Snow failed to visit Belgium (my current home base) last winter, and that was a huge letdown for me… So when the tourism board of Helsinki invited me to stay for a week in their wonderful city during the “white” month of February, it wasn’t hard to say YES! (And like what I’ve already discussed in my previous posts, I was given the chance to bring a +1 too and I brought a friend along).
Right then and there, I started daydreaming about all the possible things that we would be doing… but when I asked about our itinerary, the tourism board said that it was a ‘secret’ and that we would know why once we get there. For sure, it was a crafty way for building suspense in the both of us.
22nd of February — we landed in Helsinki, and my contact person, a wonderful woman named Elizabeth, finally divulged why they didn’t give us a travel plan at the start. Apparently, it was because they have been amassing a lot of sponsors up until our arrival, and with the pack of free tickets that they have acquired for us, we can then have the freedom to plot our own week-long itinerary!
Elizabeth slowly sprawled out all these ‘goodies’ on our apartment’s table — invitations from various attractions, tour providers, and restaurants all throughout the city — and I couldn’t help but feel that it was Christmas all over again!
You bet that we had a tough time plotting our activities at first (there were just far too many awesome things to do!). In the end though, we managed to squeeze all the top things that we desired for our 7-day stay. Here’s how it went for us:
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» Day 1
After our 2-hour flight, Elizabeth ushered us into our Helsinki Secret Residence for the week: an Aallonkoti apartment that was located in the heart of the city.
It was easy to fall in love with this space because though the room was modernly furnished with a touch of an artistic ‘quirk’, it still retained the coziness and warmth of “home”. In fact, my friend immediately settled in on the bed!
I especially loved how there is a huge balcony as well that gave us a clear view of the city skyline that was wrapped in white velvet snow; so whilst my friend drifted off to a peaceful nap on the bed, I spent some time resting in the balcony as I savored how lucky I was to have been able to start off my Helsinki trip on a great note!
Afterwards, we proceeded to plot our itinerary for the next days as we joyfully flipped through all the tickets that Elizabeth has given us. Since it was already night time at this point, we decided to take a leisurely stroll around the city as we go off and grab dinner in one of the restaurants who wanted to offer us complimentary meals. We felt like eating ‘comfort food’ and so we picked a restaurant called: Naughty BRGR… and OMG their burgers and fries were divine!!!
A lot of Finnish people were also crowding up this place so it really seemed like one of those places that locals frequent to. If I have to give you a tip, make sure that you order their sweet potato fries because these were sinfully good.
After our hearty meal, we proceeded to stroll around the city during the night and we were absolutely blown away by how picturesque and ‘hip‘ Helsinki was.
In all honesty, we expected it to be olden; and though it still has its old infrastructure, it was easy to see how the metropolis has such a unique and energetic vibe what with all the modern architectural wonders, cafe culture, and bustling crowd.
We were definitely off to a good start!
• • •
» Day 2
Since we are outdoor buffs, our agenda for the day was to go and hike through the area of Nuuksio. The Helsinki tourism board provided us with thick parkas for the whole of our stay and it was a sure life saver for the cold!
We took an hour-long bus first to Haltia Nature Centre where we got to learn more about the flora and fauna not only in Helsinki but the whole of Finland.
Once we had our fill of information, we sought out a nearby hiking trail. The staff at the nature center told us that there was one that passes through Lake Pitkajarvi. As we set off on this adventure, every step I took in the snow made me realize how I might actually prefer hiking during winter instead of the other seasons, because the surroundings looked incredibly magical and mystifying — and best of all: I don’t sweat!
In our trail, we chanced upon a spot where several other hikers were eating or taking up some warmth from a fire. Later on, we even found a lodge by the side of the road that we savored for ourselves!
At one point however, we ended up walking in the wrong direction. Our trail was supposed to be on the other side of the road over the thicket of trees, and so my friend had an idea that we can just traverse through it in order to end up on our desired trail. It sounded like a brilliant plan — but as we walked through it, we couldn’t help but start laughing because we failed to take into account that there would be tons of fresh snow piled up. So imagine, every step we took would make our feet plunge right through the ice and the effort it took to move my feet felt like I was threading through water! In short: it was a bit tiring.
Thankfully, we managed to go through and get on the right trail. We agreed that though it was fun and ‘adventurous’, we should never do that again. *laughs*
Right before our trail ended, we made it to a viewing platform which gave us a great view over the lake, and we surely took our time savoring the picturesque landscape. It was really spectacular and as I stood there, I distinctly felt how I was slowly falling in love with Helsinki.
Afterwards, we headed off to our bus stop and it was here that I suddenly remembered how I have never built my own snowman yet! I took advantage of this ‘free time’ as I proceeded to build a small white guy — isn’t he adorable?!
Come night time, we headed off to dinner to Kappeli in order to try Finnish dishes. This restaurant was conveniently located in one of the big parks in the city and it was an elegant establishment. We both ordered a classic tattikuorrutettua or reindeer fillet and it was a superb dish with a very gamey taste. (I was a bit apprehensive at first of eating reindeer meat; but I thought, once should be enough! I’m glad nonetheless that I tried it.)
