We arrived in Helsinki on mid-afternoon on Friday after a 3 hour flight from Reykjavik. We had a pretty early start having to leave our hotel at 5.00 am for the one hour transfer to the airport and be checked in for our 7.55 am flight.
We were immediately struck with the extent of the contrast between Reykjavik and Helsinki. It was 2 degrees (C) when we left the hotel. Where Reykjavik was a tiny city with narrow streets and small shops (some larger shopping malls are in the new areas outside the city), Helsinki is a large European city with wide streets, big buildings and leafy trees in the parks. The biggest difference was that the sun was shining and the temperature was just over 20 degrees.
It was easy to develop a very comfortable feeling here in Helsinki, just as we did on our previous trip, five years ago. It is clean, open, bright and swarms with people. I couldn’t believe just how many attractive young women we saw on the streets. Our hotel (Hotel Glo) was right in the centre of the city and an ideal place for sight-seeing. I like this city!
We walked along the Esplanade that runs through the centre of town to the Stockman store. There were hundreds of local people in the grassy park in the centre of the road. They were sun baking and really enjoying the bright weather. We couldn’t help but notice that a number of young men were dressed very formally in white tie and tails and a couple of young women that we saw were dressed in formal Finnish dress and wore stovepipe hats similar to those in pictures that I have seen of Abraham Lincoln. We didn’t find the answer for this level of dress until the following day. Lots of young girls were carrying roses.
This park was originally created after a fire almost totally destroyed Helsinki in the early 1800’s. It was designed to act as a firebreak between the wealthy stone buildings on one side and the poorer wooden buildings on the other. It obviously also became a place where the gentry could stroll along in their finery. During WW1, when food was scarce, the garden beds were replaced with vegetable patches.
The Stockman department store sits at the top end of the Esplanade and is perhaps equivalent to the David Jones store in Australia – a full of very nice things from household products to the usual clothing and cosmetics. David and I had seen the Riga branch of this store when we visited Latvia together and Jill and I had lunch in the cafe in the Helsinki store when we were last here. It was almost essential to go back and buy some things from the store just for the experience.
We were quite tired after being on the go for so long on this trip that we didn’t wake up until after 10.30 am on the following morning. By then, breakfast at the hotel had finished so we wandered over the road to the famous Karl Fazer cafe and chocolate shop for brunch. This store has operated for over 110 years. Their chocolate and ice cream is famous throughout Finland. Their cafes also sell superb open sandwiches and pastries.
One of our interesting observations was to see many young families dressed to the nines, all lining up for enormous ice cream sundaes in the cafe. The kids looked as though they were all dressed to go to a wedding. Well, curiosity got the better of us so we struck up a conversation with a family at the next table and found out the reason. Coincidentally, the day we arrived here was the last day of the school and university year and the students were beginning their three-month summer holiday. (What a joy for all the mothers!) Families had therefore dressed up in their Sunday best to come into the city for a special treat on the first day of their holidays. That also explained the older university students and graduates with the roses and formal attire that we saw on the previous evening.
We spent the rest of the day wandering around the city, taking in the sites such as the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in which a wedding was taking place, the market square down by the docks and the large white ( but more austere) Protestant cathedral. It was just really pleasant to be out on this balmy afternoon. There is an enormous railway station at the top end of the city and the map showing the network of tram routes looks as complex as the map of the London Underground.
Today, Sunday, is our departure day for home and we were up and about a little earlier than the day before. After breakfast, we walked down to the harbour again and spent 90 minutes doing a sight seeing cruise around the harbour area. This took us past some of the historical fortifications and ship building yards, many of the wealthier areas and through the area of the port where the huge ice breakers are moored over summer. These ships a capable of breaking ice that is 5 m thick and are essential in keeping Finland’s ports open during winter.
After some more wandering through the city, we ended up back at the Stockman store for some more shopping and then back to the hotel to pack. We were very grateful for being able to arrange a 6.00 pm checkout. After a quick bite to eat, we are now at the airport waiting for our 11.40 pm flight home via Singapore.