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Helsinki: Belle Of The Baltic

Oct 1, 2011
2011 / October 2011

It is a perfect day for a picnic, and I think I know just the spot. I’ve been in Helsinki for a few days, long enough to have a scattering of favorite places around the city. One of them is Tervasaari, a small, verdant island in North Harbor connected to downtown by a manmade isthmus.

On the island’s southern shore, facing the Orthodox cathedral, there is a floating wooden platform with four picnic tables. As I walk toward it, bearing a rucksack containing rolls and slices of ham and cheese, my confidence wavers. A woman in a bikini is at one of the tables. She isn’t enjoying a picnic. Instead, she is pouring a bucket of soapy seawater onto a rug, and then scrubbing vigorously.

Not for the first time, I have misunderstood Finland. What I presumed to be picnic tables are, in fact, municipal facilities provided for Helsinki citizens to clean their carpets and rugs during summer. A short walkway connects the platform to the shore, where additional carpet-cleaning paraphernalia have been provided: a mangle and a rank of wooden drying frames.

Within weeks, this sunlit platform will be gripped within the ice of the frozen-over harbor, and the citizens who made use of it will be wrapped up in their apartments with only the vaguely salty scent from their carpets to remind them of these balmy days of late summer.

Winter is the defining season of Helsinki. The robust, functional architecture is built to resist the annual Arctic blast. Five icebreakers are moored in the harbor, ready for round-the-clock labor as soon as the Gulf of Finland begins to solidify. The downtown shops are already selling off their summer wear to make way for the latest thermal garb.

The historical imperative to prepare for the freezing, dark months of the northern winter has helped to give Finland one of the highest standards of living in the world. Efficiency is a necessity. Everyone must work together to ensure communal survival.

This stoic camaraderie also enabled the Finns to preserve their unique cultural identity during centuries of domination by Sweden and Russia. Finland finally emerged as an independent republic in 1918, and since then it has been as stable as the granite upon which its capital city sits.

Helsinki is a remarkably young European city, living up to its billing as the “daughter of the Baltic.” In 1812, during Russian rule, Czar Alexander I moved the capital here from Turku in order to reduce Swedish influence.

Although it lacks ancient buildings, Helsinki has benefited from being free of the rambling medieval street patterns that have been a burden to most other European cities. From the start, the capital was laid out in an ordered grid.

At the center of downtown is Esplanadi Park, a leafy boulevard of clipped lawns and broad paths lined with benches. During the Cold War, this was a popular meeting place for spies. Today, it is full of late-afternoon strollers. At the eastern end, a Big Band is performing Frank Sinatra classics. People mill in front of the bandstand, soaking up the atmosphere.

Helsinki’s strategic location, which made it such a hive of intrigue during the Cold War, now places the city at the heart of the Baltic cruise industry. Esplanadi Park leads to the busy South Harbor, where docked cruise ships and ferries dwarf the surrounding buildings.

Although downtown Helsinki has remained determinedly low-rise, the wider metropolitan area incorporates the city of Espoo, which boasts the glass-and-steel headquarters of several major companies, including the Finnish telecommunications giant, Nokia.

As I become familiar with the metropolitan geography and gain an increasing feel for the city’s economic currents, there is one aspect of Helsinki that remains unfathomable: the Finnish language.

Finland has two official languages: Swedish and Finnish. Swedish, like English, is a Germanic language, with many common words to cling to. I can understand the gist of most Swedish street signs and notices. But Finnish is a Uralic tongue, utterly different from any language I’ve ever heard.

When the woman cleaning her carpet sees me, she greets me in English. Through her, I learn a little more about daily life in Helsinki. I learn where she lives, what she does and precisely how she cleans her carpets.

Just as I feel that I am reaching a new level of perception, two newcomers arrive with rolled carpets under their arms. They immediately begin to talk to the woman in Finnish. Their conversation is as dense and impenetrable as winter fog.


The Helsinki Card (www.helsinkiexpert.com/helsinki_card), available for 24, 48 or 72 hours (€35, €45, €55), provides admission to most museums and attractions as well as unlimited use of public transport. The card can be purchased at the Central Railway Station or at the Helsinki Tourist Bureau (www.visithelsinki.fi) close to South Harbor.

From South Harbor, the Royal Line (www .royalline.net) runs a 90-minute sightseeing voyage among the archipelago of islands that speckles the city’s Inner Bay. The harbor is also the departure point for regular ferry links to the Helsinki Zoo (www.korkeasaari.fi) and Suomenlinna Sea Fortress (www.suomenlinna.fi). The formidable 18th- and 19th-century fortifications of Suomenlinna, which sprawl across six islands at the entrance to South Harbor, are a UNESCO World Heritage site. There is an excellent visitor center along with several museums, restaurants and cafés.

Back on the mainland, once you’ve mastered the efficient tram system, all parts of Helsinki are within easy reach, though the city is also very walkable. The Helsinki Tourist Bureau offers a free 30-page English guide outlining five walking routes around the city. The de facto center of the city is Senate Square. On the northern side is the city’s most distinctive landmark, Helsinki Cathedral. The exterior, with its five green domes, belies its austere Lutheran interior. On a summer evening, the steep cathedral steps are the ideal place to bask in the sun and watch the world go by. The other great cathedral, Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, sits on a hilltop overlooking the North and South harbors. Uspenski’s incense-scented interior, glittering with gilt-framed icons, provides a dramatic contrast to its Lutheran counterpart. The city’s most breathtaking religious building is Temppeliaukio Church (www .temppeliaukio.fi), partially carved into solid granite, with a copper roof that resembles a flying saucer.

The National Museum of Finland (www.nba.fi) provides a thorough overview of the country’s varied history. The Ateneum Art Museum (www.ateneum.fi) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma (www.kiasma.fi) are musts for anyone interested in Finnish art, old and new.

Info To Go

International flights arrive at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport (HEL), 10 miles north of downtown. An extension of the HelsinkiMetro to the airport is scheduled to open in 2014. For now, opt for a taxi or transfer via Finnair’s City Buses connecting the airport and the central station every 20 minutes (about $9 each way). For more information, visit www.visithelsinki.fi.


Hotel Fabian

Opened in September 2010, this trendy 58-room hotel is located in the Design District, a block from bustling South Harbor. Fabianinkatu 7, tel 358 9 6128 2000, www.hotel

Hotel GLO Kluuvi

In a superb location at the heart of the city, the hotelsports funkily designed guestrooms, complete with glowing bedside tables. Kluuvikatu 4, tel 358 10 3444 400, www

Hotel Kämp

The Kämp was Helsinki’s most prestigious address when it opened in 1887. Its former glory was restored under the< Starwood Hotels umbrella in 1996. Pohjoisesplanadi 29, tel
358 9 576 111, www.hotelkamp.com


Namaskaar Express

The service is rather indifferent, but you won’t mind if your goal is an inexpensive (by Helsinki standards), fast and authentic Indian meal. Aleksanterinkatu 36 B, tel 358
9 278 1363 $$

Restaurant Saaristo

One of several island restaurants, Saaristo features local favorites. Access is by boat from a pier beside the Olympic Terminal in South Harbor. Klippan Island, tel 358 9 7425
5590, www.asrestaurants.com $$$$

Restaurant Savoy

Helsinki’s special-occasion venue since 1937 has a sumptuous interior designed by the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Eteläesplanadi 14, tel 358 9 6128 5300, www.royal



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