Ever since I was in Helsinki for summer school last fall I wanted to come back in winter. I loved the city in summer and the need to see it under the white blanket of snow kept coming back. So now beeing just short ferry ride away I knew that I will go there. It was only question of when. Than Visit Helsinki posted an image of fresh snow cover in the city and I was sold. Next weekend I was coming.
Welcome to Helsinki
Luckily I discovered promo code for the ferry so the tickets were just 16€ for return trip instead of 40€. This time four other czech and slovak Erasmus friends joined me for the trip. The day before we checked where the terminal is in Tallinn so that we wouldn’t need to look for it in the morning as the departure was quite early. It was at 7:15 to be precise.
Saturday morning came and we all managed to wake up early enough to arrive in time for the boarding. Everything went smoothly. The ferry was Tallink Megastar ship, which to me is pretty much floating apartment block. I tried to get out to find some observation deck but most of the open decks were closed. I suspect it was due to the cold and windy weather that's here in winter.
Instead of freezing at the observation deck we used the cruise time to have breakfast and discuss a bit where we wanted to go. The plan was free walking tour, Suomenlinna island and then look around for some hidden places. Two hours went past pretty quickly and the Port of Helsinki showed itself on the horizon.
The disembarking was as irritating as the cruise was smooth. All the passengers went to the exit staircase only to be told that we need to wait. There was something wrong with the pier connection. So we waited. Every five or so minutes we were told that more info is coming and that we should follow the instructions of the crew. Well OK, but there was no crew anywhere nearby. Finally after what felt like ages we left the ferry and headed into the city.
When we got out of the port it was already almost 11 and the walking tour started at noon near the Helsinki Cathedral. From my previous stay in Helsinki I knew where it was but still it was about a time to go straight there.
The area around Port of Helsinki, Jätkäsaari is currently under heavy construction work. New housing department of the city is being build here. So far it’s not really something to explore, but it feels it will be nice place to live once finished. Near the port you can find one of very few skyscrapers in Helsinki, the white Clarion Hotel tower.
Crossing the Design district[1:1] and shortly visiting the Old Market hall[1:2] at the Market square we came to the white Cathedral. Having some time, we decided to go for a walk to the brownish Uspenski Cathedral[1:3]. At least we have some time there without the crowd of the tour. Meeting point for the tour was on the stairs of the white cathedral at noon.
Free walking tour
I have heard about free tours[1:4], but never attended one before. It seemed to be nice idea, especially for students with limited budget. Couple minutes before noon the group started to form at the cathedral stairs. It was quite cold and windy day so even the tour guide was surprised how many people showed up. Very international group of around 40 people. The tour was planned to be 3 hours long. After brief introduction about the city in general, we moved on from the Senate Square to the streets of old town.
Our guide was very excited about history of Finland and wanted to share with us as much as possible. It would be cool, only if it wouldn’t be that cold on that day. In front of House of the Estates[1:5], where Finnish parliament resides, we were explained the history of all the empires that ruled over Finland until it gained its independence in 1917. Yes that means this year Finland celebrates it’s 100th birthday. Happy birthday Finland.
In local marina, now quite empty and frozen, we were told how they deal with winter in Helsinki. Couple of icebreakers are needed to keep the port freely accessible for boats and ferries. In summer the marina is full of yachts and old wooden sailboats which are now out of water. The wooden or laminated hulls wouldn’t survive the pressure of ice during winter. Also they are not needed during winter for sight cruises. The old ships are moved into dry dock at Suomenlinna island for winter.
As we continued to walk around the Kruununhaka and Katajanokka city districts the wind and cold started to crawl through all the layers of clothing we were wearing. Second of the most famous local churches Uspenski Cathedral is quite close to the white one, so the entire walk around this area is very easy and doesn’t take too long. In our case we spent much more time listening to history and other interesting stories than walking.
On the Love bridge the guide let us know about specifics of how relationships work here up north. He even made some random passersby to tell us about his love. We wrapped up the first half of the tour at the Market square near the ferry to Suomenlinna. By that time me and my friends were quite cold so the break came in the nick of a time.
The Old market hall seemed like a perfect place for short warm break. I tell you they make great hot chocolate there. After about an hour there the tour already left the square. We didn’t mind as our next plan was to visit the famous navy fortress that used to protect Helsinki against invaders.
