It is the middle of my summer vacation and let me tell you, it’s been great to take it slowly and just enjoy. During June I got to spend a long weekend with my cousins in Helsinki and Espoo and we managed to do a little exploring.
I’ve spent some time in Helsinki over the years when I’ve been visiting some family members every now and then. As the current capital of Finland, the features are both historical and modern – and everything in between. It is also the center of everything happening in Finland – which sometimes irritates everyone living “in the provinces”. A common joke is, that there is no life outside of Kehä III (Ring III) – the outmost of the three beltways surrounding Helsinki.
Now it is clear that there is way more than just a few things to do and see when visiting the Capital region – which consists of three municipalities in addition to Helsinki: Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen. However, these are things I got to do during my visit, so hope you like!
1: A walk in the historic Helsinki city centre
Now, one of the obvious sights to see in the Capital region of Finland is, of course Helsinki city center. Unlike most European cities, there is no “Old Town” dating way centuries back in history. Instead, the architecture in the areas we walked about dates from the early 1800’s when Finland was under the Russian rule, Most of the buildings and elements were designed by architect Carl Ludvig Engel when Helsinki was established the capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland. I’m really drawn to the historic features of the city architecture.
Now, if you start from the main railway station, it’s a good idea to head two blocks south and walk along either Esplanadin puisto (Esplanade Park) or Pohjoisesplanadi (North Esplanade) bordering it. Along Pohjoisesplanadi can be found some brand stores and exquisite cafe’s, as well as diplomatic buildings – a little like Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, just way smaller.
The Esplanade ends up at Kauppatori (Market Square) and Presidentinlinna (The Presidential Palace). From Kauppatori you could buy some berries or peas on the way, and it’s also the place to be if you want to board ferries to go to Korkeasaari Zoo, or Suomenlinna Sea Fortress. Behind the Presidential Palace you can find the Main Guard Post, Uspenski cathedral (main orthodox church in Finland) and Pohjoissatama (North Harbor).
Doubling back behind Presidentinlinna you can find your way to Senaatintori (Senate square) which is surrounded by beautiful buildings, the grandest of which is the white Helsinki Cathedral, standing high on top of a hill to be seen from far away. To the west is the historic main building of the University of Helsinki, and to the east is Valtioneuvoston linna (the Government Palace). In the middle of the square stands a statue of Alexander II of Russia, who was the sovereign Grand Duke of Finland, and is thought of as having been a benign leader as he supported and encouraged Finnish nationalism. If you have the time, have a seat among the locals on the stairs leading up to the church, and spend some time observing the flocks of seagulls and countless tourist groups crowding the square.
2: Take a ferry to Suomenlinna Sea Fortress
Just a quick ferry ride away, on a handful of islands right in front of Helsinki stands the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress. The ferry itself leaves from the Helsinki Market Square, and can be boarded with a valid public transport ticket.
The uniqueness of the fortress lies within its history: it has served the defense of three realms: Sweden, Russia and Finland, and the buildings on the islands reflect just that. Building of the fortress began in mid 1700’s under the Swedish rule. It served as a Russian naval base for over 100 years during the 1800’s, as well as a prison camp during the Finnish Civil War and a military base and artillery for Finland during World War II.
Today the fortress is being preserved as one of the currently seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in Finland. It is home to a number of museums, cafes, restaurants, a naval academy and about 800 residents, hosting numerous events and visitors year-round.
With my cousins we had only a couple of hours to spare for the visit so we couldn’t head into any of the museums. However, we did have a look inside the church, and had a long walk around on the battlements in Kustaanmiekka, and in the mysterious tunnels inside the walls and bastions. As the day was warm, we were able to enjoy a sandwich lunch outside. I really enjoyed seeing the landscape, in full bloom. Next time, hopefully, I’ll have a little more time.
3: Bike along the Waterfront Walkway in Espoo
Now this was a fun activity. One of the evenings we rented citybikes and went for a bike ride along the Waterfront Walkway in Espoo. There is a walk and cycle path running dozens of kilometers on end along the shore. The citybikes turned out a great choice, as there are several stations along the walkway, so we could choose to bike or walk as we wished.
The walkway passes through some posh neighborhoods, parks, boat harbors and beaches, which make up for a calm and versatile recreational sector for the city. I really enjoyed myself, taking in the seaside landscape and the architectural features of the different neighborhoods we passed. If you have the time, and its warm enough, you might want to stop for a swim. Overall, I thought the walkway was a great way to get near nature and relax in the middle of a buzzing capital region.
+1: Visit Helsinki central library Oodi
In need of some peace and quiet? Why not head to the new Helsinki main library Oodi? The library itself was built just last year, and I’ve been wanting to visit it ever since it started creating a little buzz. The public have been both dissatisfied and delighted by it. Some claim it has too few books in relation to its size that it can’t be a library, while others really enjoy the facility and the services it provides.
I actually thought that Oodi is a success as a modern library. If you think a library is just a building filled with books, then yes, I see how Oodi would disappoint you. However, if you think of a library as a center of resources, then Oodi is just that and more. The first floor houses the atrium, the book return, and an auditorium. The second floor on the other hand, is a space for different resources such as study spaces, conference and meeting rooms, urban workshop, computers, sowing machines and possibly much much more. Once you get to the third floor, you can see the main library hall, or Book Heaven as it’s called, filled with bookshelves and reading nooks.
What really impressed me was the architecture of the building. It’s modern Nordic architecture at its best, including simple forms and natural materials. Oodi is still such a novelty overall, that you could see the people who were clearly tourists checking out the place, just as I was. But I’m sure the locals will grow to enjoy it immensely.
So there you have it …
… my first 3 + 1 tips of things to do in the Capital region. What was your favorite? And do you have any tips of your own? I’m hoping to write other posts about Helsinki when I next visit, but meanwhile, don’t forget to like and subscribe and follow me on my social medias! And keep on adventuring!