Part II of my walking tour around Helsinki. This one covers the waterfront from Hernesaari to Market Square, Esplanadi, and Kruununhaka. Let’s go!
Okay, so the previous post ended with a sort of cliffhanger: I only just mentioned Esplanadi Park at the very end of the post, but didn’t say a word about it.
Well, I’m not going to talk about it just yet. The second part of my Helsinki walking tour starts on Mannerheimintie, just outside Stockmann shopping centre. If you’re standing there, Esplanadi is only a few steps away to the left. We’re heading south instead, and will go back to Esplanadi later.
Hernesaari and the waterfront
Keep going down Mannerheimintie, which then changes into Erottajankatu. Turn left into Yrjönkatu, then right into Ratakatu or Merimiehenkatu.
The idea is to reach Hernesaari, so technically you can take any street heading west. I chose Merimiehenkatu, because that way I’d get to see St. John’s Church (Johanneksenkirkko) and Michael Agricola Church (Mikael Agricolan kirkko) along the way.
The two churches couldn’t be more different from one another. St. John’s Church was built in neo-Gothic style in the late 19th century. It is the biggest stone church in Finland.
Michael Agricola Church is a massive, austere red-brick structure built in the 1930s. Its most noticeable element is the tower: the 30-metre spike placed on top of the roof fits inside the structure, and therefore can be retracted in case of need (as happened during the war ‘to prevent enemy pilots from using it as a navigation point’).
Out of Michael Agricola Church, keep heading west till you come across Telakkakatu. Turn left there, and the street will take you straight to the sea front.
At this point you can either turn left, and follow the promenade by the sea, or turn right, and reach the tiny peninsula called Hernesaari.
This is also where Löyly sauna is located. Löyly is a design seaside sauna, a quite unconventional-looking wooden complex that recalls the outline of the coastal landscape. In fact, its shape follows that of the park strip by the sea.
As reads the sauna’s official website, Löyly means ’steam that comes when you throw water on hot stones in a sauna’.
As you might know, sauna bathing forms an integral part of the Finnish national culture and identity. The subject of saunas is much more complex than one might think, and I won’t dwell on it now. Just consider that both public and private saunas exist, and there is almost one sauna for each Finnish citizen.
At Löyly (as with every Finnish sauna you come across or walk past) do expect to see people walking out of the wooden building in swimsuits, and go straight for a quick dip in the sea, all enveloped in a cloud of vapour!
When I walked past it was pouring with rain, and the seashore was half frozen, yet the sauna-goers followed their sauna-swim-sauna pattern without batting an eye (or clattering their teeth, more like).
On a bright day the walk along the seafront from Hernesaari must be equally delightful for the eye and for the soul. On a snowy-rainy-foggy freezing cold day… it has its charm nonetheless. It’s not as easy to enjoy the view, given the highly limited visibility, but hey, blame it on the season.
The walk along the waterfront will eventually take you closer and closer to the next highlight on the map, Old Market Hall.
Along the way you may want to keep an eye out for quite a peculiar monument which, if you walk down Ehrenströmintie, you’re almost certain to walk right past. It depicts a woman standing with her hands open right in front of her, as if about to stretch them out.
It’s the Statue of Peace (Rauhanpatsas). As reads the inscription on the pedestal, it was ‘erected [in 1968] by the people of Finland as a symbol of the peaceful coexistence and friendship of Finland and the Soviet Union’.
Ehrenströmintie will take you straight to Old Market Hall, Finland’s oldest indoor market.
The complex dates back to the late 19th century, and makes for the perfect stop after a long walk by the seafront.
Don’t just look at it from the outside. Unless you go in, you’ve only seen half of it. Its shops display and sell all types of food and drinks, from traditional Finnish treats to cakes, fruits and vegetables. Grab a bite, have a snack, or just take a good look around!
From Esplanadi to Tervasaari
Old Market Hall is only a few steps from Esplanadi, which (spoiler alert) is where we’re going next.
If you’re standing in front of the main entrance of the market, take the road that runs parallel to the left-hand side of the building. Reach the end of the road, and you’re in Market Square (Kauppatori), aka the heart of the city centre.
Market Square is also where the pier to Suomenlinna leaves from, but we’ll be talking about Suomenlinna in the next Helsinki post.
Take a moment to take a good look around, and you will see quite a few iconic highlights standing out in the urban landscape. Uspenski Cathedral is on your right in the distance, Helsinki Cathedral is in front of you (though, as you get closer to Market Square, its dome will disappear behind the block of buildings overlooking the square), and Esplanadi stretches out on your left.
So do turn left, and reach Esplanadi. Esplanade Park (Esplanadinpuisto) is Helsinki’s most popular urban park. Opened in 1818 and known to locals as ‘Espa’, it consists of two streets (Pohjoisesplanadi and Eteläesplanadi) lined up by elegant, historical buildings. It’s surrounded by green areas, and scattered with art pieces and monuments.
Amongst these are the memorials to author and journalist Zacharias Topelius, and poet and journalist Eino Leino. The statue in the middle portrays national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg. The fountain at the eastern end of the park depicts a mermaid surrounded by sea lions and fish, and is known as Havis Amanda.
Extra highlights include Kappeli restaurant, one of Helsinki’s most famous restaurants, and historic kiosks in different architectural styles.
