Islands of Adventure in the Sea
Written by Katja Pantzar
With Qatar Airways launching flights to Helsinki in October, resident writer Katja Pantzar takes us on a journey through the autumn and winter wonders of the Finnish capital.
Helsinki is one of the few European capitals surrounded almost completely by sea, with 100km of shoreline and more than 300 islands dotting the waterfront. From the fortress islands to the city centre, the ‘Daughter of the Baltic’ sets the scene for a Nordic family holiday.
As the Suomenlinna ferry pulls out of the dock at Helsinki’s Market Square, noisy seagulls circle overhead in search of a few stray crumbs from the nearby food stalls.
During the autumn’s brilliant turning-of-leaves season, the ferry is often full of camera-toting locals and tourists headed for the fortress island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Following a scenic 20-minute ride, the ferryboat docks at the jetty on Suomenlinna, actually comprised of eight linked islands, which served by turns in defence of Sweden (construction started in 1748 when Finland was under Swedish rule), Russia, and Finland.
In addition to six kilometres of fortress walls, 100 cannons, and six museums, including the submarine Vesikko (employed during the Second World War), there are 11 cafés and restaurants on the island. Though some of the cafés and museums only operate during the summer months, the fortress’s main gallery, Suomenlinna Museum, is open throughout the year, with a permanent exhibition that showcases the island’s rich history.
This collection of islands, one of Finland’s most popular sights, receives almost one million visitors annually. As it’s car-free, children love being able to run and explore freely. Suomenlinna is best experienced on foot (proper walking shoes are recommended, though not essential) by wandering along the well-marked paths or taking the Blue Route, which runs from north to south for about 1.5km starting from the main quay Jetty Barracks to the King’s Gate. The gate, originally built as the entrance gateway to the island in the 1750s, is now Suomenlinna’s iconic symbol. During the summer months, further along the shore from the gate, picnickers and swimmers sunbathe on the rocks.
And on a crisp autumn day, stop at Café Chapman for refuelling – there’s a selection of Nordic fare such as hearty salmon soup served with dark rye bread and a salad buffet. Or, warm up with a mug of hot chocolate or coffee.
East of Suomenlinna, Helsinki Zoo, a favourite with kids of all ages, is one of the few zoos in the world located on an island. Established in 1889, the zoo hosts 150 animal species, including snow leopards and forest reindeer, and almost 1,000 plant species. Though there’s no direct ferry service between the two islands, hiring a private boat is an option, as is taking public transport. Ferries to the zoo from the Market Square (near the Suomenlinna ferry dock) run from May until the end of September; bus or taxi is the way to go during other times of the year.
Once back on the mainland, from the Market Square it’s easy to walk to Helsinki’s other main attractions, such as Senate Square and Esplanade Park, lined with boutiques and cafés including Café Esplanad, which serves up the city’s largest korvapuusti cinnamon buns, a quintessential Finnish treat baked fresh on the premises.
While Finland, which celebrates 100 years of independence in 2017, is known as ‘the land of a thousand lakes’, first-time visitors to the capital city are often surprised to discover that it’s almost entirely surrounded by the sea and boasts such a lively island-hopping culture.
suomenlinna.fi / korkeasaari.fi / helsinki.fi
Nature’s spectacular light show, the aurora borealis or the Northern Lights, is best seen in Finnish Lapland, where the Northern Lights are a regular occurrence – up to 200 nights a year. Essentially, the phenomenon occurs when solar winds send charged particles towards the Earth, colliding with the atmosphere and producing energy given off as light. A phenomenon named ‘Galileo’ started a massive solar storm in 2012 – the strongest in 50 years – setting off the dazzling lights to maximum effect for several years. The Northern Lights can be seen as far south as Helsinki on rare occasions.
A fascination with light comes from natural extremes – Finland is the northernmost country on the European continent, and at the height of summer the sun shines around the clock, whereas during the depths of winter there are just a few hours of natural light each day. Every January, artists from around the world take part in the Lux Helsinki festival, with a dozen or so commissioned light and sound installations illuminating prominent spaces and significant buildings in the downtown core during the darkest time of year. More than half a million people attended the five-day festival in 2016 despite unusually cold temperatures of -25ºC, traversing the city’s wintry streets like nomadic gallery-goers walking from work to work.
