Refreshing, energising, invigorating, chilly. These are the first adjectives that sprang to mind as I stepped off the train that took me from Vantaa airport to Helsinki Central Station on the first Friday of spring. Such was the air.
Over the course of the weekend my perception of the city did not really change: I grew to like it more and more by the minute. I found it vibrant, rich in art and culture, so tightly connected with nature, yet also scattered with interesting, innovative architecture.
Those who are into architecture will love Helsinki, and buildings like the Chapel of Silence, Oodi Central Library, and the Museum of Contemporary Art are more than enough to validate this statement of mine.
As I mentioned in the previous Helsinki post, I’ve put together a ‘basic’ walking tour of the Finnish capital. While in no way is it meant as The Ultimate Helsinki Guide to follow, it aims to provide an overview, and a bunch of handy tips and guidelines to help you find your way around the city.
Helsinki is a large city, and its location and urban structure make it look and feel even larger, so just don’t expect to cover all its sights in a weekend or so!
Just a few technical comments here. One: I’m not sure how long it takes to cover the route described here (and in the next post). I walked a lot while in Helsinki, but the tour includes a few of the bits and sights it mentions I visited when I arrived or just before leaving for the airport.
Two: ‘my’ walking tour is all about walking: no museum or monument visits are mentioned or contemplated. I only stopped once to actually enter a building (Oodi Library). So if you’re into museums, and are especially keen to visit one gallery or monument in particular, you can easily skip one or more entries or adjust the walk to your preferences.
Three: to find my own way around Helsinki I used the Official Visitor Map. I picked it up at the Tourist Information Centre inside the train station, though I believe it’s also available elsewhere in the city. It’s super easy to read and follow: definitely recommended.
Four: an uber useful source of information on the city is the My Helsinki website, especially for its in-depth descriptions of virtually all imaginable areas in and around Helsinki, as well as day trip ideas, monuments, natural sites and reserves… everything!
Okay, so let’s go for a walk around Helsinki!
From Sturenkatu to Cafe Regatta
The starting point of the walk is Sturenkatu Street (north of the city centre), because that’s where I had my hostel.
Incidentally, the hostel is called CheapSleep Helsinki, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for budget accommodation in the Finnish capital. Hands down it was one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at.
While heading down Sturenkatu, you will also walk past Linnanmäki Amusement Park. Strangely deserted and vaguely eerie in the low season while it’s closed, it must be crowded with visitors over the summer (it’s opened between April and October).
At the end of Sturenkatu turn right into Hensinginkatu, and keep going. Turn right into Mannerheimintie, then left into Humalistonkatu. You’re in the Töölö district, where, amongst other things, you also find the Olympic Stadium and Tower. The complex was built in the 1930s to host the 1940 Olympic Games, cancelled because of the war. It eventually hosted the Summer Olympics in 1952.
Hensinginkatu will take you straight into the city park where, overlooking the sea, you find the Sibelius Monument. Dedicated to Finnish composer Jan Sibelius, the monument was designed by Finnish sculptor Eila Hiltunen at the end of the 1950s. It’s an impressive composition of hundreds of pipes (similar to organ pipes, although Sibelius never wrote organ music), and its location makes it quite stunning.
Incidentally, this is also the point where you take a break from all the walking and you reach the red cabin by the seashore you can easily spot from your standing point by the monument. It’s Cafe Regatta, and I don’t have to add anything about it, because everything is in the dedicated post I wrote a while ago. Enjoy the Regatta experience!
Mannerhemintie and Töölö Bay
From Regatta I would suggest heading back inland either the way you came or via one of the other streets heading east (e.g. Sibeliuksenkatu or Pohjoinen Hesperiankatu). Whichever you pick, chances are you will soon cross over Mannerhemintie, and find yourself in Hesperia Park.
I loved that place and that area for a bunch of reasons. The first is the view of Töölö Bay (Töölohlahti) by day – more like the frozen version of it, given that it was freezing cold when I was there. The ‘coloured’ version of it must be such a pretty view.
There’s also a walking path that goes all around the bay and, oh isn’t it something. I walked it at night, on the way from the centre to my hostel, but it would (also) deserve to be experienced in the daylight. Amongst other things, you will walk past beautiful wooden villas, while at its northern end you find the Winter Garden (Talvipuutarha).
The second reason is the view of Töölö Bay by night. If you walk down Alvar Aallon katu, at some point you will cross the bridge called Töölönlahden silta. Stop, look over at the opposite side of the lake, and you will see something like this:
(The colour(s) of the Opera building changes according to the repertoire season.)
The third reason is the number of landmark buildings located west and south of the bay, and along Mannerheimintie. One is the already mentioned Finnish National Opera House, an airy, elegant complex of light design that won’t easily go unnoticed. The whiteness of its structure is matched by the whiteness of another, much larger complex located at the southern end of the bay…
… It’s the Finlandia Hall, a multipurpose venue designed by Alvar Aalto, possibly the most famous Finnish architect of all times. It’s not easy to miss it: the complex is huge, its architecture unique, and the white of its exteriors brightens up even the darkest winter (or early spring) morning.
