Helsinki is much like other European cities – wide squares featuring nude statues, pillared museums, majestic architecture. After two nights in the wild north, it was a jolt back to reality. We took the 615 bus to the city center and hopped onto Tram 6, arriving at the Helsinki Radisson Blu Seaside in time to be informed we’d gotten an upgrade to a Business Class room with a view of the Gulf of Finland, choked with ice. There, the icebreakers, Finland’s hefty ships, anchored in the harbour mouth. It wasn’t Kakslauttanen, but it was good – and breakfast in bed each morning made it better.
We set off to explore Helsinki on foot the next day, bundled up against the rain and the cold. I’d used LP to map out a walking tour of the city – also like most European cities, Helsinki is easily walkable – which took us first to the Helsinki City Museum. This museum promised a history of Finland and its road to establishing itself as a country independent from Sweden and Russia. What it offered was quite unexpected.
Located on the small side street of Sofiankatu, just off of Senate Square, the museum’s 3 floors were packed with photos and artifacts displayed in no particular manner. We entered – it’s free, a major perk – and were told to explore at our own leisure. Guided tours are available, I think, because a group was meandering through ahead of us.
The first floor exhibited photos and information about Finland’s famous monuments, most notably the statue of Alexander I in Senate Square. One case preserved an invitation to the unveiling of the statue, while a display of black and white photos hung on the wall illustrated various historical events. The second story was another animal entirely.
Marked by a beanbag lounge and two chalkboard walls scribbled with hashtags, the second floor began with an exhibit on…well, we’re not entirely sure. Flat screens hung from the ceiling, projected with images of bathers flocking to Finland’s icy shores, tipsy young 30-somethings on a pub crawl, a teddy bear upside down on a sofa…the installation seemed more modern art than Finnish independence. On the walls, scrawled phrases that could’ve come out of a Hemingway novel about being an expat in Paris. A door to the right, slightly ajar but only just and secured by a chain, cast slats of red light on the floor. Intrigued, I had a peek: a room, dishevelled, an upturned chair, empty liquor bottles, a woman kicking her legs up on the couch. Visithelsinki.fi praises the exhibit as creative genius.
The next door returned us to Finnish history, with women’s fur coats and knitted bikinis circa 1910. A video screen set in the corner played a clip of a older man falling through the ice and being laboriously dragged up and across the surface by his female friend. The heading said something about the danger of falling through thin ice and how to respond. If the video contained this information, we couldn’t hear it.
Floor three was a display of Finnish citizens who had done something significant from building a school or designing some architecturally impressive building. Like Dublin’s Guinness Factory museum, each profile featured a black and white video clip of an actor portraying the person, most memorably a proud firefighter. All in all, a strange but enjoyable marriage of history and modern art.
Back in the chill, we turned toward Kauppatori Square, where a nude maiden perpetually bathes inside a circle of gawking seals. (Jamie referred to this as my ‘porn statue’ for the rest of the trip.) We wandered up Mannerheim to Temppelikatu, a winding little side street that led to Temppeliakiou Kirkko, a rock church that is apparently beautiful on the inside. Unable to find the entrance, we clambered over the top for a bit in the rain before venturing south to the seaside in search of Café Ursula, an LP-recommended restaurant. If you’ve travelled with me, you know how fixated I get on my plans, so as we walked onward with little direction, I began to wonder if we would reach the café at all. Jamie took to teasing me about it, calling the place “the best restaurant in Helsinki,” which he upgraded to “the best restaurant in the world” by the time we found it, a very long and cold walk later. Perched on the Ehrenstromintie, a long seaside street that swings back along the coast in a sweeping U, Café Ursula overlooks the Gulf of Finland, probably a vast and bright view on a cloudless day but heavy with grey haze on our visit. Still, a salmon and avocado sandwich and a crisp glass of Lapin Kaldi hit the spot.
And Helsinki looks a lot better and warmer with a steaming hot cappuccino in hand on the walk back.