You might think short trips to Europe are the definition of crazy travel. The idea of spending a long weekend in Europe is one I wrote about several days ago. Whether this is “worth it”, or not, really depends on the traveler. However, with 2 million miles and points in the bank currently, cost is less of a factor than time. So a couple crazy days in Europe it is.
Spending 48 hours in Helsinki wasn’t my original plan, but I’m very glad the award ticket I book to Europe before beginning an error fare itinerary took me there. The Finnish capital is a cool city, and although I didn’t get out and see any of Finland’s famed natural beauty, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. Here’s how I spent 48 hours in Helsinki.
Arrival in Helsinki
My brief time in Finland had a fitting start, as I flew Finnair A350-900 business class from Los Angeles directly to Helsinki. I actually hoped to book a connecting itinerary that continued on to Barcelona, but there was no space, and none ever opened up. So two days in Finland it was, before taking a separate segment, booked with cash, to Barcelona for a brief (and awful) night. For now I was feeling pretty good after a nap in Finnair’s excellent business class.
It was a dreary and drizzly afternoon as we descended into Helsinki. The mottled forests were a lovely sight once we broke through the clouds, the yellow leaves of the birch trees in contrast with the evergreens.
Helsinki Airport proved easy to navigate, although it is a reasonably long walk to the train into the city center. Helsinki Vantaa will have a beautiful, brand new terminal entrance soon enough. For now, it takes nearly 30 minutes to arrive at the platform. Another half an hour and I stepped onto the platform at Helsinki’s Central Railway Station.
Night comes early in the autumn in Finland. At a hair over 60 degrees north latitude, sunset was at 6:00 PM. The fog made it feel like it was arriving even sooner. The lights were already coming on at 150-year-old Stockmann, the largest department store in the country with a massive 500,000 square feet of shopping space. I stopped in briefly to visit an ATM. Unfortunately, my SoFi Money card not yet been delivered, so I was hit with a fee.
Evening In and Out
My digs for the night was the Klaus K Hotel, a 10-minute walk from the train station. I’d made the reservation through Marriott for the smallest and cheapest room possible, a Mystical Mini with one single bed. No need to go big, it was just myself, and space wasn’t really a need.
But the hotel had other plans. The front desk agent informed me that I’d been upgraded to a Sky Loft Room on the top floor, one of the nicer types offered at the hotel. I wasn’t expecting Marriott status to come through for me as a boutique hotel like Klaus K, but it certainly did. Full review of the Klaus K Hotel (Marriott Design Hotels) Sky Loft Room.
I caught up with some email and took a break after the long flight, but eventually it was time to find dinner. Heading out into the damp 10-degree weather, I made my way by foot and metro to the Kallio neighborhood. I’d read that this is not a bad area to explore in the evening, but I found it rather quiet. There were far fewer people than I expected for a Friday night.
I wandered up toward the church on the top of the hill, towering eerily over the neighborhood in the foggy night. Looping back toward the south to the water, I stopped in at Juttutupa, a mid-scale Finnish ravintola (restaurant).
There are a number of Finnish foods I hoped to try before my brief time in the country was over. Tonight I opted for lihapullat, finnish meatballs, served with potatoes, marinated beets, and pickles.
Rather than catch the tram back to the hotel, I walked the foggy streets. Helsinki in October is already quite chilly. Summers are short in Finland, but I wouldn’t completely rule out a shoulder season visit. The upside was enjoying the bright yellow birch trees everywhere I went.
Oh, That Jet Lag
I didn’t feel like sleeping, but as the clock ticked past 10:00 PM, I decided I better turn in. The next day would be my only “full” one. Sunday would offer plenty of time to explore, but I’d have to be back at the airport by the mid-afternoon.
Sleeping more than just a few hours proved futile. I called it quits at 3:00 AM Helsinki time. This is 5:00 PM, right around when I’d be getting off of work and heading home back in California. I’d essentially had a nice, long afternoon nap.
A shower and cup of coffee at 4:00 AM wasn’t how I planned to start my day. But hey, you gotta roll with the punches. Plus, it gave me some time to get some writing done. And the shower at the Klaus K Hotel Sky Loft Room was glorious. At 7:30 it was time to head down to breakfast where I enjoyed an omelet off the a la carte menu rather than pay for the full buffet.
