Playing tour guide in Helsinki

Sorry for the blog hiatus, guys… I’m still here, still on the move! I’m currently in New York, after a whirlwind train tour of Russia, Mongolia and China and a 4-day pit stop in South Korea.

But before I get into the train trip (which I did with my dad!), let me tell you about this past summer that I spent in my native country of Finland. I was back in the Arctic North for 2.5 months, which is just enough time to catch up with friends and family in different parts of the country, attend a rock festival, travel to an island or two, get sweaty in countless saunas by the lake, party it up during the summer’s white nights, pick some mushrooms in the forest and eat all the Finnish foods and treats I’ve missed.

This summer I also ended up playing tour guide in Helsinki on four occasions to my North American friends. Most were visiting just for a day onboard one of the big cruise lines, so I got to be quite an expert in showing what the capital of FUN-land is all about in a matter of hours.

Thus I thought I’d share some of my tips with you guys in case you are ever headed to Northern Europe. So here are some of my favorite places to take my visitors in Helsinki:

The Helsinki Cathedral

-This one is a given. It’s the best-known landmark of the city, smack in the middle of Senate Square and near the Market Square where you can find overpriced souvenirs, tasty berries and sweet peas, and salmon sandwiches.

The fancy neighborhoods of Eira and Ullanlinna – the “Upper East Side” of Helsinki (in New York terms)

-Tram 3T is known as the “tourist tram” in Helsinki as it goes past some of the most important sights and the nicest neighborhoods. With my visitors we’d get off at Tehtaankatu and walk around the many picturesque streets in the area, such as Huvilakatu.

Temppeliaukio Church (i.e. The Rock Church)

-It’s a church built inside a piece of granite rock and always teaming with tourists. Many Finns don’t think it’s anything spectacular but foreigners seem to love it, including my visitors. I do think it’s pretty cool too. The church was built in 1969 by Finnish brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen (whose last name, randomly, translates to “Finn”).

The rough and ready Kallio – The “Lower East Side” of Helsinki

-Kallio is a working class neighborhood dotted with Thai “massage” parlors, cheap pubs and subsidized government housing projects. Years ago I even spotted a sign that said “Mirva’s Erotic Show” –  Haha! It’s not often I see my name spelled anywhere, let alone in this context. But as has happened with the Lower East Side in NYC, Kallio (“The Rock”) has also undergone bouts of gentrification and is now home to tons of trendy restaurants and bars, vintage shops and artists and students. It’s because of this eclectic mix that it’s one of my favorite neighborhoods in Helsinki – and the cheap beer doesn’t hurt either!

Punavuori – The “Williamsburg” of Helsinki

-Hipsters are everywhere in Helsinki these days but they are particularly plentiful in the Punavuori district of the city. Earlier in the summer two American girls opened a coffee spot there called Brooklyn Café, which makes the area resemble its New York counterpart even more. Organic food in cafes and restaurants, vintage and design shops, trendy people, cute little city parks… what’s not to like? The gay-friendly street of Iso Roobertinkatu also has a tiny sliver of the vibe of the West Village.

Hotelli Torni (Hotel Tower)

Built in 1931, the legendary Hotelli Torni and its 12th floor offer the best viewpoint in Helsinki where you can see the whole city and even all the way to Estonia on a clear day (or so the legend goes…). Just walk into the lobby and take the elevator to the top floor’s Ateljee Bar. The terrace is a great place to grab an overpriced beer or try a tasty Finnish pear cider. Don’t forget to visit the toilets as they have huge windows – you can see everywhere but people cannot see you as you are so high up.

Linnanmäki amusement park

Finland’s oldest amusement park is a fun place to walk around and people-watch. Entry to the area is free, and there’s one free ride. That’s the UFO-looking round sightseeing wheel that takes you up in the air and offers good views over the park and the city. Every other ride costs around 6 euro and a full day-pass is 38 euro. The best deal is to get the three-hour night-time pass at 7 p.m. for 28 euro, and then pay 5 euro to validate it for the following night as well. That way for 33 euro you’ll get two nights of fun and can try all the rides, including the historic wooden rollercoaster built in 1950. It looks tame but is wilder than you’d think! The rollercoaster is also one of the few left in the world where there are “brakemen” standing in the back of each row of wagons.  They make sure the wagons stop accordingly. This is often said to be the most fun summer job in all of in Finland and some brakemen have been doing the job for decades already.

Some other things I recommend for visitors to try in Helsinki:

Hesburger: The Finnish equivalent of McDonald’s with its own secret mayo recipe. I’ve taken countless American visitors there and most have loved it. One even went so far as to say that Hesburger was her saving grace while visiting the Baltic countries (the chain is also present at least in Estonia, Latvia, Russia and Germany). I recommend trying a kerroshampurilainen (the local “Big Mac”) or megahampurilainen (a mega-sized Big Mac). My vegetarian visitors have thoroughly enjoyed the falafel burger. Don’t forget to get a side of the bell pepper, cucumber or chili mayo to go with the fries!

Pick-and-mix candy: Finnish supermarkets and video rental stores like Makuuni and Filmtown have the best selection of candy in the world. I’m not exaggerating – it’s true. Most carry as many as 400 different types of fruity candy, black licorice and chocolate varieties from which to pick and choose your favorites. For the widest selection I recommend visiting any Prisma or Citymarket, but the Makuuni that is near the Rock Church is a good choice too.

Riding the metro: The Helsinki metro system is one of the shortest in the world and thus you simply cannot get lost. It consists of 17 stations and only one line than splits into two in the end. You should ride it to Itis (formerly known as Itäkeskus – Eastern Center), a big shopping mall crowded with people from all ethnicities.

Sparkling wine deals: Finland is notoriously expensive and especially so when it comes to drinking alcohol due to our high tax rates. But for some reason sparkling wine deals are stills plentiful in Helsinki. One of my old favorites is Bar Baker’s and their afternoon Sparking Bar special: you get a glass of sparkly for 1.5 euro for 100 minutes, from 5 p.m. onward (it actually used to be 90-cent glasses for 90 minutes!). The deal is valid from 5-6.40 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Just walk upstairs to the bar that’s in the corner of Mannerheiminkatu and Kalevankatu, and you’ll see a line of people standing next to hundreds of glasses of sparkling wine. It’s a sight to behold. Other sparkly deals are to be had in the bars located just up from Bakers on Kalevankatu.

And sure, you probably should also try some reindeer meat, cloud berries, rye bread, Karelian pies, blood sausages, bread cheese and other traditional foods. But for a truly authentic Helsinki experience, don’t skip my list!