I’ll admit, I’ve been a little distracted these last few weeks. I’m normally pretty organized when it comes to planning my travels. Not that I schedule out every minute – I leave room for spontaneous adventures. But there are always some things that are must-do’s and those get input onto a spreadsheet. But my trip to Croatia was slow in coming together – from both sides, the tourism people and me. I decided I should really buckle down and take a look. I may or may not have waited until the night before.
What a nice surprise to find that I actually had a 7.5 hr. layover in Finland before continuing on to Croatia. I know, you’re thinking, “Is she nuts?” But I often look at long layovers as an unexpected opportunity to get out of the airport and explore a city I haven’t been to. I had a great time in my 24-hour layover in Copenhagen. Note: if you have more time to spend there, here are 50 things you can do in Helsinki.
My first surprise was on our approach to the landing strip. The multi-colored, lush landscape rushed up at my eyes from the small porthole window. I was expecting something a little more barren.
Helsinki Airport is one of the best airports to be stuck in; Finnair provides buses to Helsinki city center every 20 minutes for just 6 EUR. The trip takes 30 minutes in a very clean and comfortable bus and even has free WiFi. I hopped on the bus and lickety-split, I was standing in the center of town, waiting for my hopelessly pathetic sense of direction to kick in.
The second thing I noticed about Helsinki was that it was bloody cold. 59 degrees Fahrenheit with gray skies and wind. Not much warmer than my visits to Oslo and Stockholm last month.
Map in hand, I looked both ways and chose a direction that would hopefully get me to the Esplanade. After walking all of 30 seconds, I stuck my head into a small hotel and asked the check-in clerk if I was going the right way.
“No,” she said. “It’s that way,” she pointed in exactly the opposite direction.
Do I know myself, or what?
Now happily on the right path, I meandered along the sidewalk, admiring the same type fairytale-like Scandinavian architecture that I’d recently come to love in the last couple of months in Norway and Sweden.
I ducked into a small shop called “Kellopeli” whose window, crammed with quirky souvenirs and tchotchkes had caught my eye. I went in and chatted a bit with friendly Senni, and purchased the passport protector that I just had to have. Nothing about it represents Finland, but ….
What? It’s not a tchotchke! It’s practical – with all my traveling, I need to make sure my passport can keep up with me. Plus, it’s cute, and I wanted it. ‘Nuff said.
After a few wrong turns, I finally found the Esplanade. I strolled down the pedestrian path, carefully planned with greenery, flowers, abundant with statues and sculptures, and of course, lots of tourists. It was an enjoyable means to an end – my destination was Kauppatori also known as Market Square, on the waterfront. The orange tents beckoned me from the half-way point on the walkway, and I quickened my pace as the smells of Finnish food floated across the pathway.
The individual stalls in the market showcase Helsinki’s version of street food. Weaving through the crowd, I found the Lapland specialty I was looking for.
Unfortunately, lack of sleep before and during my trans-Atlantic flight (less than 5 hrs.2 days) and time changes cause my circadian-challenged brain to order “reindeer balls” instead of “reindeer meatballs.” Yeah, I’m THAT girl. Will someone please just shoot me now, before my next faux pas, which could well be worse? The reindeer was, however, delicious.
Continuing on, another vendor made eye contact and would not let me leave without trying a sample of muikkurove, a small local fish, breaded whole with spices and fried.
My friend Suzanne Fluhr will be horrified to learn that yes, I did bite off the head. Hey, I’ll try just about anything once. In this case though, once was enough.
The market also offers a plethora of fresh fruit and veggies, as well as unique and well-made crafts by local artisans.
The Finnair Skywheel off on the horizon was pulling at me like a magnet. This ride was going to be the extent of my adventure in Helsinki on this short excursion. While definitely not in the category of “adrenaline,” it was a pleasant ride, and went around more times than any other wheel of this sort that I’ve previously ridden.
The 360-degree views were spectacular, although the designer’s choice to use blue glass was, in my humble opinion, not a good one – it tinted and tainted what could have been wonderful photo ops.
Still, the view of the Kauppatori market and the Orthodox Church, a famous Helsinki landmark, were worth the 12 EUR admission fee.
My last stop was to be Senate Square, but along the way, on the waterfront, I was treated to a mini version of the Paris’ Pont de l’Archevêché bridge where tourists and locals hung padlocks on the wire. The idea is that if you lock the padlock and toss the key into the water, your love will last forever. Locks are no longer allowed on the Paris bridge because the locks became so heavy they threatened to collapse the bridge; time will tell how long the locks will be allowed in Helsinki.
I also continued to admire the cozy architecture and attention to detail as I walked through some of the narrow alleys.
After spending a few minutes at Senate Square with its statuary and the Cathedral, it was time to head back to the airport.
Except…. I was not able to find the bus station again. Did I mention I am horrendously directionally-challenged? I know, not the best quality for a travel writer, but, there it is. Yes, I had a map. Yes, I stopped and asked for directions. Frequently.
Finally, I was about to hail a taxi and choke down the 40 EUR fee, but stepped into an eyeglass store and made one last plea. The clerk was having trouble recalling the bus station, but a young woman with her smiling cherub baby happily slung over her back overheard our troubling conversation, and probably sensed my frustration.
“I know where the station is,” she said in her Finnish-accented but perfect English. “It’s not far and I have time. I will walk with you.”
HOW SWEET IS THAT?
And so Elli-Maija, toting her blonde papoose walked with me, around 5 minutes to the station. For those of you who have been reading my work for a while, you know that this is the stuff that floats my boat. Meeting and creating connections like these on the road is what I love best about traveling, and encountering them with just one day in Helsinki was pure magic.
I gave Elli-Maija a combination thank-you and good-bye hug, willing the hot tears to remain where they were, stinging the back of my eyes.
“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” ~ Tim Cahill
And I made it back in time to catch my flight. But just only.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.
Read more about Patti Morrow.