A Day or Two to Spend in Helsinki?
Helsinki is the home to a great airline, Finnair, so often travellers arrive in Helsinki on their way to some where else in Europe. Maybe they are catching a ferry to Tallinn in Estonia or overnight ferries to St Petersburg in Russia or Stockholm in Sweden. Possibly they are merely having a layover before they head off to Paris or Berlin. If you find yourself in this situation, why not spend a few days in Helsinki, it will be worth it.
We arrived in Helsinki very early in the morning after our long flight from Brisbane, Australia. The train trip into the centre of Helsinki was very simple but it was Sunday and the idea that we could find a café open at 7am for the badly needed coffee was laughable. After a bit of wandering in the streets around the main station we checked out a hotel that was happy for us to join the throng in their breakfast room. Fed, watered and restored we headed out for a walk around the city, generally in the direction of the ferry terminals as we were due to catch one to Tallinn, Estonia later that afternoon. Our first target was the White Cathedral with the green domes (that apparently replaced the ‘onion’ domes after Independence) that dominates the Helsinki skyline.
The white Cathedral is a ‘Finnish Evangelical Lutheran’ Church built in the first half of the 19th Century. It was originally called St Nicholas after the Grand Duke of Finland who was also Tsar Nicholas I of Russia (1825-1855). The cathedral looks down upon the Senate Square where the magnificent statue (above) of his successor, Alexander II, stands at the centre. The whole area of Senate Square was very impressive for our early morning stroll and a normal tourist stroll would then have taken us to the Red Church down the hill overlooking the Sodra Hamnen (South Harbour) of Helsinki. The Uspenski Cathedral as the red Church is called represents the contrasting histories of Finland. Hailing from the other end of the spectrum of Christian religious traditions, the Red Cathedral is an ‘Eastern Orthodox’ cathedral built during the reign of Tsar Alexander II and represents the height of Russian power over Finland in the nineteenth century.
Finland’s history is based on its geography; Sweden on one side and Russia on the other. From the thirteenth century, the region that became Finland was dominated by the Swedes. Due to the wars between Russia and Sweden in the late 18th Century, Finland came under the control of the Russian Empire and remained so until the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. This history of neighbourly conflict is part of Helsinki’s fabric, particularly in the harbour where the Island fortress of Suomenlinna (built by the Swedes in 1748 as protection against Russian invasions) is the top tourist attraction in the city.
Rather than heading down the side of South Harbour to the Ferry Terminal, we decided to examine the wonderful waterfront of central Helsinki that is called the Market Square. With the harbour on our left, we walked past the Presidential Palace on our right. Its history is one of the many examples of the links with Russia as it was built by the Nicholas I mentioned above as his palace for those rare occasions when he or his relatives visited his subjects in the Duchy of Finland. After independence in 1917, it became the Presidential Palace of Finland and remains the official residence and office of the Danish President. It has seen many famous visitors over the years including three former US presidents, Ford, Reagan and Bush. In July 2018, given the proximity and lengthy historical ties with its neighbour Russia, the Presidential Palace became the venue for a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Presidents of two of the most powerful nations in the world. Entirely disconnected with the venue, the meeting was highly controversial; the criticism from all sides of the event can be seen in the following quote by a former Republican Presidential ‘hopeful’ who opined…. “Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivety, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate.”
We were visiting Helsinki in June of the same year so we missed the chaos in the Market Square and the presence of the world leaders, their security forces and the world press. On the day we wandered through the markets over the road from the palace, the sun was shining and we couldn’t believe the quality of freshly cooked seafood that was available for our early lunch.
After lunch we were able to stroll along the boulevard that heads directly away from the Market Square up towards the Swedish Theatre. The park that runs the length of these two main streets was a busy venue for local Fins out to enjoy the sunshine, the ice-creams and the live music provided by an entertaining group of local buskers. More detail of this stroll can be found in the linked article, ‘Helsinki, through the lens of its statues’. By this stage of the afternoon it was time to head for our ferry terminal, and sail for Tallinn. The other half of our tour of Helsinki we could leave for our time at the end of our vacation when we would return to Helsinki as our departure point for our flight home. But Helsinki keeps on giving; the beauty of its harbour and Islands was on full display as we headed out into the Baltic Sea.
