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Katajanokka; Helsinki, Finland
Tall ship moored at a harbor with a cathedral in the background, Uspenski Cathedral, Katajanokka, Helsinki, Finland (Harri Tahvanainen)

Time to shine

Savoring the hours, ferrying the gulf, displaying its history, Helsinki shows how to embrace summer

Email|Print| Text size + By John Powers
Globe Staff / June 24, 2007

HELSINKI -- "Varokaa lokkeja," warns the sign, down where the city's prime strolling street meets the harbor. Beware of the seagulls. They're flapping and yawping above Market Square, greedily eyeing the salmon, herring, and other avian lunchtime treats spread out on tables next to the docks.

Along the adjacent Esplanadi , each statue has a gull perched atop its skull as a lookout. Of all of Europe's capitals, Finland's may be the most maritime, its face doused by the sea. And once spring arrives, when the ice has broken up and floated away and the slush-and-gravel season is past, Helsinki comes out of its winter snooze and stays up well past midnight.

The best time to visit is in June and July, when daylight is 19 hours long, the sun is up at 11 p.m., and the city is savoring its midsummer night's dream, night being a flexible concept hereabouts.

The harbor is crowded with cruise ships, ferries , sea cats , and tour boats, all backing and angling and chuffing. At the docks, day-trippers are returning from Tallinn , Estonia's capital across the Gulf of Finland, their bags crammed with linen tablecloths, woolen scarves, amber jewelry, and wooden toys. A few blocks away at the Central Railway Station, tourists are arriving from St. Petersburg and Moscow.

While Helsinki is one of the most compact and cosmopolitan destinations in Europe, it hasn't yet been overrun in the way that Prague and Barcelona have. The city is eminently walkable and easily rideable, with a one-line subway and narrow trolleys that snake their way along the streets. "You will see most of the sights that are a must in Helsinki by taking Tram 31," a sign ad vises visitors.

The Finns are familiar with several languages, which is fortunate because Finnish is all but indecipherable to anyone unfamiliar with its Finno-Ugric cousins like Estonian and Hungarian. English is widely spoken, street signs also are listed in Swedish , and if you blurt out a Russian sentence or two, someone is likely to respond.

For centuries, Finland was dominated by its neighbors to the east and west. It has been on its own only since 1917 , when the Finns concluded that Mother Russia had her own problems and bolted.

Helsinki is the coffee-drinking, cellphone-toting capital of the planet -- Nokia was born here -- yet it has managed to retain much of its 19th-century charm, especially along the Esplanadi, which runs sideways from the Mannerheimintie thoroughfare to the waterfront.

Shops and cafes and the elegant Hotel Kamp line the sidewalks on either side. In the middle is a tree-lined gravel promenade dotted with lampposts and immaculately-kept plantings. At one end is the Svenska Teatern , the Swedish theater that features the Cafe Kafka. At the other, within splashing distance of the harbor spray, is "Havis Amanda," the famous mermaid statue and fountain with its quartet of spouting sea lions.

Along the way, strollers nibble ice cream cones, listen to a wind trio playing Mozart and a local band channeling Hootie and the Blowfish , and check out a Falun Gong protest. The best place to people-watch is the restaurant Kappeli , which dates from 1837 and offers both outdoor seating and a winter garden graced with a classical Greek entrance.

It's the best spot in town to while away an hour or two or four. "When may I expect you back, mister?" Jean Sibelius's spouse, Aino, is said to have asked him, as he was setting off for a Kappeli sojourn. "My dear wife, I'm a composer," he replied, "not a fortune-teller."

Time passes easily at the Kappeli when you're sipping a glass of domestic vodka and sampling a menu that includes local delicacies like reindeer casserole and salmon in morel sauce. Yes, there is a Finnish cuisine and no matter what you have heard, it's quite tasty. Jacques Chirac, the former French president, said in a notable insult that after Finland, British cooking is the worst.

Chirac couldn't possibly have dined at Kosmos , the gourmet restaurant on Kalevankatu where the bill of fare lists salmon pastrami with beetroot carpaccio and parmesan slivers, glow-fried arctic char with roe and white wine sauce, leg of duck confit with raspberry sauce, baked root crops and Lapp cheese , and Camembert fritters with cloudberry jam.

