Helsinki & Suomenlinna

We are spending this month in Tallinn, Estonia, but one of the first things we planned was a day-trip to Helsinki. There was a cheap ferry ticket on Eckero Line coinciding with warm weather, which isn’t guaranteed on the Baltic in September. The ferry was like a mini-cruise, but with more personal importing going on. Unlike the tightly-controlled world of bringing alcohol onto cruise ships, Tallinn-Helsinki ferries are basically designed for legal smuggling. Finns head over in large numbers to circumvent expensive liquor in their home country. (Its serious business, they literally buy a third of all the alcohol in Estonia, mostly in Finn-packs of 10 bottles of the hard stuff designed for easy transport home.)  We arrived in Finland – sans alcohol – at 2:30pm and left just eight hours later.

Leaving Helsinki behind, clouds over Estonia, on deck.

Continuing our tradition of fortress-exploring, we spent our afternoon on Suomenlinna, a former stronghold on four connected islands just offshore. And it involved more ferrying! The largest island is where most of the defensive ramparts are located, and where we spent most of our time. Thick stone walls have protected the passages leading into Helsinki’s harbor since 1748. Tunnels connect some firing positions, and are open to clamber around. It basically feels like adults were asked to build their ultimate playhouse. Larger rooms were for sea-facing cannon, narrow ones facing inward or towards gates had slits for small arms. We needed our phone flashlights to navigate some tunnels, though that became less fun after we saw the island also is home to snakes.

On Suomenlinna
Looking into and out of Suomenlinna’s defense tunnels.

Suomenlinna houses museums and cafes and is the home of several hundred residents who live there year-round. (They even have a mini-supermarket and a tiny library!). As pretty as the islands are, I don’t think I could last a winter there. Fireplaces and saunas only go so far against the icy chill and sparse daylight.

Almost fall!, houses & defenses.

We were only left with a couple hours on mainland Helsinki, and mostly wandered around the downtown between the harbors. The Central Market Square had a craft and lunch market going when we arrived to wait for our island ferry. So much salmon was being prepared – as filets, on burgers, in soups – that the entire market smelled like it, which only made us hungrier. However, we have salmon at home a lot (especially in Estonia), so we opted for the reindeer with potatoes and lingonberry sauce. There were all sorts of summer berries, some, like bilberry, that I’d never even heard of… too bad Finland has much higher prices compared to Estonia.

The Chapel of Silence and the Lutheran Cathedral.

Most touristy stops were closed by the time our ferry returned, so we walked admired the city from the sidewalk. Unlike most places we’ve been in Europe (aside from Tallinn), the main Cathedral isn’t Catholic. Instead it is a decidedly plainer Lutheran building.  A little ways further from the square, past some delicious food-truck bahn mi, we found the Chapel of Silence. Far from the pillared/Neoclassic look, it is modern Nordic design. I thought it looked somewhere between a peaceful retreat and an Ikea-assembly church. I do really like the idea of putting a place to have a break in the middle of downtown, though.

Helsinki pretty much covers the full spectrum of public art.

Of course, Helsinki also has some fun pubic art. The giant peeing statue called Bad Bad Boy was right across from the West Harbor Ferry Terminal – impossible to miss on the way to the city center.  It is either really awkward or really creepy. Other less obtrusive murals and yarnbombing were more common.

Our ferry returned – with fewer passengers and a lot less booze-laden luggage – about 1 in the morning. Hopefully we will be able to manage a second day trip to more throughly see the city. Next time though, we will bring something to read on the ferry: a 2.5 hour trip each way gets a little long.