I have a confession. My name is actually Chloe-Jaana (pronounced Yar-na). I’m partially named after my mother’s pen pal from Vantaa, a suburb district of Helsinki. It was a clearly a difficult birth and I’ve spent 30 years of being called ChloeJoanna as penance. On the positive side, I received gifts from my namesake whilst I was growing up, usually Moomin based and Helsinki in Finland was somewhere that I grew up being more aware of than the average Brit. Quite a few people I know couldn’t tell you its in Finland! So 4 years ago I decided to take a long weekend break with a friend to see what Helsinki was all about. And I fell in love with the chilled out mini city that it is.
Over the August bank holiday I returned for the fourth time and I’m going to share some of my experiences, photos and favourite places with you of the city that I love. As I have been writing, this has turned into an epic post and I’ve therefore decided to split it into 5 or so parts.
It came to my attention last night that Richard Ayoade has recently sullied this fair city with his presence for his Travel Man:48 Hours In…. series. Nice of him to provide a visual version of my blog but he says that their weekend cost £81 each. Considering the sauna they went to is nearly £300 an hour, I think his maths is as bad as his comedy!
Lets start this disparate trip in familiar place.
So I don’t really like Nordic food. Its weird that I love food so much, Helsinki so much and yet don’t eat much local food whilst I’m there. Its because I’m picky. I’m not a fan of smoked fish, I hate dill with a passion, I can always leave a potato and cinnamon is my arch nemeses. With the exception of an occasional meatball, I ate a lot of Asian food in Helsinki.
Our first stop was at a fairly traditional Japanese Restaurant called Koto for a first night dinner. It was nice enough but about £25 and I wasn’t overly full. Everywhere is pricey to eat in Helsinki – a restaurant main was rarely below the £20 mark. I want to really want something for £20 and this was just ok.
Our other large meal was in the ‘hipster’ region of Kallio (Carly-oh) at Soul Kitchen near to where our Airbnb was located. The full rack of ribs was huge and the sweet potato fries crispy and delicious. I don’t know what the heck they did to that corn cob but I could have eaten several of them. Except I couldn’t because I was stuffed. At about £23, this was probably the best value for money ‘dinner’ we had on this trip.
My favourite meal of the whole trip was an impromptu trip to a Vietnamese restaurant called Onam. A spicy lunch special of Pho with well done beef was super tasty. The service was incredibly friendly and the setting modern and unexpected; being found on the ground level of a shopping centre. I’m thinking that this place is a good enough reason to justify another trip. Oh and this was under a tenner.
Brunch on the final day took us to a hipster/Instagram favourite on the edge of the Design District. Yes it was called ‘The Cock’. How hilarious. The quirky outside led to an uber cool inside with obligatory chalkboard and coffee in glasses. Sadly, for my tastes, the menu was all a bit chia seed laden but the ‘Croque Monsieur’sounded promising and whilst fairly tasty, was in fact a minimally filled ham and cheese toastie for £8.00. I was told off for leaving my salad. That did not go down too well with me at 11am! The ambiance and soundtrack was excellent but unfortunately a case of style over substance if ever I’ve found one.
Like most cities around the world, Helsinki has an open top tour bus company and the usual tourist traps. Like when visiting most cities, I opted for the free walking tour (or more accurately the pay-what-you-want-tour). I try to do these on my first day in a city as the hints and tips you can be given can be invaluable for the rest of the trip. Additionally, if the tour is rubbish, you can just slink off with no money wasted. I’m yet to do this however (although I came close in a rainstorm in Copenhagen last year) and because the tour guides essentially work for tips, they tend to be of excellent quality. We took the tour for 3 hours and were not disappointed at all. Even though I’ve been before and taken some of the excellent Finnish Tourist Board Self Guided Walks I still learnt loads on this tour – partially because it was led by a native Finn so his insight was excellent and partly because I have a memory like a sieve – for every fact I could remember, I re-learnt four and gained an extra seven!
I’ve also previously taken the Design Tour which for €20 is a brilliant insight into the city’s design history and includes a number of talks from local designers and more about local designer Alvar Aalto. The only downside is that they’re once a week on a Friday at 3pm so when we arrived on a Friday at 5pm this time, I missed out on a repeat tour.
I loves me a boat trip. Any time, anywhere (preferably on water). On any kind of holiday this is a given excursion as far as I’m concerned, be it the ferry to the Opera House and Paper Island in Copenhagen, up and down the coast in Turkey, a paddle steamer on the Mississippi, a canal boat up Banbury canal or a tourist boat around the canals of St Petersburg, I am in.
On my first visit to Helsinki my friend and I thought spending our last evening on a harbour cruise with dinner would be a lovely way to end our brilliant trip. It was a great idea until we went a bit too far with a mistimed second (could have been third) bottle of prosecco that ended up decanted into a plastic pint glass and therefore drank it rather too fast. We had the boat pretty much to ourselves in early June and the food was lovely. I did make the mistake of not specifying my massive aversion to dill and I can confirm it takes a damn long time to pick dill out of a lobster bisque sauce but I got there in the end. It was a beautiful sunny evening with a stunning blue Baltic Sea and a blue sky, we couldn’t have asked for better. The view of all of the little islands and cute little summer cottages makes you want to move there immediately and never leave like a modern day Tove Jansson. This boat cruise can, I assure you, lead to a very long and drunk night in an Irish Bar. You have been warned.
On this trip, due to an even-pickier-than-I-am travel companion, we opted for a circular canal cruise route without any provided food which was largely similar but a much busier tourist boat and rather quite chilly considering it was August!
Coming up next time…..Helsinki Attractions