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All year I’ve been saying that Edinburgh is my favorite city in the world. Then I arrived in Helsinki. What the hell? Sure it’s expensive, but so is Edinburgh.
Don’t worry, I’m still planning to spend a few months in Edinburgh next year. But I might be spending a month or two in Finland too.
I’ve always thought of Finland being part of Scandinavia. Technically, that term refers solely to Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Those plus Finland and Iceland make up the Nordic Countries. But enough with the facts. I actually missed the Helsinki free walking tour as it’s only on the weekend in September and I was otherwise occupied. Instead, I spent my time soaking up the stunning beauty of the city and Finland in general.
I arrived in Helsinki the day after my birthday on Sept 24 with a friend. We rented an Airbnb together, which I highly recommend as a cheaper alternative to hostels when traveling in groups. Ours was a small apartment a few kilometers out of town. It was described as cozy. Couldn’t have been more so. Clean, quaint and a fully functioning kitchen made the stay wonderful. Prices in Helsinki border on the absurd when it comes to eating out, so it was much cheaper to purchase food at the local market and cook at home.
Our first full day there, we explored landmarks around the Old Town. Without the walking tour, we were left to find them on our own. Helsinki doesn’t have stunning castles, world-class museums, iconic landmarks or other features that more traveled to cities have. Instead, it has raw beauty. Might have already said that, but it’s the truth.
While they aren’t the greatest in the world, there are two cathedrals: Helsinki Cathedral and the Russian-style Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. Uspenski does happen to be the largest orthodox cathedral in Western Europe. Only problem is it was closed for renovations the week I was there. Such has been my curse in my travels – everything under renovations. At least the outside didn’t have any scaffolding, although Helsinki Cathedral did.
The other church of note is Temppeliaukion, otherwise known as Rock Church, literally built into a rock. We got there late the first day and they were already closed, but I went back a couple days later and saw the inside. This is a place that would fit perfectly in The Shire, comfortably situated between the Whitfoots and the Boffins. The acoustics of the natural rock walls make it a perfect place for musical performances. There is hardly a day that goes by without one. As one of the top tourist spots in Helsinki, it gets a little busy, but it’s a church so it stays peaceful and quiet, except for the classical music playing.
Other than the churches, we didn’t make it to any notable landmarks that day. Instead, we just wandered the streets, enjoying the cold, refreshing weather and checking out the Nordic architecture. Actually, there’s nothing particularly special about it. There are definitely buildings here and there that stand out but as a whole, it’s not another Cinque Terre or Edinburgh. The buildings are simply beautiful. I didn’t see any dilapidated buildings or low-class portions of town. Finland might have a high depression rate, but it doesn’t show in the physical appearance of the city.
The next couple days were comparatively uneventful. I dropped off my friend at the airport and then went to my first Couchsurfing host, Gosia. Not a Finnish name; she’s from Poland. Didn’t matter. As much as I like to have local Couchsurfing hosts to gain knowledge of the culture, Gosia was so accommodating and helpful that it was still wonderful. Her apartment was quite a ways from downtown, and with the price of public transport so high in Finland, I chose to spend the day at the apartment, watching the rain fall across the wonderful landscape and finishing my blog post on Kaunas. Speaking of public transportation, a single ride costs €3 and a full day I think was €12.
After Gosia, I changed to stay with Tiia. Gosia was great, but Tiia was literally the perfect host, and not just because she is a chef of my favorite cuisine – sushi! As a local, she had tons of information about the town and culture for me. She walked with me down to Kaivopuisto Park along the waterfront and recommended that I see Suomenlinna Island. That night she taught me how to cook a traditional Finnish meal: sautéed reindeer with mashed potatoes and lingonberries. I’d been looking forward to eating it all week but paying €20 for a plate at a restaurant in town was out of the question. Her’s was fantastic and I look forward to cooking it more in my travels, not that I’ll be able to find the ingredients anywhere else in the world.
My day on Suomenlinna Island will always be one of my favorite days in my life. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is actually six interconnected islands. Originally built nearly 300 years ago as a fortress against the Russians, it failed in 1808 when the Russians captured it and invaded Finland the following year. Now it still has the ruins of the fortress with a network of underground tunnels, parapets, stunning views, museums, Finland’s last surviving submarine and even a British flower garden. More than half of my photos in Helsinki were taken on these islands!
What made the day so memorable, and what was unquestionably the funnest adventure I’ve had all year, was my afternoon in prison.
I ended the day with that reindeer dinner and a wonderfully long conversation with Tiia. The next day I met up with my third Couchsurfing host, Gabi, who ironically was also Polish. I didn’t stay overnight with her, since Tiia was actually in the perfect location in the center of town, only a ten-minute walk from the bus station to the airport. But my adventure packed day with Gabi was only overshadowed by the Suomenlinna adventure the previous day.
