Helsinki Helsinki

Helsinki

Sprawling across islands, inlets, it is a big place. Architecture has a lot in common with Sweden.

Moomins are everywhere, they are a prized cultural thing here.

There is a level of indifference to the snow and Ice that Gothenburg cannot match.

There are a surprising number of chines tourists in Helsinki, to the point that a few museums offer translations on the wall in English, Swedish, Russian and Chinese.

The city does not have the frantic building work of Oslo, it feels more settled. Its modernisation, shown in buildings like the contemporary Art Museum are established and it gives the city a sense of maturity.


Day 1: 

8.30pm flight form the city. I had plenty of time for the traditional O’Leary’s burger whilst waiting as I had barely slowed down going through customs as it was so empty! The flight itself was delayed almost an hour. Due to this, we didn’t land until 23:20, the next train was 23:45, getting me to the station near the hotel at 00:20, so it was very late by the time I was checked in and settled.

The central station is an imposing Art Deco building and the city was quiet due to the time. Snow covered the ground and great mounds of shovelled snow show how often it was pushed out of the way.

The hotel, a Radisson Blu, was nice with a sauna and a a gym. I was treating myself as it was the weekend do my birthday.

Once settled in and unpacked, I made a hot chocolate and relaxed before bed.


Day 2: 

I’d been suffering from a pretty bad cold all week and with getting in late it was 10:15 by the time i got out of the hotel, though I had the Helsinki card in hand by then as well. Giving me free access to a range of attractions in the city.

My first stop was my normal breakfast on holiday of a croissant and a latte, and I then went over the road to the Aceneum, an art museum location in an impressive building right by central station. The top floor was closed but the building has a good collection, with a Van Gogh, Cezanne and a Warhol, but it is focused on Finish art and the impact foreign movements have had on the local artists. The collection is arranged as much by theme (Self portrait, bathing etc) as it is by artistic movement, which is actually quite a nice change. You see similar subjects but with a diverse style.

From there, I headed south to the Esplandi park and Havis Amanda sculpture in the centre, though it seems something that would be much better in the summer as the park was empty other than the snow.

I then headed towards the Design Museum, stopping briefly for a coffee at Kaffecentralen. The design museum faces a park and feels like it is in quite a residential area. Inside it comes across a little dated. The first room touting the design excellent of the ten year old Nokia phones and Angry Birds. Various alcoves and rooms are on the ground floor, but so much of there content feels like something from the 70s.

There is a HTC Vive, but its setup means you ant more and explore the space. The basement has a selection of objects from East Design work and the canary yellow walls do little to change the dated vibe of the venue. The top floor was closed for refurbishment. Perhaps this will be a new life for the space when complete. All told, it is hard to recommend it as a venue.

Following the design museum, I took a short walk to Cafe No 9, a cafe bar run by an Irish guy doing absolutely spectacular burgers (Monte Carlo was my recommendation) thick, juicy with a solid brioche bun and no cold and slimy tomatoes getting in the way.

After eating, I quickly called into Stadium for a pair of swimming trunks (and ended up getting a running hoodie as well) So i could use the sauna later that evening.

I jumped on a nearby tram and headed to the west coast, where in an old warehouse, three museums shared a space.

The ground floor was the photography museum, The most striking exhibit was “variations of white” looking at bringing into focus the plight of the Tanzanian Albinos. This series of images was of albinos in negative. You stare at a red spot in the centre for 30 seconds and then look at a blank wall and you see the true person. Very interesting way of using a gimmick to focus attention and to show the dichotomy of being a ‘white’ African.

The second museum, on the floor above is the Theatre museum, with sets, costumes, posters an props from various productions. There was an event going on so I could not see the main room, but as a bonus museum, it is excellent.

The final museum, on the top floor explores the history of Hotels, Restaurants and Bars in Finland. Showcasing the first english style pub from 1974 (replicated), the Alko monopoly and nightclubs. It is a peculiar place and I was the only one on the floor till the very end. 

Some suddenly appearing advice from a friend of mine had me alter plans somewhat and head towards, Temppeliaukio, the Rock Church. Before that, I stopped for an excellent coffee at Cafeteria Roastery. 

