If travel books and Google are to be believed, the first thing any visitor to Helsinki should do is take a ferry to the historic fortress of Suomenlinna and then check out an underground rock church – and why not munch on blueberries and Carelian pies while doing it.
Those sites are iconic for a reason, of course, and missing them would be comparable with travelling to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. But they are also somewhat detached from the daily lives of locals, and if you limit your Helsinki experience to them, you will miss out on much of what is unique and authentic about the Finnish capital.
Here are my suggestions for experiencing the authentic Helsinki spirit in depth. Oh, and as for blueberries and Carelian pies: go for it. They make a great Helsinki-style picnic meal.
1 Take the metro and explore the eastside
The Helsinki metro map consists of a singular forked line. Its size, hopelessly modest in comparison with almost any other cosmopolitan subway system in the world, is an endless source of self-deprecating wisecracks among locals.
In truth, a more extensive metro network hasn’t been built in Helsinki simply because our vast and efficient tram, commuter train and bus systems cover every corner of the city. Locals who live away from the immediate vicinity of the subway track are well served by them.
That being said, the concept of a more encompassing metro system routinely pops up at city council meetings, and slow steps are being taken: the subway line is currently being extended, and a new line with eight new stations is set to open in a matter of a few months. The extension will cut through some of the suburbs in West Helsinki and will ultimately cover 13 new metro stations.
Riding the world’s northernmost metro is an experience a visitor should not miss. Once the bright Fanta-orange train departs the inner city area, it actually goes overground and exposes a unique window to the eastern suburbs of Helsinki. Hop off at Herttoniemi, Itäkeskus, Kontula, or Mellunmäki (the world’s northernmost metro station) and you are firmly off the beaten tourist path, in the heart of East Helsinki.
The eastside is a bustling, spread-out suburbian universe of its own filled with street art, oriental shops and ethnic restaurants, gigantic shopping malls, dirt cheap pubs, and the beautiful Aurinkolahti (Sunny Bay) beach.
Rap musicians, immigrants, street artists and lower income families are just the tip of the iceberg among the groups of people who are proud to call East Helsinki their home. I was born and raised in one of its many suburbs, Roihuvuori, and felt right at home when I lived in the neighboring suburb of Laajasalo for six years as an adult.
For more on the Helsinki metro, visit http://www.hel.fi/www/hkl/en/by-metro/.
2 Experience Restaurant Day
A proud showcase of Helsinki’s very best qualities, Restaurant Day is the Finnish capital’s gift to the world.
Uniting social segments across the board since 2011, first in Helsinki and now 74 countries around the world, Restaurant Day is celebrated city-wide every third Saturday of May, every year. For one day, anyone can turn their home or backyard into a restaurant, or erect a pop-up food parlour on a street.
For a traveller, this provides a unique opportunity to mingle with locals and even visit Finnish homes. To kick-start your three-course meal, have a home baked traditional Carelian pie (a traditional Finnish treat) at an old lady’s living room in Vallila; for mains, grab some Venezuelan empanadas at a South American family’s highrise apartment in Harju or a cup of hearty mushroom soup in an old timber lodge right beside the Olympic Stadium; for dessert, head downtown to the Helsinki University campus for a scoop of organic Italian-style ice cream, and cap the day off with a cup of Somalian tea at the African Care Centre a block away. You are likely to leave home not only well fed but having made a bunch of new friends.
Restaurant Day is not just a great deal of fun – between the lines, it communicates an acutely important message of peace and unity.
While the event was initially a statement against strict restaurant regulations, the current restless political climate has given it a whole new layer. The nationalist movement is making significant headway all over Europe, and unfortunately, Finland is no exception.
Helsinki has largely, but not totally, avoided the toxic racism plaguing some parts of the country that are less used to, and therefore less tolerant of, ethnic diversity. Therefore, the concept of the ”Helsinki bubble” has recently found its way into local parlance, in reference to the capital being the most multi-cultural and open minded spot in the country.
There is no more quintessential way to sneak inside the Helsinki bubble and celebrate the city’s dearly-held values of diversity and acceptance than Restaurant Day.
For details, see http://www.restaurantday.org/en/.
