Welcome to my second “Sister City” post! Today’s city is Helsinki, the capital of Finland.
I choose this city because when I met Serena and I saw she was so in love with Helsinki, she reminded me of my relationship with Cairo!
But obviously these two cities are completely different, and this is one of the reasons why the Sister City project was born: to compare different cities of the world, even very far, and see what they might have in common. Apart from this, we (me and Juno) want to give tips about cities to newcomers, from locals or experts… to enjoy the city as locals!
Before I start with the questions/answers, allow me to remind you about the previous editions of the Sister City project:
Cairo, Egypt. By me
Ithaca, NY, Usa. By Laura
Sydney, Australia. By Bryony
And here we go with the interview!
First of all, Serena, tell us something about you.
My name is Serena, I am 36 and I am from Bologna. I work as an IT technician. I love travel, photography and writing – these are my greatest passions in life.
I started loving Helsinki even before going for the first time, because I’ve always been interested in the Northern Countries and nature. When I finally visited Helsinki, I completely fell in love with her because it’s a man-sized city, very livable, clean and surrounded by an amazing nature full of almost pristine woods and lakes. Atmosphere is unique, sometimes melancholic but it tickles your heart and soul. I feel it’s part of me. I would love to move there one day. Well, I will definitely buy a little house with a window on the sea, at some point.
What’s the weather like in Helsinki?
Depending on the time of the year, as everywhere else, the weather can change a lot. In Helsinki it has so many facets: in winter it’s so cold it can easily get to -20°C.
The weather is typical of a coastal city: often windy and rainy, but at the same time more temperate than other cities on the same latitude, thanks to the Gulf Stream.
While in winter it looks even colder than -20°C because of the strong winds, in summer the temperature can rise up to +30°C. Sweet!
From may to september, there’s the “luminous season”: towards the end of June, in conjunction with the National Holiday of Juhannus, you can see the midnight sun. Seeing the light until late at night is something you can’t forget – a beautiful experience.
What kind of street food can you find in Helsinki?
It’s easy to find cheap street food on Helsinki’s streets. There are cafes everywhere, with typical sweets – be it the most famous, old, and expensive Café Engel, or the little bar in the suburbs… or even at the famous markets of the city: Kauppatori and Kauppahalli, at Helsinki’s harbor.
The “Pulla” is some sort of sweet, aromatized bread with crumbled cardamom seeds, and sometimes raisins, almonds and cinnamon. Another typical sweet is the “Pitko” – another sweetish bread made of three or more strings of dough. There’s also the Korvapuusti, a flat round sweet bread aromatized with cinnamon and coffee.
Concerning salty food, all around the city you can find the “Grilli”. They are little kiosks that sell hot dogs, hamburgers, fries and drinks.
At the Kauppatori market, from June to September, you can enjoy an exceptional sautéed salmon with garlic sauce, dill and potatoes. Pair it with a Saldels – a great Finnish beer. With about 10€ you’ll be more than satisfied! Moreover, eating delicious salmon while looking at the cruise ships and little boats coming and going in the harbor, and all the hustle and bustle of the harbor, is a plus.
What about transportation and its prices in Helsinki?
Public transportation in Helsinki is very efficient. Helsinki is a relatively small city, and in order to visit all the center you can just walk. Transportation is generally quite expensive.
– Metro: very easy to use. Helsinki is the only city in Finland that has metro and trams.
– Tram on railways: many, clean, on time. Two lines are specifically for touristic routes. Number 3T goes around the city in circles, so the tourists can hop on and off the tram, and go on from the same or next stop.
Another tram on railway is the Koff Pub – a real pub in a red tram, where you get in for 10€ and drink a Koff beer while having a tour of the city.
– Buses to Vantaa airport are very practical but quite pricey: the Finnair shuttle is 5,90€ one way.
– There are also bicycle paths, regular or water taxis, buses, ferries and trains.
What are the most common drinks in Helsinki?
Finland is the country with the highest consume of coffee in the world. They are also great producers of beer, cider, juices and liqueurs of different kind of berries. Vodka Finlandia is very famous, as well as their typical liqueur: Salmiakki – made of salty licorice. They made sweets, candies and cough remedies with it.
In Finland, people drink a lot of alcohol. Typical liqueurs are “Lapponia” made with berries such as blueberries, redcurrant, blackberries and so on.
Another drink is the Minttu, made with peppermint, sometimes added to hot chocolate too. Delicious!
Tell us something about nightlife in Helsinki.
Nightlife in Helsinki is very active. There are Karaoke bars (beloved and crowded), pubs of all kinds, or typical/ethnic clubs like Tex-Mex, Spanish, Irish and so on.
There are beautiful lounge bars to have an aperitif, discos, gay clubs, or places where you can listen to great live rock music, such as Nosturi, Tavastia or On The Rocks. All of them are in the center, so very easy to reach.
What kind of activities can you do in Helsinki at daytime?
