Helsinki invited me with quite a bit of a dilemma. And two-thirds of it, was my own creation.
I only had 3 days here, and I had not planned to see anything. My plan was to land in Helsinki, start walking around on my own and figure out things. And I spent almost 1 entire day out of these 3 by meeting some friends and treating myself to the essential Finnish Sauna experience at a local favourite Sauna, which was named Loyly and pronounced ‘Lovely’. And I spent a second day visiting the island of Suomenlinna (will write another post about Suomenlinna, because it is totally worth it!).
Which left me with just 1 day to explore the centre of Helsinki. Thank god the Finns made it quite a compact city!
From Katajanokka to Kauppatori
I started the day from my self-service apartment in the neighbourhood of Katajanokka (surprisingly, apartments or aparthotels were cheaper in Helsinki than regular hotels). Katajanokka itself is an interesting neighbourhood to walk around. On the south side, it is a stopover for international cruise-ferries between Finland and its neighbours along the Baltic sea, like Sweden, Estonia, Germany and even the Aland islands.
But on the residential north side, the buildings were popular for being built in a very art nouveau style, despite being home to a residing population of only 4000 people. But this is also one of the best areas of Helsinki to find a self-serviced apartment. And given how close it was to all the important sights of Helsinki, it was also one of the best places to start exploring the city.
My first stop was barely 400 metres away. Katajanokka was once a part of the Helsinki peninsula, but a small canal was dug between Katajanokka and the rest of the peninsula, essentially making it an island now. And right next to this canal, were 2 of the most popular sights of Helsinki. At least, 2 of the most popular sights for the tourists!
The first was the Allas sea pool, a perfect place to partake in the Finnish Sauna experience. You could swim near the sea – or even jump over into the sea – in a swimming pool that gives a brilliant view of the market square. There were a couple of cafes and restaurants too. Since I was no longer a Finnish Sauna virgin (thanks to the lovely ‘Loyly’ on the previous day), I skipped it.
And behind the Allas sea pool was another tourist favourite. The 40m tall Skywheel of Helsinki. While it may not be a match in height for the other giant ferris wheels of the world like Singapore or London, the sky wheel was something the Finns were proud of.
And to prove my point that Saunas are the national pastime of Finland, I will let you know that there is a SkySauna INSIDE the skywheel too. Wheeee!!!
Increasing my Sexual Potency at the Manta
From the skywheel and the sea pool, I went more earthbound. Towards the central market square of Helsinki.
2 squares assume prominence during any walking tour of Helsinki. One would be the Senate Square (which I would visit later in this itinerary) and another would be the market square. Also called Kauppatori in Finnish.
I was already familiar with Market square, because it was from here that the ferries plying to Suomenlinna departed from. But today, I was here for a completely different reason.
To have reindeer meat.
Ok, that is an exaggeration. I did wanted to try some reindeer meat and some Norwegian salmon, both of which were sold on the streets and the cafes here. But more importantly, I also wanted to take a look at one of Helsinki’s most iconic sights.
To the east end of the Market square, lay a fountain and the central figure of Havis Amanda. I had heard of this sensual bronze statue by the French sculptor Ville Valgren, but I did not know that it was completely nude. It felt almost like a French lady decided to come to Helsinki and strip away. The Havis Amanda was so sensual, she was definitely oozing French-ness everywhere. I found myself shying to meet her gaze!
Havis Amanda – or Manta, as she is locally called – is such an integral part of the Finnish culture that every year during the festival of Vappu (The Christian feast of Walpurgis night in the rest of Scandinavia), local students would cap the statue in an elaborate ceremony.
The Manta also came with a local myth that I just simply HAD to try. Apparently, the Havis Amanda is considered a patron of sexual potency, and many men wash their faces with water from the fountains of the Manta.
Wellllll… I did it too. And just in case that was not enough, I walked 10 metres, found a small stall that sold Reindeer sausages, Salmon and herrings. You may already know the aphrodisiac properties of Salmon and Herring, but hey, even Reindeer meat is a pretty good source of Omega 3!