We started off with a visit to Rock Church to see the inside, as I had missed it the first day. Then we jumped on a train, and then a bus, to reach Noux National Park northwest of Helsinki. There we planned to spend the day hiking around a beautiful lake surrounded by Finnish forests and nature. It was a couple kilometers from the bus stop to the park entrance, and from there we chose the longer 7-km trail.
Halfway through the hike, we found a place on the lake where a tree grew horizontal out over the surface. I had been hoping to jump off a cliff into the lake and we figured the tree would suffice to get out over the deep water. I got into my swim trunks, ignored the 8° ambient temperature and anticipated the freezing cold water.
Gabi made a great recording of me dunking into the water and swimming around, since she wouldn’t swim herself. Seems she doesn’t have polar bear blood like I do. Then I made a mistake. There was a pointed rock sticking out of the water under the tree. I tried to jump off it and land my butt on the tree. I slipped and landed on my back instead, and then slid off. I came back down on the rock, slipped again and my body went horizontal. At that point, Gabi thought I was a gonner. The pointed top of the rock came at me somewhere between my chest and my jaw.
A moment later I stood up, washing the mud of the rock off my chest and trying to find the hole in me, or at least the blood. Nothing. I felt my back where the tree gouged me. Nothing. It wasn’t possible. I was shaken, but apparently unharmed. I got out of the water and sat on the base of the tree with my feet over a flat rock to dry off and calm down. A minute later I saw it – the large puddle of blood under me. In a panic I checked my body and legs but couldn’t find the wound. Then I saw the bottom of my foot. I had shredded the bottom of three of the toes on my right foot.
As a prepared traveler, I got out my €1 medical kit I purchased before I left the US and with providence brought on the hike with me. Using the now-muddied lake water to “clean” it, I wrapped it in some gauze and accepted Gabi’s request to take me to the ER. It was just a matter of getting there. We had to hike a good 5 kilometers back to the bus, and then it was an hour and a half between buses and trains back into Helsinki.
We finally arrived at the ER only to have them tell me I didn’t need stitches, wash my toes with some disinfectant and wrap them in gauze. Honestly I could have done a better job with my medical training, and I wouldn’t now have a €58 medical bill. But it was nice to know I didn’t need stitches, and after all it was my first trip to the ER since I was a little kid. Besides, I had a 7 AM flight to Bangkok the following morning and the severity of the wound was not something I wanted to take a chance with. Also, it was the only thing I would have used traveler’s insurance for this year, and €58 hardly compares to €1000 for a year of insurance. Now I’ll just have to make sure nothing happens in SE Asia. Knock on wood!!!!
That night I spent an hour in a Finnish sauna. I wasn’t going to leave Finland without one, and the nurse said it might actually be good for my wound. After the sauna, I had a yummy Polish dinner with Gabi which she had cooked while I sweated, and then I headed back to Tiia for my final night in Helsinki…this trip.
If an afternoon in a Finnish prison and a trip to the ER weren’t enough, the last morning was the capper. My flight out of Helsinki was scheduled for 7:35 AM. I set my alarm for 5 AM, intending to catch the 6 AM bus to the airport. I must have hit the snooze button a couple of times, because I didn’t leave the apartment until 5:45. The day before it had only taken me less than ten minutes to get from the bus station to Tiia’s place, but my throbbing foot wouldn’t let me keep that pace.
I got to the bus station at 6:04, just in time to see the bus driving out of the depot. Luckily it was headed toward me and I had the fortitude to stand in front of the bus and get it to stop and pick me up. What was supposed to be a 40-minute bus ride turned into an hour. I arrived at the airport just after 7. The security queue was massive. As in, I heard airport attendants commenting that they hadn’t ever seen it that bad. One of them told me it would take at least an hour to get through, and I hadn’t even checked in yet.
Unruffled, I went to check in. The lady had to call the gate just to make sure they could still accept my bag, and then wished me luck with the security line. Then I “miraculously” found out that I could run 1/4 km to Terminal 1, go through the security checkpoint there which had no line, and then run 1/4 km back to Terminal 2 where my gate was. Only problems were my foot was shredded and I had a 35 kg bag on my back. No matter. I ran. At 7:20 I was sitting on the plane tingling with excitement for my first trip to Asia, and trying to ignore the throbbing in my foot.
So, I didn’t specifically say that Helsinki was better than Edinburgh. After hours of tagging all the photos and writing this post, I’ve come to my decision. Edinburgh is still best. I’ll gladly say that Helsinki is second best, and I can’t wait to get back there for an extended stay (a couple months, hopefully next year) and see things like Old Porvoo. Edinburgh just has too much that I love so much. The Scottish accent, the raw rock architecture of buildings, the castles, Arthur’s Seat, fish and chips, Forth Bridge, and above all, wonderful friends. Just a few more months and I’ll be back. I can’t wait.