The Rock Church is exactly what you spect when you hear someone carved a circular church out of a big rock in the 60’s. The walls are bare stone and spiral windows provide light focused at the nave of the church. Whilst interesting, it is not a place to spend much time if you are not religious, though the pink haired woman at the ticket office is something you’d be unlikely to see at a Church of England place of worship.

I then walked down the hill to HAM, a venue original designed for tennis and now a cafe, cinema , restaurant and art gallery. I was there for the art and it is decided into three sections. The first was a paired exhibit between Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins, who’s large scale murals for public works were very different from the simple lines of her book characters. The second half was a Air d’Paris, a series on the influence of Paris on various Finnish artists. 

The second set of rooms was more experimental, paintings on canvas suspected by metal wires, a long strip of sand with a handful of covered helicopter leaves and a model dimly lit, that could only be seen in pitch darkness.

The final set of rooms were closed for refurbishment, a familiar situation at this point for me in Helsinki. These final two activities had been much quicker than planned, so I stopped for a cheeky birthday beer, as did a great many Finns…

I then wandered down to the Contemporary Art Museum, housed in a remarkable building of concrete and ramps over five floors. Glass backed walls overlooking parts of Helsinki.

The first exhibits were stunning, Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, the first drag artist in the Soviet Union, creator of pirate TV mocking the government and artist behind the drag versions of the Soviet Secretariat it amazed me he was not killed by the government.

The other half was Maija Luvtonen, an artist who is focused on how things change and how art changes. Even the way the pieces are displayed is open to regular change. 

In an alcove, a pair of films were being shown about the Chairman, a gay man persecuted in Soviet Estonia. The footage was graphic and the subject uncomfortable, as truly good art is.

The top floor was a series of works by a Thai artist, as you walk in, the scene is dominated by a series of sculptures made of discarded objects forming into an insectoid futurescape. There are several objects created by his grandmother and a film documenting her decline.

I picked up a poster from a non-binary artist using a grant to explore gender norms. Losing their long hair and putting on 20kg of muscle to explore a different type of life.

After, I tried to get dinner at a restaurant recommended by a friend of mine, but it was so busy the queue was out the door. So instead I go a very good pizza and headed back to the hotel for a nice long sauna.


Day 3: 

“I feel terrible” I thought as i woke up at 7:30am. The cold had had kept me home from work at the beginning of the week had returned through the night as a try hacking cough, sure to have annoyed my neighbours.

The cold hit me the moment I left the hotel, sucking the air from my lungs. My plan was to take a ferry to Suommalinne Fortress. On a cold windswept island. I questioned the wisdom of this plan.

First things first, Stopping at a cafe for an almond croissant and a latte to give me energy, I then found Senaatori, the senate square. Following that, walking past the city museum I would have visited had I been up earlier, I found the ferry port and market square.

During the summer the quake would no doubt be very busy, with snow and ice on the ground there were a few stalls selling ‘local’ crafts and reindeer skins. With half an hour to kill, I visited the sales and wandered over to the Upenski Cathedral for a quick photo. I then got on the strangely shaped ferry. (Two parking spaces in he middle with seating at the front and rear)

Normally, I would have been front and centre for something like taking photos of the ferry crushing through the frozen sea. I was not feeling that a cold arctic wind would do me much good and so I stayed inside. 

It is perhaps 15 minutes to the island and a strange experience in winter. You can feel and hear the ice scraping the hull the whole way there.

When there, the visitor centre and brewery is the first thing you see. I stopped there for longer than planned to change my phone, do some Pokemon and update this journal.

In the summer, you would walk around the island, following the trails stopping often in outdoor spots, bars and museums. Winter, much of this is closed down. The main museum in the centre of the island is open, showing remnants of old fortifications, clothes, weapons and tools all highlighted lovingly and with care. At the rear, a film shows about the history of the fortress. The top floor, almost bare rafters and bricks, has an exhibit of photographs and profiles of six residents of the island. A hard rocker since retired, a marine archaeologist who dives below the ice in winder hunting wrecks, a boat-wright and a pair of ballroom dancers.

