7 Hours in Helsinki

After a week long visit to Tromso, Norway (see “Land of the Midnight Sun”), we had a 23-hour layover in Helsinki, Finland on our way home to the States. We didn’t want to waste it sitting in an airport hotel, so after dropping our bags in said hotel, we caught the train to city center.

One thing you need to understand about Scandinavian countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark) is that while all of their signage is printed in the respective local language, a vast majority of the people speak English very well. This makes it pretty easy to get around. Plus, once you have been there for a while you learn to take the very long word and break it down to the root word, which you can usually translate. Example: tuomiokirkko is the Lutheran Cathedral; kirk is an old word for church; so if you see kirkko within a word, you can usually know that you are looking for a church or cathedral. Apotek is the word for a pharmacy in Norwegian; an old word for a pharmacy is an apothecary. Bibliotek is a library; biblio means books. These are still very difficult languages to understand when spoken, but it is doable to read it and find your way around on a map.

We have a good friend who is Swedish, with a Finnish mom, so he has been to Helsinki quite a bit. We asked for his input of some highlights for a short visit. He listed his top 4, thinking we wouldn’t have time to see them all, but he doesn’t know how fast we walk! Although I will say we even doubted for a bit because we didn’t get on the train until nearly 4pm, and it’s a 30 minute ride from the airport to city center. One thing that turned out to be in our favor was that it was early July and the sun was up until nearly midnight, and many things remained open because it was still light. Most of the tourists had gone in for the night, and we got to see the city without the crowds. Consider that next time you travel to a northern location.

His first item on the list was the Temppeliaukion Church (the root word “temple” is another clue). This church, known locally as “the Rock Church” was built in the late 1960’s by a couple of brothers, and is carved directly into solid rock. It is unique and beautiful in its own way. It is an active Lutheran congregation and the building is often used for weddings and concerts – the rocks have a natural acoustic pattern.

A few miles from the Rock Church is the Helsinki Cathedral, near the waterfront. It sits high on a hill, and can be seen from all over town, and from out on the sea. It is more traditional, and while simpler in its details (it is in Finland, after all!), it reminded us of St. Paul’s in London with its architecture. It has a series of steps outside that are taller and steeper than the ones in Philadelphia (used in the Rocky movies). It is the Lutheran diocese in the city and is an active congregation as well, and has a stunning organ. (All of our daughters are musicians, and took piano lessons and one also took organ lessons, so we always look for organs and organ concerts). Nearby was the Orthodox Cathedral, which was also a dominating silhouette on the skyline, but we didn’t get to go inside.

By now, it was close to 7pm, and we were getting hungry. We were near Market Square and the waterfront, and found a food truck selling some local specialties. Alan had a meat pie, made with moose meat; and I had fish and chips made with salmon. Both were very good.

Another suggestion on the list made by our friend, with the remark, “you probably won’t have time for this….” is the fortress city of Suomenlinna. This sits on an island within the Helsinki harbor. Ferries run out to this every half hour or so. It is now a World Heritage Site, built in the 1700s when Finland was still part of Sweden. Because we didn’t get out there until about 7:30, all of the “visitor” things were closed – museums, displays, etc. But we were able to just walk around and explore with no crowds. There were a few other visitors and some of the 800 permanent residents about. It was raining and chilly, but still fascinating. We stayed on the island for about an hour and half, and caught the ferry back to city center.

Once back, we made a mad dash to Robert’s final “must see” item – a visit to the Fazer Cafe. Fazer is the most famous Finnish chocolatier and sweets purveyor. They closed their main location at 10pm, and we walked in at 9:55pm. Whew! It was worth it. We had a raspberry danish and a small caramel cake, and grabbed some chocolate bars for the flights home.

By this time, we had made a big loop through the city center and were just a few blocks from the Rautatieasema Jarnvagsstation (central train station) to catch our airport train. Back at the hotel by 11pm to get some rest for the next day’s travel.

The next time you find yourself in an airport with 12 or more hours between flights, leave the airport and see some of the local sites. You won’t be as tired, and you never know what fun things you might find. Maybe you don’t travel a lot; what if someone asked you for recommendations for things to do in your hometown? Think about some fun things to do or see, indoors or out. Think about your favorite restaurants; does your hometown have a great locally owned place for breakfast? Or lunch? That’s what most people really want to see when they travel – how others live and why they love their hometown.

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