At 10pm, while most people back home are getting ready to go to bed, the sidewalk cafés along Helsinki’s Pohjoisesplanadi esplanade are awash with the soft glow of daylight. It’s a wonderful time in Helsinki to be out and about. I’ve taken my place at a table at one of the outdoor cafes talking to a suave well-dressed cigar-puffing Helsinki local by the name of Gideon.
“Do you know the difference between a Finnish esplanade and a boulevard?” he asks. Answering his own question before I get the chance, he waves his arms at the crowds of people milling around the esplanade.
Answering his own question before I get the chance, he waves his arms at the crowds of people milling around the esplanade.
“An esplanade has this wonderful patch of trees and wide lawn that divides the street,” he says.
A string quartet plays Brahms’ Hungarian Rhapsody; people sit on the benches and lie on the grass chatting. In the distance, a pop band belts out numbers in Finnish and English.
“Now you wouldn’t have all this activity in a boulevard where the lawn is set on either side of the street. Would you?” poses Gideon.
Time in Helsinki
I had spent the day checking out the city’s various summer activities.
The only city beach in Helsinki was packed to the brim with people sun baking, swimming and cooling off with a beer, and quickly gave up my plans to work on my suntan.
Being used to experiencing kilometres of pristine sandy beaches, the sight of so many bodies in such a small space made my jaw drop.
Instead, I hired a bicycle and followed the stream of cyclists around the foreshore, where I came across some other crazy sights.
A man dressed in a gorilla suit thumped his chest as he plunged off a tall platform, while other thrill-seekers queued up for their turn.
Further along the foreshore, there was a family washing their carpets in the sea. They assured me that it was an old Finnish tradition.
At the public sauna, there were a couple of dozen people sitting on the sidewalk wrapped in their towels gulping down water and Lapin Kulta beer to cool off.
As total nudity is a requirement, all saunas have separate sections for men and women.
The Finnish people have an ongoing love affair with the sauna and see it as a way to relax and unwind. Every Finnish house or apartment block has a sauna.
During family gatherings, the entire extended family will take turns to relax and bond in the sauna; men and women in separate sittings. One young guy, Harri, described it to me as a “poetic experience that uplifts my soul and puts me in touch with nature.”
I stripped and placed my clothes in the locker in the women’s dressing room. Although sitting in a steamy roomful of strangers with not a stitch of clothing on is an everyday occurrence for the Finnish, not so for me.
The thought of parading about nude in a public sauna was most discomforting but I ignored my embarrassment and went in search of my own poetic experience in the hot steamy room. Some of the other occupants acknowledged me with a nod as I took my place on one of the sauna benches. Soon my tensions began to melt away as the hot steam surrounded my body.
Helsinki’s waterfront markets
At the waterfront markets, I found an interesting assortment of local delicacies such as cans of reindeer, several varieties of smoked salmon, smoked Baltic herring, yellow berries and packets of smoked moose.
The strawberries were particularly juicy and sweet, apparently a result of the longer-than-average daylight they receive in summer. Stalls with souvenir items like wooden animals, Finnish knives and pelts are colourful against the backdrop of the pastel-coloured historical buildings.
The creamy yellow President’s Palace and the blue City Hall building provide a contrast to the red brick and golden cupolas of the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral which adds an exotic aura to the city skyline.
The boats in front of the waterfront markets run regular trips to one of the world’s largest maritime fortress, UNESCO World Heritage Suomenlinna. This fortress was built in the 1700’s and stretches across six islands just off Helsinki’s coast.
The 15-minute ferry ride to Suomenlinna from Market Square highlights the massive dimensions of the fortress.
As I ambled through the old fort, a couple of actors in period costume streaked past me. Surprisingly, while Suomenlinna is a tourist destination, it is also home to around 1000 people who commute to the mainland each day.
Most get around the island by bicycle. While exploring the maze of tunnels underneath the old fortress I discovered that the Swedish, who once ruled Finland, built the fortress as their main point of defence to counter the ambitions of Russian Tsar, Peter the Great. On other parts of the island, there were crowds of Helsinki day-trippers sun baking on the rocky cliffs.
Many groups of young people were lazing in the long grass, simply enjoying the sun.
The Russian influence in Helsinki is also clearly seen at Senate Square, a place of some historical importance with amazing 19th architecture.
The square is dominated by an enormous Russian cathedral that presides above the other buildings with its stark white walls and impressive green domes.
In the centre of the square, there is the only remaining statue in the entire world of Russian Tsar, Alexander II. On a bench beneath that statue, a young couple were kissing passionately oblivious to the people walking past.
One side of the square is lined with quaint 18th and 19th-century merchant houses that have been converted into city offices, shops and restaurants. You could almost be convinced that you are in Russia and not Finland.
Even though Helsinki has an interesting history, there are also many contemporary buildings that give the city a 21st-century look. Its main concert hall, Finlandia Hall, is one building that is distinctively Finnish in design with cubist shapes and marble walls that give it a futuristic look. Inside, its large asymmetrical auditorium is ultra modern, with no right-angles and no set shape.
An unusual place to visit is the Temppeliaukio (The Church in the Rocks). This strange church was excavated from a rocky outcrop and looks more like a rock cave than a place of worship.
The light that streams in from its skylight windows casts an eerie glow on the rough-hewn granite walls.
Sibelius’ turbulent Finlandia fills the rocky hall of the church with an emotional atmosphere that signifies the awakening of Finland as a nation.
Everyone in Finland is extremely proud of Sibelius. There is even a strange monument fashioned from silver tubes in an artistic interpretation of the pipes of an organ at Sibelius Park, built in honour of Finland musical son.
In Helsinki, there are many unusual nightspots to choose from, ranging from bars that serve drinks inspired by comic-book characters to spartan Russian bars that are a reminder of Helsinki’s Soviet past. There are loads of chic restaurants that double-up as nightclubs when the midnight sun finally fades.
However, as I was close to the Arctic, my first stop was the Uniq Ice Bar. Although the temperature in this ice-box bar freezes the thermometer at five degrees Celsius below zero; it is one of Helsinki’s hottest night-spots and is booked out several days in advance. 20cm of ice lines its walls, the bar and tables are also made from ice.
After putting on the warm cape, moon boots and gloves provided, I head for the bar and order the house speciality, a Sea breeze – a generous serving of Finlandia Vodka, cranberry and grapefruit juice. The girl at the bar next to me, Kaarina, is with her friends celebrating her departure for a one-year backpacking trip through Australia.
Feeling hungry, I head off with Kaarina and her friends to find some fancy Finnish food and rock & roll at the hippest tractor restaurant in the centre of town.
Quite the opposite of the sleek and cool atmosphere of Uniq, Zetor (a tractor brand in the Czech Republic) – is farm time-capsule of old tractors, straw, giant cow statues, saddles, rakes and old farm bikes.
Waiters dressed as farmhands scamper around busily as the patrons munch away to foot tapping rock and roll music.
At 11 pm the sun is finally setting and the darkness begins to surround the hype of the city. There’s no doubt however that Helsinki’s party-goers have only just begun and are set for several more hours’ of celebrations.