Travel to Helsinki, Finland

The flight from Reykjavik, Iceland to Helsinki, Finland is a quick 3 hours and on a sunny day provides stunning views of the island nations south eastern barren wasteland. Three hours isn’t a whole lot of time to do anything which the Russian gentleman sitting beside me found out the hard way. He was so annoyed when he wasn’t able to finish the film Titanic which he eagerly watched on his mini screen for the duration of the trip. When an Iceland Air captain announced our decent the perturbed passenger that sat beside me nearly had a conniption fit muttering, “it is at the climax of the film!”

Flying into Helsinki was exactly as I imagined it would be: forests as far as the eye could see dotted with fresh water lakes. Once off the plane I strapped on my bags and hopped on the airport bus bound for the city centre where I couldn’t help but laugh as I drove past stunning Scandinavian condominium design, a man walking his two pet wolves and a young girl no more than eight years old getting on the public transit all by herself. The stereotypes are true: Finland is a proud home to the great outdoors where wolves are tame, architecture is king and the capital is so safe that preschoolers take the city bus without supervision.

Once at the city centre I walked twenty minutes to my new home, Glo Hotel Art in the heart of the design district. The hotel is located in a stunning heritage building which is the result of an architecture competition which took place in the year 1900. Winning designers Walther Thome and Karl Lindahl finished the building in 1903 featuring a style that presents Jugend, national romanticism, with strong granite walls and tower. The building has been re-purposed throughout the years and as of February 2012 now acts as one of the most unique hotel properties in the Finnish capital.

Once I had taken a photographic inventory of my suite I hopped in the shower, changed into a fresh outfit and with great excitement headed down to my hotel lobby where my old friend Annukka greeted me with a big smile and a hug. I met Annukka in first year University when we both worked at a summer camp in northern Ontario. I had always told her I would be sure to visit if I was ever in her neck of the woods, and I keep my promises. I was on the cusp of starving so we both marched over to Putte’s Bar and Pizza fordinner and a ten year catchup.

After dinner Annukka took me on a food tour of the cities most famous department store, Stockmann. The department store is filled with everything from designer clothes to fanciful food boutiques and basement grocer. When in the supermarket she reminded me that Finland is one of the most expensive countries in Europe after Norway and Switzerland. I grazed past a few cantaloupes and apples… once the price tag was in focus my jaw dropped. I was here on a mission and had Annukka take me right to the booziest space where I excitedly stared up at a wall of Scandinavian Cider. I’ve been in love with cider forever. I hate how people knock it as a drink for young girls. Cider prepared with love and care can feature a fascinating array of flavor and depth from carefully monitored fermentation. I picked up two bottles of Finish Cider, one which showcased the punch of the pear and another which focused on the tartness of cranberry.

We walked back to my hotel and noticed the streets filling with hockey fans. She advised me that today was the opening night of the Ice Hockey World Championship. Over the course of the next few weeks I would regularly hear updates about the competition in Helsinki: from Russia to Latvia to Sweden the region excitedly watched the world’s top hockey players battle it out for gold (ultimately an award bestowed upon the Russians). Sitting in my suite Annukka gave me a few hot tips about the city then gave me a big hug before leaving me to relax the night away on my own. I popped open a can of pear cider, played Feist’s 1234 on repeat and ran a hot bath where I ended up passing out, experiencing some of the most fantastical dreams while bath bubbles crawled up my chest into my nostrils.

The following morning I enjoyed the hotels brunch spread which offered a wild selection of treats: fruit bowl, yogurt with an endless array of fixins, croissant with preserves, a table covered in cheese, meat and fresh vegetables, duck noodle bowls and an omelet station. I enjoyed two rich cups of espresso in order to pay homage to the fact that Finland has the highest coffee consumption per capita in the world. Fins will proudly tell you so…interestingly enough I didn’t notice the entire city trembling with excitation.