Other noteworthy buildings in the area include the National Museum of Finland, the Helsinki Music Centre, the Kunsthalle, the Natural History Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. As for the massive neoclassical building behind the Music Centre, that’s the Parliament House.
Roughly in front of the Music Centre, at the opposite end of the small park called Makasiinipuisto, is one of the most impressive libraries and buildings I’ve ever seen: the Oodi Central Library.
Opened in December 2018, it is unique in so many ways. Don’t just look at it from outside. I mean, do that too, but also do go in! You’d miss out on so much by failing to do so.
Its design and appearance are striking in themselves. Its energy-efficient structure of steel, glass and wood looks light and airy, as if it was made of layers built on each other, but suspended in mid-air.
Needless to say, the interiors match, if not amplify, the effect produced by the outside. Walk up the stairs to the main reading room, and you will be speechless. There’s no point in describing it: it’s the photos that actually show what I mean.
(By the way, the main stairwell is also an installation of Finnish artist Otto Karvonen, so take a good look at that too.)
The result of such a unique project is a library full of people who read, listen (to music and podcasts), meet to work in groups, study on their own, use the printing facilities available (also for posters and more), use the numerous sewing machines also available for use (the library holds several workshops of various kind), eat in the café and restaurant on the ground floor and, more generally, make the library both a reading and a living place. It really feels like a space for culture in the broadest meaning of the word.
And, actually, the toilets in the basement are quite unique themselves, as well as unbelievably functional. (Try and see for yourselves! I tried to take a photo, but there were too many people walking past.)
Just a couple of extra notes before we move on. West of Mannerheimintie, behind the park called Nervanderinpuistikko, you find another Helsinki’s top sight: Temppeliaukio Kirkko, also known as Church in Rock.
The complex is exactly what the name suggests: a church excavated into solid rock. Opened in 1969, it is known for its excellent acoustics. The outside is a bit underwhelming: it looks like a low, round-shaped, thick-walled complex, almost like a fort or an archaeological site.
The interiors must be quite stunning, though. The way the church was designed and built, light filters through the row of windows running at the base of the ceiling.
I said ‘must be’ because I cannot make personal remarks here: I did not visit Temppeliaukio. My schedule was tight, and there were too many people queuing by the entrance. In fact, the church is one of the most popular and most visited monuments in Helsinki – it is no coincidence that the streets in the vicinity of the church are dotted with souvenir shops.
Should you happen to be near Temppeliaukio around sunset, I strongly suggest going down Frederikatu, turn right into Arkadiankatu, and Lapinlahti is a few steps on right in front of you. Lapinlahti is a green area, also home to Hietaniemi cemetery, where Finnish state funerals are also held. There’s a footpath running along the seashore, which at the ‘right’ time of the day will present you with super amazing views of Seurasaarenselkä Bay.
Kamppi and Kluuvi: the heart of Helsinki city centre
Keep walking down Mannerheimintie, and you will find yourself between two neighbourhoods: Kamppi on your right, and Kluuvi on your left. You’re at the heart of Helsinki city centre.
Kamppi is home to museums, shopping centres, business headquarters and, well, a number of monuments and landmarks that you don’t want to miss. Some of these are the Chapel of Silence, Kamppi and Forum centres, and Lasipalatsi Square.
The Kamppi Chapel (Kampin Kappeli) is a small wooden, cylinder-shaped structure in Narinkka Square. The name of the square comes from the Russian phrase ‘на рынке’, which means ‘on the market’. As for the chapel, it’s also known as the Chapel of Silence, because it offers a place of silence and quiet to escape the hustle-and-bustle of the city centre.
Kamppi Centre and Forum are shopping and leisure centres located on both sides of the Chapel of Silence.
As for Lasipalatsi (‘Glass Palace’) Square, it is the roof of the Amos Rex Museum, opened in 2018 where once were Lasipalatsi building (‘Glass Palace’) and Bio Rex modernist cinema, both built in 1936.
The underground spaces of the museum display both the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions (mostly, though not only, modern and contemporary art), while the roof-square is used for events.
The museum has played a key role for the revitalisation of the square itself: its five domes bulge out of the ground like portholes in a submarine, and they also make the square itself look like a living thing. What’s more, the square has become a usual meeting point for locals, while some of its spaces are also available for rent.
Kluuvi neighbourhood is adjacent to Kamppi. While the Kiasma Museum and the Helsinki Music Centre are technically situated on Kluuvi territory, the focus of the area is the Railway Station and Square (Rautatientori).
Literally adjacent to the train station are Kaisaniemi Park and the Finnish National Theatre. The pedestrian area south of the railway station is lined by bars, restaurants, and shops. One of its historical landmarks is Stockmann, a renovated shopping centre dating back to the 1930s.
At the southern end of Kluuvi you find Esplanadi Park. But before we continue we might want to take a break from all the walking, and maybe also from this post, or it will really be endless.
Okay, just a short break, and we take it from here!
To be continued…