Helsinki is a truly remarkable city – the modern Finish architecture combined with the historical past of protestant and orthodox churches blend to create a city of old and new. Helsinki’s claim to fame is being the northern most city of a million residents. Fortunately when I was there in September the weather cooperated and I didn’t have to experience any of their Nordic winters. But I still think Helsinki would be quite a nice, though different, place in the winter.
I had a three day weekend, and I wanted to visit Finland and Estonia before returning home to Italy. Due to the ferry schedules, my time in Finland was short, but I did manage to see quite a lot of the city given my roughly 16 hours there. If you have a day in Helsinki – here are some of the sights you cannot miss.
Helsinki Cathedral (Helsingin Tuomiokirkko)
This beautiful church high upon a hill in the center of the city is really the main attraction and iconic landmark in Helsinki. This was my first stop to start the day. It is a Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral, and it was originally finished in 1852. The church can be seen from almost anywhere throughout the city and truly denotes the downtown or central area. There is a large square in front of the cathedral filled with restaurants and cafes, but this area can get a bit touristy. Stay tuned for some better coffee recommendations.
Old Market Hall (Vanha Kauppahalli)
My favorite part of Helsinki – Old Market Hall – was originally opened to the public in 1889 as a place to trade goods that was indoors and more hygienic than typical outdoor markets. All types of food are sold throughout the market with imports from throughout the European Union. The main highlight, however, is the delicious and sometimes bizarre Finish delicacies. My personal favorite – and reason why I wanted to visit Old Market Hall – was the famed reindeer sandwiches sold throughout the market.
Being a Nordic country meats like reindeer and even bear are quite commonly sold throughout Finland. I’ll be honest: the reindeer tasted quite good, but it would be hard to differentiate it from venison. While I was there, I also tried some reindeer jerky that honestly tasted like regular pork or beef jerky. There were also many vendors selling bear salami and jerky, but the prices were quite high so I didn’t try it.
Besides game, one of the other highlights is the fresh fish sold throughout the market. I had some exceptional smoked salmon, and I even saw an entire smoked eel for sale!
Uspenski Cathedral (Uspenskin Katedraali)
After lunch I walked along the waterfront area – which also doubles as a weekend outdoor market – to the second most iconic cathedral in Helsinki. Uspenski is an Eastern Orthodox church completed in 1868 by Russian architect Aleksey Gornostayev. This cathedral is located on a hill offering beautiful views of Helsinki. While the inside is quite small, its definitly worth checking out. I felt like I was back in Kiev walking into a church like this.
Johan & Nyström (Coffee Shop)
Right around the corner from Uspenski Cathedral there is a beautiful waterfront area with trendy shops and cafes lining the harbor. I found one cool place in particular called Johan & Nyström which served wonderful coffee in a large relaxed environment. The staff were extremely friendly and talkative with the patrons. They even offer barista classes for groups and interested individuals. This was a great place to spend an hour editing photos before I had to leave for the ferry to Tallinn.
Ferry to Estonia
Many ferries leave from Helsinki’s west terminal which is on the opposite side of the city. Fortunately it is quite easy to get to as public transportation is excellent. I used Google Maps to route everything and it was very accurate. From this coffee shop, I got on the 7 tram which went right to the terminal.
There are many different ferry companies serving Estonia, but the cheapest (and best) in my opinion is Eckero Line. This company uses massive cruise ships with several bars, cafes, and even live bands on board to entertain passengers over the 2.5 hour journey. The reason it is to cheap is because of the scale of their operation – larger ship means more passengers and lower ticket prices. I tend to get seasick on smaller boats, and this ship was so large that I didn’t have any major issues over the short journey. I believe they have two or three departures daily from Helsinki and Tallinn. While it is possible to find a slightly faster boat, these smaller ferries often get shut down in inclement weather whereas Eckero almost never stops.