The next morning while walking around Helsinki, we were surprised to see a train marked “St. Petersburg.” It’s an overnight trip by train between the two cities. Traveling in the other direction, Stockholm is an overnight ferry away, which is why Helsinki is a gate between East and West.
Finland’s capital city embodies much of the Finnish spirit but also is unlike any other Finnish city, because of the combined Swedish and Russian influences. Founded in 1550 by Sweden’s King Gustav, Helsinki was developed as a harbor town to compete for Baltic trade with Tallinn. The Finnish capital developed around the port.
Situated in the city center, South Harbor is the cruise passenger traffic hub. Cruise ships dock within walking distance of the city center and Helsinki’s famous Kauppatori Market Square, a colorful way to begin exploration of Helsinki. We dined on fresh berries, tried on fur hats and browsed such specialties as reindeer and canned bear meat.
The largest cruise ships dock at Hernesaari in West Harbor, 10 minutes by shuttle bus to the city center. We walked to the city center, however, in 30 minutes. Once there, we purchased a one-day City Card, which gave us free access to sights, museums and public transport, including the Tourist Tram 3T, which makes a 60-minute roundtrip from Market Square and passes most of the city’s “must-see” sights, including the Senate Square and its beautiful cathedral.
Helsinki is a pocket-size metropolis, so you can see a lot in a short time. Someone suggested we try “Nordic Walking.” We weren’t aware that people here walked any differently from us, but apparently those who do Nordic Walking do. The activity developed because a ski pole manufacturer wanted to increase the market for its poles. Thus, ski poles were modified for walking.
It’s easy going but takes coordination. Gripping the poles, you lightly push off with each step forward so that the activity provides a slight upper-body workout. We pushed our poles around one of Helsinki’s most popular parks on paths skirting Toolonlahti Bay. It was certainly a memorable activity but one that takes practice, although you’re likely to be the only one practicing if you return home with Nordic Walking sticks.
For something more practical that we could return home with, we walked the Esplanade to find Helsinki’s best shopping. A typical souvenir: wooden butter knives. “Everyone in Finland uses them,” a Finnish friend told us before our trip. And so we purchased a couple to bring home.
With our City Card, we hopped the ferry to Suomenlinna Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded in 1748 and built on six islands off the coast of Helsinki. Aside from the garrison and museums, we found charming cafes and cozy restaurants.
With too little time to see more of the “pocket-size” metropolis, we hopped the ferry back after only a couple of hours and boarded the Westerdam, departing for Stockholm.