It was still foggy, but not quite as wet as the previous evening. I enjoyed the views of the Helsinki Cathedral from the Sky Deck just down the hall from my room.
From all my research prior to the trip, I knew that Helsinki boasts a number of beautiful churches and cathedrals. The most impressive is arguably the Helsingin tuomiokirkko, the Helsinki Cathedral. My morning plan was to meander through the city, visiting a few of them before hitting up some museums.
First up, and closest to the Klaus K, is the Johanneksenkirkko (St. John’s Church). Located in Helsinki’s Design District, it’s It was my first stop as I made my way to switch my place of lodging to the Hotel Lilla Roberts. The Lutheran church was constructed in the late 1800s and has beautiful twin spires.
From there I made my way to the Helsinki Cathedral. It’s far more impressive when you’re up close and personal.
I headed inside as well. Although the interior is far more plain than others that I’ve visited (which makes sense for an evangelical Lutheran church), it’s bright and airy, and a beautiful building inside as well as out.
I’ll contend that the Uspenskin katedraali is the coolest church in the Finnish capital. It’s not far from the Helsinki Cathedral, just a few blocks away toward the docks. Constructed in 1868, the Uspenski Cathedral is associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church. The inscriptions are in Cyrillic, disclosing its connection with Russia and Slavic culture.
Located on a rock outcropping above the surrounding harbor, the Uspenski Cathedral provides excellent views of the Helsinki Cathedral towering over the rooftops.
All three churches are beautiful and worth a visit. There are more besides these in Helsinki. I would make my way back to the tall church in Kallio later as well.
Finland’s Coffee Culture
By this point I’d been walking for over an hour and a half, and it was high time for a pick me up (and a chance to warm up). Plus, I knew the jet lag drag would hit me quite soon.
Finns drink more coffee per capita than any other nation, a full three times the average American’s consumption. As a habitual coffee drinker, I’m already impressed. I’m not surprised with the coffee consumption, however, given the cold winters in Finland. Sauna and coffee as key cultural things makes a whole lot of sense.
The capital is also known for having a good number of awesome coffee shops. I’d settled on visiting Ihana Kavihla Baari, a cozy Bohemian cafe that hooked me up with a triple shot latte and a slice of blueberry pie. Well, the sign called it pie. It was more like coffee cake. But don’t worry about the name. Just eat it. It’s delicious.
It was raining by the time I left. I wasn’t fully prepared for this weather (moderate cold, yes…rain, no), so I dashed down the street to the Helsinki City Museum. Few people were out on this wet Saturday morning.
Museum Double Feature
Deciding whether to visit museums or not on such a short trip is a difficult decision for me. Typically, I enjoy spending a “museum day” or two while traveling. When my wife and I visited Florence and Rome back in 2016, we did far more than that, basically museum-ing ourselves out. It was too much for me, which meant my wife was way past her breaking point.
But that was when we had plenty of time for museums. During this trip to Helsinki, I had very little time, which makes large museums a tough sell when there are other things to see. But I decided that I’d pop by a couple museums. My visits certainly wouldn’t be all day, and I would do my best to not let them take up a lot of it. It would depend on how interesting they are.
My first stop was the Helsinki City Museum, which is worth a short visit. The second floor exhibition currently gives you insight into the city’s history from roughly 100 years ago through the present. What I enjoyed most was the scale model of Helsinki. The city museum is not large, and it has both an eating area and kids area, making visiting as a family very easy.
I spent maybe 45 minutes at the City Museum. Jet lag was brutal at this point. I’d actually intended to visit Suomenlinna at this point, but with the rain coming down outside and a better forecast for the following day, a second museum was the better plan.
The tram took me through the shopping district again, all the way to the National Museum of Finland. Unlike the Helsinki City Museum, the National Museum is not free of charge. Entry comes at a cost of €12.
The first floor ended up being an exhibit on Mesoamerica, which wasn’t really of interest during a visit to Finland. I moved on to some of the other exhibits, The Story of Finland being the only one I really spent a lot of time enjoying.
