When I traveled from Stockholm, Sweden to Helsinki, Finland on Viking Lines, my cruise ship docked at 11:00 AM on a Wednesday and I was expected to board my cruise back to Stockholm by 5:00 PM the following day. We were determined to make the absolute most of our – approximate – 30 hours in Helsinki.
Our walk from the port to city center was FRIGID but short nonetheless; it should take approximately 5-10 minutes depending on your speed. We began by entering a tourist information kiosk and picking up a few pamphlets regarding the sights we needed to see. After brief conversation with each other and kiosk workers, we narrowed it down to a few ideas and headed to our hotel, Solo Sokos Hotel Torni which was an additional 10-minute walk from the information kiosk. We dropped our packs off at our hotel’s luggage room and made way for our first sight, the rock church. The Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church) is a Lutheran church in the Töölö neighborhood of Helsinki. The church was designed by architects and brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and opened in 1969. I found it to be an incredibly spiritual place; I would not consider myself religious by any means, however, sitting in this church for 20 minutes or so really cleansed my soul. I left the church feeling very at peace and rejuvenated from the calming music and incredible architecture. One of our traveling companions actually fell asleep in a pew so I can ensure you that she also left feeling revived as well! Group Consensus: A perfect cure for our cruise ship hangovers with peaceful music, positive vibes, and stunning architecture.
From this point forward, it starts to get really fun! So to make sure you have all of the best information I’m going to get a bit more technical.
Suomenlinna Island (or Sveaborg)
You cannot miss this cultural treasure while in Helsinki. Construction began on sea fortress in 1748, on a cluster of islands off the coast of Helsinki, when Finland was still part of the kingdom of Sweden. Added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1991, this near-perfect preservation of military architecture is a must see. From Market Square, you can take two different forms of transportation to Suomenlinna. We took the Ferry from the east side of Market Square; the ferry service is part of the city transportation system so all HSL tickets are valid on this service. We purchased a round-trip ferry ticket from the booth in Market Square right next to where you load and unload. This option will take you from Market Square directly to the Main quay in about 15-20 minutes. Another option is to take the JT-LINE WATERBUS which does not stop at the Main quay but does stop at 3 other island locations: Artillery Bay quay, Kings Gate quay and Lonna quay. The JT-LINE WATER BUS is not part of the Helsinki Region Transport Authority so HSL tickets are not valid on this service and only runs in the summer months.
This lively community of nearly 800 residents is responsible for the restoration, development, and maintenance of the fortress so please be aware that this visitor attraction is also home to many peoples living, working and learning spaces as well. With this in mind, please realize that there are 7 restaurants open all year-round with an additional 5 open in the summer months, shopping, a grocery store, a library, museums (only 1 open in winter) and most importantly a tourist information building. I would advise the information building be your first stop; a map of the island will be helpful in your exploration of it.
As you venture deeper into Sveaborg you start to feel as though you’ve time traveled. Personally, I felt like I was in an episode of game of thrones, exploring Winterfell to be exact. The blustery blizzard we were experiencing certainly had a hand in creating that feeling; without snow, you might get a more Middle-earth vibe (LOTR fans?). If we had the time and the weather to explore the entire island, we would have, but seeing as we did not have either of those things we had to narrow down our viewpoints:
- The library, believe it or not, was a great warming station and completely adorable. As a teacher, it was really interesting to see the children’s books of another culture.
- The Suomenlinna Museum is located right before the bridge from Iso Mustasaari to Susisaari. The history shown here spans 240 years of historical events, including The Finnish Civil War, The Crimean War, World War II and the lives of those who lived and worked on the island over the years. The gift shop also has some really original prints, postcards and trinkets that we enjoyed viewing and also purchasing.
- Pipers Park is a really nice, well-landscaped area to hang out and potentially grab a bite to eat. Also be sure to explore the surrounding areas tunnels. We found some really cool spots exploring any dark opening we could find.
- Kings Gate is the farthest point from the Main quay and probably the coolest portion of the entire sea fortress. This iconic symbol was built between 1753 and 1754 as a ceremonial gateway to the fortress. There are a multitude of tunnels, walls, artillery and buildings to explore around Kings Gate so please take advantage of them all.
