24 Unconventional Hours in a Cold and Rainy Helsinki
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Travel destination: Finland

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Helsinki may not be the first place to pick up when you think of a holiday destination. But after spending 24 hours in the place… I would definitely want to come back and spend a day like a tourist!

A friend of mine recently suggested I should start a travel blog to write about my trips as she’d like to read all about them. I was sceptical at first but given my journalism degree has not been put to use since finishing University, my love of travel and exploring new places, and my purchase of a new camera to try and improve my burgeoning hobby of photography, I thought why not give it a go!

So here I am, sat on a train travelling to Turku from Helsinki. I’ve already attempted to write about a few closer to home trips but have struggled for inspiration. However, sat in a bar in Helsinki last night… maybe it was the first trip abroad of the year, or maybe it was the beer, but some ideas for how to start this one came to me.

While my job does not make any use of my chosen degree as previously mentioned, it does give me the opportunity to travel. And while away I try to get some personal time wherever I am. Generally it is in Northern Germany or one of the Nordic countries (Finland on this trip), but I have also been to India in the past (future blog to follow if I can cast my very bad memory back that far!).

This trip starts with an early morning Uber to the airport. As usual the Uber pickup point is nowhere near where I am, and so at 7.30am on a cold and frosty Manchester morning, I’m stood on the driveway frantically waving at the driver who is sat oblivious at the end of the street. After finally spotting me, I’m on my way and fly (pardon the pun) through airport security in the unusually quiet airport. Having travelled through quite a few over the years, Manchester ranks pretty low down on my list of airports due to how busy and hectic it usually is.

The Finnair flight to Helsinki is relatively comfortable although I’m stuck in the middle seat… luckily my neighbours both observe the unwritten rule that whoever is in the middle gets both armrests as compensation for not being able to look out of the window or to easily stand up and stretch their legs.

When we reach Helsinki I start to regret packing my coat in my hold luggage as it’s dark, wet and looks very cold outside! Not the best decision when travelling to Finland in January! Never mind, I get it after picking up my bag and navigate my way through the airport to the train station (this takes about 20-minutes… I think the airport is bigger than the city is!).

Once on the platform I find the ticket machine, stroll past the other confused looking travellers, and confidently purchase a ticket for zones B and C as the on-screen map clearly shows the airport to be in zone C with Helsinki city centre in Zone B. The ticket is only €2.50 rather than the expected €5 I’d seen online, but I think nothing of it, assuming the €5 must be for a return ticket.

This confidence soon starts to fade though when still 3 stops away from the city centre there’s an announcement that we are about to enter zone A, and any passengers without a valid ticket should exit the train. The train conductors have already passed me twice without asking to see my ticket, so I take the risk and plan to use the “dumb tourist” excuse I’ve used once too often in the past when traveling with the wrong ticket (this once led to me and my friends being kicked off the train before our stop, but also led to an unexpected night out in Dusseldorf rather than Essen!). All is fine as we continue for the final 10 minutes and arrive in the city centre with no ticket inspection… success!

As with a previous stay in Helsinki I’m staying at the Hotel Arthur… a functional if not very flash hotel within a 10-minute walk of the main train station and the Cathedral and Market Square. It’s perfect for a lone short stay like this…  €80 for a hotel in the centre of Helsinki on a Saturday night is a bargain, with breakfast, and a private sauna which can be booked for an extra €10.

After checking in and chilling in the room for a while, it’s time to head out and see the city. But as I leave the hotel I have my second clothing regret in the space of an hour… the light intermittent rain from my walk to the hotel has now changed into a constant heavy one. Maybe I should have brought my waterproof coat as well??

Evening in Helsinki

I start off at Helsinki Cathedral which looks amazing lit-up against the dark stormy sky, and I discover the advantage of this weather… I’m the only person stupid enough to come out sight-seeing! And so very unusually I’m able to get photos with no one else in sight, when normally I have to stand around for ages to try and get a shot without also capturing someone taking a selfie in the foreground!

After a few minutes taking photos of the Cathedral and surrounding buildings in Senate Square, I head to Market Square in Helsinki, following a pretty street to the harbour front to brace the elements there.

The harbour looks equally as good as Senate Square… with the big wheel glowing in the gloomy darkness, and a cruise ship pulling out of the dock as I arrive… a great opportunity for a photo I think to myself. Rushing over the road to capture it, inexplicably it appears the cruise ship is faster at moving than I am though, and the shot is missed!

Seeing a bicycle chained to a lamppost with the wheel in the background and the ship still within eyesight in the distance however, I manage to capture this atmospheric shot which I’m quite pleased with! Particularly the effect of the streetlights showing the drizzling rain. There might be hope for my photography skills yet!

By this point I’ve been outside for nearly an hour and am starting to get a bit too wet and cold, so decide to find solace and have a small beer in a nearby sports bar showing the English football while I think about what to do for the rest of the night.

The route to the bar takes me through Esplanadi in Helsinki… a small park in the city centre of Helsinki which looks great at night. I am however slightly confused as to whether they’ve forgotten it’s mid-January and not Christmas anymore, or if the tree and reindeer decorations stay up all year round?! I guess I am in the country of Lapland and Korvatunturi (the rumoured home of Santa) though, so who am I to argue about whether they should have been taken down by now!

