Back in February, already deep in the throes of what is colloquially termed the ‘hell semester’ in my master’s program, I was thinking about summer vacation. A little scarred from the previous year’s summer of smoke, I felt determined to plan a trip that would not be at the mercy of the American West’s fire season. I also wanted to travel across an ocean, to another continent, no longer content with the North American one. So I grabbed at the idea of northern Europe, somewhere far from the popular southwestern destinations that Americans glamorize – France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, etc. – and decided on Estonia. I have wanted to visit Tallinn for many years after a friend of ours visited in the early 2010s, and Zach happened to have a friend living in Tartu. So it came together that we settled on Estonia for our vacation, flying in and out of Helsinki for the bargain airfare I found.
We purchased our flight and two weeks later, the war in Ukraine began, throwing any enthusiasm I had harbored into a vacuum. Unsure of what it would mean, whether it would be safe or selfish, we somewhat shelved the idea in our minds, delaying much planning other than accommodations in the cities we planned to visit. When our host in Tallinn cancelled our stay, we thought surely the others would follow. But none did. As spring transformed into early summer, it seemed more and more likely that we would go. But even still, I felt sure that something would undermine the trip – Covid, the war, an unforeseen event. Only when we were in the air, flying north over Dallas, could I allow my excitement to escape. We were actually going!
We managed to escape the US unscathed by any of the flight woes plaguing those going to western Europe. We had a direct flight from Dallas to Helsinki, so our only headache was trying to sleep in economy seats. When we landed, we whisked through the silent calm of the Helsinki airport, slightly unsettled by how empty it was (particularly compared to DFW!), and took the train into the city center. We had several hours before our Airbnb check-in, so we stashed our bags and went in search of lunch. In our excitement, we skipped past the many restaurants in the Kampii shopping mall and attempted to find several smaller places near our Airbnb. All were closed. Famished, we popped into a small shop and plied ourselves with lattes and pastries instead. From there, we decided to walk toward the sea and the Lapinlahti district.
As we neared the coast, we came upon the Hietaniemi Cemetery, an immensely beautiful resting place for many of Finland’s most important figures, both politically and culturally. Although it’s not an objective of ours, we have visited several cemeteries in our various travels and Hietaniemi was exceptional. There was an abundance of life in the cemetery with towering trees, lots of vegetation surrounding the grave markers, and an abundance of flowers. It was an incredibly peaceful place to visit.
The Hietaniemi Cemetery stretches to the sea where a path follows the shoreline in either direction. We went toward the Lapinlahti Hospital, a former mental hospital that is one of the oldest mental health facilities in Europe and the first built expressly for psychiatric care in Finland in 1841. The hospital closed in 2008 and now the site houses workspaces, cafes, galleries, and a small museum about the hospital. We perused the building, reading some of the placards in the museum and buying snacks in one of the cafes. It’s a quiet setting so close to the downtown area.
We had spent enough time in Lapinlahti that it was time to meet our host and check-in. Our Airbnb was quite close to the Kampii shopping mall making many of the major sites incredibly walkable. Set on the first floor, our apartment was a large efficiency unit with tall windows letting in lots of light. Unbeknownst to us at the time, it would be the largest apartment of the entire trip! We retrieved our bags and settled in, taking a nap before plotting out the evening.
We thought it was meant to rain for most of our stay in Helsinki, so the fine weather prompted us to pack a lot into the evening. We set out for Oodi, Helsinki’s Central Library. The backdrop to Kansalaistori Square, Oodi is a prime example of how libraries can continue to be spaces for community engagement and activity. While books are housed on the third floor, in a gorgeous naturally-lit space, the other two floors have a range of spaces for public use – studios, several sizes of meeting spaces, screening or event halls, a reading room, workspaces, and on and on. There were instruments you could check out, 3D printers, sewing machines – I was impressed. Oodi is a vision.
From Oodi, we continued our walking tour passing Helsinki Central Station where we had arrived earlier in the day, and navigating the wide boulevards to Esplanadi Park. Espa, as it’s called, originated as a park for the gentry but eventually became a place for anybody and everybody to be seen. The park and surrounding streets were alive with people walking, lounging, eating ice cream, or enjoying a drink on a cafe terrace. It was buzzing. The park is narrow with a wide gravel path bordered by benches and lime trees and a grass lawn flowing toward its street enclosure. We followed the park down to Market Square where the vendors were packed up for the day and turned back up toward Senate Square.