On the shores of Kruunuvuorenranta, a new residential area under development, stands a beacon of light, Silo 468, a massive repurposed oil container that doubles as a work of art and a public gallery. Stepping inside the silo, which is painted a shade of dark red, is like entering a carousel of dancing light and colour. Children and adults stand in awe, watching as the walls come to life. The silo’s 2,012 handmade holes, commemorating the Helsinki World Design Capital 2012 year for which it was commissioned, are fitted with 1,280 LED dome lights and small mirrors. The LED lights flicker on and off, controlled by a computer program that uses swarm intelligence and nature-stimulating algorithms that respond to changes in wind, temperature, and weather conditions. It’s accessible by boat and public transport, as well as by car. The City of Helsinki provides updates of opening hours and access on its website:
Helsinki’s numerous parks and playgrounds are open year-round, and even in the depths of winter kids bundle up and head out to play. If there’s lots of snow, children and adults go tobogganing in the city’s many parks with hills such as Tähtitorninmäki (the Helsinki Observatory), which overlooks the South Harbour and the cruise ships that ply the waters between Helsinki, Stockholm, and Tallinn all year.
Helsinki City Museum
The new Helsinki City Museum opened this spring with ‘Children’s Town’, a permanent exhibit showcasing the city’s past through interactive play. Housed in five buildings dating from the 1750s to the 1920s, this museum is an interactive one where touching the displays is encouraged.
Aleksanterinkatu 16, +358 9 3103 6630
Helsinki hotelsThe choice of premium accommodation in the Finnish capital continues to grow, with new luxury hotels opening annually. Here are three tried-and-tested favourites.
Luxury: Hotel Kämp
A member of the Leading Hotels of the World, Hotel Kämp reigns as Helsinki’s top five-star hotel. Housed in a historic 1887 building with 21st-century upgrades, Kämp boasts a central setting; it's on Esplanade Park, with Finnish design shops Artek, Iittala, and Marimekko nearby, as well as top sights such as Senate Square and the Market Square. Royalty, heads of states, and rock stars from the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen stay here when they’re in town.
Pohjoisesplanadi 29, +358 9 5840 9520
Design classic: Klaus K
A member of Design Hotels and one of the city’s first lifestyle hotels, Klaus K is a showcase of design modelled in part on the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic poem composed by Elias Lönnrot. First published in 1849, the heroic verses deal with archetypal themes such as the battle between good and evil. In addition to the Kalevala theme, Klaus K features rooms created by top designers, including Harri Koskinen, whose Urban Nature Room brings the ambience of natural calm into a restful room. The 171-room hotel recently added 30 skyloft rooms that offer spectacular views over the city.
Bulevardi 2–4, +358 20 770 4700
Timeless boutique: Lilla Roberts
One of the newer boutique hotels in Helsinki, Lilla Roberts is housed in a former power plant that underwent a three-year renovation to achieve its current art deco splendour. Quality materials such as hardwood floors and shades of gold, plum, and grey make Lilla Roberts a cosy but upscale and smart place to stay. Designer touches such as Moooi horse lamps in the lobby and the exquisite Krog Roba restaurant, with a focus on the Nordic kitchen, round out the unique offerings.
Pieni Roobertinkatu 1–3, +358 9 689 9880
Founded as a lifestyle concept before such a notion existed, Marimekko launched its bold colour-drenched prints in fabrics, clothing, and homewares for the whole family more than 60 years ago. When former First Lady Jackie Kennedy fell in love with Marimekko (she reportedly bought seven dresses), it gave the then-young company an international boost. Marimekko’s colourful prints represent a fresh, cheerful way of dressing and decorating; many original prints such as ‘Unikko’ (Poppy) live on as everlasting favourites.
Flagship store, Mikonkatu 1, +358 50 572 5632
Helsinki’s newest public sauna is an architectural gem on the Helsinki waterfront area of Hernesaari with a full-service restaurant and café and the option to rent out the three saunas (including a traditional smoke sauna) for private parties. Founded by Finnish actor Jasper Pääkonen and politician and entrepreneur Antero Vartia, the multimillion-euro complex is a fitting nod to the sauna – there are more than 3.3 million saunas in Finland with its population of 5.5 million people.
Hernesaarenranta 4, +358 9 6128 6550
Finland’s largest bookstore, the Academic Bookstore, was created by one of Finland’s best-known architects and designers, Alvar Aalto (1898–1976), also known as the Frank Lloyd Wright of Finland. The bookstore’s second-storey Café Aalto, a homage to the design master, features table service and the opportunity to enjoy the craftsmanship of Aalto’s architecture, furniture, and lighting – a signature Aalto lamp, the Golden Bell, hangs over each table.
Pohjoisesplanadi 39, +358 9 121 4446
Distance: 4,396 km
Flight Time: 7 hours, 35 minutes
Frequency: Daily service