Destination: Helsinki, Finland
We stopped in Helsinki on a Sunday. I wish we’d had a few more hours and/or visited on any day other than Saturday. We had time to hit the high points in town, but the shops were closed and I would’ve liked to have visited Suomenlinna Sea Fortress. That said, I think a stop on a cruise ship was a good way to visit Helsinki. The rest of Finland has a lot more to offer, but we got to see enough of Helsinki that I’m satisfied for now.
What to Do
Helsinki is all about the churches. With just a few hours to visit, you’ll want to visit the big 3 (discussed below). Luckily they’re all open to tourists on Sundays – unlike almost all the shops.
Esplanade Park. If you take the shuttle bus into town, it’ll drop you off near the Esplanade Park. In the summer, this is a popular place to enjoy the weather and picnic. It was chilly when we visited, so there weren’t a lot of people just hanging about. Regardless, it was pretty and a good stop to get a couple pictures. Also, the little cafe on the square is one of Rick Steves’ fave places to get a cup of coffee, so stop by if you like coffee and have time.
Market Square. Keep walking east through the park, and you’ll come to Market Square, where you can find souvenirs and food. My dad highly recommends trying Finnish strawberries if you get the chance, but we didn’t find any (I think we were too late in the year). Also, be sure to check out the fountain, Havis Amanda, at the western end of the square. Not only is it a pretty fountain, but it’s also chock full of history. The mermaid is meant to be the symbol of the rebirth of Helsinki, but it was not well liked for a while since the model was actually a French call girl.
Uspenski Cathedral. Head up the hill just past Market Square to the city’s beautiful Russian Orthodox church, which was built in the 1860s. As with other Russian Orthodox churches, there are loads of icons to admire.
Helsinki Cathedral on Senate Square. From Uspenski, head west again, this time a block north of Esplanadi. You’ll soon come upon Senate Square and the beautiful green domes of the Lutheran cathedral. It’s really plain inside in keeping with the denomination’s beliefs, but the outside is definitely special.
Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church). We took a tram from Market Square to the Rock Church. (Tram lines 3T, 3B, and bus routes 14, 14B, 18, 32, 39, 39A, 39V, 45-47, and 70T will all take you to the church.) It wasn’t open for visitors just yet, so we found a pub down the street from the tram stop, Mr. Don’s Bar and Cafe, where I tried a local beer (good!) and enjoyed the free WiFi while we waited. It’s a really odd looking church! The church was built into the rock in the late 1960s – you can tell. The roof was really neat – a super long coil of copper.
After visiting the Rock Church, we headed back to Market Square (via tram – actually got dropped at Senate Square and walked to Market Square) to poke around for souvenirs and then caught the shuttle bus back to the ship.
Suomenlinna Sea Fortress. If we’d had more time (and warmer weather), I really would’ve liked to have gone to the fortress. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it looks like a really excellent place to stroll and picnic. There are a bunch of museums on the island, so those would be fun to check out too. (Pic below from Wiki.)
Ateneum Art Museum. “Ateneum’s collections thus introduce Finnish art from the Gustavian period of the mid-18th century to the modernist movements of the 1950s. Ateneum also houses a handsome collection of international art, featuring works by such masters as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Fernand Léger and Marc Chagall.” (-Official site)
Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. This museum houses Finnish art since the 1960s.
Kotiharjun. This is the only public sauna in Helsinki that’s heated with wood. I really would’ve liked to have gone to a sauna, and this one is the real deal. Unfortunately it’s not open on Sundays, just Tues-Fri 2p-8p and Sat 1p-7p. €10 per person.
Stockmann’s Department Store. This is the largest department store in Finland, so it’s like going to Harrods in London or Macy’s in New York.
Currency. Finland is the only country on our cruise that officially accepted the euro, which made it easy for us since we had leftover euros from our last trip. The tram only took cash, so it was good that we had some.
Language. While Finnish websites’ English versions leave something to be desired, everyone we encountered spoke English in addition to Finnish – even the tram driver.
Getting around. As you can tell from my descriptions above, a lot of the stuff is within easy walking distance from the cruise ship shuttle drop off. The tram system is really easy to figure out too, so getting around is no problem. One tip: It would’ve been cheaper to take the bus from by the cruise terminal than the shuttle, but there wasn’t a schedule and no one we asked seemed to have a clue about the bus schedule. I say it would’ve been cheaper because we would’ve purchased the day pass and gotten at least 4 rides from the pass, and it also would’ve included the ferry to Suomenlinna.
Food: Fish and reindeer are the main things tourists want to try here. *shivers* Yeah… I didn’t want any of that. I would’ve liked to have tried a cloudberry dessert though – we just couldn’t find much open.