The city for bipeds
It's a city that retains a small-town feel. Seagulls flying over the market square, 19th Century architecture and waterways, and surely one of the top contenders for the most biped-friendly city in the world, says ASHISH KOTHARI.
Helsinki offers a diverse range of architectural styles. St. Nicholas' Cathedral is an example.
CAPITAL cities that one can see by walking or cycling, are rare to come by. Helsinki, Finland's urban gateway, must surely be one of the top contenders for the most biped-friendly city in the world. Its 500 years of history beckon you, in delicious bits, as you amble or pedal through its streets and harbour front.
When Sweden's King Gustav Vasa established Helsingfors (Helsinki) back in 1550, he chose the mouth of the nearby Vantaa river as the location. In the mid-17th Century, however, it was shifted to its present location, and one can today see why. Occupying a peninsula jutting out into the Bay of Finland, the site would not only have been ideal to approach by sea, but also eminently picturesque.
First, a bus ride
My wife and I spent a day in the city, and got but a glimpse of its many charms. The Helsinki City Tourist and Convention Bureau had sponsored for us a quick bus ride to see the main attractions, and though we initially grumbled because we wanted to instead walk around in the brilliant sunshine of the Finnish summer, we realised that this was a good way to get an overview. We took a 11/2 hour ride, but there are longer ones for visitors who want to take the slightly lazier way of seeing the city.
Hopping off at the end of the bus ride, we started to walk through what to us had seemed interesting from the bus. Like good tourists, we started with Helsinki's most visited site, the Senate Square. Located here is the Helsinki or St. Nicholas' Cathedral, designed in the mid-19th Century by famous architect Carl L. Engel.
One can understand why this is probably Finland's most photographed building, for it is massive, impressively designed with multiple towers and statues of the 12 apostles. The square below is a great place to just sit and watch Finns and myriad other nationalities drift by. I personally, however, preferred the architecture and grandeur of another church, the Uspenski Cathedral.
A five-minute walk from the Senate Square, this reddish-hued Christian orthodox church is a prominent reminder of Finland's Russian past (for over a century starting 1809, it was part of the Russian empire).
Getting back to the Senate Square for a moment (one of the highlights of our walk). Around it were the narrow lanes. In one of these, we came across the city's first telephone booth, and street lamps, dating back to more than 100 years, and which are still in use. We did not linger long here, however, as our sights were still set on the market square. Situated at the harbour, there are open and indoor markets.
If you are here in summer, as were we, wandering around in the open air market is great. We spent a couple of hours visiting the various handicrafts stalls, almost all of them managed by the craftspersons themselves. To our delight most of them spoke English, so we got some lovely snippets into their lives and crafts. It was a surprise, for instance, to know that many of them are not at all well-off (an angle of Finland one would otherwise tend to miss, since there seems to be prosperity all around).
The greatest pleasure however was in seeing the pride they had in their work, and justifiably so, because the handiwork was exquisite. Wood-work, embroidery, ceramic ware, paintings made with lichen, innovative toys coloured with environmentally safe dyes, reindeer-related products, and myriad other skillful items were on display. The ware can be expensive, however, so be careful to look around properly before deciding what to buy.
Fruits and vegetables
The other attraction in the market is the food. The most delicious looking strawberries and nectarines drew us like magnets, but also fascinating was the array of vegetables. Here there was a variety of colours, shapes, and sizes within the same vegetable species.
Bang in the middle of the market square is the Tsarina's Stone, an obelisk pillar with a double-headed golden eagle statue on top. This was apparently the first public monument to be built in Helsinki, designed again by Engel. Today, it not only provides an imposing historical touch to the lively goings-on, but is also a perch for gulls from where they sally down to snatch dropped food. Indeed, one has to be careful walking around here, for these gulls can be as bold as crows in India.
