I recently finished “Grit” by Angela Duckworth and she mentions that Finnish people have a word “Sisu” that reflects the hard-working culture of the Finnish people. Deciding on a course of action and then sticking to that decision against repeated failures is Sisu. In our experience, a lot of the qualities we saw in the Finnish people and of Finland pretty much equally applies to the rest of the people and countries of Scandinavia. Our flight got in pretty late and our Airbnb was pretty far away from the airport so we took an Uber to our Airbnb place. It was rainy when we got in and we just wanted to go to bed. Our host stayed up late playing video games though and the walls were thin so it was a little tough to get to bed.
Our first full day in Helsinki, we set off to explore the city. Helsinki is famous for its modern design architecture, its parks and shoreline, its compact downtown, and its urban saunas. We took the metro downtown to our lunch spot. We had some crepes that were decent but nothing special. We did our own little walking tour of Helsinki. We went by Hakaniemi Market, Helsinki Cathedral, Senate Square, Esplanadi Park, Design Museum (didn’t go in), Uspenski Cathedral (Katajanokka Neighborhood), Market Square, Old Market Hall, and the Havis Amanda Statue. My favorite were probably Helsinki’s Senate Square with its beautiful white Cathedral and Market Square, where you can shop for fresh fruit, eat local street food, and see the boats come in and out of the harbor. We saw a good number of sights which are all pretty close together in downtown Helsinki. We had a nice sunny day and got pretty tired from walking around all day so we decided to head back. Scandinavia is pretty expensive so we just went to the grocery store for dinner and got a bottle of champagne to wash the food down.
Our second day we had lunch at Café No. 9. I saw online that Helsinki has a yearly Kaljakellunta event that is similar to the Floatopia event San Diego did back in the day when you could drink in the bay as long as you were on a boat or inflatable device. The Helsinki version was essentially a float trip down a river, a bunch of young people drinking on inner tubes and inflatable pools. We tried to meet a group of people where the Kaljakellunta was supposed to finish but we were early and people didn’t get to the finish point yet. Afterwards we went to the Ateneum Museum but we didn’t pay the 13€ to go in. Then we went to Temppeliauko Church which is a dome church popping out from under some rocks. We only walked along the exterior of the church which was pretty lame. We couldn’t go inside because there was a service going on but the pictures of the interior online seem pretty cool.
Next, we went to the Sibelius Monument. This is one of the top things to see on Trip Advisor and other sites and the monument itself is pretty cool. The monument resembles floating organ pipes even though Sibelius didn’t write much music for the organ. The monument is in a park outside of downtown and we decided to take a break in the grass and take a little nap. We also went by the Seurasaari Museum but decided against paying the entrance fee to go in. On the way back, I saw that there was a triathlon the next day in Helsinki but we didn’t want to get up early to watch it. I really wished I could have ran that race but it’d be too expensive to rent a bike and pay the entrance fee. On the way back we had dinner at Juttutupa, one of the oldest restaurants in Helsinki. I had pizza and Diem had Salmon soup. The food was pretty good but the soup had a little too much dill for our taste. There was a little three-man band there playing swing music that was pretty decent but they stopped after two songs. I guess it was too early for their main set.
The next day we had lunch at Story Kitchen at a market near the ferry. The food was good but the portions were a little bit on the small side. After lunch, we took the ferry to Suomenlinna (Castle of Finland) and walked around the old sea fortress once held by Sweden, Russia and Finland at different points in time. The ferry is part of the city transport network and since we had a multi-day pass, the ferry was included and took about 15 minutes. The fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was pretty cool to visit. You could walk on and through the different caves and fortifications of the site. There are about 900 permanent inhabitants on the islands, and 350 people work there year round. This is one of the features that make Suomenlinna unique: the fortress is not simply a museum but a living community. You can find a number of beach spots with a nice view of the ocean and lots of picnic areas. If we would have planned ahead more, it would have been nice to bring food and have a picnic on the island. Walking around the island we saw a lot of closed businesses, which was surprising because it was still the middle of summer and I would have thought they would have been open for the tourists but maybe we just caught them on an off day. We spent most of the day on Suomenlinna and then headed back for the night.
When we were searching for places to stay in Helsinki, I requested a room on Couchsurfing. We were staying 5 days and I wanted to defray some of the costs of Scandinavia. The host told us that he couldn’t host us but mentioned that he thought 5 days was much too long for Helsinki. He suggested taking a ferry to Tallinn, Estonia. We did some research and the ferry was pretty cheap (~$40 USD roundtrip per person) and only took 3.5 hours. The pictures we saw of Old Town Tallinn were beautiful and the articles we read said that Tallinn was a lot cheaper than Scandinavia and had great food. We decided to spend a couple of days there and I’ll write about our experience in a separate post.
When we took the ferry back to Helsinki from Tallinn we then had to take a bus to Turku. The bus ride wasn’t too bad and dropped us off right in the middle of Turku. Our Airbnb place was just a short walk from the city center. The Aura River goes right through the center of Turku and Turku was designated the European Capital of Culture for 2011. Turku used to be the capital of Finland back in the day and now is Finland’s 3rd largest urban area. However, the city still feels pretty small and is very accessible by walking or biking. We got in pretty late so we just showered up and went to bed.
On our only full day in Turku we started the day getting lunch at an all you can eat salad buffet. It was nice out so we ate outside but we kind of regretted it because there were these little silk worms and leaves that would fall from the trees outside. One of the worms landed in Diem’s hair and a couple other ones landed in our coffee. Hopefully none of them landed in our food while we weren’t looking. After lunch we walked around Turku to see the sites. We went by a heritage open air museum but didn’t go in. Next we went to the Old town part of Turku and went in the Cathedral. The interior was pretty nice and had a couple of tombs but doesn’t really stand out among the other Cathedrals we’ve seen. After, we went to the center square where there was a farmers market with lots of fresh fruit. Next, we walked along the river to Turku Castle. The walk along the river was the best part for me. It was a nice path with a couple of cool/weird statues. Further along the path there were also a number of old boats next to the maritime museum. However, Turku Castle was a little disappointing when we got there. It didn’t look like a castle at all, more like an old apartment building. We laid down and took a nap in a park next to the castle then made our way back along the river to our dinner spot. Dinner was actually really good. We got the lamb pasta and the coconut shrimp wok. After dinner we grabbed some food and a couple bottles of wine for the ferry ride the next day.
Our ferry ride was at 8:40 AM and we had trouble getting a bus in the morning but we made it on time. This was an 11 hour ferry ride and we got a cabin for only 25 euro that had 2 bunk beds (4 total) and a bathroom and shower. It actually wasn’t bad for two people. We were still pretty tired so we napped, watched tv, and ate our groceries. I went up the deck for a little bit and it was really nice out. There were beautiful views of the little islands of Finland and Sweden all around and was exactly what I thought a ferry ride in Scandinavia would be. It was a pretty nice way to travel and was very affordable.
Finland was nice but didn’t really stand out as a place I would return to visit. Maybe if we went out to see more of the archipelagos, but I don’t think it’s worth it to return. One nice thing about Helsinki is that it is a great gateway to Estonia, Russia, and the rest of Scandinavia so it might be a good place to fly into but not the best place to stay, especially in comparison to the rest of Scandinavia. I’ll write about the rest of our Scandinavian travels later but Finland was a good starting point since it only got better as we went along.
See the full gallery of our time in Finland here: Best of Finland