The starting point for our walking tour off Helsinki was Senaatintori (Senate Square) with its dominant structure of Helsingin tuomiokirkko (Helsinki Cathedral). On this Sunday morning, we weren’t able to enter the cathedral, so it was something we kept in mind for later in the day. It was a clear day and the posted temperature was 26ºC, so we had ideal conditions for this walking tour. Our guide Cornelia was terrific. She was originally from Romania, but had lived in Helsinki for quite a while. She was knowledgeable and interesting. Cornelia also made an effort to connect with people on the tour, and we’d put her on the list of the best tour guides we’ve had anywhere.
Walking around the central portion of Helsinki, it is clearly evident how much of the city was built for 1952. Why that year? Well, that was the year Helsinki hosted the Winter Olympics. Much of the infrastructure and quite a bit of the cultural facilities were built for the massive influx of people for the Olympics.
We walked from Senaatintori to the Helsingin päärautatieasema (Helsinki Central railway station). The train station dates back to 1862, and is an impressive looking building. The Finnish granite building has two distinctive pairs of statues either side of the main entrance that give the building its character. Supposedly, it was this building that provided the inspiration for the look of Gotham City in the Batman movies. It sure does have that look, so it is not hard to believe that this is where the idea came from. Beyond the railway station, we walked towards Mannerheiminaukio square. The name Mannerheim is prominent in Helsinki, and in the square stands a equestrian statue of the man himself - Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, the sixth president of Finland but better known as Marshal of Finland and the Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Defence Forces. Before that, his career started in the Imperial Russian Army.
From this central area of Helsinki we walked to Eduskuntatalo (Finnish Parliament building). We paused at an interesting sculpture near the Parliament building. To be precise, it was actually nearer the Finnish Parliament Annex, known as Pikkuparlamentti (Little Parliament). The name Pikkuparlamentti, though, actually gets its name from a restaurant that was previously in the location that the Annex now occupies. The sculpture we were looking at, called Menneet ritarit (Gone Heroes), was made by Finnish artist Eila Hiltunen and was erected in this spot to celebrate the centennial of the first parliamentary election of 1907 in which the members of parliament were elected by universal suffrage. That election followed parliamentary reforms in 1906. Not only did Finnish women become the first Europeans to vote (New Zealand & Australia were trailblazers on that front), they also elected the first ever female MPs anywhere in the world in that election of 1907 - 19 out of the 200 elected MPs. For comparison, universal suffrage in Canada came into effect in 1918 at the federal level, and Agnes Macphail was the first elected Canadian female federal MP out of a total of 235 elected MPs in 1921. That election was the first that women were eligible to be on the ballot in Canada, and it saw only a total of 5 female candidates. As we walked past the Parliament building, our guide mentioned that MPs were not there because they were on holiday, meaning they were on their summer recess. One of the Americans on the tour, though, took the statement to mean literally just this day and asked if it was in honour of America’s Independence Day. Hard to believe, but the fellow did seem serious in his question. We didn’t recall if he was on the same tour as us to Berlin when Canada Day was honoured on the bus ride, but it is possible he was and that he felt there should have been an equal acknowledgement of their day.
Next on the agenda was strolling towards Finlandia Hall, a concert hall and convention centre perched on the edge of Töölönlahti bay. The exterior of the building breaks from what appeared to be tradition in this city, going for a skin of Italian Carrara marble rather than Finnish granite. Our guide explained that the originally installed Carrara marble exterior was too thin and could not withstand the Helsinki winter. Some of the complexes building were then resurfaced with grey Finnish granite. To try to stick with the original intent, the granite was once again replaced by Carrara marble, albeit this time a bit thicker. Probably not the best choice for the climate because the replacement marble tiles have curved. It detracts from the design lines of the buildings. A plaque stands near the entrance to the convention centre portion of the complex, highlighting the most famous use of this building in 1975 - The Helsinki Final Act (or Helsinki Accords) where 35 countries signed the accord in an attempt to lessen tension between the West and the Soviet Bloc. Finlandia Hall sits in a pretty park setting in Töölönlahti bay which provided a lovely place to walk. The weather was perfect for this walking tour. The conversation turned to the wonderful long summer days with their white nights and how most Finns spend as much time as possible outside to enjoy the sunlight. Our guide told us how Finnish parents have trouble getting children to bed when it is light until as late as 11:00pm in Helsinki and even later in the more northern parts of Finland. With the long summer days, though, comes the long winter nights and a population risk of vitamin D deficiency and its related problems. This is a major concern in this part of the world.
