A little tired, but enthused from our mini-cruise, we arrived bright and early in Helsinki harbour on December 20th. The ferry pulled in, and after snapping a few nice shots from the ship, we got our packs on and off we went.
We were meeting our Finnish host about an hour west of Helsinki a little later that day, so we didn’t take much time to look around this time. That ended up being fine though, because it was raining anyway. The route to the central train station went by a lot of nice buildings too, so we could do a little bit of sight-seeing as we walked.
We came back for the weekend a couple of weeks later, staying with a friend of Nathanael’s that had gotten in touch a couple months previously. Lucky for us, he had been a tour guide in Helsinki and offered us a guided tour. Finland was under Swedish rule for several hundred years, before coming under Russian control for a little over a century, and finally gaining independence in the early 20th century. Caught between two historically powerful countries, the influences of both over the centuries are evident. That being said, there is a lot of pride and loyalty to hardy Finnish culture and industry.
We started off in front of the Helsinki Cathedral, a beautiful church set at the top of a stone-block stairway. We briefly went inside, and while the interior was nice I thought the exterior was much more beautiful to look at. From the top of the stairs, we could see the Government Palace, the library and the main building of Helsinki university, and the Sederholm house, the oldest building in Helsinki city centre. We also had a great view of the Senate Square. While there were no signs around talking about it, and it took a bit of internet digging to find information on it, the square is actually built over an old graveyard.
Hopping on a tram, off we went to a pretty unique destination: a hotel that had once been a prison! Now the Best Western Premier Hotel Katajanokka, up until 2002 the building was Helsinki County Prison (called Nokka or Skatta), a detention centre for criminals awaiting trial. While they’ve obviously renovated considerably, they left a few of the old cells intact so you can have a glimpse at what conditions were like.
From there we left on foot, exploring the nearby Katajanokka neighbourhood. Helsinki is known for its large collection of buildings fashioned in the Art Nouveau or National Romantic style, and this area was full of beautiful examples. After a brief stop in a gorgeous little cafe, we continued on to the ornate Uspenski Cathedral. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go inside, but it was so beautiful from the outside that we were still happy.
Walking down the brightly lit Esplanadi, our guide pointed out the Presidential Palace, Supreme Court, and Helsinki City Hall. We popped inside the city hall for a bit to check out their current exhibit, “Faces of Power.” We found some, shall we say, unexpected portraits in the gallery.
After we finished admiring such dazzling paintings, we went over to Helsinki City Museum for a little lesson in history and art nouveau.
We finished our walk down Esplanadi, hearing local legends, traditions, and stories enshrouding the statues and buildings that surrounded us, ending at the Kamppi Chapel of Silence. No weddings, church services, baptisms, or other holy events are held at the chapel. It was built to be a house to all and to no religion. Blocking out all sound from the busy square outside the walls, it’s open every day for people to come alone, or together, for a silent moment.
On our last day in Finland, after many hugs and goodbyes, we left to spend one last day in Helsinki. More specifically, at Suomenlinna! Suomenlinna is the sea fortress built on a group of islands just outside of Helsinki. Built during the Swedish era, the majority of the buildings on the group of islands date from the late 18th century. The day was cold, but bright and breath-taking.
We wandered over the stone walls and through the dark tunnels unhindered. After spending the day exploring the islands, we stopped at one of the local cafes to warm up with some cappuccino. After a much-needed caffeine hit, we were ready and off to conquer the rest of our busy day. Next stop, England!