Capping the Manta during the Vappu festival (Courtesy: Some kind soul on Youtube)
From a Market Square to a Senate Square
From the market square, I walked further east. A little slower this time, as I was still digesting the holy trinity of reindeer, salmon and herring (I didn’t know at that point if they increased my sexual potency, but they did increase my girth a little further). And just when I thought I could take a seat for a while, a park materialised out of nowhere. I took a seat at the Park Esplanadi, once again surrounded by a couple of nude statues, and watched the school kids do some kind of community project in the park.
It was the sound of a drum that actually got me walking again. Faintly, somewhere near the Katarinaankattu street (seriously, why are Finnish names so darn long?!). Like the first rat who followed the pied piper of Hamelin, I followed the music too.
So, this was the busker center of Helsinki! And plenty of buskers – some of them really talented, as I would find out – thronged the streets. Some played drums, like the man in the picture above, while there was also a violinist around. And of course, the mannequins were everywhere too.
The street itself was colourful, with the tram lines passing right through it. And it led me towards a giant open square, which looked like the kind of place where the whole of Helsinki would gather if there was some kind of city-wide earthquake alert.
The buildings that surround the Senate square, are some of the most prominent in Helsinki. From where I stood, I could see the Helsinki Cathedral straight ahead. To my right was the Government palace, and to the left, the University of Helsinki. And everywhere around me, were Finns sitting on the steps to the Helsinki cathedral and doing whatever it is that Finns do.
In the center of it all, a lonely statue stood against the sun and the clouds. Alexander II may have been the emperor of Russia, but he was also the Grand duke of Finland, and was instrumental in getting Finland increased autonomy from Russia. And rightfully, he occupied the central position of the senate square, in a statue that was surrounded by figures which stood for law, culture and agriculture.
The Tale of 2 Cathedrals in Helsinki
Fun fact: Carl Ludvig Engel – who designed the layout of Senate Square – also designed the Helsinki Cathedral, aka the Lutheran cathedral. And this is relevant because the Lutheran cathedral is supposed to cap off the Senate square, and be its awe-inspiring climax. Well, it surely was.
Initially, I thought the Lutheran cathedral (also called Helsinki cathedral) was closed. But that’s because the steps leading to it were so steep, I could barely even see the doors from where I stood in the Senate square. Once I climbed up all the stairs, I was glad to find out that it was open.
There was some sermon going on, but that didn’t prevent the hordes of tourists from peeking around. (I am glad that I was not the only one!). But what really got my attention inside the cathedral, were the domes. And specifically, the chandeliers placed in front of the domes.
It did look like a ‘No fear’ advert. Don’t believe me? Check the Picture below!
After the Helsinki Cathedral, I proceeded to trace my steps back towards Katajanokka. It was nearing evening, and I had seen everything on the list that I had made sometime around the noon, when I took that short break near Park Esplanadi.
Except one. But it was too comfortably close to my apartment anyway.
While the Helsinki Cathedral was an Evangelical Lutheran church, there was also an Eastern orthodox cathedral in Helsinki. Apart from the obvious religious denomination, the Uspenski cathedral was remarkably different from the Lutheran cathedral in appearance too. While the Lutheran was imposingly white, the Uspenski cathedral stood as russet and brown as the hills of the Katajanokka pensinsula, where it was located. While the Lutheran overlooked the Senate Square, the Uspenski overlooked almost the entire city. And where the Lutheran had those rounded domes, Uspenski’s were beautifully pointed.
I definitely am not aware of the differences between Lutheran and Eastern orthodox religious denominations. But I have to say that the Uspenski cathedral did look a lot more sassier. Both inside and outside.
Some Practical Tips for your Helsinki walk
- Carry a Jacket. Helsinki winds can get really cold at times.
- I did not mention about a Finnish Sauna, because I spent almost an entire day at one. So, ensure that you add a Sauna experience too.
- If you want to attempt the same self-guided walking tour as me, I am attaching a screenshot of my walking map below. Help yourself.
- The reindeer, salmon and herring mix, does seem to practically work. Trust me on this one 😉
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