If by now you have tired of walking around the market, you can hop into one of the many boats or yachts standing at the harbour. They would take you around the city, or to the nearby islands. We did not have the time to do this, but visitors are known to flock to Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress. Located on six islands just off the main city's coastline, this structure was built in the mid-1700s by the Swedes as a means of defence against the Russians. Suomenlinna is a UNESCO "World Heritage Site", and has a variety of attractions museums, open air historical sites, cafes, picnic spots, gift shops, and some lovely views of the Finland Bay.
Back in the market square, it is well worth walking down the Esplanade Park. The City Tourist Office is located here, and you can pick up quite a bit of literature, maps, and tips. Take a break and have a coffee or lunch at the 11/2-century-old Kappeli Restaurant. We witnessed a live band belting out what seemed like Finnish versions of numbers by The Beatles; open air music is common in summer here.
Then, wander through the park admiring its lovely old trees, soaking in history told by a number of statues of famous figures from Finland's past, and admiring the beautiful architecture of the buildings on both sides.
Another must-visit is the Temppeliaukio Church. The Architects Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen were commissioned to build a church here in the 1960s, and they decided that instead of constructing on top of a natural rock formation, they would build inside it. I'm not particularly religious, but climbing down into the dome-shaped central chamber, its walls made of natural rock, provided a deep sense of peace. The organ started playing as we entered, and the sound was truly heavenly.
More things to do
For those who are architecturally inclined, the city offers a huge range, from neo-classical, Byzantine, Russian, and Renaissance styles to more recent Modernist buildings including those by world-famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
From one side of the harbour you will also see a red and grey, three-chimneyed building: this represents another wonder, a power station with 99.9 per cent reduction in polluting emissions!
And if you are into aesthetics, make sure you visit the many museums and galleries showcasing Scandinavia's brilliant design sense.
For shoppers, many of the departmental stores and boutiques stock a range of glassware, furniture, kitchen items, and other functional items with a unique blend of functionality and style.
If you have the time, there are many more things to do. Visit (with plenty of warm clothes!) the Arctic Ice Bar, which has bars made of 20-cm thick ice, and temperature at 5°C through the year.
Go to the many well-designed museums, find out about operas or other current events. If you are into wildlife, a visit to the Helsinki Zoo on Korkeasaari Island, or to Sea Life (with a huge underwater tunnel), or the University Botanical Gardens is a must. Helsinki also offers an eclectic mix of theatre, opera, ballet, jazz, and other cultural events.
In winter, you can walk on the sea, or indulge in some wild snowfighting. And at the end of the day, try getting into one of the city's saunas ... .do not, repeat do not, depart from Finland without trying the country's favourite pastime. It is guaranteed to give you a wonderful night's sleep, ready to take on another day of sight-seeing.
Helsinki is well-connected to many bigger cities of Europe. But it can also be easily approached by ferry or road from neighbouring countries.
Once there, buy a Helsinki Card (www.helsinkicard.com), which entitles you to free travel on public transport, and free entrance to most museums and other sites. The card is available for one, two, or three days (25, 35 or 45), and can be bought at hotels, tourist offices, the railway station and airport, and other locations.
There is a special guide See Helsinki by Foot which provides six interesting walking routes. For the pocket or health-conscious tourist, cycling too is great. The city authorities, in a bid to promote environmentally sensitive visitation, provide free cycles! A cycling map is available from tourist offices. Buses and trams too are convenient to use, and there are tourist ferries that take you around the city by waterways, or to the nearby islands. Very popular are the "Helsinki Expert" buses (www.helsinkiexpert.fi), leaving from the Esplanade Park.
Before you start, check out information provided by the Helsinki City Tourist and Convention Bureau (www.hel.fi/tourism). Make sure you have a good guidebook (e.g. Helsinki Your Way, or the walking one mentioned above) with you, for many of the signs can be only in Finnish or Swedish. Do pick up a copy of Helsinki This Week (at bus/rail stations, airport, hotels, tourist centres, www.helsinkithisweek.net) to get information on the current events during your stay.
There are many day trips out of Helsinki, depending on whether you are interested in history, architecture, nature, hiking, or just plain having a good time (see Day Trips 2004, www.visitfinland.com).
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