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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Helsinki - Finland: A Two-Night Cruise and One Day

My weekdays in Stockholm were spent wandering cobblestone streets, jogging along the water, eating ice cream on freshly made waffle cones, exploring touristy sites, and shopping (H&M mostly with stops at Mango and Kookai, where I bought one of my favorite sweaters which crosses over at the collar to close with a wooden chopstick).

Are you a Rick Steves fan? His books have come in handy many a time during my travels in Europe. It was his Scandinavia guidebook which pointed me toward overnight cruises from Stockholm, Sweden to Helsinki, Finland.

Helsinki, Finland 1

On a whim, I called Silja Line to inquire about the cruises and managed to score last-minute discounted tickets for a two-night, one-day cruise. Total cost? About $62 USD per person for a round-trip ticket for a two-person cabin. Score! I immediately booked the tickets and told HH that I made weekend plans for us. Haha. I'm not that arbitrary. I had mentioned the possibility of a cruise, HH said he would be interested, and we agreed to go if the costs were reasonable. (Oh, whoa! I just checked to see what the going rate is for 2008, it would cost $288 for the same round-trip ticket now!!! Even back then, it would have cost $114 off-season weeknights so I totally got a deal.)

The cruise left at 5 p.m. from Stockholm, arriving the next morning in Helsinki. Normally, it leaves again around that same time, but there was a marathon that weekend in which many of the people from Stockholm were competing so our day in Helsinki extended until 9 p.m. Yay! Extra hours in a new city and country and discounted tickets.

Since Stockholm is in the middle of an archipelago, passing scenic little islands at sunset was one of the best parts of the trip. We grabbed seats on the deck to admire the view before heading inside for dinner.

Helsinki, Finland 2

The next morning we arrived in Helsinki, Finland. Helsinki is ahead of Stockholm by 1 hour so remember to set your clocks before going to bed or else you'll miss the departure.

There are approximately 560,000 people in Helsinki, and 1.2 million people in the greater Helsinki area. (By the way, did you know there are approximately 3,000 Vietnamese in Finland? Random fact I picked up from reading a Discovery Channel travel book on Finland years before I went on this trip. Yes, I'm a nerd and read travel books for fun.)

Helsinki was founded by Swedish King Gustav Vasa at the mouth of the Vantaa River in 1550 to compete with Tallinn, Estonia for Baltic Sea trade. It was moved to its current location in the mid-17th century.

Finland became part of Russia in 1809. Its status was raised to capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1812. Russia hired a young German architect named Carl Ludwig Engel to design new public buildings for Helsinki and told him to use St. Petersburg as a model. That's why parts of Helsinki have a very Russian feel. In fact, Helsinki was used as a stand-in for Russia to film Dr. Zhivago.

Finland became independent in 1917. City planning became characterized by Neoclassicism and Functionalism. You'll see both types of architecture. Although, I realized I didn't take too many pictures of the Functionalism style of buildings because I didn't much care for that type of architecture. Reminded me too much of 1984.

Helsinki, Finland 3

Helsinki, Finland 4

The cruise ship docked about a 10-minute walk from the city center. At the harbor, an outdoor market sold food (Cloudberries!) and handicrafts. It would have been a great place to grab breakfast except we had no euros and needed to hunt down an ATM machine.

We decided to head toward touristy Senate Square, where St. Nicholas' Church rises high above the city. Named after the patron saint of trade and seafaring and Czar Nicholas. Construction of the Neoclassic building began in 1830 according to designs by Engel and completed in 1852, after his death. His successor, E.B. Lohrmann added the four smaller towers around the main dome. In 1959, Helsinki became a diocese and it was renamed the Helsinki Cathedral. The statue is Czar Alexander II (1818-1881). The statues standing below him represent law, peace, light, and work.

Helsinki, Finland 5

After snapping photos, we wandered around some more, where we got distracted by huge sale signs at H&M. Yes, "we." HH is a bit of a clotheshorse. By now, we were postively starving and still no ATM in sight! So he went into a coffee shop to inquire and I wandered around and managed to locate one. Yippee! With euros in hand, I became sugarmama for the day and insisted we eat at McDonald's. What can I say. It's a travel quirk of mine. So we got several orders of chicken McNuggets so I could try every single sauce they had available. For the life of me, I can't remember if they had any particularly Finnish items on the menu because I surely would have ordered it if they did.

Helsinki, Finland 6

Oh how I wish we had curry sauce in America. It tastes like a curried sweet and sour sauce. Hmm. Except for the sweet and sour sauce, you can't really get a sense of how incredibly long and difficult the Finnish language actually is. Finnish belongs to the Finno-Ugric language originating east of Russia's Ural Mountains and is closely related to Estonian and distantly related to Hungarian. Since Finland belonged to Sweden for so long, and because there are many ethnic Swedes in Finland, pretty much everyone also speaks Swedish. And of course English, with a lovely lilt. Stop off at the Tourist Information office at the corner of Unioninkatu and Pohjoisesplanadi if you really want to be amazed. The TI workers have little flags of each country whose language they speak on their name tags. Almost everyone had at least half a dozen. HH speaks six languages, but we were completely impressed with one guy, kid really, who had 11 or was it 13 languages. He easily switched from any of the Nordic languages to English to Japanese. Woeful American me, I barely can manage two.

Now with full bellies, we wandered back down to the market by the harbor to begin our tour of the city. The Esplanade, a tree-lined park runs from the harbor into town. The photo below was taken from the center of the Esplanade, looking toward the harbor. Can you see the edge of the Russian cathedral on the left side? Per Rick Steves' suggestion, we stopped off for coffee at Cafe Kappeli, built in 1867, a glass observatory-like building in the center of the park. It's really the loveliest cafe I've ever been in and I have no idea why I didn't take pictures. HH took a nap in the park while I tried to plan out a walking tour.