One of the great aspects of catching a ferry out of or coming back in to Helsinki is the archipelago of small islands that festoon the path back to the terminals. The most interesting feature of these islands is the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress that was built by the Swedish Government over a group of small islands to protect her eastern outpost against an expanding Imperial Russia. It was begun in 1748 but only lasted for 60 years in the hands of the Swedes. In 1808, despite greater military numbers and an impregnable fortress, the forces on Viapori (the fort’s original name) surrendered to the Russians. Although it didn’t impact on Russia’s control of Finland, four years later in 1812, the Grand Armee of Napoleon invaded Russia and made it to Moscow. They lasted a month before retreating losing over 300,000 soldiers in the process. It was a horrendous time for wars along the Baltic Sea
Today the island fortress of Suomenlinna is a favourite with tourists and locals alike where they can go to explore the walls and tunnels as well as picnic with a great view over the waterways.
We arrived back in Helsinki by boat from Stockholm early in the day and so we had the rest of the daylight hours to explore Helsinki that was starting to feel like a home away from home. Luckily the cafes were open so we could discuss over coffee whether we would take the Red Bus tour or just do the walking. Strolling was more the pace as we decided to use the central railway station as our base, a building that brought back memories of the triumphantly fascist façade of Milan railway Station. We decided to head first to the Nation Museum of Finland and spend the morning learning about the prehistoric finds in this part of the world.
The National Museum of Finland is housed in a beautiful building just down from Finland’s Parliament Building. On entering the Museum, your eyes are drawn to the frescoes on the roof of the central area which depict characters and stories from the Kalevala. I had never heard of this work before of epic poetry and myth that is the record of the oral stories of the Fnnish people from the 17th century. Finland itself is only 100 years old and this work apparently is one of the cohesive forces that brought about a sense of Finnish National language and identity. The Kalevala was written by a doctor, Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884), who did the field work needed to save the material from loss to changing times. The frescoes on the roof are riveting and I wished that I had booked a guide to tell me some of the stories that the Museum’s ceiling told.
The other main attraction in this Museum was a meticulous and scholarly exhibition presenting the material evidence of 10000 years of pre-historic finds in the area of Scandanavia that is Finland.
From the Museum we walked up the hill for 10 minutes to the underground church called Templeliaukio. It is a church built after World War 2 and completed in 1969, excavated out of a rocky hillside. It has excellent acoustics due to the rock walls. This unique Church is apparently one of the major tourist attractions in the city which was illustrated for us by the large numbers of ‘bused’ in tourists who shared our visiting time. We spent half an hour seated in this beautiful consecrated place and unfortunately my time was spent mainly in watching my fellow tourists in action. Most of them had no sense of the original purpose of the building, for prayer and reflection on life’s higher issues. The church seemed to be full of folk taking selfies and retaking selfies when their original attempts did not appear to suit their intentions to portray themselves in the best possible light with the interior of Templeliaukio being only important as the current backdrop. There appeared to be little interest in the nature and purpose of the building itself. The local parishioners must have spent their days gritting their teeth as they collected the entrance fees.
On our eventual way back to the Railway Station later in the afternoon, we passed by an open space beside the Helsinki Music Centre. A group of highly skilled drummers were preparing to perform for a large numbers of strolling Fins who had decided to stop, drink coffee and listen to the music on the lawn. It is a cliché to say the performance was spellbinding; however we stopped and spent the next 30 minutes rooted to the spot…the quality of the music was compelling. This was the fourth occasion in our few days walking the streets of Helsinki where we just had to stop and listen to musical groups performing live in the streets. The music scene in Helsinki is in great shape with the only worry being that there might be too many maestros looking to make a living on the streets from their music.