I walked through Helsinki with a smile on my face. The city was, to me, delightful: the stately rows of buildings, hued in warm colors, the quirky Nordic design sensibility, the long sunlight-filled evenings (stretching on until about 10:30pm during my May visit). Helsinki was small but full of treasures, a place I never expected but love but now find myself clamoring to return to.
My hotel was near the Esplanadi, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, packed with shops and, and most hours, packed with people too. On my first morning in town, I woke up early enough to beat the crowds, strolling into Cafe Kappeli when it was still nearly empty. Kappeli was lovely: a fancy-schmancy interior, good coffee, and great people watching. The kind barista seem momentarily taken aback when I asked him to make my cappuccino strong, and though it was stronger than I am used to, it was good. At a nearby table, a group of ten women clinked glasses of champagne – though it wasn’t yet 10am. To that, I have all the respect in the world.
Not far from Kappeli is the Market Square, home to a relatively standard collection of farmer’s market fare: produce, breads, flower stands, and the like. I wandered up to a fruit stand hoping to snap a picture, but after chatting a bit with a very persuasive salesman, found myself the proud owner of a gigantic bag filled with 12 euros worth of cherries. They were tasty though.
The Market Square sits right alongside the Port of Helsinki, a lovely spot for a stroll, particularly given that I was blessed – for the most part – with a good amount of sunshine during my stay.
I did not do a ton of traditional sightseeing in Helsinki: I stopped by three cathedrals and one art museum, and other than that, I just wandered. The “one art museum” was a good one, however – the Ateneum, home to the largest collection of Finnish art. I enjoyed perusing all the Finnish masterpieces, but one of my favorite things here was a temporary exhibit: the photography of Ismo Hölttö, who traveled around the Finnish countryside in the ’60s and ’70s and photographed Finns going about their everyday lives. His pictures were striking and poignant (sadly but understandably, no photographs of the exhibit were allowed).
What I loved about Helsinki was that the works of art weren’t only confined to museums; the city’s streets themselves look like a painting. I loved the elegant architecture and the beautifully painted buildings, many in warm shades of orange and pink.
Good design clearly matters in Helsinki, and I adored the Nordic design aesthetic – simple, modern, yet playful – that permeates the city’s shops. I’m not much for shopping, but here – as in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Oslo before it – the shops were fun to explore, whether it was the Finnish classic Marimekko or smaller, more local stores.
It’s funny: I centered this vacation around my desire to see Norway, and particularly its fjords. I tacked Helsinki on as an afterthought, a way to fill out the last few days of my itinerary and check another country off my list. Yet in the end, Helsinki just may have been the highlight of my trip. I went not knowing what to expect, and what I found was that I loved…pretty much everything. Helsinki was a treat.