The Square was bathed in a harsh glow illuminating the neoclassical buildings at its eastern edge. Four buildings flank the square, all designed by the same man, Carl Ludvig Engel. The Helsinki Cathedral rests prominently above the Square, while the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki, and the National Library of Finland enclose its other sides. (At the time of our visit, the university’s main building was under renovation.) In the center of the square, a statue of Russian Tsar Alexander II commands attention.
We left Senate Square to find a meal as it was getting close to 8pm. We managed to find some burgers and beers to satiate our hunger and continued walking. We were headed back to our apartment around 10pm when Zach thought we had enough daylight to visit one more spot. Jean Sibelius, Finland’s most famous composer and a prominent national figure, has a monument in Sibelius Park. Though a bit far from our apartment it was a pleasant walk along the quiet streets of Töölö and then the shoreline. Somehow we timed it just right. No one else was at the monument when we arrived, though they began to appear as soon as we set off. The monument is quite large with steel pipes (like organ pipes) suspended above the ground and the bust of Sibelius off to the side. It was a tranquil moment as the light began to recede from the sky. We turned back toward our apartment and watched as the last of the sun sank into the sea.
We allowed ourselves to sleep in the next day, hoping to recover a bit. We had lunch plans with Pasi Pirinen, a professor at the Sibelius Academy and principal trumpet of the Helsinki Philharmonic, at a nearby cafe, Bonjourno. We walked out to another lovely day. It wasn’t raining and though it was slightly overcast, it was nice enough to sit outside on Bonjourno’s terrace. We spent a leisurely 2.5 hours at our lunch with Pasi – thankfully for me, the conversation wasn’t all trumpet-related.
After we parted ways, Zach and I ventured over to Temppeliaukio Church (also called Church of the Rock). Conceived as part of an architecture competition, Temppeliaukio Church was designed by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and completed in 1969. Still an active Lutheran church, Temppeliaukio was built into the bedrock and looks less than stunning from the street level. Yet, once inside the hushed stillness of the church, it’s absolutely spectacular. The sanctuary rests in the excavated bowl of rock, while overhead a dome of copper rope caps the space, and natural light floods in through the skylights that separate the copper and rock. The space emits an absolute sense of peace and tranquility and completely moves you to be quiet and still. It’s definitely a special space, even for the non-religious.
We enjoyed sitting in solitude both in the sanctuary and the gallery above, before stepping outside to climb to the top for a view from above. Then we scampered down to resume our day. We stopped by the apartment to pick up some items for our evening sauna appointment and continued toward Market Square. Market Square sits on the end of Esplanadi on Helsinki’s South Harbor. Tents set up on the square offer a range of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as snacks, meals, handicrafts, and souvenirs. Although our timing wasn’t much better than the previous evening, we were able to walk around a bit before the vendors closed up for the day. From Market Square, we walked the short distance to Uspenski Cathedral.
Finland’s historical relationship with Russia is evident throughout the city, but none so clearly as Uspenski Cathedral. Although initially, Russia planned to annex Finland as part of its empire in the 19th century, instead Tsar Alexander I allowed Finland to operate autonomously as a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, allowing the Finns to retain their laws and traditions while replacing the Swedish king with a Russian tsar as the Grand Duke of Finland. (Prior to Russia’s rule, Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom. The Grand Duchy of Finland lasted from 1809 -1917 and Helsinki became the capital in 1812.)
Uspenski Cathedral is set upon a hill overlooking the bay in all directions and has a clear view of Helsinki Cathedral in the near distance. Built to accommodate a growing orthodox population in Finland, it was completed in 1868. Uspenski is remarkably beautiful. The red-brick facade with 13 domes shone in the sunlight when we arrived, almost beckoning visitors. The interior was beautifully painted, with a celestial ceiling of stars, and an ornate, gilded iconostasis (panel of icons) at the front. Uspenski was our first Orthodox cathedral, and it exceeded my expectations. It reminded me of the mosques we visited in Turkey where the interior is highly decorative and symbolic. It was a supremely beautiful space.
We decided to walk to Helsinki Cathedral as a point of comparison. After scaling the steep steps up to the church, we walked inside to find it completely devoid of decoration. While the exterior is quite appealing, the interior was too austere for my taste. A bit disappointed, we descended the steps to the square and popped into the Helsinki City Museum. The museum offers up a collection of free exhibits about the city’s history and culture. It was a great spot with a lot of interesting insight into the city’s past.
