Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Helsinki, Finland

Actual date of this event: 26-28 June

Going to Helsinki, Finland (and then Tallinn, Estonia) wasn't our original plan. We really wanted to go to St. Petersburg, Russia, but that was going to cost us quite a few crisp dolla bills - a visa to Russia is pretty expensive and the flight was close to the price of a flight back to the USA - wowzers! Then there was also the fact that at the time of when I was looking into all of this, stuff was starting to go down in Ukraine, so that turned us off from Russia as well. So plan B was to visit Helsinki and Tallinn which was going to happen eventually anyway.
Helsinki is the farthest north Luke and I have traveled, and we try to choose our travels based on the sun. We visited just days after the summer solstice, so the sun rose around 3am and set around 11:45pm. During those few hours the sun was down, it was never fully dark. Because of this, we stayed up way too late both nights! How do these people manage living here in the winter - yikes! (This picture is from around 11:30pm)
The day we arrived to Helsinki, it was cold (about 55*F) and wet and rainy and cloudy and just not good. We dropped our bags, grabbed our rain gear, then headed out for lunch. Around the corner from us was this biggity bomb falafel place - Fafa's Falafel. I want to eat another right now! So yummy! We grabbed it to go and headed to explore while we ate. We wandered toward the seafront thru Esplanadparken. It was pretty lively with a band playing on a stage. Nearby was also a market selling fresh fruits, veggies, meats, fish, all sorts of stuff.

One of the major attractions in Helsinki is the main cathedral. It sits at the top a small hill and from a distance, it looks as if there is a big wall surrounding, but it is actually stairs. The square in front wasn't too busy other than some tourists to take the obligatory photos. The interior of the cathedral was much smaller than it seemed from the outside.

We had plans to ride the 6pm pub tram, so we made our way back to the area of the train station to hop aboard the mobile pub! I came across the Pub Tram while doing research for Helsinki and thought it sounded pretty neat. The tram makes a big loop around the city in about 45 minutes seeing various sites along the way, and the bar is open during the entire journey! There was a fee to ride the tram, and no drinks were included in the price, but it was a relaxing activity to do on our first day. This was cause for "How many beers can we drink during this 45 minute period!?"

After the pub tram, we took a little walk to see some stuff.

Perhaps, we had a few too many beers on the pub tram... so we figured we should go to church... just kidding! But seriously, we decided to walk to check out two unique churches of the city. The first was Kamppi Church of Silence - a very odd, orangy-wood-looking building, but it's the inside that is unique. We arrived too late and it was closed to visitors (probably better that way given all the beer), but it is supposed to be super quiet inside given its location of being in the middle of a busy square in the the city.
The second church was Temppeliaukion Kirkko (The Church in the Rock), which is literally inside a giant rock. Again, it was too late for us to see the interior of the church, but we were able to climb on top of the rock (but not onto the actual top of the church). It's too bad we couldn't go in because it is supposed to be pretty neat!

The USA vs. Germany World Cup match was on (yes, yes, I know that was a very long time ago, Im so behind in my posts!), so we cheered on our homeland at a few pubs... as we accidentally drank German beer... oops! It is totally our fault that the US lost! And we paid for it by each pint being 8.90EU - yikes!
We stopped for dinner, where Luke made the horrible decision for us to try Mexican (never ever again), then wandered around a bit. It was about 11pm at this time, and our brains were having a very difficult time shutting down as the sun was still up! We managed to head back to our hotel eventually though.

Friday turned into a beautiful day! It was our only full day in Helsinki, and we wanted to do a boat ride. We had done one in Copenhagen and Stockholm and enjoyed both, so we figured a summer island tour would a good plan. We walked down to the harbor and looked at our choices, and pretty much went with whichever was departing next. (I honestly can't even remember which company we chose! Oooops, its my fault for being almost 5 months behind on my posts :-/) The sky was cloudy and there was quite a bit of wind for the first half of the ride, but it ended up turning around as the sun came out. The ride wasn't all that exciting, but it was a relaxing time anyway.

After the boat ride, we went to check out Helsinki's other major cathedral, Upenski, which is located near the sea harbor. This one also sits on a small hill, but is a very different style than the Helsinki Cathedral.

Since the sun was out, we walked past the Helsinki Cathedral again to get some sunny pictures.
Then we started a long long walk... basically walking the loop (plus a more) that the pub tram did the day before.

We walked thru the sorta central park of the city toward an area of town called Toolo. The area was pretty residential, and we were definitely the only tourists making this journey by foot. I had my mind set on a this little cafe along the water that has amazing cinnamon buns. Cafe Regatta is a teeny tiny super cute cafe, open every day of the year, with a massive outdoor seating area. Being Finland, you can imagine no one would want to sit outside in the winter, but there were fire pits set up to keep guests toasty. My cinnamon bun was delicious and totally worth the journey!

Not too far from the cafe was the Sibelius Monument, which resembles 600 organ pipes welded together in honor of the famous composer, Jean Sibelius.

From there, we headed over to the 1952 Summer Olympic Stadium to climb the tower. I say climb, but there was an elevator :-)

A drink was in order by this point, so quite the distance away, we wandered over to Kallio where there were several bar options. And quite a bit of hippiness going on... or maybe that was a Pride event. (Forgot to mention that Pride was going on that weekend :-]) Anyway, our first bar we went to was Sivukirjasto. Then, we hunted down Juttutupa, Helsinki's oldest operational pub. These days, the pub is most known for being frequented by Lenin as he hid in Finland while planning the Russian revolution. We even got to sit at his table! Yup, we're tooooootally cool!

By this time, we were starting to get a bit hungry, so we made the decision to try out a Finnish buffet place. Konstan Molja was hands down one of the best meals we have ever eaten while traveling! It is located in a small place that looks more like a home, and their specialty is... reindeer! It was delicious! The owner was so kind, he even gave us a recommendation for Tallinn which was where we were headed the next day. All you can eat buffet while traveling sounds not so great, but this place was goooooood. After dinner, we wandered around a bit more, stumbling upon another church, and also stopped in a few bars before remembering that the sun never really goes down and that it was already midnight. Ooops! We had a 10am journey across the water to Estonia the next day, so off to bed we went.
I had actually read quite a few negative reviews of Helsinki before we left, but I hardly every take those into consideration because our style of travel is pretty different than other people's. It wasn't that people didn't like Helsinki, it was that they said it was boring. They were actually somewhat correct. I'm not saying it was very boring, it just wasn't very exciting. Would I recommend that someone should visit Helsinki? Probably not, but I wouldn't discourage it either. We had a nice enough time, and it gave us reason to go to Tallinn, which is what turned out most important on this trip. Stay tuned...

Contrary to what many people think, Finland is not part of Scandinavia.

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