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Published: September 4th 2022
Does overflowing boulevards and backstreets filled with magnificent architecture, intriguing drinking and dining venues, featuring groundbreaking designs interest you as a visitor to a new location? Then Finland’s capital city of Helsinki should be on your latest bucket list. This is a country famed for its streamlined and functional designs with Helsinki being its creative hub. A Little Bit of History: following the end of the Ice Age, after the ice cover retreated, the first colonizers to this area arrived about 5,000 BC. Their presence has been documented by archeologists, but permanent settlements only appeared at the beginning of the 1st century AD. Vikings plundered these early settlements on a regular basis, closely followed by Christianized colonists from Sweden around the year 1,100 AD. Written chronicles dated 1417 AD mention Koskela village near the mouth of the Vantaa River, very close to where Helsinki would be founded. Helsinki was established as a trading town by King Gustav I of Sweden on June 12, 1550. During the second half of the 17th century the city, consisting of mainly wooden structures, suffered from regular fires, and even at the beginning of the 18th century, the population was less than 1,700 inhabitants. The
city’s woes continued as it was plagued by poverty, wars, and diseases, with the beginning of the 19th
century, only able to boast of 3,000 people. Emperor Alexander l of Russia, with an aim to moving Helsinki closer to St. Petersburg, made it officially a capital city on April 8, 1812. Today the city’s head count fast approaches the 1.4 million mark.
Helsinki’s design scene is one of the most electrifying in the world today, and it’s a major influence across the globe. Boutiques, workshops, and galleries filled with stunning glassware, lighting, textiles, and innovative homewares proliferate in the Design District located just south of the city center in Punavuori, which is also home to the city’s superb Design Museum. An example of Finland’s art-nouveau movement has left a glorious legacy of buildings from the era, is Helsinki’s beautiful train station built in 1919.
While it certainly has a culture-packed urban center, Helsinki is surrounded by a sublime natural environment that’s within easy reach from every part of the city. Want to get active? Give boating to its archipelago’s islands a try or stroll along its beaches and through the extensive parks and gardens which appear at regular
intervals. Hiking in surrounding forests is an invigorating experience especially when snow blankets the city in winter, turning the snow-laden tree branches into a magical wonderland. When the seas freeze, snowshoeing, cross-country and downhill skiing, ice skating and ice fishing on the many bays are all great ways to keep warm while staying touch with Finland’s natural beauty.
During recent years it’s become a “fad” to go organic with locally sourced, seasonal and/or sustainable farmed ingredients - in Finland they have long been a way of life. Wildlife such as reindeer, elk, bear, and snow grouse, along with fish such as salmon and arctic char, find their way into dishes here, together with forest mushrooms, bushels of berries (especially lingonberries and prized cloudberries), and wild herbs. Incredible Finnish flavors can be found everywhere in Helsinki, from historic covered markets to Michelin-starred restaurants. An Interesting Fact: Helsinki is an unusual capital as its location is not only on the mainland, but also covers 300 islands interconnected by many bridges. After Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik, Helsinki is the second northernmost capital city in the world.
Helsinki boasts many historic and sometimes astonishing monuments and one in particular stands out.
Known as the Rock Church aka Temppeliaukio is a one-of-a-kind Lutheran church, which attracts up to 50,000 visitors daily, regardless of their denomination. Located on Temple Hill, less than a mile from the city’s main railway station, it is within easy walking distance of the Finnish National Museum. The Rock Church belongs to the cave churches - these types of churches appeared as early as the Middle Ages, although surprisingly, this one was not built until the late 1960s, designed by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. Smaller than originally planned (due to cost overruns), it is known as a worthwhile example of expressionist architecture. The structure was blasted into a massive mound of granite rock very typical of Helsinki - you can it see it everywhere. It appears unworked and gives an impression of untouched nature. The building is rounded off by a copper roof with 180 windows, and an altar that is also covered in copper. These gold-colored metals, give the Rock Church a special glamour. No decoration inside the church can be found - no statues or paintings that are normally present in churches. Even the baptismal font is made of the same simple granite. What completes the
interior vision are the birch wood pews, taking up about half of the space, painted dark blue and upholstered in deep purple. These pews can seat up to 750 people. Unlike most other churches, there are no bells - their ringing is played over the loudspeakers in a composition by Tanei Kuusisto. The Rock Church is intended as a place of silence and contemplation - I think that has been achieved here. A Fun Fact: In Finland, there’s a competition where men carry women, so-called “Wife Carrying Championships”.
Senate Square is a constant reminder to the Finns that they gained their independence in 1917, immediately following the Russian Revolution. They have managed to retain sovereignty even during the dark days of WWII. Located within this square is perhaps the most stunning of all buildings in Helsinki - the Cathedral. A distinctive landmark in the cityscape, with its tall green dome surrounded by four smaller domes, it is designed in the Neoclassical style. A Little Bit of History: Upon coming Finland’s capital in 1812, Alexander I of Russia decreed in 1814 that 15%!o(MISSING)f the salt import taxes were to be collected into a fund for two
churches to be erected in Helsinki - one Lutheran and the other Russian Orthodox. Construction on the Lutheran Cathedral began in 1830 and was officially inaugurated in 1852. In 2018 it welcomed more than half a million visitors and continues in regular use for services and special events such as weddings.
As usual, I had elected to use my favorite mode of transportation in any city - the HOHO bus - and was delighted to see those bright red double-decker buses parked a few steps from the quayside when I disembarked at 8am. Asking (as always) for the senior discount, my all-day ticket was 29 Euros and the US Doller being “on par” today, it was a flat $29. Usual adult tickets are $34 each. This receipt will reappear on the next HOHO trip, for an additional 10%!d(MISSING)iscount. Excellent internet service on the buses - beats the pants off what is available onboard. This bus route consists of 19 stops and with the narrow twisting (often cobblestoned) streets, it takes over an hour to complete the circle. Despite it being a Sunday, everyone and his nearest relative was out and about, all suddenly deciding to cross in front
of my bus, so the journey took closer to 1.5 hours. Not that it was a problem - I was sightseeing on the top deck in the front seat with a clean windscreen, through which I was able to take great photos. The weather cooperated: bright sunshine, blue skies and a crisp breeze from the harbor - what more could I ask for?
It was when we arrived at bus stop #12 - Sokos Department Store - that a sign caught my eye from one of their large display windows. Marks and Spencer - a very famous English store chain - had a location inside this store - I just know it was destiny! Being Sunday, they didn’t open until noon, so I killed the remaining couple of hours riding the HOHO bus across the city drinking in the marvelous scenery. Promptly at 12pm, I was first one thru the doors to see what English goodies (especially their world-famous women’s underwear) I could find on sale, especially considering the current rate of exchange - I was on a roll here. It was only the knowledge I had to make the return drive to the ship by 4pm that finally
dragged my butt out of Marks and Sparks (as it is affectionately known in the UK) with great reluctance. Somehow, M&S knew yours truly was in town and the sale signs had immediately appeared at almost every counter - I had a shopping spree from heaven itself. Underwear, sweaters, shoes and let’s not forget a lovely red suede handbag reduced 75% - as I said previously, it was destiny. Thank you, Helsinki, I had a great time!
Arriving cruise ship passengers can avail themselves of an independent shuttle service between the pier and downtown Helsinki for 10 euros each way - an approximate drive of 20 minutes. But considering an all-day $29 HOHO bus ticket provides unlimited riding and 19 places to explore, the shuttle bus seems very redundant.
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