Along the bay we came upon a very nice restaurant called Töölönranta where we stopped for a coffee and pastry. We chose to sit outside in a nicely set up patio. A few others in the group did the same, but most opted to take a table inside the restaurant. The refreshment was good, and it would have been interesting to try this place for a meal, it looked very much like something we’d enjoy. Something to put on the list if we return to Helsinki. As we chatted about what we had seen so far, we were both surprised at how much we were enjoying Helsinki. Why surprised? Not totally sure, maybe because this was not a city we had considered much previously and we didn’t select this itinerary because Helsinki was included. Helsinki was turning into a good surprise.
The final stop on our tour was Temppeliaukio Kirkko, a Lutheran church best known as the Rock Church because the church was excavated out of a massive mound of granite. It was finished in 1969, but the first plans for a church in this location date back to 1930. The church today is about one quarter of the originally intended size. Frankly, the church doesn’t look like much from the outside and the entrance has all the flair of the way into a parking garage. It is, though, a different matter on the inside. The walls have been left rough from the excavation and it looks good. The roof is a domed structure with a massive disc in the centre made from wound copper wire. Between the rock walls and domed roof is a ring of windows to let in the natural light. The combination of natural rock walls and constructed domed roof with its copper detail looks quite impressive. The Rock Church is one of Helsinki’s most popular tourist destinations, and today was certainly no exception. It was a busy spot. Before meeting back up with our tour group we did take a quick peek at a couple of shops across the street from the Rock Church, but didn’t stay too long - too much junk and way too many people.
Rather than head back to the ship, we had the bus drop us off near the centre of town so we could continue looking around Helsinki on our own. It was nice to stroll around some more on this beautiful day. The shopping district definitely had some upscale shops. We did venture back to Senaatintori (Senate Square), and as we approached we could see that the square now had a collection of cars on display. They were all Fiats from some sort of Fiat owners’ club. In the centre of the square stands a statue of Emperor Alexander II of Russia. We had noticed that the city is full of connections to its ties with Russia such as this one. Our guide had told us earlier in the day that after Finnish independence there was an attempt to get this statue replaced by the equestrian statue of Mannerheim that we had also seen earlier. That never happened, with the consensus being that their history was their history. Sensible approach. Before leaving the square we took a look at some of the vintage Fiats and then made our way into Helsingin tuomiokirkko (Helsinki Cathedral). This time we could get in. The building was modelled on St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg, Russia - something we were to see over the following few days. It is built in the neoclassical style and was constructed in mid-1800s. The exterior of the church is a dominant landmark in Helsinki, but the interior doesn’t have that same presence - or at least it didn’t to us.
We made our way towards the harbour and had a pleasant stroll along the waterfront. We could see a number of massive icebreakers docked nearby - Finland is icebreaker capital of the world, with most of the ones used in the world coming from this country. The waterfront area that we walked along was quite attractive, and enjoyable just to linger. The area had a few restaurants that looked nice. We plotted a route to get us by Uspenskin Katedraali (Uspenski Cathedral); we had passed it from a distance as we walked to the harbour area and now were looking to get closer.
The Eastern Orthodox cathedral sits impressively on a hillside, which adds to its looks. It was built in the late 1800s. We decided again going inside, preferring to stay outside on this beautiful day. We made our way past Uspenskin Katedraali to head towards Kauppatori - the Market Square. The market was bustling as we arrived. The stalls were selling food and souvenirs mostly. It was fun to wander around the stalls, although we recognized this was a pickpocket’s haven with the crowd, hustle and bustle. We did find a few souvenirs to purchase in Kauppatori, but were disappointed that we were unable to find a print of a Helsinki that we liked. We hadn’t been able to spot a suitable one in Berlin or Warnemunde, either. We generally try to find a small print of places we visit and enjoy but for this trip we were certainly having trouble finding prints we liked. We weren’t buying one just for the sake of buying it. So, after a while of looking in the market we gave up the search. Interestingly, we also hadn’t seen any street artist selling their work as we have seen in so many other cities on our travels. That was unfortunate. In Kauppatori we saw more evidence of the days under Russian dominance - a granite obelisk called The Stone of the Empress, erected in honour of Nicholas I and Aleksandra Fedorovna in the location they came ashore during the visit to Helsinki in 1833. at the top of the obelisk is a gold gilded globe with a double-headed eagle above it - the symbol of Imperial Russia. it was removed from the obelisk by Russian sailors in 1917 after the Russian Revolution and has spent time in a museum, but has been returned to its former spot in Kauppatori since 1971.
