After leaving Tartu, we journeyed by train to Tallinn where we had given ourselves a little “layover” before we embarked across the Gulf of Finland. We decided to explore Balti Jaama Turg, a three-story market hall with food vendors, antiques, and local artisanal goods. We grabbed some ham and cheese pockets as a snack and perused the various stalls. It was humming with vibrancy and if we had more room in our luggage, we may have brought a few more things home. Then we made the short stroll to Telliskivi and ensconced ourselves at FIKA for coffee and our final cardamom buns. We found a table outside and took turns visiting the shops until a burst of rain pushed us indoors. Thankfully, it was a passing shower, and we were able to walk to the ferry terminal with only a smattering of raindrops. The journey back to Helsinki was less entertaining than our initial crossing; it was windier, the air was brisker, and it felt more crowded. Eventually, we found a spot inside, but by then, the trip was nearly over.
For our stay this time, Zach chose an Airbnb in the Kallio neighborhood. East of downtown, Kallio is Helsinki’s most densely populated area and has traditionally housed the city’s working-class residents. More recently, Kallio has attracted students, artists, and young adults breathing new life into the neighborhood with cafes, boutiques, and trendy restaurants. Kallio certainly had a grungier vibe with a less polished veneer but lots of character and charm.
For our second-to-last day in Helsinki, Zach wanted to visit Jean Sibelius’s home, Ainola. It was going to be a rather grey day with possible rain showers, so we set off with our umbrellas and walked to Helsinki’s Central Station to catch a train. Ainola lies only 30 minutes outside of the city center and is a pleasant 15-minute walk from the train stop along a wide, paved pathway. Originally the home was rather isolated and part of a burgeoning artist community centered around Lake Tuusula but now it is increasingly surrounded by new housing. Although the house itself is buffeted from any encroachment by a thicket of woods and a pasture, it is probably not as quiet as it once was. By American standards, the estate is small but retains a lovely charm and tranquility.
Before visiting Ainola, Zach found a few videos about Sibelius which offered more context for his role in Finland as both a composer and a symbol of Finnish nationalism. Sibelius was an influential figure in uniting Swedish- and Finnish-speaking factions as Finland forged a national identity, and his tone poem, Finlandia, became a symbol of the Finnish struggle for independence at the turn of the 20th century.
Sibelius, his wife, Aino (for whom the home is named), and three daughters moved into Ainola in 1904. Sibelius lived there until his death in 1957 at 91, and Aino remained until her death in 1969 at 97. The property was sold to the Finnish government by Sibelius’s daughters (5 total) in 1972 and it opened to the public in 1974. A small cafe was added to the grounds; otherwise, everything is as Aino left it. There is a sauna, home, grave site, and shed, along with a footpath through the thicket behind the house. The house is wonderfully cozy, although smaller than I would have expected for 7 people!
The self-guided tour through the rooms on the first floor was detailed and offered lots of information about the rooms’ various paintings, furniture, and layout. Sibelius had synesthesia which means he experienced one of his senses through another. In his case, Sibelius experienced color as music, with each color symbolizing a different chord; green was F major, while yellow was D major. My favorite feature of the home was the green brick fireplace; what a showstopper! Interestingly, Sibelius composed entirely in his head rather than on the piano. He only wrote the finished score once he had completed it in his mind.
After touring the home, we walked the short footpath through the woods behind the house and then circled back around to the entrance. We were both starving and set off for an eatery by the lake Zach had found the night before. It was a bit more of a walk than I bargained for, most likely compounded by my hunger, but it was a nice paved walkway straight from Ainola toward town. When we arrived at the place, it looked completely empty and we thought it might be closed! It was a simple lakeside snack shack with miniature golf and kayak rentals. Thankfully, it was open and we ordered burgers and beers that somehow neared 50 Euro! (The shock of switching from Estonia back to Finland!) The burgers were exceptional – Zach went veggie (a beet patty!) and I chose chicken – and we made a short detour down to the lakeshore before beginning our walk back.
Our plan hit one small snag: we had not purchased return train tickets assuming that Ainola’s cafe would have wifi. Incorrect! No wifi at the cafe, no wifi at the burger shack. Our last effort was a small cafe in a finished barn we had passed on our way to the burgers. It was a charming locale, set back from the road among the trees with outdoor tables nestled in stands of trees and a warm candlelit interior with hot coffees and delicious desserts, but no wifi. However, one of the baristas graciously offered to let Zach use a hotspot from her phone so he could purchase the tickets. I bought a coffee and a slice of decadent flourless chocolate cake topped with fresh berries; it was delightful and a welcome detour.
The rain held off during our walk back to the train station, but it was pouring when we arrived back in Helsinki. We decided to head back to the Airbnb to make dinner and figure out our agenda for our final day.
Originally, I thought we would visit Porvoo. It’s a cute town not too far from Helsinki that serves as a great day trip. However, after our adventure to Ainola and Lake Tuusula, I wanted to spend our final day in Helsinki. The weather promised to be perfect – 70 and sunny – so I thought day-tripping to an island would be more appropriate. After too much research and hemming/hawing, I declared Vallisaari Island the winner.
In the morning, we started off at Cafe Sävy, which offered up the strongest drinks of our entire trip. It was an excellent latte and the cafe had a great ex-pat/student vibe. Then we took a scenic route downtown, stopping by Kallio Church which was built in 1912 and designed by Lars Sonck (the same architect who conceived Ainola). It was captivating, somewhat reminiscent of an American capitol building, with a commanding presence and gorgeously decorated walls and arches inside – the opposite of the very austere Lutheran interior we found at Helsinki Cathedral. It is perched at the top of a hill and literally reigns over the neighborhood with its granite tower of German bells, which play Sibelius at noon and 6pm.
