from the archives: hell-bent on helsinki

Now that the weather in NYC has turned Baltic, I thought it might be fun to take another look at a city known for its cold-weather bonhomie:  Helsinki.  However, to keep things ironically interesting, this piece comes from my one and only visit to the Finnish capital during warm weather.

kiasma2My previous visits to Helsinki went by in an alcohol-induced blur.  Arriving in the coldest dregs of winter, I think I can be forgiven as the temperature rarely cracked freezing and the sun shrank beyond the horizon by noon.  Swaddled in fur, with an underlay of wool, my time was spent rushing from one overheated indoor space to another while trying to avoid hypothermia.  I enjoyed the shopping, the museums, the incredible architecture and most of all, the core-warming sauna; yet my view of the city was  largely garnered through the steamy window of a taxi.  Outdoor activities were rightly left to the foolhardy and the drunk.

Helsinki in summer is another story altogether.

For three short months a year the cozy seaside capital gets a little crazy.  With average summer temperatures hovering comfortably in the seventies and a balmy breeze off the harbor, sun-starved Finns peel off the Gore-Tex and pour into the streets with abandon.  If you need to go indoors, you’ll get curious looks from museum attendants and shop clerks who’ll – amazing sales aside – wonder why you are inside.  Who can blame them?  This is the land of the midnight sun, after all, and a perfect time to experience the city from that rarest of vantage points:  outdoors.

kauppatori3-isoStart with the biggest and best known of the city’s outdoor markets – Market Square.  Right on the water, by the mammoth ferries to Stockholm, there’s everything from fresh fish, flowers, fruits, to reindeer skins, hunting knives and fur.  Grab the traditional snack of fresh peas or a case of the sweetest strawberries you’ll ever taste and spend the day in neighboring Esplanade park, watching the city promenade in the sunshine.  Next to the market, and meticulously restored, is the old enclosed Market Hall, selling everything edible under one roof.  It’s the place to stock up on your bear pate and wood grouse soup.

helsinki_158Connecting Market Square and the imperial majesty of Senate Square is Sofiankatu, a narrow street where it’s possible to zoom through centuries of Finnish history on foot. Transformed into an outdoor museum that recreates the streetscape from the 1880’s to the 1930’s, this lively area recalls an era when merchants, whores and horse-drawn cabs mingled under gas lit lamps.

It takes only half an hour to get from Helsinki to Nuuksio National Park, which provides a taste of the Finnish landscape of lakes and forests.  Like a true Finn, you can enjoy solitude and the sounds of nature near a crystal lake.  An expert guide is on hand to explain the features of Finnish nature and why even the most urban of Finns seem so preternaturally connected to their countryside.  Touring the park, you can also check out an authentic Finnish smoke sauna or simply walk along the soothing forest paths.  Tours depart Tuesday and Sunday from the Esplanade Park all summer.

SuomenlinnaSuomenlinna Sea Fortress is one of the largest sea fortresses in the world and has been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.  There is a regular water-bus making the 15-minute journey from Market Square along with guided tours in English.  You can visit any (or all) of the eight museums, massive stone walls and fortifications, cannons and tunnels.  The Visitors Center is showcasing one of the most valuable underwater relics ever found in Finland, the St. Mikael, shipwrecked in 1747 on its way to St. Petersburg, laden with gold and porcelain treasures meant for the czarist aristocracy.

Royal Line’s vessels take visitors on a traditional Helsinki by Sea tour or take in Helsinki Under the Bridges.  You get a look at the city’s oldest districts and historical buildings, churches and monuments (and icebreakers).  Perfect for the weary of foot, it is an excellent way to take in many of the city’s most impressive sights.  Though tours run all day, it makes for an especially spectacular dinner cruise as the sun slowly starts its long descent and the skies turn a vibrant, deep blue.

korkeasaari_island_lookout_tower_031One of the rare island zoos in the world, and perhaps the oldest at 100+ years is Korkeasaari Zoo.  The animals dwell in the midst of a beautiful seaside tableau, just east of the city center.  While mainly inhabited by northern species of animals, the zoo also has a mini rain forest and a feline house with creatures from warmer climes.  In September visitors can come and admire the big cats at night in their own element.  A water bus connects to the island every half hour from the Market Square

A fifteen minute tram ride from the city center lies Seurasaari, a small wooded island set in a sheltered bay.  Boasting three museums, you’ll only want to hit one – the Open Air Museum, a collection of vernacular buildings assembled from all over Finland, connected by pathways that extend all over the island, showing how country folk lived until surprisingly recently.  Aside from the museums and scenery, people also come to Seurasaari to strip off.  Sex segregated nudist beaches line part of the western edge of the island –a popular offshore stop for the city’s weekend boaters, armed with binoculars.

Ultimately, there is really only one good excuse for being indoors:  the sauna.  The newly reopened Kotiharju sauna is a landmark where folks can enjoy a good steam in the only wood-heated public sauna in town.  Whether this is your first visit or your tenth, a real sauna is a must.  Sauna culture is distinctively Finnish and to know sauna is to know a central element of Finnish culture.  In the old days, children were birthed in the sauna, and there are still Finns who swear by it over showers and baths for hygiene.  Sauna is a place to get clean and participate in society at the same time.  Throw in some cold beer for after you emerge from the steam and its an experience unlike any other.

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