In summer, native fish and produce are on display at the dockside market Kauppatori , where the tables are heaped with mounds of cloudberries, gooseberries, bilberries, raspberries, and currants.

Much of the bounty can be brought home, and the duty-free shops at Vantaa airport are a gourmand's playpen. The reindeer carpaccio might be considered contraband by the US Customs folks, though, depending on which livestock diseases are circulating. My package, hermetically-sealed though it might have been, was summarily chucked into the waste barrel when I arrived at the airport in New York.

"Mad cow," the agent declared. "It's reindeer," I pointed out. "Same thing," he replied. "I know it's Finland and things are different there," I offered, "but the deer aren't sleeping with the cattle."

Not that the Finns would care. Helsinki is relaxed and friendly and eager to welcome visitors. During the summer, green-garbed Helsinki Helpers are ubiquitous and omniscient in several languages. With a copy of "See Helsinki on Foot" from the tourist office, you can check out most of the highlights in a couple of hours.

From the docks, you can walk across to the presidential palace, then to the Senate Square and the exquisite 1852 domed Lutheran Cathedral that sits atop the city, then to the red-brick 1868 Uspenski Cathedral with its golden cupolas , the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe . The nearby rail station, a Finnish National Romantic gem designed by Eliel Saarinen and featuring stone giants bearing illuminated globes, is an attraction in itself.

For a longer stroll, head up Mannerheimintie past the Parliament House, Finlandia Hall, and the Opera House to the Olympic Stadium, which hosted the 1952 Summer Games. Along the way, you can picnic in lovely Hesperia Park alongside Toolonlahti Bay.

The summer weather usually is glorious, but bring an umbrella for those days when showers blow in from the Baltic Sea. Two years ago, three days of windswept rain (dubbed the Helsinki Hurricane) washed over (but not out) the world track and field championships.

However long you stay, don't leave town without taking a ferry tour or two. The gulf is indented by inlets and dotted with more than 300 islands, the most popular of which is Suomenlinna with its 18th-century fortress built by the Swedes to keep out the Russians.

If you have only an hour or so, take the canal tour, which also includes a turn around the harbor. When you disembark, buy an ice cream cone at Market Square. But varokaa lokkeja. This is one capital that has as many seagulls as inhabitants.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

If You Go

How to get there Finnair has daily nonstop flights from New York to Helsinki and also flies from Boston via Paris.

Where to stay

Radisson SAS Plaza Hotel
Mikonkatu 23
011-358-9-77590
radissonsas.com Next to the railway station, it's a 1917 office building transformed into a fine hotel with a skylighted restaurant. Singles from $194, doubles from $207.

Hotel Kamp
Pohjoisesplanadi 29
011-358-9-576111
hotelkamp.fi
The grande dame of the Esplanadi, this newly-refurbished 19th-century beauty with its sumptuous lobby and famous Mirror Room is a must-stroll-through, at the very least. Singles from $569, $80 for an extra bed.

Hotel Anna
Annankatu 1
011-358-9-616621
hotelanna.com
If you're on a budget, a clean, comfy option that's walkable to much of what you want to see. Singles from $161, doubles from $214, including breakfast.

Where to eat

Kosmos
Kalevankatu 3
011-358-9-647255
Intimate and friendly with imaginative fare that draws a creative crowd for dinner. Entrees $24-$35.

G.W. Sundmans
Eteläranta 16
011-358-9-6226410
If you're splurging, it's a graceful visit to the 19th century but with a contemporary menu. Across from the market overlooking the harbor. Entrees $42-$51.

Zetor
Mannerheimintie 3-5
011-358-9-666966
ravintolazetor.fi
A rustic treat (though Jacques Chirac's gustatory nightmare). Sit in a tractor-table and wolf down Carelian stew, fried vendance, and arctic cloudberries marinated in liquor. Entrees $14-$37.

What to do

Catch the ferry from Market Square to Suomenlinna, the 18th-century island fortress that guards the harbor. Great place to walk and picnic. Don't miss the museum tour. Stroll around the Kauppatori, the bustling outdoor harborside market with an adjacent indoor hall. If they grow it, catch it, or make it in Finland, you'll find it here.

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