We walked down to Töölö Bay and used the walking path to get to Ostinato, a sheet music store inside the Sibelius Academy. Then we continued down to Market Square, grabbing a bite to eat and purchasing some fresh strawberries for the journey to Vallisaari. Tickets were cheap – 6.90 Euro for Zach and 3.45 for me, the student – and we timed our arrival at the port with the next sailing.
Vallisaari Island is one of several military islands in the archipelago off the coast of Helsinki that has opened to the public in the last decade. (Similar to Lonna from our first few days in the city.) Vallisaari opened to the public in the summer of 2016 and offers a 3km walking route around the island – Alexander’s Way – and a connection to the neighboring island, Kuninkaansaari, which has a 2.5km walking route. Vallisaari means ‘rampart island’ and has served as a part of the defense system for Helsinki under the Swedes, Russians, and Finns. The first fortifications were erected in the 17th century, but the island was most active during Russia’s rule. After Finnish independence, the Finnish Defense Forces used the island until 2013. Due to its history as a military island, visitors are to keep strictly to the paths. Although Finnish Defense Forces cleared the island for public use, explosives may still be hidden in the soil and the southern part of the island remains closed.
The trail picks up at the arrival port and makes a wide semi-circle around the island to the departure port. There are several spots along the way to stop and have a picnic or get a drink or ice cream at one of the many cafes spread along the trail. We took our time and read all of the signs, enjoying the afternoon. After emerging onto the northwestern side of the island, we were met with the most scenic part of the trail: Kustaanmiekka Strait and Suomenlinna. Suomenlinna is the most popular island destination for tourists. Known as the Gibraltar of the North, the massive maritime fortress on Suomenlinna is a UNESCO world heritage site. Here, the path also allowed us to bound down the boulders toward the sea and set up a nice picnic site. We enjoyed the breeze and ate our strawberries, the sweetest, reddest berries I’ve ever eaten in my life; nectar of the gods. From our perch, we could watch the tourists scramble around Suomenlinna or track the sailboats gliding out farther out in the sea.
We continued our stroll, passing munitions storage and fortifications, eventually arriving at the Alexander Battery on the southernmost part of the trail. We climbed up a metal boardwalk and had spectacular views, including the closed part of the island. The Alexander Battery is the most impressive of the fortification structures on the island and was finished in 1876, prompting a visit from Emperor Alexander II (although the battery was named for his son, Alexander). Vallisaari is also known as an important nature corridor; roughly 1,000 butterfly and moth species have been found on the island, as well as several species of bat, in addition to diverse plant species.
After the battery, the trail winds through the cover of Linden trees to another cafe and, soon thereafter, the port. There, Vallisaari connects to Kuninkaansaari Island. In hindsight, I would have rather stayed on Vallisaari and enjoyed a beer, but we walked over to the next island and walked the short path. Kuninkaansaari (King’s Island) was named after Swedish King Gustav III. However, Russia built artillery batteries and munitions storage facilities on the island. Part of the path is an old cobblestone road constructed by the Russians and the cobblestones, though eroding, are still evident on parts of the trail. We made the quick loop and returned to the port with time for a quick ice cream before the 5:00 departure.
One of the few things I planned before we left the U.S. was a short excursion to a smoke sauna with a company called Taiga Times. Owned and operated by a husband (Canadian)/wife (Finnish) duo, they offer several trips outside of Helsinki, including some multi-day camping trips. (I would love to do one of those the next time we’re in the country!) Their smoke sauna trip aligned with our time in Helsinki and was the perfect way to close our trip to Finland. We met Jeff in the city and picked up another couple (from Greece), and then left Helsinki behind for the Kuusijärvi Recreation Area adjacent to Sipoonkorpi National Park. I thought it would be pretty quiet on a Monday evening but the parking lot was packed and we narrowly found a spot.
We checked in, got our wristbands for the sauna, and put our things in lockers before changing into our swimsuits. Since the sauna is a public space, swimsuits are required. We made the short trek down to the lakefront and then to the smoke sauna, where Jeff explained how a smoke sauna operates differently from a wood-fired sauna (like the one we visited on Lonna). A smoke sauna is the most traditional type of sauna experience. A fire is started in the stove (under the stones) in the morning and as the sauna slowly heats up, smoke fills the room. The fire burns for roughly 6 hours, then the smoke is released, the fire is extinguished, and the sauna operates on the heat it has accumulated. A bucket with holes in the bottom rests on top of the hot stones. Water is poured into the bucket and slowly drips onto the stones, adding steam to the room. Bathers are allowed in at this point and can regulate the sauna’s temperature by adding more water to the bucket.
A smoke sauna requires a lot more effort than an electric or wood-fired sauna; however, it offers a much more atmospheric experience. With one small, smoke-smudged window, it was nearly dark in the sauna and the smell was much more earthy and scorched. It burned a bit more at first, but after a while, I found the spot that worked best for me. (There are three levels of benches; the highest bench is the hottest, while any seat next to the stones will be hotter too.) We did four rounds in the sauna, each broken up with a swim in the lake and a chance to hydrate. In our final session, I lasted the longest of our group! It was such a great experience, and doing it with others made it all the more memorable. I was really happy we had the opportunity to try two different types of saunas during our brief time in Finland.
It was a perfect way to close our time in Finland. Our enthusiasm had turned to exhaustion by the time we returned to our Airbnb to eat and pack up. The next morning we left for the airport and endured a solid 24 hours of travel before arriving back home to Truman. Although Helsinki is a relatively small capital, there is still so much more I would like to do and see (allll the museums! the design district!). As usual, visiting a place only opens up more possibilities for a future return.