Helsinki, Finland 7


Some more random pictures of buildings.

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Helsinki, Finland 9

Three Blacksmiths statue. Residents say if a virgin walks by, the blacksmiths will strike their anvils.

Helsinki, Finland 10

Parliament, built between 1925 to 1931, designed by J.S. Siren in a Neoclassic style, although it looks like a blend of Functionalism to me.

Helsinki, Finland 11

Temppeliaukio Church, quarried out of natural bedrock in 1969. Also doubled as an air-raid shelter. Supposedly has very nice acoustics. That day there was a wedding so we couldn't go inside.

Helsinki, Finland 12

Uspenski Cathedral, completed in 1868, the largest orthodox church in Western Europe. Ah, now can you see the Russian influence?

Helsinki, Finland 13

View of the Lutheran Cathedral from Uspenski Cathedral.

Helsinki, Finland 14

HH asleep yet again. Either I was really boring, or he was working too hard. I'd like to think it's the latter...

Helsinki, Finland 15

My "postcard" shot of Uspenski Cathedral as we were leaving.

Helsinki, Finland 16

There were more "important" buildings that I didn't photograph. On account of me deeming Functionalism to be ugly. Yup. I said it. We went back to the outdoor market to grab lunch. Salmon, if I recall correctly. Then we sat at another coffee shop to while away the late afternoon. Funny thing. All the coffee shops, people, and the sun were on the right side of the Esplanade. I'm serious. The sun literally did not shine on the left side. The weather that day was fickle. Short bursts of rain and clouds, with the sun breaking through, only for the overcast sky to come back. I guess that's why everyone congregated on the right side to grab what little sun they could.

A glimpse of the marathon runners that gave us three extra hours in Helsinki.

Helsinki, Finland 17

A view of Helsinki, with the two cathedrals on both sides. Can you see the hot air balloon?

Helsinki, Finland 18

More cute islands.

Helsinki, Finland 19

The first night, we dined at one of the restaurants on the ship. The second night, we opted for the buffet. The buffet is worth it for a chance to try various Swedish and Finnish foods, mainly seafood. It now costs about $50 USD though!!! I dunno if it's worth that. We paid $30 USD at the time and thought it was a bit much. But dinner in the ship's restaurant cost that much for only one entree so the buffet is the better deal. If you're really watching your pocketbook, eat at the cafeteria or buy something in town and bring it back to eat onboard.

You can read all Europe posts with the tag Series: Europe, but I suggest reading this particular trip in this order:
"Meet-Cute" Stockholm - Sweden
Helsinki - Finland: A Two-Night Cruise and One Day
Sigtuna - Sweden: More Rune Stones Than Any Other Town
Gamla Uppsala (Old Uppsala) - Sweden: Beowulf and Burial Mounds
Uppsala - Sweden: Birthplace of Celsius
Tallinn - Estonia: A Two-Night Cruise and One Day
Eger and Sirens Valley - Hungary: Floral? Fruity? Woody Notes? What Notes?
Agios Georgios, Corfu Town, and Vidos Island, Corfu - Greece
Glass Bottom Boat, Corfu - Greece
Gaios, Paxos Island - Greece
Parga - Greece
Autostitch of Parga - Greece
Paleokastritsa, Corfu - Greece
Butrint and Saranda - Albania

Stockholm to Helsinki Cruise Info:
I took the Silja Serenade from Stockholm to Helsinki. The cruise ship is a luxury liner with restaurants, shops, video arcade, and night club. There's also nightly performances on the center stage. Prices vary according to accommodations. There's also an additional $7.50 USD each way fuel surcharge.
+46 8 222 140

From Stockholm, take the bus at Central Station to the Silja terminal.

Viking also runs cruises, although I didn't take it so can't vouch for it personally.
+46 8 452 4000

Places to See:
St. Nicholas' Church
Temppeliaukio Church
Uspenski Cathedral

Places to Eat:
Cafe Kappeli
Eteläesplanadi 1
00130 Helsinki
+358 010 76 63880

Outdoor market at the harbor, before the entrance to the Esplanade.
Su-Lin of Tamarind and Thyme has a great post showing the colorful berries and seafood that can be found in the market.

Helsinki is ahead of Stockholm by 1 hour, remember to set your clocks before you go to sleep or you'll miss the boat on the way back.

1 year ago today, but is it edible? Feedable BBQ Buffet - Rowland Heights.


  1. Ok WC, I have to know... what happened with you and HH?!! The world wants to know, we need background info! Nevertheless, wonderful pictures--felt like I was walking those scandinavian streets myself.

  2. I'm so jealous! Helsinki is also high on my list of places to visit!

    Marvin was bold enough to ask, and I'm backing him up on it. Inquiring minds want to know! LOL

  3. Marvin,
    Nothing happened. It's a long story about nothing. :) And I hardly think the world is all that interested in my life. :P

    Actually, Finland, along with Iceland are Nordic, but not Scandinavian. Not sure the exact distinction, but something about how they're republics and the other countries are social-democracies.

    Haha! How 'bout I distract you with more travel stories? I wonder if the other country I visited will be high on your list too?

  4. Thanks very much for this! I'm heading to Helsinki for a weekend very soon and this is a good guide as to what to expect and especially where to eat!

  5. T&T,
    I hope it was useful. There's loads more that I just never photographed. The Finnish restaurants were pretty pricey, so we just stuck to cheap eats. I hope you get to visit some so I can see what I missed out on.


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