Esplanadi is home to cultural events, performances, and one especially popular music festival, which takes place at Espa stage (in front of Kappeli) every summer.
Aside from all the events and monuments, you can easily enjoy Esplanadi by sitting on a bench, and enjoying the view. Just make sure you include it in your Helsinki to-do list: you simply cannot miss it!
We’re going back to Market Square now. On this subject, the street that runs parallel to Esplanadi (north of the park) is called Aleksaterinkatu. Aleksaterinkatu is not the most straightforward way back to Market Square from Esplanadi. I want to mention it anyway, though, because it’s probably one of my favourite streets of the centre. So make sure you go down there for a walk at some point, and enjoy the lively atmosphere.
As for Market Square, it’s a super major highlight. Home to Helsinki’s most popular market, it’s lined up by stalls that sell souvenirs, traditional products, clothes (traditional and not), and more. There are also several food stalls and kiosks, and many of them have reindeer burgers and moose pies on their menu.
The square is framed by the Presidential Palace, Uspenski Cathedral, the harbour, and the ferry port where Suomenlinna-bound ferries depart from and arrive at.
Needless to say, this is the point where we walk down Pohjoisesplanadi, turn right into Kanavakatu, and reach Uspenski Cathedral (Uspenskin katedraali), another one of Helsinki’s top landmarks.
Built in 1868, the cathedral appears to be the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe, and might easily rival with any of its Russian counterparts. After all, during the construction of the church Finland was ruled by Russian Emperor Alexander II.
What’s more, the cathedral sits on a hill, and from up there you can enjoy great views of the city, Market Square, and Pohjoisranta.
We still have one monument on our to-do list, and it’s a major one, because it’s Helsinki Cathedral. From Market Square it’s super easy to get there: take Unioninkatu or Katariinankatu, go straight, and a few hundred metres on, you’ll be standing right in front of it.
Helsinki Cathedral (Helsingin tuomiokirkko) is the true, most iconic landmark of the city. It dates back to the first half of the 19th century, when it was built as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, then (also) Grand Duke of Finland.
Whether you’re approaching Market Square from Old Market Hall, or you’re waiting for the ferry at Suomenlinna to sail back to the mainland, its green domes are truly unmistakable, and invariably stand out in the urban landscape. Not to mention the stark contrast between the brown of the (steep!) staircase that leads up to the building, and the blinding white of its walls, colonnades, and towers.
There really is no point in rambling on about Uspenski or the Cathedral just for the sake of providing info. That’s why I only mentioned some key facts here, or info one may find interesting while visiting the two churches. Aside from that, you can easily further look into both churches online or on any Finland or Helsinki guide.
What I can tell you is that if you go for a walk around the cathedral building around sunset, the late-afternoon light will cast an orange hue on the blinding white of its walls. It almost looks like the church is blushing.
Or I can tell you that, if you arrive at Uspenski on a foggy day, the cathedral will probably look like a castle out of a Poe short story: its red bricks look even darker, its golden domes almost opaque.
When we saw Uspenski Cathedral, the weather was especially foggy. The church did look like out of a Poe short story, and so did Pohjoisranta seen from the cathedral.
If you’re standing on Senate Square (where the ‘white’ cathedral is), you’re in the district called Kruununhaka, still in the very heart of the city. This elegant district by the harbour is where you find the Cathedral itself and Senate Square, but also several elegant buildings (which architectural style is strikingly homogeneous) and, last but not least, Pohjoisranta, which is where we’re headed next.
Pohjoisranta is a sort of boulevard that runs parallel to the seafront. The walkway also takes you past Halkolaituri Quay, which used to be Helsinki’s main harbour between the mid 18th century and the late 1800s.
A narrow strip of land off Pohjoisranta to the right will take you to the super tiny island called Tervasaari. Tervasaari is a sort of ‘park-island’: a very small green area covered in a few trails, trees, and a small dog park.
For now I can only imagine how beautiful and colourful Pohjoisranta and Tervasaari must look on a bright, sunny day. I’ve only experienced the black-and-white version of both of them so far. So maybe I will see them in colours on my next visit to Helsinki. Speaking of which…
The list of places and sights I’m saving for my next Helsinki visits includes a lot of monuments and places of interest.
For the purpose of this post I could probably think of another handful of Helsinki spots I found especially intriguing or interesting. Naming them like this, though, would sound a bit out of context, since they’d likely turn out to be randomly scattered all over the Helsinki map. It’d mostly be spots and streets that struck the eye as we walked (past) them on our way from the centre to our hostel.
Both evenings, in fact, we refused public transport, and chose to return to our hostel on foot. If you ask me, it was great, because it meant walking through areas of the city we most definitely wouldn’t have seen otherwise. And, especially with some of them, it would have been a shame, because they really are gems hidden in the thick bundle of streets that make up the Helsinki map.
I can still mention some of these spots, like Flemingskatu, a street lined up by the most diverse range of cafés, restaurants, and bars. Others I couldn’t name again, because they just ‘happened’ in the moment, and I barely knew where exactly I was.
This is also how my walking tour around Helsinki comes to an end. There’s only one Helsinki-themed post left now, and it’s about Suomenlinna sea fortress.
Let’s take a break from all the walking first, though. Then we can talk about it!
I apologise for the arguable quality of some of the photos included in this post (e.g. the waterfront and Old Market Hall). The strong rain and wind made it really hard to keep my camera steady and, especially, dry!