Spending a day in the Finnish capital Helsinki could be considered a strange way to start a Christmas holiday in Australia.
But there was logic to it as we’d secured business class flights on Qatar Airways for half the price of ones out of London, representing a massive saving on the cost of our three-week break. The airline is a member of the One World Alliance of airlines so we could earn miles on our money too.
We landed in Helsinki 10 days before Christmas, late at night after a British Airways A320 flight. A blizzard greeted us at the airport but our hotel in the heart of town, the Indigo, was warm and snug and the bar next-door, Blvd, was welcoming and gay.
By morning, much of the snow had gone, the sky was grey and drizzle fell as we popped out for breakfast in the traditional Ekberg Cafe on Boulevard, billed as the capital’s oldest bakery and cafe.
We walked to the Design Museum as trams rumbled by, soaking up the architecture of the streets in the dim light of a Finnish winter. Here and there were touches of the Russian influence that had finally come to an end when the Finnish Grand Duchy declared independence in 1917, but there were many buildings that reflected the style of imperial Sweden too. I loved the art nouveau flourishes but I couldn’t help thinking that Helsinki would look a lot better on a sunny spring day.
The museum was in a Victorian building that had once housed a school and was very good indeed. Unsurprisingly there was a strong focus on Finnish products old and new including beautiful glass, stylish furniture, porcelain, household goods and mobile phones (remember Nokia?). We had endless fun in the VR room.
Another floor featured a special exhibition on Californian design, much of it from Silicon Valley and Apple. All in all it was informative, entertaining and interactive and well worth the admission fee.
After a stop for coffee, we made our way to the famous cathedral via the Old Market Hall. Built in the 1880s, it’s packed with wooden-framed stalls and cafes but I always find such places frustrating as we never have reason to buy the goodies on sale.
The Lutheran Cathedral is the city’s most famous landmark, sitting atop a hill in handsome Senate Square. Inside it’s modest in the Lutheran fashion but in the square below, around a towering Christmas tree, crowds gathered to shop at the stalls of a festive market that even boasted a mobile sauna. Only in Finland…
In one corner of the square stood the Helsinki City Museum, a modest but modern museum that told the story of the city through a series of snapshots such as a furnished 50s apartment building, the popularity of bathing and a fascinating collection of old photos.
With the sun setting so early, we browsed some of the shops and bought Christmas presents at Iittala, famous for its stunning glass. I could’ve spent a fortune…
Come evening we had a tasty meal at a Ravintola Werner and relaxed over drinks at Blvd, reinforcing ourselves ready for the long journey ahead of us to Sydney.
As for Helsinki, I’m sure we’ll be back…