Regardless of your HBO series, film or fiction, preferences, this place is truly something special. Leave enough time to explore every nook and cranny. Better yet, stay at Hostel Suomenlinna for a day or two and get a true feel for life on a sea fortress.
Old Town Porvoo
We left the agenda for our last morning in Helsinki up to our oldest adventure partner. After reading around she decided we were going to explore Old Town Porvoo, a city situated on the southern coast of Finland about 50 km east of Helsinki. We took a double-decker OnniBus, which had charging ports and wifi, from the Helsinki Transportation center (about a 3-minute walk from our hotel). **Be warned, this was the first time on our trip we had experienced people who did not speak English very well; the gentleman at the metro that we tried to ask a question to did not understand us well, however, he did walk away and return with a younger working man who was able to answer our question and point us in the correct direction to buy our ticket and catch our bus. We were told by multiple people in Sweden that the Finnish did not speak English well and were not kind to English speakers; our only mishap was at the transportation center and the gentleman was friendly enough he just didn’t understand us!** After about 45 minutes on board, we were dropped off in the center of Porvoo, a very normal looking city, and left to find the Medieval, “old”, part of town on our own.
From the bus station, walk North West up Rauhankatu two blocks until you meet route 170, Mannerheiminkatu Road, and turn Left heading West for two or three blocks. At this point, you can head north along the Porvoonjoki River towards Vanha (or Old Town) Porvoo. We headed north until we reached Porvoo Cathedral, a small 13th-century cathedral that was originally made of wood before stone walls were added by 1420. The sculptures and artwork on the walls inside are beautiful. I really enjoyed the architecture of this parish both inside and out. We continued North to Iso Linnamäki; unfortunately, you won’t actually find a castle on castle hill, however, it is one of Finland’s best-preserved fortifications. The views from the top of the hill of town and down into the valley of river Porvoo are breathtaking. Follow the trails through mysterious pines and spruce, down towards the river, through a meadow rich in botanical heritage with species such as field wormwood, woodland draba, greater knapweed, Nottingham catchfly and field garlic.
Walk along the river towards old town Porvoo until you must head back uphill. Please check out the museums, shops, and cafes while you walk through Old Porvoo’s charming streets. Many of the museums were not open when we were exploring the city but the cobblestone streets, and bright colored buildings made us feel as though we were exploring one life-size museum the entire day. Stop at every storefront that intrigues you. We stopped at Petris Chocolate Room to satisfy our sweet tooth with their homemade recipes; other suggested chocolate related stops include Pieni Suklaatehdas and Brunberg’s Chocolate Factory, where you can find reasonably priced, delicious chocolate. I also suggest you take a peek in Porvoo’s intimate interior design stores. With varying styles, they are famous throughout the country for their beautiful and practical home decor. On more than one occasion I found myself wishing I had the means to ship a few items back to my apartment in New York.
Kiila Food & Bar
Kalevankatu 1, 00100 Helsinki, Finland
A great lunch stop in the city of Helsinki! For 10 Euro I purchased a chicken and goat cheese salad. This purchase included a soup and salad bar with bread. If you’re traveling the city and looking to get the most bang for your buck, as most travelers are, I would certainly suggest the downstairs of Kiila for lunch. My soup and salad were both delicious and filling and I even grabbed a piece of bread to eat later on in my travels (shhhhh!). My travel companions were also very happy with their sandwiches and salads. Most everything on the lunch menu was about 10 euro and included the soup and salad bar. With a modern look and set-up, we grabbed a seat alongside the window and were able to watch the hustle and bustle of the Helsinki sidewalk throuout our dining experience.