I was greeted at the hotel lobby by Tomi Laurila, a chef with 28 years of work experience in the Helsinki food scene. He would be taking me on a private culinary tour of the city for the day. He also provides similar private/group tours which you can learn more about HERE. We hopped in his car and drove to one of the cities food markets (less central but more frequented by locals). The market was filled with radish, asparagus, little baby potatoes covered in fresh soil, a wild assortment of fish, towering tables of Rye and some truly splendid Finnish cheeses.

We hopped back in the car and visited two of the cities top tourist attractions, landmarks that define the city. We made a quick stop at the Sibelius Monument which was created in honour of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Next to the monument is the face of Sibelius, which was supposed to add a figurative element to the abstract sculpture (as a way to appease the public who felt that a monument for Sibelius should have his face on it). This monument was the first abstract monument erected in Finland and pretty much shows up in every tourists photo album. Back in the car we drove to The Temppeliaukio Church, designed by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in 1969. This marvel of a church remains Helsinki’s number one attraction. Hewn into sold stone, it feels close to a Finnish ideal of spirituality in nature – you could be in a rocky glade were it not for the stunning 24m- diameter roof covered in 22 km of copper stripping.

We hopped back in the car and parked downtown for a brief walk down Esplanade Park before arriving at Eat and Joy boutique grocer. I instantly fell in love with the space for its playful Finnish design elements and incredible culinary offerings which focus on seasonal, local and organic foods with Nordic roots. The store  offers delicacies from more than 500 small producers across Finland: wild reindeer, salmon, artisan cheeses, berry jams, fish roe, hand-crafted beer and cider, mushrooms, rye bread, smoked specialties, kyyttö forest cow, artisan chocolates and much more – all direct from the producers. We sat down in the cafe where I enjoyed a lovely slice of chocolate mousse cake with a bottle of rhubarb and strawberry flavoured cider. I really loved this place, the space was filled with portraits of cows creating somewhat of a bovine celebrity on the walls as well as a large painting which featured a Finnish women dressed in traditional clothing beating Ronald McDonald to the floor. Yes please!

Next stop was the cities Tuomiokirkko Cathedral which was designed by CL Engel but not completed until 1852, 12 years after his death. Its interior is fairy unadorned with simple grey and gold highlights. After walking back down the steps to the square below we happened upon a Milliners shop. It just so happened that one of my goals on this trip was to buy a hat. I was growing out my hair and wanted to find a new chapeau to help cover up the awkward “middle of the road” stage in hair growth. The shop sold every hat any man could possibly ever dream of owning. I bought a brown brimmed hat made in Vienna and a navy sailor hat which was actually made in the back of the shop. I was beyond elated and ran out into the street wearing one of my new purchases.

Next stop was Vanha Kauppahalli, the Old Market Hall which is located right on the harbour and much more of a tourist spot than the larger market we visited earlier in the morning. After browsing the Old Market we hopped back in the car and headed to one of the most interesting restaurant concepts I have ever encountered.

I followed Tomi as we walked up the steps to Helsinki’s amusement park, Linnanmaki. We strolled under whizzing roller coasters, past a terrifying Haunted House and endless cotton candy and ice cream vendors. We arrived at Kattila, a brand new restaurant concept in the heart of an amusement park that seeks to offer those visiting Helsinki an elevated dining experience.

After lunch we hopped back in the car where we had the opportunity to watch thousands of blond bombshells running through the city in the Helsinki Marathon. Our last stop of the day was at the cities famed Michelin Restaurant Olo. The restaurant manager gave us a private tour of the main dining room, private dining room (located in a wine cellar) as well as the kitchen and storage space. Just as Tomi was dropping me back off at my hotel he gave me gifts I will never forget. Two books on the Helsinki Culinary scene which now sit on my bookshelf and will hopefully inspire many delicious meals in the future.