The fortress of Suomenlinna is located on an island in the Helsinki archipelago. It’s easily accessible by the public transportation ferry from the Market square. You can either use your all day ticket (9€) or get special Suomenlinna return ticket for 5€. As we didn’t plan on using any other public transportation we went for the special ticket. It takes about 15 minutes to cruise across the Helsinki bay. It was the first time for me being on a boat on a partially frozen sea, not counting the ferry from Tallinn as it was too large to actually see anything.
After I visited the island in summer this was nice possibility to see it covered with snow and ice. It gave completely different feel to the fortification that was built by Swedes some 300 years ago as protection against Russia. Speaking of military history, thanks to school holiday this weekend the navy museum[1:6] there had free entrance so we went. It’s pretty small but nice museum in one of the former storage buildings.
The museum covers the history of Finnish armed forces until nowadays and also tells the story of different independence wars that Finland went through. You can see pieces of equipment from clothing all the way to navy torpedoes in there. If you are nearby and history or military is your thing definitely go there, especially if you are lucky to be around when it’s free.
After the we educated ourselves about the history in the museum we went on to explore the fortification around the coast of the island. The fortress itself is listed as UNESCO site so quite a lot of visitors are coming, but you can find calm places that you have pretty much for yourself. There are still buildings on the island that belong to navy but unless there is a sign, that tells you not to, you can walk everywhere. The fortification is mostly star shaped, but of course there are some adaptation because of the shape of the six islands, that it’s built on.
In summer there are a lot of spots that pull you to have a swim in the sea, but at this time, it was just ice floating there. Maybe next time. Anyway there are lot of spots where you can enjoy the view of Helsinki archipelago and it’s live. The ferries and boats are sailing all around, helping people to get to their cabins at different islands near Helsinki.
I could stay there for very long time enjoying the scenery especially when it’s such great weather and visibility as we had. But don’t get fooled, it’s an island and you need to be prepared for cold wind from the sea, especially in winter. When it makes the temperature feel much lower than you would expect.
Moving on from the coast of the island towards the main attractions around the info center you start to meet more tourists even in winter. There is an old military submarine converted into museum[1:7] that we we wanted to visit. If you go there, be better prepared that us and check if it’s opened. We didn’t plan much in advance so we ended up locked out with a sign telling us, it’s closed during winter.
Next stop was a dry dock that was used for building naval ships in the past. Now it’s used to store the old wooden sail boats during winter to protect them. Also you can find other interesting places to explore how they used to live and work on the islands, but I don’t want you to have nothing to look for on your own. I would say keep exploring, get lost and enjoy the beauty of the place. Only don’t have too high expectations regarding photos of the fortress. It offers better possibilities for photos if you are on a boat or flying above the island.
It started to get late and colder as we were exploring all the different places around the island. It was time to head back to the mainland. Once we came to the port we got a bit afraid that we will not fit on the ferry and will need to wait in que for the next one. It was going once every 40 minutes. Fortunately our capacity estimate was wrong and everyone got on board.
Back on mainland
Back in the city center we had couple more hours before the ferry would take us back to Tallinn. Our girls wanted to find some store themed for famous Finnish fairytale about moomins. The address they had wasn’t working so it took much longer to find it. In the end we succeeded, but it was just small moomin themed gift shop. Nothing special in my opinion, but the girls liked it and got into shopping.
Done shopping we wanted to find one more thing. There was supposed to be sperm themed vane on top of the Natural museum of Helsinki. We found the museum, but you can imagine what we could see at night that came during our shopping. Nothing you would say? Not exactly. Sure there was no way to see the vane, but there was an elk at the front door and two giraffes at the balcony. Really, not joking. Obviously they weren’t alive, but still it was quite funny.
And with giraffes on a balcony we ended our exploration of the city. The rest of the time we had before departure was assigned to small dinner we brought with us. Yeah pancakes with jam in shopping mall resting area. Gotta love these sofas they have in malls here.
Once our bellies were satisfied we moved to the port to await our ship. When it arrived we witnessed how locals use the nearby Tallinn as source of cheap alcohol. People after people were coming off the ship with barrows of all sorts of alcohol. To understand this you need to know how much more expensive it is in all the nordic countries thanks to taxes. Anyway we boarded the ferry and started our journey home. Well our temporary Erasmus home, but you get what I mean. Until next trip or story from Erasmus, over and out.