We arrived in Helsinki from our overnight cruise at around 10 am on Thursday, July 19th, and headed straight to our hotel in hopes of storing our bags until check-in. Luckily for us, our hotel had our room ready and waiting, and we entered into what I proclaimed to be the largest hotel room in all of Europe. Richie is a bit skeptical of my superlatives (and usually for good reason), but he actually agreed with me on this one. It was easily triple the size of the cruise ship room we’d just left. It was also affordable and located just a few blocks from the main market square, the two most famous churches, and the beginning of our Rick book self-guided walk. If you ever find yourself taking a trip to Helsinki, book the Hotel Fabian.
We decided to visit the two famous churches first, since they weren’t featured as part of the city walk, and headed over to the Helsinki Cathedral, a Lutheran church that sits high upon several steps – we were even able to see the peaks of the domes as we arrived on our boat. Apparently the steps leading up to the cathedral are a popular meeting place for Finns.
We walked up the steps only to notice a sign posted at the door that some sort of official church ceremony was going to take place from 11:30 to 12:45, with no entrance to tourists during that time. Since it was exactly 11:25, we decided to visit the other church instead, hoping that it wasn’t having a similar ceremony. We walked the few short blocks to the Uspenski Cathedral, the Russian Orthodox church in Helsinki.
This church was stunning from the outside, but even more gorgeous on the inside. I loved the painted domed ceiling and the front altar.
All of the paintings were done with rich, vibrant colors that basically glowed in the sunlight from the windows.
After we finished at the Uspenski Cathedral, we still had quite a bit of time before we would be allowed into the other cathedral and decided to go ahead and eat lunch. Since we’d dragged our suitcases directly through the main market square, we had a craving for the food that we smelled along our way, so we headed back to that square for street food! They had tons of tents with fresh salmon and potatoes. They all seemed to be serving pretty much the exact same thing, except some stands had salmon steaks while others had salmon filets, so we went for the filets and these round potato balls that were covered in herbs and spices. It was SO delicious, and it was definitely our most affordable lunch of our Scandinavian adventures – but it was still 10 Euro per person, if that gives you an idea of how expensive these cities were! The market square doesn’t just have freshly cooked seafood – there’s also a section with crafts and souvenirs for tourists, as well as a fresh fruit and vegetable market – so we got our tourist on and shopped the souvenirs. Richie acquired a soft furry scarf (Finland is known for its animal furs) and I was addicted to the cutting boards and trivets made from juniper trees – they smelled heavenly. On our way to the hotel to drop off our purchases, we stopped by the fruit market and couldn’t resist picking up blueberries and raspberries for dessert. Mmmmm.
We were much more successful on our second attempt to see the Lutheran cathedral, although in comparison to the beauty of the Russian Orthodox church, the interior of the Lutheran church was quite plain. The church organist was still playing from the earlier event, so we and the other tourists were treated to a mini-concert while we viewed the building. The basement of the church had been turned into a cafe and was currently holding a glass art exhibition, which was worth a quick look.
Since the Rick book’s self-guided tour started just outside the Lutheran church, we headed back outside to the Senate square and started the tour. This was probably the least exciting of the walks we took – Rick had us walk pretty far out of the way to duck into a train station to “experience the atmosphere”. Richie and I both stepped inside, said, “Yep, it’s a train station…” and walked back out.
There were a few notable sights along the way, such as this statue of the Three Blacksmiths. It has what appears to be the only evidence of WWII in all of Helsinki in the form of a few bullet holes in the base of the statue (not visible in the photo below).
On our walk, Rick directed us to a building that he even describes as follows – “People who visit this building tend to think, ‘So what?'” Which summarized our thoughts exactly. But just beyond the building was a beautiful little waterfront area with some canoes that begged us to jump in and go for a row. We didn’t, not being canoe thieves, but it was tempting.
The best part of the walk was its final destination, the Temppeliaukio Church. It was blasted out of rock and topped with a copper dome. The construction of the church is really neat because of the way that it sits in the rock. They have drains around the perimeter of the sanctuary as water can still stream down the rock into the interior of the church.
We then took a city bus to the Sibelius monument, a unique sculpture in Sibelius park dedicated to the Finnish composer. I loved it because it looked like a pipe organ 🙂 The monument was apparently considered too abstract to be a proper dedication to the composer, though, and so to silence her critics, the artist added a bust of the composer off to the side of the sculpture. To me, the bust is actually the silliest looking part of the whole thing, but to each his/her own, right?
Rick’s guidebook also includes a tram tour that covers some other neat places, and conveniently enough, part of the tour ran from a stop very close to this monument back to our hotel. We hopped aboard, which was an excellent idea as about 10 minutes later it started pouring. People say that Texas originated the phrase that if you don’t like the weather now, just wait ten minutes and it will change, but it MUST have originated somewhere in Scandinavia. I can’t tell you how many times perfectly cloudless blue skies turned into dangerous thunderstorms in mere minutes.
For dinner, we had some truly excellent pizza courtesy of the Virgin Oil Co. (we were a little bit sick of seafood at this point). On our way back to the hotel, as we wandered around trying to find a convenience store, we came across a pretty little car with a note under the windshield that read “Unless you’re naked, don’t lean on me”. I tried to convince Richie that he should strip and then pose on the car, waving to the owner, but he seemed to think that would be in poor taste.
Tomorrow will be the very last post of this trip, I promise! You’ll hear all about Fat Margaret, Russian menus, and absurdly long “15-minute” walks in Tallinn, Estonia.