To be honest, I couldn’t get myself excited about coming here. I did try. I booked this trip months ago when a casual brain fart at the start of the year took me on an adventure to Denmark, then Sweden and Norway. One of my life’s Bucket List has always been to set foot in all of the five Nordic countries. Just Finland left (Iceland happened some years back). So I booked a long weekend via Expedia. I downloaded a guidebook on Finland months ago. I’ve read it over and over but just couldn’t get into it. The language didn’t help. Though everyone speaks fluent English here, Finnish is one of the most visually daunting Western languages I’ve come across so the thought of asking any of the locals how to get to wherever was a terrifying prospect. Yet now I’ve been here just a day and a half…and I love it. I really love it.
On the drive from Vantaa Airport about 45 mins from the city centre, I already had a feel Helsinki was different from all other Nordic cities I’ve visited. It just felt bigger and that surprised me. I didn’t do my homework well enough before I left but I’m glad now of that. I’m completely enchanted. With my other trips I researched hugely and knew the places I wanted to visit as I hit the ground. I saw and did lots but ended up knackered and feeling that I just did the tourist thing instead of just chilling and experiencing the place outside the guidebooks. But when I arrived here I had no clue. When I stepped out of my hotel today onto that road – any road – that as JRR Tolkien always warned might carry one-off on high adventures unknown…I was carried away. I just got out and strolled up any street that caught my eye, not caring if it took me to such and such ‘must see’ place or not. I loved just taking in the calm and laid-back atmosphere, drinking it in after the madness of my home city, London.
I’d love to be a travel writer, but I can’t pretend to play at that with so short time in my host city so all I can do is comment on the biggest thing that’s hit me here: of all the new cities I’ve visited this year – Copenhagen, Malmo, Oslo and Geneva – this is my favourite. I liked Helsinki instantly.
As I walked out this morning under a clear blue sky and in T-shirt I just could not help but feel a liking for this place. The drive in the evening before had already influenced me. The closer we got to the city centre the more I could see how I’d underestimated this place. Helsinki is 3rd largest of the Nordic cities after Stockholm and Copenhagen. It does not have the bustle of the Danish capital but it feels far bigger and more grand than Copenhagen. I haven’t been to Stockholm yet so can make no comparison.
Though I never fully understood why until now, Finland is of Nordics but also at arm’s length from its cousins. Its language immediately sets it apart from the other 4 though Swedish is also an official language here too. Helsinki is also known as Helsingfors in Swedish. But it’s more than the language that creates the difference. It was once and for many years part of Russia and that is what I can feel so strongly around me. The city has a noble and grand feel to it unlike ‘cutesy’ and brash Copenhagen or laid back sleepy Oslo. St. Petersburg is only 3 hours away by sea and from pictures I have seen of that city I can see somewhat mirrored in some of the architecture here. The Finns also seem markedly more reserved than their Swedish, Danish and Norwegian counterparts. Not unfriendly and certainly not xenophobic: like all the other Nordic cities I’ve visited this year, Helsinki seems cosmopolitan. There are a lot of East Asians here, either living or passing through. Finland’s national airline, Finnair, has positioned itself as a prime European connector to China and the Far East. My very pleasant flight over here was full with passengers of Asian origins flying into Vantaa to take connecting flights to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo. This is the other real significant thing you feel here. It’s one of those places where West and East and East-East meet.
Oslo Harbour and its Islands were one of my highlights of that trip but not to belittle it in any way because I have very deep and fond memories of there…but Helsinki’s harbour and islands follow the trend of the city: Grand and awesome.
As I write, I’m now back in the hotel after a very fulfilling day. Tomorrow I set for the Estonian capital Tallinn in what was the former Soviet Union. Tallinn’s Old City is a World Heritage Site as one of the best preserved Medieval cities in Europe. I have done absolutely no homework at all on it but up for the adventure. When I booked my tickets on the Hydrofoil crossing tomorrow, I jokingly asked the cashier whether Estonia was open on a Sunday but was met with stony silence and a menacing frown. When I posted this experience on Facebook, my only Finnish friend who now lives in London posted back: “The funny thing is that I’m not sure Estonia IS open on Sunday”. Could be an interesting day.
Apologies for no pictures in this post. Hotel wifi seems not to be coping.