I ran up to my room and quickly showered and changed. Even though I had just technically eaten at six restaurants in the last two hours I had to boot it to my restaurant review at local favorite Juuri.  After dinner I found myself waddling back home on a pedestrian street when I saw three people screaming at me from a patio on my right. I was initially startled but realized they were asking me to take a picture of them. I smiled and came over to their table where I snapped a few shots. I soon realized that I was standing at Hugo’s Room, a gay bar which I had been meaning to visit. It’s not hard to miss when you see a large rainbow poster on the street which reads “Gay Sparkling Wine 3.50 EUR: Hugo’s Room, Yes It’s Gay.” My new gay friends insisted I stay for a drink. Always up for spontaneous adventures I joined them for the next two hours for a glass of champagne and shot of vodka (this was forced upon me even though I mentioned I had just finished eating a massive feast). After a long day I started nodding off, I waved goodbye and quickly found myself passed out in bed.

I was up early the next morning determined to visit as many art galleries and museums in the city I could possibly manage. The following is a short list of the highlights of my day. Please do not attempt this itinerary in one day like I did. I seriously pounded the pavement, so much so that my entire body was pained by the time I flopped back into my hotel at 5pm.

I started off with a visit to Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art which is one of the cities most notable eye popping architectural landmarks. I enjoyed several exhibits including “Thank You For the Music” a tribute to teenage pop idols and “Eyeballing” a showcase of the masterworks comic artists are currently creating. Just up the street I popped into the National Museum of Finland which illustrates Finnish history from prehistoric times to the present. Highlights included medieval weaponry, the jewelry collection and lunch boxes from the 1960’s.

I bolted out of the museum and took a quick tour of the cities grand central train station. Directly across the street sits Ateneum Finnish National Gallery. The Gallery houses the largest and most significant collection of art in Finland, including the most loved Finnish masterpieces. Ateneum’s collections feature classics from Akseli Gallen-Kallela to Helene Schjerfbeck, in all covering the period from the 1750s  to the work of artists who began their career in the 1950s.

Finished at the Gallery I strolled down Pohjoisesplanadi to Kauppatori harbour where I hopped on a ferry bound for Suomenlinna, Finland’s Fortress. The ferry only takes 15 minutes from the city centre and offers great views. Situated on a group of islands off Helsinki, Suomenlinna was built during the Swedish era as a maritime fortress and a base for the Archipelago Fleet. Work on the fortress was begun in the mid-18th century. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a district of the city of Helsinki, with a permanent population of more than 800. Built on a cluster of rocky skerries, the fortress consists of an irregular network of bastions. During the Russian era, the fortress was extended both towards the sea and on the mainland. The Fortress has played a key role in many turning points in Finland’s history. It has been the property of three sovereign states. The majority of its buildings date from the late 18th century, the end of the Swedish era. From the early 19th century to the early 20th century, Suomenlinna – then known as Viapori – was part of Russia along with the rest of Finland. Russian-era Viapori was a lively garrison town. After Finland gained her independence, Suomenlinna became home to a coastal artillery regiment, a submarine base and the Valmet shipyard, where ships were built after the Second World War for Finland’s war reparations.

After a two hour fortress hike I hopped back on the ferry bound for the city. Once at the harbour I walked twenty minutes up the street to the Design Museum. It had just started raining and I was on the verge of falling over from exhaustion so was really pleased that I fit this one last attraction into my jam packed day. Helsinki has officially been declared the World Design Capital 2012 and this summer there will be conferences, exhibits and workshops dedicated to discussing the future of design  with an analysis on global trends. The worlds top designers will descend upon the city. I actually had the opportunity to showcase Seoul Design Capital 2008 when I lived in South Korea. I was in Helsinki in early May so missed out on the major programming but did have an opportunity to enjoy the exhibit at the Design Museum which featured everything from transportation, fashion and architecture.

After having a quick shower and nap I marched in the rain for dinner at Kuu which is located right by the Opera House. The following day I decided to treat myself to a day off. I caught up on my writing, edited thousands of pictures, drank that Cranberry Cider and enjoyed my final restaurant review at the stunning Strindberg which sits atop the Esplanade. Two of Helsinki’s top restaurants showcasing Finland’s flare for sticking to its culinary roots but always reinventing the wheel. A perfect finish to Finland.