Last weekend I did something that I really never thought I would do: I went to Finland.
I’ve tried a lot of new and different things this semester. If you had asked me if I would ever go to Europe when I was a freshman in high school, I probably would have laughed at your question. I never really foresaw studying abroad in Rome, but I’m glad that I did. I’ve met so many great people and have seen so many interesting and beautiful cities. I’ve tried new foods and spoken other languages. It’s truly been one of the best times of my life.
I’m not really sure where or when I decided that I wanted to go to Finland. All that I know is that I’ve wanted to go to since I was about nine years old. Maybe it was a project on my heritage that I had to do for school. Maybe it was because I was raised in a church that is almost solely Finnish, a church that occasionally features Finnish ministers. Who knows? The point is, I wanted to go and have dreamed of doing such for a long time. Since the flight was a bit more expensive than flights to other countries and discount airlines don’t fly to Finland, I decided to do this trip solo (I also waited to tell you all until I arrived home safely…).
Stepping off of the plane in Helsinki-Vantaa airport was a great feeling. I couldn’t help but smile as I waited for my luggage to come around the conveyor belt. I was finally in Finland! All of my hopes and wishes had come true. Well, some of them, at least.
I took a 30 minute shuttle ride from the airport to the city center, where I then proceeded to walk to my hostel and check in. I picked up a map at the airport, though I didn’t really need it (Helsinki is a relatively small city when compared to American cities). I passed the South harbor and market square on my way to my hostel. I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but I would soon enough.
I had some issues checking into my hostel due to problems that happened when booking. After straightening everything out (and not having to pay a cent more than I was supposed to), I put my things down in my room and headed out for the day.
While the weather was not quite as warm as it was when I left Rome (it was in the 70’s and sunny…), it wasn’t as cold as I had imagined it was going to be. It was in the upper 30’s each day that I was there and there was ice and snow on the sidewalks, the roofs of houses and lining the streets.
I started out by walking to Market Square. Market Square is at the start of Helsinki’s main Esplanade, essentially two boulevards with parks in between. The Esplanade is lined with shops offering Finland’s finest and cafes serving up hot cups of coffee and Finnish pastries.
I stopped into the Tourist Information Center to pick up some brochures for different things to do and to buy a Helsinki Card. The Helsinki Card was really nice because it bought unlimited public transportation use, as well as admittance to almost any of the museums in Helsinki. I definitely got my money’s worth.
Let me just take the time here to explain how I communicated with the people around me. Contrary to my belief (and Rick Steve’s, for that matter), pretty much everyone in Finland spoke English, if only basically. The only Finnish words that I really used were “hei” (hello), “hei hei” (goodbye) and “kittos” (thank you). The rest was English.
Anyway, I then continued down the Esplanade to Stockmann department store, Finland’s version of Harrod’s.
They had EVERYTHING there. I stopped in the cafe here for lunch after shopping for a bit. I had a grilled sandwich with mozzarella, pesto and sun-dried tomato on it. It was served on the typical Finnish flat rye bread, which I absolutely loved. I thought about getting something else since the panini (plural form of panino, the real Italian name for grilled sandwich) here in Rome are so delicious, but this tasted completely different, so I didn’t feel bad. After lunch, I grabbed a cinnamon roll from the bakery for dessert. I’ve been on a cinnamon kick lately, for some reason.
After eating lunch, I decided to check out Helsinki’s famous design district. The city has been appointed the World Design Capital of 2012. Basically, this means that Helsinki is being recognized for its use of design to change itself for the better. The design district has over 100 stores and boutiques and occupies a large section of the city. In the center of the district is the design museum.
I checked out a few shops and then happened upon the Museum of Finnish Architecture. While it was a relatively small museum and all of the exhibits were in Finnish and Swedish (Swedish is Finland’s second official language), it was still really interesting. There was a short film about the history of the design of architecture throughout Finland that I found particularly interesting.
After the museum I decided to walk around for a bit more. I found a church with an ice rink next to it:
Across from that was the Finnish Design Museum, a place that I’ve wanted to go for quite some time.
With my Helsinki Card in hand, getting into pretty much any museum was a piece of cake. I stowed my coat, camera (no photos were allowed) and backpack in a locker and went to have a look around.
The first floor was dedicated to the evolution of Finnish design. I don’t quite remember the earliest pieces that they had, but they were pretty old. The descriptions wove an interesting story about the reasons why Finnish design changed the way that it did. As it turns out, the early designers of household items and furniture were influenced by other cultures, but as time went on, they made a move for more simplistic designs. This is still true today, of course, though I wouldn’t really include Marimekko in that group for some things.
The basement floor was a temporary exhibit on Korean design. It was really interesting to see how the present-day designs have been heavily influenced by the designs of old. There were also a few interactive exhibits, including one that used the new 3D television technology.