After the time in the market we made our way back to Olympia Port where Azamara Journey was docked. It was a fairly short walk to get there. We passed the Windjammer Sea Cloud II docked near Kauppatori, and wondered how a trip would be on this sort of ship. Too bad they weren’t offering tours onboard! We arrived back onboard Azamara Journey with about an hour to spare before it was set to sail for St Petersburg. Before getting onboard we took some picture of the ship - this being the first good opportunity to do so. After a quick pitstop in our room we went to the Sunset Bar to get a drink and stake out a good spot to watch the ship’s departure from Helsinki. From where we were docked, we figured this would be the absolute best place to be in order to see Helsinki as we left. We pretty much had the pick of the tables when we arrived, so we made the assessment of the best viewpoint and camped out. For the time being the view was blocked by another ship directly behind ours, but once Azamara Journey pulled out we’d have a great view. It was nice and relaxing to sit out on this rear deck and enjoy a drink and reminisce about the day’s touring. As it got closer to departure time, more and more people arrived in the Sunset Bar. We had timed it well. The view leaving Helsinki was indeed lovely and we did make the right choice for spot to be. Once the ship cleared the South harbour, the ship still needed to navigate the many islands and islets and accordingly was escorted by the harbour pilot. We returned to our room for some rest while the ship was still among the islands, so we continued to get a good view from our own veranda. We had a dinner reservation at Prime C for 8:30pm this evening, so Linda took the opportunity for a rest while Gary decided on doing some walking laps on the jogging track. A sign indicated that 13 laps equalled 1 mile, so Gary planned for a 26 lap quick-paced walk around the track. Shortly into the walk, Cruise Director Eric was setting up near the jogging track to do the daily information videos that would play each day on one channel of the TV. He would do one segment alone and then another with the Activity Manager Chris (also a fellow Canadian). Eric asked Gary if he was planning to be in the track, not to get him off the track but include him passing as the video was recorded. His solo segment was done just off the track, and Gary heard him giving information for the following morning’s arrival in St Petersburg. On one lap he heard Eric give the temperature as 68ºF or 81ºC. Yikes. As he passed the next time, Eric had finished the first video so Gary asked him if he really had said the temperature would be 81ºC. He looked at the Daily Programme “Pursuits” that he was using...and sure enough, he had read exactly what was written. He said he’d use that for the video with Chris. For the second video they set up across the track, so Gary passed numerous times as they made the video and the blistering hot temperature in St Petersburg was a running gag between the 3 of them. Was funny and fun.
Prior to dinner we took a trip down to Deck 5 to have our photo taken; this turned out to be the only one we ended up purchasing on this cruise. Dinner at Prime C was terrific. At a steakhouse, one should consider ordering steak - so, we followed form and Linda went with her favourite filet mignon while Gary went for Black Angus striploin. When we had spoken to the sommelier on the at sea day she had mentioned that the ship had one of our favourite Amarone onboard - made by Allegrini. It would be the perfect accompaniment for this dinner, but we didn’t see it on the wine list. Almost on cue, our sommelier friend Laurentia appeared and said indeed they had it and she would get it for us. So, clearly not all wines were on the wine list. The great dinner at Prime C was the perfect end to a perfect day in Helsinki. As we mentioned, we had been so pleasantly surprised about how much we had enjoyed Helsinki. It is a compact, clean and busy city that appears to be doing well even in tough economic times. Following dinner we strolled out on the open deck to enjoy some more of the white nights nearing 11:00pm on the Baltic Sea. The ship’s clocks would be set another hour forward overnight as we approached St Petersburg and we would be up fairly early, so this wasn’t going to be a late night for us. Tomorrow, we invade Russia...
WHITEonline is the digital home of Gary & Linda White. We’ve been married since 1980 and live just outside Toronto in Ontario, Canada. Linda was born and raised in Toronto while Gary was born in London, England and moved to Canada at the age of 11. We enjoy travelling and taking photos while we travel. WHITEonline provides the opportunity to share some of our photos & experiences.