Finding My Way Around Helsinki Finland
Having left the Finlyandsky Railway Station (Finlandia Station) in St. Petersburg at 6:40 a.m., I arrive in Helsinki Finland by 10:07.
At times, reaching a top speed of 220-kms per hour, this 300-km ride took me 3.5 hours on the Allegro.
What’s interesting about the Finlyandsky Railway Station is that it was famously known for the arrival of Vladimir Lenin by train from Germany on 3 April 1917 to start the October Revolution. The event was commemorated by the statue of Lenin placed in the square in front of the station.
Lenin is shown on the top of armored car. He arrived on the steam locomotive #293, which is now on display as a permanent exhibit at one of the platforms in the station.
It’s another beautiful, clear blue-sky day in Helsinki. I check into the Helsinki Senate Hotel which is so close to the main square. I am told that I have access to free use of the sauna and laundry rooms. This is great! I can really do with some indulgence. And, I am given an upgrade on the room as well!
Helsinki is the seaside capital of Finland which is easily accessible and explored by foot. Helsinki is woven into the Baltic bays and intertwined by its inlets and islands. The streets are cobblestoned, the architecture is simplistic and minimalist and many old buildings have been transformed to modern glass structures.
At the corner of the street near my hotel is Helsinki’s landmark cathedral, the Uspenski Cathedral. Completed in 1868, it is reportedly the largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe and represents Helsinki’s Byzantine-Russian architectural heritage.
What makes this even more stunning is its position atop a hill with a superb panoramic view of the city below.
About five minutes down from here is the Kauppatori Square or Helsinki Harbour Market. On this cool and crisp April morning, the square has only got a few tent tops selling hot waffles, crepes, fish and chips, and souvenirs, whereas during summer, it turns into a brightly coloured outdoor market.
The Square is alongside the beautiful esplanade. The sea is almost frozen with chunks of icebergs floating haphazardly as they make their way across the Baltic seas. Massive cruise ships wait patiently as their bellies are filled with tourists, travellers and cargo. Seagulls squawk and squabble in the air and on ground, happy to feast on fish and even chips. Tourists lie on mats, or dream on park benches, soaking in the sun. It’s a happy place.
The granite obelisk ‘The Stone of Empress’ (Keisarinnan kivi) is located in the middle of this Kauppatori Square. Created in 1835, this is the oldest public memorial in Helsinki. It was erected in the Market Square to commemorate the Empress Alexandra’s (the German-born wife of Nicholas I) first visit to Helsinki. She visited the city in 1833 with her husband, who came to inspect the construction of Helsinki’s new centre. The memorial is an obelisk cut in red granite. A bronze globe is set on top of the obelisk, and the two-headed eagle of Russia.
A little further across from the square is the ‘Havis Amanda’. Installed in 1908, this statue was unveiled as the central part of a granite fountain with four sea lions and the mermaid rising out of the sea on a pedestal of seaweed with four fish at her feet. The statue symbolizes the rebirth of Helsinki.
While it originally drew much criticism, the mermaid has over the years become immensely popular, and is today widely considered an icon of the city, and its most beautiful and important piece of art.
Resting on the north side of the esplanade is Helsinki’s Presidential Palace. The building overlooks Market Square and is one of three official residences belonging to the Republic of Finland’s President. The President does not currently live at the palace, but it still houses officials and household staff. The building is also used as a venue for official events.
I am on a ferry that is plowing its way through the icebergs and frozen waters to the fortress of Suomenlinna. This UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising six islands of Suomenlinna are only a 15-minute ferry ride away from Helsinki Market Square. This base (for the archipelago fleet) was originally built midway through the 18th century, when Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom. It a is beautiful island with pathways leading to several museums, old bunkers and fortress walls, Finland’s only remaining WWII submarine, and plenty of cafes and picnic spots.
At the very beginning is Suomenlinna’s main quay, the pink Rantakasarmi (Jetty Barracks) building is one of the best preserved of the Russian era.
A Russian Orthodox church doubles as a lighthouse – the beacon was originally gaslight, but is now electric and still in use.
From the main quay, a blue-signposted walking path connects the key attractions. By the bridge that links Iso Mustasaari and the main island, Susisaari, is Suomenlinna-Museo, a two-level museum covering the history of the fortress.
I spend some time exploring the old bunkers, crumbling fortress walls and cannons, which are built of solid stone and I expect would have been very, very cold too. The Monumental King’s Gate was built in 1753–54 as a two-storeyed fortress wall, which had a double drawbridge and a stairway added.
I stumble across more museums, including the Ehrensvärd-Museo, once the home of Augustin Ehrensvärd, who designed the fortress. Outside, Ehrensvärd’s elaborately martial tomb sits opposite Viaporin Telakka, a picturesque shipyard where sailmakers and other workers have been building ships since the 1750s. The dry dock holds up to two dozen boats; these days it’s used for the maintenance of wooden vessels.
The Sotamuseo Maneesi has a comprehensive overview of Finnish military hardware, from bronze cannons to WWII artillery, and nearby is the Lelumuseo, a delightful private collection of hundreds of dolls and teddy bears.
Back on the mainland, I begin exploring. The city is easy to navigate and soon I find myself at the Rock Church. Quarried out of the natural bedrock, the Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church) is one of Helsinki’s most popular attractions. Once inside, it’s as if I am in the core of a huge rock (which is what it is!) with a 24m-diameter copper dome made out of copper wire, exposed rocks and concrete beams. It is meant to radiate a feeling of spirituality with nature. The altarpiece is a crevice in the rock dating back to the Ice Age!
Finland’s imposing parliament building was designed by Finnish architect Johan Sigfrid Sirén and inaugurated in 1931. Its pared-back neoclassicism combined with early 20th-century modernism gives it a serious, even somewhat mausoleum-like appearance.
If there is one image that stands out it has to be the Helsinki Cathedral, because it is the most recognizable spot of the city. This cathedral was built as a tribute to the Tsar and was inaugurated as the Saint Nicholas Cathedral. This, of course, changed after Finland became independent and now it is known simply as Helsingin tuomiokirkko. The cathedral’s style is neoclassic and follows the architecture design of a Greek Cross (its four arms are identically long). The height of the Helsinki Cathedral is 62 meters (203 feet), and stands atop a hill with steep steps leading up to it. Today, it is just fun to sit and catch my breath.
In the heart of the city, located very unobtrusively is the Kamppi Chapel. Built from Finnish wood, this is a place for introspection and reflection.
Helsinki did not hold any surprises. It is exactly like I expected it to be. I’m now off to Stockholm Sweden and about to board the Silja Symphony. I cant wait!