A Weekend In: Helsinki

Hanging Out In February

-1C never felt so good! The sun was shining, the clouds were fading, I had a full belly and was ready to explore! As I headed out of my hotel I had no clue I was going to have a pretty awesome two days in Helsinki filled with art, culture, food, and of course, some snow.


My first stop (and highlight from previous, summer trips to Helsinki), was to the Suomenlinna Island Fortress. A group of small islands connected by a few bridges, it makes for an excellent half-day trip from Helsinki. It’s only a very short and cheap ferry ride away from the Helsinki harbor and (obviously) a main tourist attraction. But there are still many nooks and crannies (especially in winter) that remain uncrowded. I picked up a map and just started walking wherever my feet took me. Through old tunnels and castle walls. By one of the world’s oldest functional dry docks  Oh, and I recreated an old photo from my last time in Helsinki!

With construction on the sea fortress starting in the mid 18th century, it was used a functional military base up until 1973. The island has multiple cafes and museums that document the forts rich history under Finnish, Swedish, and Russian control.

An Unusual Love Affair

Upon returning to the mainland, I was in need of some caffination, so I head over to Johan & Nyström, and had some soup, coffee, and a very delicious dessert. In San Francisco, a tourist staple is chowder/soup in bread bowl at Fisherman’s Wharf. Well, now imagine that sourdough bread bowl is actually a sweet bread, and substitute the chowder for cardamom fruit jam and heavy whipped cream. Yea. So… I got one. Was it ever really a question? You’ll notice there’s no picture of it, because It didn’t last long enough to be photographed. Laskiaispulla is a seasonal dish made really only around Mardi Gras, or Pancake Day, which is a pretty awesome and apt name!

But as delicious as it was there was something entirely un-Finnish about it:


It something that I would come to taste in almost every Finnish pastry and dessert I encountered. From the most hipster of cafes to mom and pop shops to hotel breakfasts, there it was. And no, I won’t tell you how many a poor pastry I ravaged during my trip to Finland…. But why is this Indian spice so popular in Finnish baked goods?

Anyone who worked in a dining establishment and spoke English was in my crosshairs. And while everyone agreed that yes, Finns (and many of the Nordic countries) do love their cardamom, no one could explain why. Both the Viking and Dutch traders brought this wonderful spice back from India, but they also brought back many other spices and flavors. So why has cardamom stuck in the forefront instead of clove, or nutmeg, or others?

The most creative story has to be one I heard while in Kiilopaa. I was told, in fairly certain terms that, “Mrs. Clause really likes to bake with it, and [obviously] Santa Claus is Finnish. So that’s probably why”. Meh… why not?! When reminded that it is an Indian spice, we both at the same time said “I guess he picked it up while dropping off presents!” So far that one makes the most sense, but if you have any theories I’d love to hear them!

Architecture in Helsinki

There’s something about the Helsinki Central Railway Station… Something about taking a completely utilitarian place and turning into something so beautiful you want to miss your train so you can stare for longer. Early Art Deco, it opened its doors (and rails) in 1919, and I have little doubt it’s been dropping jaws for almost 100 years. Most people pass through it on their way to and from the airport train, but before rushing off to your hotel or the airport, take a moment and marvel at it. Built primarily with Finnish granite, the highlights for me were the clock tower and the statues holding light globes flanking the main entrance.

There were too many unique buildings to mention, primarily because I have no clue what they are. Most likely some random office building, and there I am snapping pictures like it’s the Mona Lisa! The late 19th century Old Market Hall is pretty unique and a great place to pick up some food or coffee.

Perhaps the most understated building was the Office of the President. Had there not been a full military procession in front I would’ve never known what that cream-colored building was. I had to sheepishly asked one of the dozens of poliisi outside what going on before I learned the answer.

Museums of Past and Present

The museum scene in Helsinki provided an unusual breadth of material. My first stop was to the Ateneum, the Finnish National Gallery. Through a wide range of mediums, themes, and artists, this museum has a lot to offer! A little ways off, but next door to each other, the Design Museum and the Museum of Finnish Architecture were small but interesting. Both had permanent and temporary exhibits that helped shed the light on Finland’s contributions to the art and architecture worlds

The National Museum of Finland and its neighbor to the south, the Kiasma (Museum of Contemporary Art) both provide insights to Finnish culture, one to its past and one to its present. I enjoyed the Kiasma more than I did most contemporary art museums, especially the exhibition of Mona Hatoum’s work. The globe, the lightbulbs, and the (oddly hilarious) glass crib were my favorites. The National Museum of Finland was very thorough, though, sadly part of it was undergoing a facelift. They had an impressive section entitled The Land and its People, that showed many agricultural cultural artifacts throughout the centuries. I especially enjoyed the various horse accoutrements as well as the textile tools, which is a big part of Finland.

Hands down, my favorite exhibit was Come to Finland, which showcased the rich history of tourism and giant collection of posters . Focusing on several tourist booms throughout the 1930s-60s, it showcased important illustrators, concepts, and marketing plans that helped put Finland on many peoples’ radar. Sadly for you, dear reader, this was a temporary exhibit that will most likely be gone by the time any of you get there. But the National Museum always has new and exciting exhibits in addition to its rich permanent collection.

Religious Diversity

Seeing multiple churches is fairly common for me in my travels. Whatever your stance on organized religion is, it is hard to deny the everlasting effect it has had on civilization, especially in the realms of art and architecture. So when walking around Helsinki, I was struck by not the number of churches, but the immense variation of churches. While the majority of Finns (around 3/4) are Evangelical Lutherans, there is no clear majority style of their houses of worship. The photos above are just some of the more varied and interesting that I encountered.

My favorite is the Mikael Agricola Church, the brick, Empire State Building-esque one. The main reason is the strikingly simplistic Art Deco style in which it was constructed, just prior to the start of WWII. I have long been a lover of Art Deco, with its clean, simple, and often futuristic looks, but if that wasn’t enough… See that giant needle on top? Well all 30 meters (100ft) of it is retractable! This unique design element was added a few years after its construction, in the midst of the Winter War (1939-40), when the Soviet Union invaded Finland. It was such a unique church that enemy pilots were able to use it as a navigational aid, and thus, it had to be hidden!

A close second favorite is the Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, with its striking towers and stunning use of gold, both on the inside and out. Other notable churches are St. John’s Church (largest stone church in Finland), the Temppeliaukion Church (built inside a giant rock), and the ultra modern/minimalist Kamppi Chapel (which I didn’t visit). I also enjoyed the Kallio Church, which was built by the same architect as the Mikael Agricola Church, but with a very different Art Nouveau feel to it. Already on a high hill, this church towers over the hipster neighborhood of Kallio. I had read this is newest, hip part of town, but to be honest the church was the only thing I enjoyed.

Moi Moi Helsinki!

After a great weekend of exploring it was time to head up north. To get out of the city and the (relative) warmth of Helsinki. I boarded the plane and headed up to Ivalo, Finland and to Fell Centre Kiilopaa. More of that later!

One Comment on “A Weekend In: Helsinki

  1. Pingback: Unwinding at Fell Centre Kiilopaa, Lapland, Finland - That Blond Guy

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