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By Jill Hoelting, Photos by Vivienne Chapleo
I’ll be honest… I’m not much of a city person. Not into the hustle and bustle of pedestrian-packed avenues and the frenetic energy that wires a large urban area. Growing up in a small town framed by fields, woods and green space defines me as one who loves the big wide open and a slower pace. Who knew I could find this in a city?
Culture and History:
Helsinki, the capital of Finland and one of the northernmost cities in the world, is surrounded by water on three sides. One-third of the city’s land is green space made up of forests, parks and reserves. Helsinki’s expansive Central Park runs for over six miles out from the city center. With all this green area and the presence of the sea, Helsinki is the perfect city for the physically active and anyone who may be a bit city shy. The city maintains facilities for all kinds of sports from cycling, running, hiking, roller skating, skiing and swimming. From the waterfront to bays and the nearby islands, boating and fishing are top ranked.
With a population of 600,000, Helsinki is the largest city in Finland. The entire country has roughly 5.3 million inhabitants, making it one of the least populated in the European Union. Finland has been a Member of EU since 1995 and has used the Euro as currency since 2002. Helsinki, founded in 1550 by King Gustav I of Sweden as a trading town, celebrated 200 years as the capital city in 2012.
Historically, Finland has been heavily influenced by both Sweden and Russia. It was part of Sweden from the 12th to the 19th century, followed by 108 years as an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia. Gaining its independence in 1917 and with Helsinki as its capital, it has become one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Just 50 miles north of Tallinn, Estonia, 250 miles east of Stockholm, Sweden, and 190 miles west of St. Petersburg, Russia, Helsinki is a place where East meets West and is known as the “Daughter of the Baltic”. Helsinki’s history, location and people create a culturally-rich environment. In 2000, Helsinki was named one of nine European Cities of Culture.
World Design Capital 2012 Helsinki:
Fresh, innovative and hip… all describe Helsinki, which celebrates the honor of being designated as World Design Capital 2012 Helsinki. Design is simply everywhere. Design enthusiasts can marvel at work from traditional and industrial design to fashion, communication and even music.
Fashionistas can shop til they drop strolling the main shopping streets of Mannerheimintie, Esplanade and Aleksanterinkatu. Architecture is a marvelous melding of old and new — Neoclassical buildings are in contrast with Art Nouveau of the romantic nationalism.
The city is easy to navigate and has great public transportation. At nearly the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, Helsinki offers warm summers with long daylight hours. Although there is a multitude of activities and events throughout the year, summer is prime time in Helsinki. There is an incredible youthful buzz and the nightlife is vibrant.
Summer Outdoor Activities:
Parks are popular concert venues and sidewalk cafes are bursting at the seams. With more than 80 museums, many art galleries, 2 symphony orchestras — you will find a cornucopia of interesting activities to fill your “let’s do this list” when visiting Helsinki.
In Helsinki, you will not go hungry! Creative restaurants abound. On our short, but sweet visit, WAVE Journey experienced two wonderful restaurants.
A21 Dining was an experience like no other. A21 serves a themed menu which changes with the seasons. Our visually-pleasing and gastronomically-delightful encounter was titled “Journey To the Finnish Archipelago”. This could not have been more perfect, as we had just come from a 3-night stay in The Archipelago.
The owners at A21 call it Mind Dining. They provide a culinary experience that takes you on a journey, beyond just fresh, quality local fare. They actually kneel down beside you as they serve each course and tell a story… with each course providing another chapter to the tale. On top of this, each dish is paired with a cocktail that parallels the dish in that part of the story.
Seven courses carried us through The Archipelago: By The Seashore ~ A moment on the Archipelago seashore; Fishing ~ Chasing the riches of the sea; At The Open Sea ~ In a place untouched by time; A Moment By the Campfire ~ Grilling on open fire by the seaside; In The Archipelago Meadow ~ Green Archipelago treasure; Strawberry Path ~ On a path rimmed with strawberries; In The Evening Sun ~ Sunset at the Nordic Archipelago sea. Of course each dish and complementing cocktail were representative of the descriptive scene in the journey.
We experienced culinary artistry ~ an over-the-top fantastic dining adventure. Niko Autti, Timo Siitonen and the rest of the team at A21 demonstrate pure wizardry at elevating the dining and cocktail experience. Put this at the top of your Helsinki can’t-pass-up list!
On this night we carried on to A21 Cocktail Lounge just a short walk from the restaurant. This award-winning lounge delivered the perfect nightcap to a perfect day. Timo and staff present liquid sensations with flair and artistry. This is a definite top-shelf experience and provides a chance to hang with the locals.
We also had a fab time and a delicious meal on our second night in Helsinki at Salutorget Scandinavian Bistro. A former bank building, with an interesting past serving commercial interests of Helsinki merchants, had an atmosphere which was surprisingly casual in this stately setting of neo-Renaissance style pillars and coffered ceiling.
Excellent and attentive service was provided by our waiter, who provided spot-on recommendations for both food and drink.
Where to Stay:
Our 2-night stay at the Klaus K Design Hotel suited us wonderfully. Klaus K, with its central location, makes for easy walking to the city center and local attractions.
This family-run hotel offers clean, well appointed rooms, an extensive breakfast buffet and an accommodating, friendly staff. When staying, be sure to set aside time to take advantage of the sauna… we did!
A full day of sightseeing in Helsinki kicked off with an in-depth introduction by the incredibly knowledgeable and personable, Maria Hanninen.
Maria is an authorized native English and Spanish tour guide in Helsinki with Audrey Tours. She toured us around Helsinki sharing her wealth of knowledge on history, culture, economy and local attractions.
Spending time with a local guide is indeed a great start to any visit to a new destination. We were able to travel around the city learning the history, traditions and folklore, and noting points of interest to explore on our own.
I must say, I am hooked on Helsinki!
If You Go:
Below is a list of some of our recommended must-see attractions in the fabulous city of Helsinki, a city with a small-town feel… just the way I like it!
– Senate Square with Lutheran Cathedral
– Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress — UNESCO World Heritage Site
– Ateneum Art Museum – Finnish National Gallery
– Temppeliaukio Church – quarried out of bedrock
Note: WAVE Journey spent a far-too-short 40-hour visit to Helsinki, Finland in July 2012