I am visiting Helsinki’s south harbour,
where the steel-gray waters of the Gulf of Finland lap the rocky shore, setting sail on a tour of the offshore archipelago, studded with over 300 Scots pine, Norway spruce, and birch covered islands. On your port side, the commuter ferries come and go like clockwork, connecting Helsinki with dozens of its islands. Still further out, you’ll see large commercial ferries looming and bobbing on the horizon, linking Finland with its Baltic Sea neighbours, Russia, Estonia, Germany, and Sweden.
The islands beyond Helsinki are dotted with vacation homes for the wealthy, in the Finnish equivalent of cottage country, each with a freestanding wooden sauna near the water’s edge. The saunas are often painted a rich, red-brown colour known as “falu red” in Swedish (“punamulta”, or “red earth”, in Finnish), a natural pigment that is derived from Swedish copper mines. Even on a sunny summer day, the air will be crisp and cold and I marvel at the few stoic Finns who are swimming in the frigid waters off their cottage docks.
By Sea: A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Cruise past the once-mighty stone ramparts of Suomenlinna (“Fortress of Finland”) – a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is situated on a group of islands and accessible by ferry or water bus from Helsinki’s Market Square. The largest maritime fortress on the Baltic, Suomenlinna was built for defensive purposes during the Swedish era (1748 – 1808), then fell under Russian control after the Russo-Swedish war in 1808 and – finally – became Finnish property in 1917-1918, when Finland achieved its independence. Today, Suomenlinna is home to a naval academy, and the many tunnels and ramparts of the old fortified structure are open for public tours. A great day out with the family!
By Land: The Bustling Senate Square
Back on shore, there are so many things to do in Helsinki: revel in the sights and sounds of the lively farmers’ market in Helsinki’s harbourfront. Hakaniemi Market Hall, Hietalahti Market Hall, and the Old Market Hall are overflowing with berries, currants, wild mushrooms, and other locally-raised or foraged fruits and vegetables and unique local fare. Stroll north, along cobbled streets that slope down to the sea, until you arrive at the bustling Senate Square, which is presided over by four large, Neo-classical buildings built between 1822 – 1852 (each designed by Carl Ludwig Engel): the magnificent, white Helsinki Cathedral, that rises high above the square; the Government Palace; the National Library of Finland; and the main building of the University of Helsinki. At noon on a late-summer weekday, the Senate Square will be alive with tourists and tour buses, as well as with polished young Finns in business suits, enjoying a lunchtime break in the sunshine. Stop at Sibelius Park, to visit the monument to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, that comprises over six hundred steel pipes.
From both land and sea, the attractive and eminently walkable city of Helsinki is home to numerous parks, museums, art galleries and design houses. Make it part of your Finland itinerary!