Near the dry dock is the grand square, who has a monument and some closed buildings. After the dry dock, most things are closed down for the winter, but there is an artillery emplacement offering great views and the Kings Gate. Both offer unique views over the frozen water, sometimes eerily flat looking like a black and white image of sand and others with broken jagged chunks of ice showing the power of the tides.

Once done, I took a looping walk back to the ferry port expecting a long wait and so the change for a very late lunch. Instead the ferry was arriving in fifteen minutes so I went back to the mainland instead checking the map on my phone for where i could get food at 4pm.

Stepping off the ferry I realised I was right by the city museum that I had wanted to see that morning. Ignoring my empty stomach, I walked over to the museum and found it was free even without the Helsinki card!

The museum is a peculiar one. The ground floor has a cafe, shop, google cardboard 360 of the city via tram in the 1940’s a historic picture library and a “Kid City” for children to play in.

The second floor is “Helsinki in 9 bites” Nine mini exhibits, each showing an aspect of the city. A set of images, a video of skaters, a replicate bar/cafe from the 70’s with jukebox, a fall studio apartment from post WWII and more. Its not really an idea of’ve encountered before, but I enjoyed it.

The top floor is very different, an exhibition on the various club scenes in Helsinki, supported by the promotors. It ha d heavy beat, the scent of stale sweat and strobe lighting. The exhibit itself is a bit underwhelming, as it is mostly just explanation text and a photo montage for each venue. It had drawn a crowd though and a very different one from the parents on the floors below.

I had a very rapid coffee in the adjacent coffee and wine bar before collecting my gear and heading out to a highly recommended local brewery for a couple of beers.

After the brewery I walked the two main roads to an all night chemist to pick up some streusels so I would hopefully get a better nights sleep before stopping at the restaurant recommended by my Finnish friend, Zetor. A very American-South inspired place in decor, like a Bubba-Gump shrimp or a TGI Fridays. The menu however is very Finnish.

I had a spinach crepe to start and render steak on a bed of roast vegetable mash and roasted vegetables as a side. Accompanied by a dark larger, my favourite kind of lager.

The food was great, though not top tier, and the wait staff changed three times during m meal though all were attentive and friendly. 

After eating, I walked back to the hotel and confirmed it was a skating rink by my hotel, though it was due to close ten minutes after I got there, and I I could not get on the ice, but i did listen to them playing a bit of Ed Sheeran.

Thwarted, I went back to the hotel and found the frustrated maitre’d was actually a bit of a wine expert and my desire for a nice glass of red meant he was willing to hide me at a table despite not eating if I would would try a few different types and would talk wine with him. Even later, I heard a waitress complain that they were not a bar anymore.


Day 4: 

Last day in Helsinki and another late start, still not feeling well, and not sleeping well so I didn’t get out of the hotel until 11.

A coffee and some overnight oats helped get me feeling better and it was then time for the Natural History Museum located close to the contemporary art museum. It is the only venue I had been too that was not covered by the Helsinki card so I hd to pay the €14 entrance fee.

Bones and taxidermy are the core of the exhibits and little is in english. All in all it is the most disappointed of the museums I had been to in Helsinki (something I had been warned to expect) It is a large museum, more than you realise as it is spread over four floors. One item of note however, on one floor dedicated to environmental impact they had surveyed 30 scientists on what they had personally done to reduce their impact on global warming. Almost all of them had gone vegetarian.

After the natural history museum, i walked up to the Museum of Finland, having decided to have a late lunch near the station. 

The Museum of Finland is housed in an intimidating ‘faux-church’ building of heavy stone and large doors.

The basement is a treasure trove of prehistoric artefacts including an ancient stone axe you can touch. The museum makes excellent use of modern technologies with an HTC Vive driven exhibit on the throne room putting you at a coronation. Tablets with information and viewers shaped like seaside binoculars.

As you work your way up the museum you are taken through the history of Finland, its time under Swedish Kings and Russian Tsars. It is the most well curated museum here and a strong contender for best museum in Helsinki.

After the museum I headed to “Vilkum” by the station, a Czech restaurant with good beers and a great goulash. After lunch, i took the train back to the airport for my flight home.