Elmo Sports Bistro in Helsinki offers the welcome respite from the cold and rain, and checking out the beer selection behind the bar, Koff appears to be the local drink of choice. “A small Koff please” I say when the barman comes to me… only to be told it only comes in large. Ok, I’ll have a large then… it’s nice and warm in here so I may as well stay a little longer. When he starts pouring it though I realise by large he doesn’t mean a pint… but a litre stein! So much for the small beer!

Taking a seat at the back of the bar to watch the football, I look around and see it’s actually a nice place… as well as multiple big screens to watch the football, the décor is quite cool with bookcases and plants adding to the ambience nicely.

While the game itself doesn’t interest me too much (Norwich City vs. Bournemouth), the pub is busy with locals supporting the Finnish striker Teemu Pukki playing for Norwich and so it makes for a good atmosphere. Not that I watch much of the game… after taking my seat my phone starts buzzing with WhatsApp messages from friends about our football bets (losing as always), before we start to reminisce about a recent trip to Dubrovnik and a very weird and deviant Finnish guy we met there! The ensuing chat and photos have me crying with laughter in the corner of the bar which draws some strange looks from the locals… but it goes to show that no matter where you are in the world, with the help of social media, you can always feel at home with your friends!

The chat and my thoughts soon turn to everyone’s evening plans and what we’ll be having for tea (dinner for readers not from the north of England), and I’m torn between getting another beer and a take-away on the way back to the hotel, or to leave now and head to a another part of town with some nice restaurants that I’ve been to before. Looking out of the window at the rain, and the timey arrival of a delicious looking burger on the table next to me, makes up my mind that I’m staying and eating here.

It turns out to be a good choice, as the burger is as good as it looked, and the WhatsApp chat with friends continues to keep me entertained through the rest of the pretty drab football.

There’s one last thing to do before bed, and that’s to book the sauna for tomorrow morning. I can’t come to Finland and not have a sauna after all!

Morning in Helsinki

Still feeling a little worse for wear when I get to the sauna, I decide to go back to my room for a bottle of water to hydrate… and I’m glad I do! When I get back to the sauna a cleaner is now in there… had I not gone back to the room she would have walked in on me starkers! Not a sight anyone needs to see early in the morning (or any part of the day!)

The next morning I’d like to say I’m up bright and early to hit the sauna, but it’s more like dark and early… in part because sunrise isn’t until after 9am, but also due to the aftereffects of the unexpected steins! The plan is to sweat out the alcohol from the night before, and then have breakfast before doing some more exploring before getting the train to Turku later today.

The sauna does the trick, and after a cold shower to freshen up, it’s breakfast time. There’s the usual continental choices of ham, cheese and bread, but also meatballs, mini hotdogs, scrambled eggs (which resemble a sponge), and a strange looking pastry. A quick Google search identifies it as karjalanpiirakka; a traditional dish made from rye crust filled with egg. The meatballs hit the spot, but the karjalanpiirakka is a little dry and kind of resembles eating cardboard!

With time to kill before getting the train from Helsinki to Turku, and having been to Helsinki before and seen the main tourist spots, I decide to head along the shoreline of Katajanokka and see what’s in that neighbourhood. Walking past the impressive and very Russian looking Uspenski Cathedral (Google confirms it was designed by a Russian architect), there are a number of restaurants, which although closed at 11am on a Sunday morning, look like they’d be nice especially in the summer if you can sit outside on the harbourside. Mental note made to return here in better weather.

Walking around the rest of the island I see some ice breakers (thoughts of trying to get closer soon disappear when I see the armed guards), before coming into a more residential area.

By this point I’m getting a few strange looks from locals out for their Sunday walk by the waterside… I’m guessing it’s not very often they see someone taking photos of random buildings on freezing Saturday morning in January! Nevertheless, I crack on and having walked all the way around the island’s edge, I end up back at the big wheel and Market Square in Helsinki

I have time for a quick coffee to warm up and take in some much-needed caffeine, before making my way to the train station. Looking at the same ticket machine as yesterday the zoned map doesn’t extend as far as Turku, and so learning from yesterday’s over-confidence, I decide to find someone to ask. This doesn’t turn out to be easy though… but seeing another type of ticket machine (a green VR one rather than the blue ones for anyone that might need to know), I manage to get the right ticket and board the train from Helsinki to Turku.

And so that brings us to now… sat on the train from Helsinki to Turku writing my first ever blog. Having read it back I realise it’s definitely more “blog” than “travel”, but that’s the point, right? If you want a travel guide you use Google or TripAdvisor… a blog is supposed to be about personal experiences. So,… I hope you have enjoyed reading this, and if not, at least writing it has kept me occupied for my 2-hour train journey. Which makes me realise… I’ve been on the train for over 2 and a half hours?! I’m sure Turku is the last stop though and so I can’t have missed it… can I?! After all, my confidence with the trains yesterday worked out so well…

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