Kalevankatu 3, 00100 Helsinki, Finland
A more upscale choice of dining when looking for traditional Scandinavian/Finnish meals. This choice was certainly a bit pricey, but the food was delicious and our service was top notch. Our server was very knowledgeable, helpful and prompt. Please know that in winter at least, you will be required to check your jacket so make sure to wear an additional layer if you want to be warm at your table!Therer were plenty of items on the menu and with our waitrs help we were able to settle on a few items. Our table shared Finnish antipasto for an appetizer which included herring, salmon, mushroom salad, grapipolis and vineyard cheese for 15. I am certainly NOT a fan of herring however, the rest of the dish was delicious. I thoroughly enjoyed a duck dish for dinner and a camembert and raspberry jam for 12 Euro as my dessert. All three courses were exquisite. My only complaint is that the center divider was filled with plants and one of them was drooping over in my face for the entirety of dinner.
Solo Sokos Hotel Torni
Yrjönkatu 26 00100, Helsinki
What a beautiful hotel right in the center of town. Service at the front desk was friendly, informative and prompt. We were unable to check in the first time we arrived, so we were able to store out luggage in a secured luggage room so we could epxlore the city without any extra baggage, literally. Hotel Torni houses three bars; The Ateljee Bar, American Bar and Irish-inspired O’Malley’s. Ateljee Bar can be found on the top floor of the hotel and will provide you with delicious, but pricey, beverages with a stunning view of the city. The hotel is also home to Restaurant Torni which is open Mon – Fri 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 5:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m for dinner; On Saturdays from 12 noon – 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m.; closed on Sundays.
Our room was clean, functional, stylish and all around incredibly nice. Our Solo Up Queen, Extra bed possibility consisted of two separate rooms; the front room had a mini fridge, window, pull out couch and television
with access to a beautful bathroom. The back bedroom housed a Queen Size bed with a chair, and television. After a comfortable sleep we enjoyed complimentary breakfast like I have never experiences before. Nothing was spared with this breakfast! A cold spread like you would never believe included jams, jellies, breads, fruit, and cold-cuts (not an American breakfast staple but still incredible). The hot breakfast had eggs, oatmeal, meats and potatos that looked delicious as well.
There so many things to do in Helsinki that we simply did not have the time or weather for. Other recommended attractions include:
Allas Sea Pool: A one of a kind oasis in the midst of a city. Ocean-side saunas with a swimming pool and restaurant.
Ateneum Art Museum: One of the Finnish National Gallery’s art museums.
City Hop on Hop off Tour: See the best sights of Helsinki in 10 different languages. Tours depart every 20 minutes to explore 20 different stops.
Haltia: A place I wish I could’ve visited! Experience the Finnish forests and lakes at the Finnish Nature Center.
Helsinki Zoo: Korkeasaari is an island in Helsinki, Finland where the country’s biggest zoo is situated. It is one of the few zoos located on an island. It is the perfect place to visit due to its natural environment, animals, and history.
Kaivopuisto Park: Helsinki’s oldest and best-known park is surrounded by embassies and villas. The nearby sea, rock cliffs, and green lawns offer many opportunities to relax and enjoy the outdoors.
Linnanmaki Amusement Park: A jam-packed with fun amusement park owned by non-profit Lasten Päivän Säätiö, which operates the park in order to raise funds for Finnish child welfare work.
Löyly: Public and private saunas on a beautiful stretch of waterfront Helskini.
Market Square: A central square in Helsinki, Finland, and one of the most international and most famous market places. The booths here sell traditional market foods and treats, as well as handicrafts and souvenirs.
Panoraama Observation Tower: Found within Linnanmaki and free of charge to customers all season long!
Vallisaari: An island 20 minutes from Helsinki, where you can experience unique urban nature recreationaly.
Additionally, there are 9 allotment (community) gardens, 5 different Frisbee Golf Courses to choose from (3 of which are free of charge!), 4 different Bicycle rental opportunities, 2 places to go horseback riding, 2 opportunities to climb and a multitude of fishing, skiing and paddling options. Everyman’s Rights allows you to walk, ski, ride horses or cycle freely in nature; pick wild berries, mushrooms and flowers as long as they are not a protected species; fish with a rod and line; and use boats, swim or bathe in inland waters and the seas. Please check yourself for ticks after spending time in nature in temperatures about 5 degrees Celsius and enjoy all the urban wilderness has to offer!