If you want a cup of coffee in a cozy atmosphere, look no further than cafe regatta. I decided to walk the distance up to the cafe. It’s a pretty good jaunt from the center of Helsinki, but exploring on foot is my modus operandi. It’s nice to simply enjoy the streets, parks, and feel of the city. Plus, there was no easy tram option from the museum.
While autumn is a bit chilly in Finland, the upside is the color to the birch trees. I enjoyed a few of the parks along the walk up to Cafe Regatta.
The cafe itself is a quirky little place along the water on the northeast side of Helsinki. It’s cozy. Very cozy. The tables inside are tiny, and you’ll probably end up sharing one with someone else. But it’s a great experience, and a coffee and pastry was just what I needed after an hour and a half on foot.
One of the coolest things is the pulley system for the automatic door opener. The cafe interior is an eclectic mix of paintings, old wood tables, tinware, and maritime knickknacks. I enjoyed Cafe Regatta, trying one of the classic korvapuusti (cinammon buns).
By this points it was the equivalent of 4:00 AM back in California. I felt like crap. Jet lag is rough, but this is some of the worst I’ve ever felt. But I had to push onward.
Making my way to the nearest bus stop, I waited for one that would take me back toward the center of Helsinki. As soon as I got to a tram stop, I switch to the light rail. Helsinki has a great public transit system, and a 2-day transit card was well worth having for the visit.
I couldn’t help but notice the glass-enclosed balconies on many apartment buildings. It’s an ingenious design, allowing the Finns to enjoy the sunshine, yet without enduring the cold that is present so much of the year. The tram eventually looped back north to the Helsinki Public Library, which is worth a stop, if only for its interesting design.
If the exterior isn’t remarkable enough, the library interior is beautiful as well, featuring a double helix staircase and tons of glass on the upper level that provides a wonderful amount of natural light into the building. Head out to the deck to enjoy views of the National Museum and park nearby.
With already tons under my belt, I headed back to the Hotel Lilla Roberts to finish check-in and rest the feet. I also needed to work up the courage to go through with the final experience of the day.
Finnish Public Sauna: A Cultural Experience
Although I only had a couple days in Finland, I wanted to experience a couple things during my brief time in Helsinki that are undeniably Finnish. And there is nothing quite a Finnish as the sauna. With a country of 5 million people and approximately 3 million saunas, Finns are crazy about the sauna. It’s a part of their cultural DNA.
Finns sauna for health and for relaxation. Everyone grows up with it, and enjoying it with both family and strangers alike is perfectly normal. The traditional sauna is wood-heated, and you keep the temperature up by routinely throwing water on the hot stones that fills the room with löyly (steam).
Helsinki used to have a high number of public saunas, but those have apparently gone bay the wayside as many homes have installed their own. I had to psych myself up to visiting one. It was a major first, as this wasn’t just a sauna in Finland, it was my first sauna ever. The Kotiharjun public sauna is the one I picked. It’s north of the Kallio neighborhood, a short walk from tram lines 3 and 6.
Let’s just say that the experience was certainly interesting. The sauna is absolutely relaxing, once you realize you actually aren’t going to die from the intense heat. Breathing in the steam, letting it open your pores and feeling your muscles relax is certainly nice. This is followed by sitting with a cold drink in 40-degree Helsinki weather (thank goodness there wasn’t a frigid lake nearby, as taking a plunge is also common after sauna).
The part that is a bit awkward (for the American, not the Finns) is that everyone goes nude in the single-gender saunas. Yes, you sit there, sweat and shower with a bunch of strangers. But the Finns don’t seem to bat an eye.
Finishing with Finnish Food
After I had sufficiently enjoyed the sauna, I asked the attendant for a Finnish restaurant recommendation. He was more than happy to oblige. I’d seen a couple options in the neighborhood, but I wanted something that is both resonantly priced and offers classic Finnish cuisine. In particular, I was looking for reindeer.
The suggested spot was Cella, a bar and restaurant a short walk from the Kotiharjun Sauna. A dinner of sautéed reindeer, mashed potatoes and lingonberries hit the spot.