To cap the night off perfectly, we went on to try a typical Finnish sauna experience.
DID YOU KNOW? Finns have an immense love for saunas! It has become a substantial part of their culture — NOT as a luxury but more of a necessity. So it’s a must-do should you ever head to Finland. Apart from private saunas that are located in hotels and apartments, there are also public saunas spread out across the country.
• • •
» Day 3
This was supposed to be the day that we would head on to a snowmobile safari; but overnight, he developed a fever so we had to reschedule it on the 5th day. My friend actually urged me to just go alone because he said that he can take care of himself, but I refused because not only did I want to share this experience with him but I also knew that he wanted to try this out for himself. He was clearly being considerate since he doesn’t want to mess up our itinerary. I assured him however that it was fine; I can transfer some of my planned activities to this day as I tour the city by myself (but first, I went off to buy some food and medicines for him.)
After I dropped everything off at the apartment and made sure that he was comfortable, I went off to tour the town. I visited places like the Rock Church (Temppeliaukio Church), Sibelius Park, and the Finnish Museum of Natural History.
Come afternoon, I went on to Radio Helsinki to be interviewed about my experience in the city — YES. You read that right! I did a radio interview and it was my FIRST time to do such a thing. It was even done LIVE and you cannot imagine how nervous I was! I was pretty sure that I was going to trip over my words or say something incredibly stupid on air.
To cut the story short: it went fine. I think? But boy… was I a bundle of nerves! And because I’m extremely shy, I will not share the link to the interview — ha!
As if that wasn’t enough, on the next day, Elizabeth called me and asked if it’s alright for me to go through another interview with a different station, Radio Suomi. Every fiber of my being didn’t want to do another one again, but I didn’t want to be rude so I said yes. Thankfully, this interview went a lot better than the first. Regrettably though, it was not recorded… boo!
• • •
» Day 4
My friend woke up feeling a lot better than yesterday, so I managed to drag him over to brunch at Helsinki’s classic cafe: Ekberg. Before we headed back to the apartment, we grabbed some pastries for takeout so that he has something to eat for the rest of the day as he continues to regain his strength (and while I go around town again to explore other landmarks).
This time around, I ventured into the rest of the city’s symbolic must-sees: Senate Square, Old Market Hall, Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, Kiasma Museum, Ateneum, etc.
When the night crept in, we used our free tickets to watch a music show at Helsinki Music Centre (Musiikkitalo).
• • •
» Day 5
Alas, the day has arrived for our snowmobile safari experience! We were ecstatic about this because we have never tried riding a snowmobile — or any winter activity for that matter. Besides, the lack of decent snow or winter conditions in Belgium (hello, global warming) was something that my friend blames. Whereas I, on the other hand, was born in the tropics so you could imagine why.
I’ve written about my experience for this in detail and you can read about it here:
For dinner, we took up the free dining offered by Meripaviljonki, a seemingly ‘floating restaurant’ by the river. And since we can’t get enough of tattikuorrutettua, we ordered this dish yet again for the night.
As we headed back to the apartment, I noticed the Kallio open-air ice skating rink. Timely, the snow just started to fall too at that time so I thought: “I’ve never skated in an open-air ice skating rink while it’s snowing… Now ain’t this a bucket list that needs to be checked off?” Needless to say, I went on to rent skates and had my fun!
• • •
» Day 6
Have you heard of the Baltic States? They are 3 underrated destinations in Europe — hidden gems if I may say so myself given how they are some of the least visited countries in the continent. So when Elizabeth gave me roundtrip cruise tickets in order to reach Tallinn, Estonia in just a matter of 2 hours from Helsinki, we jumped on the opportunity to do so!
Come read about my adventure in Tallinn here:
In short: that city was a DREAM and I’m definitely planning on exploring more of Estonia in the future, as well as explore the other 2 Baltic countries: Latvia and Lithuania. You should, too!
» Day 7
This was our last day, and before we hopped on to our flight back to Brussels, we went on to Suomenlinna Sea Fortress to witness this fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site deemed to be one of the biggest sea fortresses around the world. Truly an iconic place in Helsinki, this is an activity in your itinerary that you should not miss!
Rest assured, this place was easily explored on foot so it could be easily accomplished in just an hour for instance. (You can always take a guided tour in order learn more details about the fortress and its history.)
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From my seat in the plane back home, I looked over fondly at Helsinki as it slowly dissipated from my view. I’ve written for probably so many times now about how I’ve fallen in love with the places that I’ve been to in my travels — and that will always hold true. I DO fall in love with every place, and Helsinki is one of those.
But as Fitzgerald would put it: “There are all kinds of love in this world but never the same love twice” and sure enough, the way that I fell in love with Helsinki as I stayed there for a week was a unique kind of love that I will forever cherish.