One city down, dozens more to go on this adventure. So here’s a quick review of my favorite things about my first stop – Helsinki:
1. Suomenlinna Sea Fortress.
Suomenlinna probably was the highlight of my time in Helsinki. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Suomenlinna was founded in the mid-1700s when Finland was part of Sweden and it played a role in the defense of Sweden, Russia and Finland over the years. It is only accessible by boat, which takes about 15 minutes from Market Square in Helsinki. The fortress actually spans multiple small islands and includes several museums, each of which charge a separate admission fee. However, there is no charge to visit the islands themselves and, unless you have a keen interest in military or maritime history, I would suggest just skipping the museums.
While I initially tried to follow the path to the King’s Gate laid out by the tourist office map, a series of dirt paths along the shore soon distracted me. I enjoyed near solitude as I followed the shoreline, passing old bunkers, cannons and fortress walls along the way. I also stopped at one point to walk down to some large rocks near the water to sit and enjoy a couple sandwiches I brought with me. With the sun shining and a light breeze blowing, it was the perfect way to spend a morning.
2. Kansallismuseo (National Museum of Finland).
This may be one of the best museums I have ever visited in terms of layout and organization. The museum, which is housed in a building resembling a gothic church, takes you through Finland’s history dating back to pre-historic times. While the exhibits lean a little too heavily toward the very early years for my taste, they take you perfectly and logically through Finland’s entire past. Not to mention nearly every exhibit has detailed explanations in Finnish, Swedish and English. It may not be the most interesting museum I’ve ever been to and it may not appeal to everyone, but I’m glad I took an hour or so to check it out.
3. Market Square
Calling this a square is a bit of a misnomer as it is really a large open area down by the waterfront in Helsinki – not what you typically picture a “square” to be. It reminded me a bit of the waterfront in Bergen, but without the cute wooden houses. Market Square is conveniently located near where ferries to nearby islands depart and ships from Helsinki and Stockholm dock. Every day, a slew of merchants and vendors set out their tents and tables to cater to tourists and locals alike. I enjoyed perusing all of the traditional Finnish souvenirs, but I especially enjoyed the fresh food vendors. Within the square you can pick up fresh raspberries, blueberries or a slew of other fresh produce, or enjoy roasted vegetables, potatoes and reindeer meat right off the grill. I made a point to stop through here each day I was in Helsinki.
4. Esplanade Park.
The street running alongside Esplanade Park down to Market Square is lined with sidewalk cafes, making it the perfect spot to grab a drink or bit to eat and sit for a while and watch the world go by. Cafe owners clearly expect as much, as they placed all chairs outwards so everyone faces the park.
5. Kaivopuisto Park.
As Helsinki’s oldest park, Kaivopuisto is a nice retreat from the hustle of the city, but is fairly unremarkable, with the exception of the Ursa Observatory – the park’s highest point. Walk up the relatively steep path and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the harbour, surrounding islands and the villas bordering the park.