It was now about 8:00 PM, and I’d effectively been up since 3:00 AM at this point. I wasn’t looking to be out on the town all night. The Helsinki trams are efficient, and it wasn’t long before I was walking through the doors of the Hotel Lilla Roberts once again. I spent a little time writing in the lovely hotel lobby before turning in. My one and only full day was in the bag.
I woke to a beautiful morning. Well, I woke well before the beautiful morning, enjoying an awesome breakfast at the Hotel Lilla Roberts before heading to the harbor. My destination? Suomenlinna, a Swedish-built fortress on an island a short distance from Helsinki. It is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, and one of the places you shouldn’t miss on a visit to Helsinki.
The sunrise was spectacular, and I was very glad I’d opted to wait until this morning to visit rather than brave the rain the previous day. I made it to the Suomenlinna ferry dock a few minutes before boarding, with enough time to buy my ticket. I’d only bought a 24-hour card the first evening, so mine had expired. Today I just needed to pay for the ferry and a trip back to the airport.
The sea was so still. This had to be the smoothest ferry ride I’d ever experienced. I spent as much time as I could bear outside, enjoying the views of Helsinki and the islands from the water, but it was also quite cold.
If you want to have Suomenlinna to yourself, then visit early on a Sunday morning like I did. Because there are residents on the islands, the ferries are very regular, even in the weekends. The ferry to Suomenlinna takes about 15 minutes in each direction.
There is a great variety to the island. There are typical houses, apartment buildings, and the older fortress wall and dry docks. A couple smaller islands contain the naval academy buildings and are connected to the main island by bridges.
If you explore Suomenlinna, make sure you head to the western edge of the southern island. There are trails along the rocks at the coast that make for a lovely hike.
I spent two hours wandering the UNESCO site, exploring several different areas. I often felt like I had the whole place to myself. The small group that had taken the same ferry I had dispersed, and I never ran into any of them after that point.
There are a number of museums, but I was more interested in simply the fortress itself. The old walls and cobbled streets are super cool, as well as these large artillery along the edge of the island.
It wasn’t until after 10:00 AM that I spotted the first tour group. At that point I’d already had about two hours to enjoy the islands.
If you’re in need of a coffee, pastry, or other refreshments, Cafe Silo can hook you up. It’s near the main ferry terminal and it open year round. There are a few other cafes and restaurants on Suomenlinna, but many are seasonal, only operating in the summer. And Finnish summers are short!
Final Hours in Helsinki
I took the 11:00 AM ferry back to the city, satisfied with my visit of the Suomenlinna Fortress. My next stop was Johan & Nyström, a coffeee shop near the harbor. It’s not a far walk from the Suomenlinna ferry terminal.
This tiny cafe sandwiched between the Uspenskin Katedraali and the harbor in an old brick wharf building is a gem. Whether you’re looking for the perfect cup of drip coffee or something a bit more substantial, like a salmon flatbread, they’ll hook you up. The shop is part of a larger company that has built a business sourcing quality coffee directly from farmers.
I’d expected to find Johan & Nystrom to be an excellent cafe. Which is certainly is. What I had not expected was one of the most delicious cups of simple drip coffee I’ve had in my life. I’ve had poor coffee, and I’ve had amazing coffee over the past few years. Although I’m generally not all that picky, the difference is remarkable. This made the second fantastic cup that day (the first being at the Krog Roba, the Hotel Lilla Roberts restaurant).
From Johan & Nystrom, I decided to take one final walk through the Ullanlinna neighborhood and back into the Design District to fetch my bag at the hotel. Just like that, my time in the Helsinki was over.
The time had passed all too quickly. It was time to catch the train back to Helsinki Vantaa Airport for my flight to Barcelona from where I would depart the following morning in Alitalia business class. It was a whirlwind (and exhausting) time in Finland, but I enjoyed it immensely. It made me conclude that a long weekend trip to Europe might not be all that crazy. You just need to know what you’re getting yourself into!
Until next time, Finland. Helsinki is nice, but I’ll make sure I see a bit more of the amazing natural beauty you have to offer.