Finally, the top floor was dedicated to Marimekko, one of Finland’s most influential designers. The display included pieces from the original collection, a display of the styles currently sold by the company, a video of the fashion show, a timeline of the company’s move from oilcloth manufacturer to textile designer and designer bios. The display was a flurry of color and cloth, with pieces displayed on stands, hung from the walls and ceiling and in other creative ways. I left the museum feeling satisfied, particularly with the Marimekko exhibit.
I went in a few more shops, and by that time it was starting to get dark, so I headed to the grocery store to pick up something to eat for dinner (a money saving effort on my part). I grabbed a package of the Finnish rye bread and some yogurt, as I was still full from lunch, and returned to my hostel. I ate and then sat down to read the book that I bought from the bookstore in Stockmann earlier that day. I then got a much needed night of rest.
The next morning, I decided to take a tour of Suomenlinna Fortress to start my day. It was a foggy day, but it didn’t feel too cold while I was walking. I got to the dock from which the ferry departs and saw that I had some time to kill, so I decided to walk around Market Square for a bit.
I did a little souvenir shopping and the decided to stop into one of the tents for some breakfast.
After a while more, it was finally time for me to hop on the ferry to go to the fortress guarding Helsinki Harbor. Suomenlinna has a long history of use and is the biggest sea fortress in the world. It is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is also presently home to over 600 people. It is no longer a functioning fortress, but rather serves as a museum.
I met a nice Canadian woman on the ferry. Her name was Joanie and she was studying in Espoo for a month as part of her Ph.D. program. She was the one that told me about how most Finlanders are taught English, Swedish and Finnish in school. Many also speak another language or two, typically German, Russian or French.
The tour took us all over two of the larger islands (there are four in all, though the smaller ones are closed in winter). Like most of Finland’s history, the fortress’ history has strong ties to Sweden and Russia and the wars between the two nations. The fortress was also used during WWII. There was so much more to the tour that I simply can’t remember at the moment, though I wish I could.
I wish I could have stayed longer, but I wanted to make it back in time to visit another museum or two, so I headed back to the ferry for the mainland.
I wanted to visit the flea market, so I walked in that direction, but found that it is only open in the summer (or until 2 P.M.?). I’m not really sure which was true, but when I reached the place that it was supposed to be on the map, it was not there. I then decided to do part of a walking tour that I found in the Rick Steves guide book I checked out of the library. This tour took me right to the museum that I wanted to see, so I figured why not try it out?
One of the biggest things that Rick Steves said to see in Helsinki was Temppeliaukio Church, which is literally carved into a huge rock.
Since the church was closed and I was losing daylight, I decided to go straight for the National Museum of Finland.
This museum had everything. They had artifacts and information starting from the 12th century and continuing onward. They also had a collection of religious artifacts and panels describing the reasons behind why over 80% of Finland ‘s population are practicing Lutherans instead of Catholics (the government wanted the money that was initially going to the Vatican). I also enjoyed perusing through the treasure room.
After spending ample time in the museum, I decided to walk back to the center of the city. It was starting to get dark by this point and I was starting to get hungry (I had been snacking on the leftover flatbread that I had from the night before). I stopped in a hotel to ask about a restaurant that served traditional Finnish cuisine and found one near the city center.
While my dessert may not have been entirely Finnish (though ultimately delicious), my entrée definitely was. I’ve never had venison and never really had any desire to try it, but I am assuming that reindeer and deer in the Midwest do not taste that different. The reindeer almost tasted like beef, and the lingonberries were a nice addition to the meal. I don’t know if I will ever eat reindeer again, but at least I can say that I tried it! I then hopped on the tram and headed back to my hostel where I read for a bit and then got some sleep.
The next morning, I got ready and checked out of my hostel. While I had every intention of attending service at the Lutheran Cathedral, my body had other plans and overslept. I decided to drop my luggage off at the train station (for €2, it was definitely better than carrying it around all day) and went to grab some breakfast. I decided to try a restaurant in the Esplanade named Kappeli. It was essentially a glass building that doubled as a cafe in the mornings and a high end restaurant at night.
I then went to the Lutheran Cathedral to have a look around. The Cathedral is one of Helsinki’s defining architectural works; the Lutheran Cathedral is to Helsinki as the SEARS Tower is to Chicago.
The inside of the church was very plain and unadorned, at least when compared to other churches that I’ve been to here in Europe. I felt comfortable there, though. I decided to sit in a pew for a while and reflect before I had to catch my bus to the airport. It was calm and peaceful in the church.
After a while, I reclaimed my luggage and hopped on a bus to the airport where I waited for my flight back to Rome. I’m still at a loss of words for my experiences in Helsinki. It was amazing to finally see the place that I’ve dreamt of visiting for so long. The people were nice, the culture and history were really interesting and I couldn’t help but smile walking through the streets. Neither my camera nor my words can do my trip justice.
I eventually plan to return to Helsinki, though possibly in the summer this time so that I can see the city showered in sunlight. I’d also like to visit the parts of Finland I didn’t see like Espoo and maybe even the lapland . There is so much more that I’d like to say and talk about, but I feel that I’ve written a long enough entry for today. Email me if you have any questions at all about my trip!