Having decided last minute to travel via Helsinki to the Baltics, we haven’t prepared ourselves very well. The only thing I have read so far was a brief account of a Dutch travel writer, who assessed that there was really nothing to do in Helsinki.
How wrong! Helsinki is a fabulous city. It doesn’t have the grand boulevards of Paris, Madrid or London, instead streets the old centre are mostly stone-covered, occasionally cobbles, but not much tarmac; wide enough for normal traffic, but not too busy, and providing plenty of room for the ever-presents trams. All of this creates a great atmosphere; add the elegantly dressed people, and the multiple cafes and restaurants including outside terraces – which are even populated at this time of the year, an unusually warm September – and Helsinki becomes a very special place.
And it is a sea port, of course – yesterday we arrived by huge ferry in the harbour. Which always adds extra character to the town, with its water front, including its market square from where all the smaller ferries and water taxis depart to outlying islands. The market square comes with its colourful market stalls, selling ready-made food, but also fresh fruit, mushrooms and other vegetables. A little further is the Helsinki marina, and on a distant quay is the impressive icebreaker fleet, several huge ships waiting for the winter.
The real gem of Helsinki, however, is its Art Nouveau/Jugendstil buildings. Not just one or two, on a corner, or sandwiched in between lesser creations, no, whole streets, whole neighbourhoods are dominated by the characteristic architectural style of the beginning of the 20th Century. For most of the time the weather isn’t great, and photos are not going to work all that well, but it is a delight to walk through the streets and admire all those quasi-modern facades, the windows, the balconies and the great variety of decorations. Every street in the old centre has its share, wherever you look you find yet another originally designed building, even if it has just this special door, or quirky sculpture. Of course, mostly these buildings are closed to the public, so their insides remain unseen – except when you patiently wait at the door until somebody leaves, and stop the door falling into its lock. Then you can peep inside, which is what we did at one of those, the impressive Pohjola building, a work of art from the outside. And indeed, inside is equally spectacular, from the ancient elevator to the circular stairs, the carved doors, stained glass windows and mosaics on the wall. We feel a little uncomfortable, trespassing, but not uncomfortable enough to turn around straight away.
(for more pictures, see here)
But design didn’t stop at
Jugendstil. Lots of more modern architecture testifies to the great taste of Finns, with as absolute highlights the two ‘functionalist’ libraries, one of the University, the Kaisa-talo building of 2012, and the other, the Oodi, the central library opened in 2018 to celebrate Finland’s 100 years of independence. Both are striking buildings, inside as well as outside. And both are – indeed – extraordinarily functional, creating meeting and working space for lots of people.
The number one tourist attraction, apparently, is another modern construction, equally special, a chapel hewn out of the rocks, with a copper roof. The Temppeliaukio Church, consecrated in 1969, is an absolutely unique concept, which thanks to the bare rock walls provides fabulous acoustics. Something we were lucky to witness as when we entered a weekly piano recital was underway. Which kept the busloads of Chinese and Japanese tourists at least temporarily at bay.