Helsinki, with its blue harbour and green spaces, is a great stress buster for the urban, jaded tourist, who has been there, and done almost everything, writes
SEA gulls in flight, the harbour full of yachts, green trams trundling past, domes and spires competing with glass and steel — Helsinki is a photogenic city. Founded by the Swedish king Gustav Vasa in 1550 across the Baltic Sea, it grew into importance after the Russians annexed it in 1809. Helsinki is a city of green spaces. The most popular park is the boulevard-like Esplanade Park. There is the statue of national poet J.L Runeberg whose first poem Maamme became the national anthem. At the end of the park is another statue of Havis Amanda, a woman, who rose from the sea symbolising the birth of the city. When this statue, made in Paris, was unveiled here in 1908, this curvaceous maiden outraged people!
Helsinki has an eclectic range of churches. The Temppeliaukio or the Rock church was carved out of a solid piece of granite in 1969 by the brothers Timo and Tuomo. It has an ethereal, glass dome with gleaming copper wire. The rough walls gleam in the light of the flickering candles, the unadorned altar, and the birchwood benches make the church atmospheric. The splendid acoustics of this church has made it a venue for musical concerts. The city has a Russian ambience with its primrose yellow buildings. This has made many film directors use it as a double for St Petersburg. In the centre of Helsinki is the stunning Senate Square, where wealthy merchants built their houses in the 18th century. The centrepiece is the neo-classical, Lutheran St Nicholas church with its green dome. Inside the church are the first Finnish Bible and an altarpiece from Moscow, a gift from the Czar. In the centre of the square is a statue of Tsar Alexander II. He wanted Helsinki to look like St Petersburg and gave the German architect Carl Engels the job of designing buildings. Engels also designed the other buildings around the square like the National Library, the University of Finland and the Government Palace. In the distance are the onion domes and red-bricked facade of the Uspenski Church, the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe on Katajanokka peninsula. This is the peninsula where the icebreakers, those ships, which keep the coast ice free in the winter, are stationed.
The railway station, designed by the celebrated architect Eliel Saarinen, is a landmark building with its lamp bearing giants and illuminated globes. Art and music is everywhere in Helsinki — there are a number of museums and concert halls all over the city. With art and music all over, can coffee be far behind? There are cafes everywhere. Finland is one of the world’s largest consumers of coffee. Breakfast served in these cafes is quite fortifying and nutritious, with dark rye bread, four-grain porridge, succulent fruits, blue cheese and generous helpings of lingonberries. As Finland is home to 1,88,000 lakes, fish like salmon, pike, perch and Baltic herring are popular options. For meat-lovers, reindeer and moose meat are daring but delicious choices.
Aleksanterinkatu Street and the Esplanadi are the shopping hotspots of the city where the huge Stockmanns departmental store is a must visit. Also worth looking at are design stores, Marimekko with its distinctive textiles and signature bold and oversized flowers and Littala with its glassware. Helsinki has been named the World Design capital 2012 and the Design District is a collection of shops and boutiques showcasing contemporary designers across 25 streets. Functionality and sleek designs mark the plethora of rugs, furniture, ceramics, glass, lighting, shoes and clothes on offer.
The 100-year-old tram network is a great way to see the city. The 3T tram does a number 8-loop around the city covering many major sights. Ferries are another option to visit South harbour’s Market Square and Suomenlinna fortress, a naval fortress built by the Swedish in the 18th Century and today a Unesco World Heritage Site. This fortress has played an important role in the power politics of the Baltic Sea. It is built over six islands connected by short bridges and has a maze of hiking paths, museums, ramparts, moss-covered walls and an amazingly huge dry dock. Today it’s a city district with about 900 residents with its own school, daycare centre, church et al!
A unique sight that you must not miss is the Sibelius monument, set in the middle of a forest. It’s made up of vertical, acid-proof steel tubes, welded in an abstract form, reminiscent of a church organ. It is dedicated to the greatest Finnish composer Sibelius, who died in 1967, famous for his seven symphonies. It is a great place to unwind and re-cap your visit to this Northern city. But then the whole of Helsinki is a great stress buster for the urban jaded tourist, who has been there, and done almost everything.
HOW TO GET THERE: Direct Finn air flights from Delhi. It takes around 7 hours.
GETTING AROUND: Helsinki has excellent public transportation, with a network of buses and trams. A Helsinki card gives you free admission to over 60 museums and sights besides unlimited travel on city transport.
WHERE TO STAY: The Sokos Hotel, Torni, has an excellent location. Klaus K is a design hotel in the centre of town. Both have with double rooms starting at around a 150 Euros. Besides these there are many options to suit all budgets
MUST-VISIT SIGHT: Kiasma — the Museum of Modern Art.
MUStT DO: Have an authentic sauna experience.
EAT: Smoked reindeer, salmon and herring, wild mushrooms, different berries like lingonberry and cloudberry.
BUY: Modernistic glasses, vases, sleek furniture, smoked meat and wooden souvenirs.
Published in the Sunday Tribune, Chandigarh, 2011.