A few days before we left for Helsinki, I finally began to do a little research and put together a list of things to do and see. Since Finland is the birthplace of sauna, I knew we had to experience it. Although there are larger saunas like Löyly, I wanted to do something more unique. So I booked an appointment at the sauna on the island of Lonna. Many of the islands off the coast of Helsinki were used by the military and have been returned to public use only within the last decade. Lonna was once a base for storing and clearing mines, but now the mine warehouses are used for weddings and events. It’s a small, circular island located near Suomenlinna Fortress, only a 10-minute water taxi ride from Market Square. Lonna has a restaurant and coffee bar, as well as a sauna and a small museum. Our sauna appointment was at 8:30, but we decided to take the 7:00 water taxi and spend some time exploring the island.
It didn’t take long to traverse the whole of the island. We wandered around the perimeter, enjoying the profusion of fireweed and natural glamour of the setting before ending up at the restaurant terrace. We decided to have a snack and beers from a Finnish brewery in Turku (KBC). We shared the juniper berry-smoked duck breast with pickled blueberries and salted egg yolk. It was divine. Plus, the terrace was perfectly situated on a small rise with a slice of sea view.
When we checked in for our sauna appointment we each received a basket with a locker key and seat cover. We opted to buy another beer too. Zach chose a pine needle ale and I had the dark ale, both from Fiskars Brewing (yes, like the scissors!). We changed in our respective spaces and met up to drop off our baskets and enter the sauna. Since we were there on a mixed-gender day, nearly everyone wore swimsuits and could enter any of the four sauna rooms they chose. Typically, the practice is to sauna three times with a break in-between each session to hydrate and take a plunge into the sea.
The sauna at Lonna is split into four smaller units, two facing the sea and two facing the island. We only used the units facing the sea and were treated to a window view of the Baltic. The bottom floor of the sauna has water faucets and pails for bathing, while the upper deck is where the sweating happens. Lonna’s sauna is made of untreated wood logs and heated with wood-burning stoves. The rocks are heated by the stove and when water is poured on the rocks, the temperature rises. When we first entered the sauna and climbed the stairs, it was so excruciatingly hot that breathing through our noses burned, so we transitioned to breathing through our mouths. Even then, it was an overwhelming sensation. But over time and with each successive session, it became more manageable. We sat in the sauna three times, each longer than the last, and moved to the benched terrace outside in-between. Zach bravely took a dip in the sea while I enjoyed the cool evening air. When we located the thermostat in one of our sessions, it read 80 degrees Celsius which converts to 176 degrees Fahrenheit!!!!!
Even still, by the end of our time (each appointment lasts 2 hours) we were relaxed and ready to catch the water bus back to town. The atmosphere had been fairly festive since there were several larger groups of people sauna-ing together but that had made it less intimidating for me. Overall it was a wonderful first sauna experience.
Despite thinking we had conquered our jet lag, we had difficulty getting to sleep that night and slept in later than I anticipated. Our check-out was at noon, so we walked to nearby Khavi Charlotta for breakfast, then returned to pack up. I wanted to visit the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, but after learning they did not have any luggage storage, we pivoted to the National Museum of Finland. We set off with our bags under cloudy skies. It must have rained a bit earlier in the morning because there was a slight dampness in the air. As we were descending a set of stairs, all of a sudden my feet were no longer under me and I was on the ground, a gruesome popping sound penetrating the fall. It took me a while to recover from the initial shock and realize that my right knee was bleeding and my left ankle had swelled.
Zach called an Uber after it was clear I couldn’t walk very far, very fast, and we went to a pharmacy to buy some antibiotic ointment, bandages, and an ankle wrap. The pharmacist was horrified by my knee and offered to spray it with antiseptic to help me clean it up. Zach also popped into a market to buy a small bag of frozen peas which we carted around the rest of our trip, eventually bringing them back to Helsinki. We hailed another Uber to take us to the ferry terminal as it began to rain. So instead of touring a museum, we lounged at the Helsinki ferry terminal. Although boarding the ferry was a bit cumbersome for me, we arrived on the sun deck to clear weather. The journey to Tallinn is roughly 2 hours and after chatting with an American couple from New Hampshire, we passed the time reading and writing. There was a bar on the sun deck with live music lending an air of frivolity to the journey. Plus, it gave me plenty of time to rest up before we docked in Tallinn.