for work. She split a taxi fare with us and introduced us to her friend, who as a local to the area was full of ideas on attractions we should see. The most striking thing about Helsinki immediately was the ice, although a shopkeeper nearer the end of our trip actually complained that the weather had been “too warm for the Finnish people” during our stay! He could have been serious, as the ice seemed to impact life in the city very minimally – taxi drivers especially seemed immune to the threats of skidding and public transport was untouched in it’s reliability. Arriving late at night, the best option in terms of transport from the airport into central Helsinki was a taxi despite it costing us a steep 50.00 euros. The ride itself was around half an hour and again, the local taxi driver put us straight at ease and was full of suggestions on how to best view the city. There was a general sense of patriotism in everyone we met and this greatly improved our confidence in exploring Finland as there was advice and genuine support from locals who were passionate about their city. February in Helsinki is the peak of winter, with temperatures averaging at -10 degrees Celsius throughout the day and falling to -20 degrees overnight. Although temperatures are milder in Helsinki and are more drastic in northern Finland, we found a couple of layers and a pair of gloves perfectly adequate in keeping us warm enough to explore… it does sound worse than it feels!
In a day you could 100% cram visiting all of Helsinki’s architectural sights, which we did walking the length of the city. In hindsight we could have taken advantage of the buses – which offer day tickets for a mere 9.00 euros, but in all honesty we just got carried away sightseeing and didn’t realise the distance we had walked. Although I’d recommend doing so on a less extreme scale to save your legs, simply ‘getting lost’ in Helsinki was an awesome way to spend a first day as there is genuinely so much to take in and look around. In the centre of the city, Helsinki Cathedral is a class visit and a great photo opportunity. The stark white of the cathedral and ornate interior showed a more regal side to the industrial buildings in Katajanokka (the suburb where we stayed) which highlighted the duality in Helsinki’s character. Just south of the cathedral, Market Square held a number of stalls selling Finnish handicrafts and souvenirs, in addition to food stalls and a heated café tent – offering a great opportunity to mill around and do a bit of shopping. In the northern section of Helsinki, many museums reside including (The National Museum of Finland) and also Temppeliaukion Church which is highly unique in its domed structure. We actually mistook it for just a grassy hill and managed to walk its entire circumference before realising the mistake in our judgement. Finally, on the North west side of Helsinki there is Regatta – possibly the highlight of our trip! The tiny red café by the frozen over shore screamed character, and although inside seating was extremely limited there were seats next to fire pits which overlooked the sea. On these firepits you could cook your own sausages and cinnamon buns which was an entire experience in itself. On the frozen sea itself there was a contraption where one person could sit on a sled attached to a huge pole on an axle and be pushed round in a circle. This attracted just as many adults as kids! The café is very quaint and traditionally decorated and is hugely popular with both tourists and locals, it has also recently appeared more on social media as it makes for picturesque photos.
Getting out of the city and into Nuuksio National Park involved both a train and a bus, though the journey time was less than 2 hours. One of the things that prompted our visit to Finland was the magical wildlife and native animals so it was a split-second decision to visit Nuuksio Reindeer Park, where for 25 euros you could meet a herd of native reindeer and feed them lichen. Included in the price was hot coffee and the chance to toast your own sticky bun over a fire pit in a tepee. Getting dropped by the bus on the side of a completely iced over road flanked by a forest of thick black tree trunks, it felt like a scene from the Reverent… With no signal, I hovered for a second to check the screenshot of directions on google maps and tried to fake an appearance of complete confidence. Luckily the screenshot wasn’t lying and sure enough, 5 minutes from the bus stop (a pole on a slant), was the entrance.
The reindeer themselves were gorgeous and definitely worth the trip, the isolated location itself adds to the authenticity of the experience and the style of the park maintained this. My mum even excitedly took a picture of the toilet which was in a tiny but elongated wood shack. You could spend 2 hours easily at the park and it’s worth planning your return trip as buses are spaced apart – it’s surprising how much colder it is once you are out of the city, you don’t want to be waiting too long!
Our second day trip from Helsinki was to Tallinn via a ferry with Viking Line. Booking online for two foot passengers was surprisingly reasonable and we had around 5 hours to spend in Tallinn to explore. Leaving the port on the ferry was great to see the small islands off the mainland and it was also a shock to find the sea frozen over once we got further out. This itself was an interesting phenomenon as living in the UK and solely visiting warmer countries meant I had never seen this before! The ferry offered children entertainment and refreshments and was a pleasant journey that I would recommend, although I’m unsure of the quality of its competitors so can’t offer a fair comparison. The opportunity to easily explore another country in a day trip is an exciting aspect of visiting Southern Finland, especially as Tallinn’s old town is suited to this time frame. Returning to Helsinki that night, we also got a great view of the city’s coastline lit up at night which was a bonus.
With more time and foresight, I would have attended a Finnish opera or play – which are renowned in Helsinki. My mum was especially keen for this but sadly the tickets sell out long in advance. Therefore, if this is something that interests you, I would look months in advance. I would additionally spend more time looking round some of the museums and art galleries as we barely skimmed the ones available! I think although 4 days in Helsinki was enough to experience a range of the attractions and get a feel of the vibe it didn’t allow you to fully engage with the cultural side of the city. Overall though, Helsinki is an ideal short break (even in the winter months) and has tons to offer as a tourist destination.