Like previous years, this year Marilyn’s work flew her and much of Booking.com out to Amsterdam for their yearly event/party – and like previous years I tagged along while adding a few more stops along the way.
Our first stop was to Finland to see some old friends, Danielle and Matt, who invited us to see their beautiful city of Helsinki! Finland has never been my radar to see, but how many chances in our life would be have to tour this far north? We planned out our trip with 4 days in Finland, 1 in Tallinn, Estonia, 4 days in Germany and finally 4 days in Amsterdam. It was a lot of traveling from city to city, but another amazing opportunity to explore places we’ve never been but always wanted to see.
Getting to Europe is never fun. Our trip from Orlando to Boston to Amsterdam to Helsinki ended up taking about 24 hours of travel time. On the bright side, we were on a completely new plane, alone in an exit row! Not a bad start to the trip.
As far as airport food goes, New England clam chowder from Boston is always a favorite. Unfortunately, none of the other airline food was worthy of photographing (and barely worthy of eating).
Flying into Finland was flying into a land of snow. Yahoo! Weather claimed the temperature to be 20 degrees (F) and “blustery”, which we would soon learn was the norm for Finland in January.
After a quick cab ride, we made it out to Danielle and Matt’s place to be greeted by some delicious (spicy) chocolate cupcakes. One of my biggest regrets on the trip is not eating more of these.
Marilyn’s First Snow
Can you believe Marilyn had never seen snow? Immediately after arriving we had to go out and play in it.
We had a bit of scare, where after a trust fall into the snow, Marilyn’s phone went missing, but luckily we found it before needing to locate a metal detector. We also learned that dropping your phone in the snow instantly kills its battery.
This was perfect snow. Fluffy, light, soft and so much fun to play with. The morning we arrived, there was a minor blizzard, covering the entire city in whiteness. We later learned how much Finns love this look for their city, as it brightens everything in an otherwise dark time of the year. In January, there may only be a few hours of sunlight, causing the extra brightness the snow brings to be a welcomed relief.
Similar to Montreal, Helsinki has a number of tunnels that let people shop while staying warm underground. These walls were decorated with cave murals that gave the impression the tunnels were natural.
Helsinki Senate Square
Throughout the day, our hosts would remind just how lucky we were to get this beautiful weather. In the 4 days we were in town there was almost as much sun as the entire month of November! We headed to Senate Square, an open area in the center of town surrounded by the looming Helsinki Cathedral. After pelting each other with snowballs and taking way too many pictures, we moved on to grab lunch.
Lutheran Cathedral is the unofficial symbol of the city, and it’s easy to see why. Wherever we went in town, we were able to spot it in the distance.
We grabbed lunch at a casual Italian restaurant closeby, interpreting the Finnish menus. For most places the menus were in English, but in all cases the employees working there spoke amazingly clear English. We enjoyed some pasta and coffee while keeping warm.
Like other European restaurants, if you order coffee with your meal, they’ll bring it out after as a digestif. If you’re going for breakfast and want some coffee to wake up – make sure you let them know you want your coffee first.
One of our favorite things to do in a new city is explore grocery stores. Sure, there might be clothes shopping, but that’s not drastically different regardless of where you are. Grocery stores will let you get a glimpse into what people eat day in, day out!
We ended up wandering around Stockmann, a massive store that was a combination of a grocery store, liquor store, department store and drug store. One of the things that surprised us the most was the massive amount of fresh salmon, caviar and roe available for nearly nothing.
In our time there, we never got used to not being able to see the city streets. A thin layer of snow coated everything, making it easy to forget that there was pavement down there. Apparently the city doesn’t salt the roads, but instead heats some from underneath. Others might have heavy equipment closeby to help out.
We started out next day early, making our way out to the waterfront. I was expecting frigid air coming off the water, but was relieved to be out before the wind. There is a massive Helsinki Eye that dominates the waterfront view, along with a number of boats – some of them bars.
Old Market Hall
The Old Market Hall is huge indoor market of local vendors selling meats, fish, produce – as well as a a number of restaurants and other goods. This was our target for a place to try as many things as we could find.
Exploring the Market
The downside of the market was our limited appetite! The pastries were amazing with a number of regional favorites for sale.
Lunch at the Market
Eventually we found some delicious white fish and salmon, covered in roasted peppercorn on a hearty bread. We joined this with some warm kale soup.
Marilyn Taking Photos
Marilyn and I were both taking entirely too many photos. Her with her Canon camera and me with my Fuji. Not being used to the cold, this usually meant taking photos until we could no longer feel our hands, warming them up and repeating the process.
We ran across a “lock bridge”, a place for people to place a lock to show their love for one another. Although I strongly dislike the concept - seeing it as wasteful and usually a blight on the landscape, this bridge was still beautiful. The combination of the snow, the water and the colorful locks was a nice touch.
From a distance, the Uspenski Cathedral is a colorful, striking building. The cathedral is a Russian church built in 1868. I assumed we would just walk around and see it from a distance, but as we got closer, we decided we might as well see if we can go inside.
Inside Uspenski Cathedral
The interior of the cathedral was in a state of repair, with scaffolding from the floor to the roof. What amazed me the most, was the intricate tile work around the ceiling.
Uspenski Cathedral Grounds
On our way out, we were questioned by a promoter for a Finnish music group, hoping to have people listen to their music and get a quote. We were way too cold to stand around listening to music and skipped out. Instead, we trekked through the grounds and the virgin snow.
Views of the City
We couldn’t leave without looking out on the city. This did involve some rope jumping and climbing, but luckily we made it up safe. Coming down proved much more difficult, and might have ended with much more snow on bare skin than some would like to admit.
Johan and Nystrom Cafe
Our next stop on our journey to stay out of the cold was Johan and Nystrom Cafe, a surprisingly large and cosy cafe that Matt and Danielle recommended. We recharged our warmth, filled our coffee, hot chocolate and pastry meters and planned our next steps.
Similar to Senate Square, the Promenade is a sliver of a park that runs between two major roads hosting combination of restaurants, street vendors and other shops on both sides.
The design district is a fun area to explore the stores. Rather than clothing stores, this area is filled with minimalistic interior designs (think Ikea), as well as thrift stores, tea stores and jewelry stores.
The coffee tour continued at Plootu, a furniture store/coffee combination. This reminded me of Washburn Imports in Orlando, but with a coffee focus.
Finland isn’t associated with amazing food. Most people tend to think it’s mostly salmon and dill, but we managed to find some amazing restaurants. In downtown there are number of Michelin Star places within a stone’s throw from each other. The next post in this series highlights some of our favorites.