Helsinki is not the first place that comes to mind when thinking of a winter getaway – at least it wasn’t mine. But I love capital cities and since we were already in Norway at the time, Helsinki was only a short flight away. The city’s motto, according to Helsinki’s official website for tourism and travel info, is Hel Yeah! – a sentiment that shows the Finnish sense of humor and one that I can get behind 100%.
The sidewalks were icy (I slipped and fell twice), the air was brisk against my face, my fingers were a bit numb at times within my gloves – but I still thoroughly enjoyed my stroll around Helsinki. Follow along with me and let me show you the sights – no gloves required.
Let me introduce you to my favorite building in Helsinki – the Central Railway Station. Inaugurated in 1919 with an exterior composed of Finnish granite, it was named one of the world’s most beautiful railway stations by BBC in 2013. And I have to agree – I love the green accents and the four statues standing tall, holding glowing orbs and welcoming you to their city. This station has so much character with a very retro look. A fine example of Art Nouveau – love it.
In fact, Helsinki has the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in Northern Europe! I’m no expert in architecture and can’t say if the following examples are art nouveau, but they look very retro and cool to me.
The following photo is of the Fazer Café – a French-Russian cafe and bakery that has been here since 1891! The desserts and candies (lots and lots of candies and chocolates) looked amazing and I had every intention to actually eat there – but as usual, my brain got distracted somewhere along the way and I never made it back in. I love the signage – more retro!
Another distinct landmark is the Helsinki Cathedral – an Evangelical Lutheran church built from 1830 – 1852 in the neoclassical style. I gasped as I turned the corner and laid eyes on it – it was unexpected and the pure white exterior, rising up from a high set of stairs against the white snow and white sky was quite a sight.
Then I took a walk through Esplanade Park, a long narrow park in the heart of Helsinki. In the summer, this place must be lush and green, with all the fountains flowing and birds chirping in the trees. Of course the ground was bare and no fountains were flowing when I was there, but it was still nice and there were several interesting statues to look at:
After my stroll through the park, I found the water – you are never too far from water when in Helsinki. I think these photos show best just how icy it was that day:
I have a funny story about the hole in the ice – shown in the photo below. I’m walking along, favoring my left hip a bit to make sure I didn’t break anything after slipping on an ice patch, when this woman emerges from an office building across the street – in nothing but a bathing suit – and makes her way to a boat dock. The water surrounding the dock is frozen – mini icebergs bobbing up and down, I mean cold – and I see this woman make her way down a ladder, slowly lowering herself into the water as if it was a warm summer day, and begin to swim around a bit. I notice that the area around her is not frozen at all and I see a bit of bubbling and churning of water near her. Well, I think to myself – surely they are pumping hot water in there! There is no way a lucid human being would go swimming in that!
So I walk over as she is getting out and ask, “Umm … is that bubbling hot water that’s being pumped in?”
“Oh no,” she says, “that’s just agitation of the water to keep it from freezing over!” And she is casually explaining this to me, in her bathing suit, not even a towel around her, while I’ve got about four layers of clothes on! She says she does this almost every day, during her lunch break, to revive her. I’m pretty sure someone would have to come revive me – as in administer CPR – if I got in that water. She was a delight to chat to and I wish I had gotten a photo of her in the water.
So now you know the story behind the hole in the ice. Now tell me, would you go swimming in that?
After all that, I needed to warm up! So I found a great cafe along the water – complete with a fire and reindeer skins to sit on. Looks like a place Santa would go to on his day off – and who knows, maybe he does. Santa is, after all, from Finland.
After my coffee break, I came across the Sibelius Monument, unveiled in 1967 and dedicated to the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). It consists of a series of more than 600 hollow steel pipes welded together, in an attempt to capture the essence of his music. Considering the surrounding landscape, it looked like music frozen in time and space.
Another interesting sight was Temppeliaukio Church, or Rock Church – a Lutheran church built directly into solid rock. Here’s a tip – don’t try to walk on top of the rock the church is built into when it’s icy outside. Just a thought.
My last image is of the Three Smiths Statue, located at the intersection of the two most famous streets of Helsinki, Aleksanterinkatu and Mannerheimintie. It was sculpted by Felix Nylund, unveiled in 1932, and is a popular meeting point today.
I found Helsinki to be quite an interesting city, but interesting in subtle ways. It’s not glamorous and sleek, it’s not grandiose and regal. But look closely and you’ll find the quirky – in the retro signage on the buildings, in the Finnish design of everything from clothes to jewelry to home goods, and in the Finnish themselves. They are known to be a quiet bunch – but once you break the ice, you’ll find a very amiable and chatty personality emerge. And I was there in the dead of winter – I imagine that in the summer it is a completely different city, full of outdoor festivities, green parks, and lively conversations.
Let’s hear it for Helsinki – Hel Yeah!