– On summer you can have an excursion to Suomenlinna, for example: a fortress island, Unesco heritage, just 15 minutes away from the harbor by ferry.
You can go hiking in Saurasaari, another splendid island where you can play with squirrels or bathe on the rocky shores.
You can go to the Korkesaari zoo, also on a large island, where animals are treated with great respect.
You can have a little cruise around the archipelagos or take a Viking Line catamaran, to reach Tallin (Estonia) in about one hour!
– On winter, you can go see a hockey match, visit museums, as Kiasma (modern art) or Ateneum (with a permanent collection by the famous Finnish painter Albert Edefelt.
You can go to the opera, or stay warm in a bar, sipping a coffee or local drink.
If you move north you can even go skiing. In Lapland you can bathe surrounded by ice, or have an excursion with sleddog (the sledge pulled by dogs).
What about religion and religious habits in Helsinki?
The majority of people belongs to a Christian Church, but in the last 20 years there has been a quick increase in different beliefs. Now population is literally halved! Approximately the 40% of Finnish people believe in God, 40% believe in something, but without reference to Christianity, and 20% is atheist.
There are many churches – the most famous ones are 4:
– The white Lutheran Cathedral of Senate Square;
– Uspenski, tha Orthodox Cathedral;
– Temppeliaukion kirkko, entirely digged in the rock;
– The biggest wooden church in the world: Kerimaki, north of Helsinki, in the Savo region.
Are there any dangers in Helsinki?
Helsinki is a very calm city, and the criminality rate is very low. You can safely walk in the streets even in the middle of the night and/or at the harbor area without being afraid. I personally witnessed a robbery once, and saw a couple of drunk people but they were not aggressive. Of course you always need some common sense, but this is one of the most livable cities in Europe.
What are the main landmarks in Helsinki?
There are hundreds of landmarks in Helsinki. The main ones are:
Kauppatori market at the harbor, Senate Square, The churches I listed above, Suomenlinna Island, The National Finland Museum, “Casa Finlandia”, The National Finnish Theater, Esplanade Park, The Olympic Stadium, Korkeasaari Island, Seurasaari Island with its open air museum, Sibelius monument.
Are there daily or short trips available outside of Helsinki?
You can go to Estonia with a ferry from the harbor. The Estonian coast is just 80 km away. You will need an id for crossing the border,
You can also reach the lakes region, like Nuuksio National Park.
You can rent a car and reach other cities such as Tampere or Turku.
Taking another ferry, you can visit Porvoo, a typical town on the coast, with red wooden houses.
You can also take 2 days trips to Saint Petersburg, Stockholm or Rovaniemi in Lapland!
Are there any issues with weird bugs and/or insects in Helsinki?
No, there’s no risk of bad encounters with nasty insects or animals – the only bite you can get is from mosquitos on summer… but they are everywhere!
What about the language in Finland?
The local language is very hard. In Finland they speak Finnis (Suomi), Swedish and English.
Street tags, restaurant menus, touristic guides, metro stops are always written in both Suomi and Swedish.
Learning some words in Suomi was very hard, but Finnish people appreciate a lot when the tourist makes the effort of trying and speak their language – if you buy something and thank them with a “kiitos” instead of “thank you”, they will happily smile!
If you’re going to Helsinki, you’re not traveling without…
The only advice I can give is to bring heavy clothes if you go on winter – bring heavy jumpers, earmuffs, an umbrella or raincoat, a cap and comfy shoes. Anyway you can always buy something there!
Is there any extra-ordinary custom in Helsinki?
There are many, such as sauna for example: almost every house has a sauna!
If you are offered a coffee, it’s impolite not to accept it.
There are no tobacco shops or cigarette machines, but little shops that sell newspapers, candies, drinks, postcards and stamps… and cigarettes too! They’re called R-Kioski and they’re open on Sundays too.
Personally I think the weirdest thing is that vegetables are sold by liter!
Give us your secret tips about Helsinki!
Well, I suggest to avoid public transportation when possible, and to enjoy long walks. This is the only way to enjoy the beauty and magic of this city.
I suggest to use ferries to see the coasts, and to hike in the lakes region.
Have dinner in a typical restaurant, and don’t miss the delicious salmon at Kauppatori.
Helsinki has nightlife, history, culture, but also nature. The beauty of this city is in the Baltic Sea, the islands, its forests.
Have a sauna, a walk in the woods, breathe the pure air in the inland parts of the country, fill your eyes with sights of peace and nature.
This is Helsinki!
Thank you Serena! What can I say… I loved this interview. I have been to Helsinki once but it was many years ago, and I didn’t have all this time to explore the area. But I will join Serena soon, I hope! She looks like a great guide.
I love the “vegetables sold by liter part” – that’s so funny and totally unexpected!
And because I am lazy, I wouldn’t mind riding the Koff Pub-Tram while having a tour of the city. Looks beautiful!
You can find Serena’s blog at http://lighthousely.wordpress.com/ (in Italian).
Stay tuned for the next Sister City post! : )