Here and There in Helsinki

Photography by the authors

Helsinki was never part of the Grand Tours of Europe in the 1920s for which today’s visitors may be grateful for. Busy though the city may be in summer, you can breathe here without the suffocating hordes of tourists who, guide books in hand, are “discovering” other places.

Finland is a fascinating and — to Americans — a largely unfamiliar country. Finland has its problems of course. What destination doesn’t? It has long, dark and often wet winters in contrast to, say, sunny Switzerland. Locals speak some English but not as many are as fluent as in other parts of Scandinavia. And its accommodating tourism websites are not as intuitive as they might be for the expected increasing interest from international tourists.

But Finland has a huge advantage over some countries: its people are friendly, likeable and genuinely interested in helping visitors. And Helsinki, the capital, has other advantages. It’s a compact city whose main attractions are an easy walk from the downtown Senate Square or within the range of Strömma’s Hop-On Hop-Off city bus tours. You can buy the bus tickets from the tourist offices and online and from other locations including Helsinki Expert. That company also sells the Helsinki Card, which is worth the money if you intend to visit any of Helsinki’s 30 museums.

Helsinki is indeed an easy visit. An hour or two with Rick Steves’ Scandinavia and you will know precisely what you want to see. If you have arrived by cruise ship, you’ll start in the harbor because you are very close to all the attractions. In our photograph, you can see the city’s signature architecture — the Lutheran Cathedral in Senate Square — peeping up behind the stern of our Azamara Journey. That’s the same cathedral behind the statues in the lower image.

You’ll see a lot of statues in town including (top left clockwise) Havis Amanda, the “Symbol of Helsinki,” created by Ville Vallgren and modeled by his mistress. It scandalized prim and proper Helsinki when erected in 1908. Locals find it a convenient place to meet.

The equestrian statue of Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim is equally useful as it shows you’re on the right track to find the National Museum (the tower in the background of the photo). Mannerheim, a hero in Finland’s 20th Century wars, had an extraordinary life and has been called the greatest Finn who ever lived. Hitler, seeking favors, surprised him on Mannerheim’s 75th birthday. It was Mannerheim’s only visit with a man he despised and he chose to light his cigar deliberately in front of Hitler who hated smoking.

Don’t try to understand the high tech metal statue — just enjoy it. And if you don’t completely understand the reasoning behind the Three Blacksmiths Statue, don’t expect help from passersby. We asked several locals what the statue signified until one man finally said “Hard work and co-operation — and they strike the anvil if a virgin walks by.”

Finland’s other world-famous hero, the distance runner Paavo Nurmi, is arguably the greatest runner in history. His statue stands in front of the Olympic Stadium. In three Olympic Games “The Flying Finn” won nine gold and three silver medals. In the Olympics in Paris in 1924 he won the 1,500 and the 50,000 meters with less than two hours between the finals! The National Museum figure above him is King Gustav III dressed up as if for tournament jousting. Although he involved his country in many desperate wars and was the only king of this area called “The Great,” he also wrote poetry and was called “the Theatre King.’ He was assassinated in 1792 — at the Opera!

The present Finnish National Opera House, built in 1993, lies about half a mile from the Olympic Stadium. But visitors usually hasten past it looking for two more celebrated attractions, the controversial monument to the composer, Sibelius, and the somewhat bizarre Church in the Rock. The Strömma On-Off tours will drop you off at each.

The Sibelius memorial – 600 stainless-steel pipes, “a forest of pipes in a forest of trees,” was originally so generic and unpopular (because Sibelius never wrote organ music) the artist had to come back and add his face to the monument. As for the Rock Church, two brothers blasted the Temppeliaukio Church out of granite in 1969.

“The ceiling contains 13 miles of copper wire,” says a guide. “So if the sermon is long, lie back and count them!”

The church probably sees more tourists than church members; Finland is a secular country and only 4% are said to go to church.

Cruise ship passengers often miss the National Museum of Finland and the Suomenlinna Fortress because there isn’t enough time to visit them properly before some ships sail. Why is time needed? The museum shows an incredibly detailed presentation of the peoples of Finland, a country that also has a somewhat complicated history. And at the fortress it takes a 15-minute ferry ride just to get to the islands where it stands.

The National Museum bowled us over. Finland seems to know more — and care more — about its indigenous peoples than most countries do. You could spend hours and hours in this impressive museum studying artifacts that vary from costumed life-size replicas of those who lived here centuries before and Viking battle axes, ancient texts, grandfather clocks, farm implements, to antique dolls’ houses near them the trappings of monarchy.

A painting on the wall of the National Museum based on Gallen-Kallela’s “The Defense of the Sampo” shows one of the episodes in Finland’s 19th century national epic poem Kalevala (Land of Heroes). The scene, the battle between a hero and an evil witch is a metaphor for the battle for the soul of Finland and a “pivotal element in Finland’s national identity.” The captured German tanks in the Army Museum in the Suomenlinna Fortress remind visitors that Russia and Germany should have paid attention to this national identity during World War II when this little country of only 5 million defended itself so courageously against those enemies.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.