I can’t say Helsinki or Scandinavia in general is somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, but I found myself there for a karate championships and decided to make the most of it. We stayed in Jaarvenpaa, a small town outside of Helsinki but easily accessible by train. It was mid-summer, so I got to experience the strange phenomenon of the sun shining all the time (well, to be precise, about 19 hours a day) although “shining” isn’t actually what it did, given that it was constantly overcast and chilly.
Summer or not, I was wearing sweaters and jackets every day. Since nightfall never came, people were out and about at all hours of the night. This could be the perfect destination if you’re a night owl. I found the people a bit dour to say the least, but then I suppose I would be too if I didn’t get a decent summer. I am solar powered.
Apparently Helsinki is considered one of the best places in the world to live, and I have to gracefully acknowledge that there are some very attractive aspects like the seemingly complete lack of petty crime and the trust the people seem to place in each other. For example, outside every train station were dozens of bicycles left for the day, and practically none of them were chained up in any way. That is just amazing to consider if you’re South African. Where I come from if the municipality puts a drinking tap in a public place it gets stolen for scrap metal within the first week.
The countryside is also beautiful, crisp and clean. I can imagine it being blanketed in snow in the winter. The tap water is such good quality that it is actually bottled and sold in other countries! One of my two favourite sightseeing activities in Helsinki was a boat trip to the fortress island of Suomenlinna, firstly because I love any kind of boat trips, and secondly because I am very interested in old buildings, churches, fortresses and palaces. This is a UNESCO world heritage site, and a lovely place to walk around and have lunch.
The other nice day trip I did was to the medieval town of Porvoo. This coach tour was actually really interesting and provided a good opportunity to see more of the countryside. Along the way the guide shared many interesting facts about Helsinki and the region, as well as information about Finnish culture. On the way we stopped to visit the house of Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg, which has been perfectly preserved and gives some insight into the mid-19th century way of life. It has been open to the public since 1882. Porvoo itself is so picturesque and distinctly Scandinavian, it is really worth a visit.
I would really have loved to do a winter tour of Lapland and experience dog sledding, see some reindeer and do a snowmobile safari. That is still on my to-do list. Although Helsinki wasn’t one of my favourite destinations I am sure that a visit to Finland in winter would be magical, especially for children. There are tours where you can stay in an igloo village, watch the Northern Lights and even meet Santa and his elves. What a once-in-a-lifetime experience that would be!