3 Go to a sauna
For centuries, Finns have escaped the unforgiving Nordic winters by taking hot baths in their beloved saunas. While the pastime has its roots in rural Finland, it is equally popular in cities, and has long been a summer activity as well.
Helsinki provides several foreigner-friendly opportunities for the first-timer to give traditional Finnish sauna a shot. The wood-heated Kotiharjun Sauna, for instance, is a local legend. Lately, there has been a downright boom of public saunas: even the New York Times paid attention to the eco-friendly design sauna Löyly in the trendy new district of Hernesaari, and Allas Sea Pool provides the unique experience of swimming in warm water and bathing in a sauna while observing the crowds in the Central Market Square.
Of course, if you’re visiting in winter, you might want to take the sauna experience to another level and swim in the frozen Baltic Sea.
That’s right. At some point down the line, someone discovered a way to take the sauna experience to an even more masochistic level. She or he dug a hole in the frozen water, dived into it, swam as long as they could, and ran back to the sauna to sweat the freeze off.
If that sounds like a whole lot of self-torture, take my word, that’s exactly what it is. The reward? An otherworldly mental and physical euphoria, a high no artificial drug comes close to providing. I dare you to do it – you will smile for the rest of the week.
For a comprehensive list of public saunas in Helsinki, see http://www.visithelsinki.fi/en/see-and-experience/activities-in-helsinki/swimming-and-saunas/ .
4 Ride the vintage roller coaster in Linnanmäki
The Linnanmäki amusement park is no Disneyland – and therein lies its charm. Compact in size and sympathetic in character, creatively designed and functionally planned, Linnanmäki has been a must-go for locals and tourists alike since it was opened in 1950.
My aunt took me there once every summer when I was a child, and I am keeping the tradition alive by taking my niece and nephew for a day out in Linnanmäki every June.
Entry is free, and so is spending an hour or two wondering through the maze-like valleys, watching families and couples enjoy a summer day and letting the Helsinki summer spirit sink in.
If you wish to take more than a few of the 44 rides, you will want to get the all-inclusive wristband. But even if you’re skipping everything else, there is still one ride you should not miss.
So get a ticket to Vuoristorata, the vintage wooden roller coaster. Dating back to 1951, the ride has been an inseparable part of the city’s identity since the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, whom it was built to coincide with.
The ride looks unnervingly shaky, and once you are seated in the tiny carriage and get going up and down the bumpy, narrow monorail at an increasing speed, shaky is exactly how you will feel. But it is completely safe – despite its advanced age, Vuoristorata is maintained annually to meet the latest standard in technology.
Tivolikuja 1. Tram 3. For opening hours and pricing, see http://www.linnanmaki.fi/en.
5 Shop at Stockmann
In the endearingly clumsy black and white comedy Syntipukki (Scapegoat) from 1935, the freshly crowned Miss Europe, Finnish beauty queen Ester Toivonen, plays a saleswoman at a swanky new department store in the heart of Helsinki.
The classy shopping centre was an apt setting for a film starring Finland’s early ticket to international fame. It added a touch of glamour to the capital of a young country, a city eager to get its name heard around the world; along with landmarks like Lasipalatsi and the Olympic Stadium (built for the 1940 summer Olympics ultimately cancelled by war), it was a sign of a small Nordic capital slowly morphing into a cosmopolitan metropolis.
Fast forward 81 years, and the store still stands proudly at its original spot, its looks and sophisticated ambience intact, the difference being it now has a formidable history adding further value to its might.
Stockmann has stood its ground through several financial crisis, the last of them only recently, and longevity is now part of its legend. It is by far the best-known department store in the country, and one of the best known in any Nordic country, for a good reason: the service is always top notch, the delicacies fresh and flavourful, departments from clothing to toys are bursting with quality brands, and the interiors are impeccably chic and well preserved. The Academic Bookstore is an amply stocked book-lover’s heaven.
If you want a coffee break and would like to support local businesses, make sure you choose one of the several Finnish cafés instead of the Starbucks.
Don’t feel pressured to buy anything though – just soak up the atmosphere. It doesn’t get more Helsinki than this.
Aleksanterinkatu 52. Metro: Central Railway Station. Trams: 3, 4, 7.