Why I’d have another Helsinki city break

As someone who errs towards a degree of shabby chic when choosing city break destinations, I wasn’t sure how good a match me and Helsinki would be.

I needn’t have worried. Helsinki managed that brilliant trick of balancing “everything just works”, without being glossed and polished to within an inch of its life. Here’s why I would happily return to Helsinki for city break round two!

Helsinki’s urban planning and infrastructure

I’d like to borrow some of Helsinki’s urban planners, please!

OK, so Helsinki doesn’t have the same space restrictions caused by the (rightly) protected higgledy-piggledy ancient architecture of many European towns and cities. However, the Finns have done a brilliant job of making use of the spaces they have. They seemed designed to be used by everyone – and they were!

The car is not king

Helsinki has whole areas designed around pedal- and foot-power instead of cars – bike lanes and footpaths separate from main roads. The result: loads of people of all ages walking and cycling.

A cyclist on a Helsinki city bike goes past some cool street art

A cyclist pedals past some very cool street art on a Helsinki city bike

Helsinki does have cars, it’s just not over-run with them. So much so that when we were walking around during what should’ve been rush hour, I thought it must be a public holiday.

Helsinki street scene with cars and bikes

Cars – yes. Cars everywhere – no 🙂

As well as being healthier, the lack of cars had the added advantage that I could hear myself think. I could have happily heard both sides of a conversation on my phone whilst walking in the city centre. That’s a very unlikely possibility in the UK.

Public transport in Helsinki

I know Helsinki isn’t unique in having integrated public transport and ticketing, but the fact it does makes travelling and journey planning a whole load easier.

We used the Whim app to get public transport tickets (mobile tickets are cheaper), and also to plan our journeys. Not having to spend half an hour figuring out which bus or tram stop we needed was a welcome change from most cities I’ve visited.

Helsinki’s mobile tickets for Zone 1 are €2.20 and for Zone 2 are €4.20. They’re valid for 80 minutes across all public transport.

[box type=”info”]Disclosure: Whim provided us with App travel credit for this trip.[/box]

We used Zone 2 buses (for the airport), trams and the Suomenlinna ferry during our stay. You can also use Whim for the Helsinki city bike scheme, for taxis and for car hire.

Looking back to Helsinki from the Suomenlinna ferry on our Helsinki city break

Looking back to Helsinki from the Suomenlinna ferry

Ticket checks on Helsinki’s public transport seemed irregular, but they do happen so don’t be tempted to cheat the system!

Outside of the city, Helsinki also has several commuter train lines, which we used to get to Lahti for our RedBull 400 ski jump run.

Helsinki has a sense of collective responsibility

The Finns really seemed to care about their environment. And by “their”, I don’t just mean things that just impacted them personally.

Little things I really noticed. Cafes and bars were all self-serve, and everyone tidied up after themselves. If there was a rack for dirty crockery, you could be sure pretty much everyone would use it. Certainly far more than at home.

A more obvious social policy is a bottle deposit scheme, which was easy to use even as a visitor. Simply pay a deposit by default on plastic and glass bottles, then take the empties to a recycling receptacle that spits out a voucher to redeem on your next shop. Simple.

[box type=”info”]We used the Insight Guide to Helsinki for our trip. We also love this foldable coffee cup, to get into the Helsinki spirit of reuse and recycle! Buy through these links to help the site, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

Something else that really struck me was an apparent lack of homelessness in Helsinki – was that really the case or was I just looking through the city with rose-tinted glasses? Intrigued, I did a bit of research when we got home.

It turns out that Finland is the ONLY country in EU where homelessness is decreasing. And they do that by … providing the homeless with a home.

Not exactly radical, but in Finland they’ve figured that homeless people are more likely to access support services when they’ve got a stable environment to live in.

High quality … everything!

The easiest example of quality in Helsinki I can think of is the food. There was not a soggy sandwich in sight. Processed food just didn’t seem to be a thing. (hallelujah!)

Outdoor food stalls - a Helsinki city break

Helsinki has plenty of popular outdoor food stalls. Fresh fish soup, yummy bread and coffee were €10.

In coffee shops, freshly made sandwiches on granary bread and plated salads were the norm. On proper crockery.

The coffee was good too, though we’d expected that, as the Finns are apparently the biggest consumers of coffee per person in the world.

It’s true that some of this quality does come at a price. However, Helsinki wasn’t as bank-breaking as we’d anticipated. Prices for food and drinks were around 25% more than in the UK. Coffee shops were self-service, so no tipping required. Oh, and reindeer tastes goooood 🙂

For drinking at home (or in your Airbnb apartment), buy stronger booze like wine and spirits from an Alko off licence. Only beer and cider are sold in supermarkets. Alko stores close on a Sunday; and only open ‘til 6pm on Saturdays (8pm Monday to Friday). Not that we fell foul of this when being quite ready for a night in with a bottle of wine after competing in the RedBull 400. Oh, no, sirree!

If you fancy a tipple when you’re out and about in one of Helsinki’s many green spaces, there are plenty of uber-cool bars where you can quench your thirst.

Even the souvenirs in Helsinki were classy

There was not a dodgy fridge magnet in sight in Helsinki. I mean, how fabulous are these reindeer socks?

Reindeer socks - a quality Helsinki city break souvenir

Reindeer socks, €6 from Helsinki airport

For other lovely craft shopping, the Hakaniemi Market Hall is home to high quality goods as well as the ubiquitous Moomin souvenirs, which are something of a national obsession in Finland. It’s also a rather fine place to have a coffee and watch the world go by.

[box type=”info”]We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Kallio, Helsinki (££ discount off your first Airbnb stay with this link) and flew to Helsinki with Finnair from Manchester. Book your flights via Skyscanner. Help the site by using these links, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

Take me back!

It’s safe to say my slight worries that Helsinki might be a bit too stale for me were well and truly allayed. This was my first ever trip to Scandinavia, and I’m already asking: when can we go again?

Have you visited Helsinki? What’s made you think “yay” or “nay” to Helsinki as a potential city break destination? Share your views below.

What’s it like to do the Red Bull ski jump run?

“OMG we’ve GOT to do this!” I enthused, simultaneously holding a glass of wine and shoving the screen of my phone in my husband’s direction.

I’d just shown Andrew this … the Red Bull 400.

The Red Bull 400 ski jump run

Red Bull 400. Image by Victor Engström and used with permission from the Red Bull Content Pool.

It may “only” be 400-metres, but the Red Bull 400 involves running UP a ski jump. Yes, you read that right, UP a ski jump.

Oh, and some of the competitors are professional athletes.

At this point, most people would’ve muttered something less polite than, “are you having a laugh?” but not Andrew. To be fair, his infectious enthusiasm for giving things a go is one of the many reasons I married him …

Which Red Bull 400 ski jump should we run up?

As the 2018 dates for the Red Bull 400 were released, we eagerly (nervously) scanned the various European venues, with our all-important “criteria” in mind, namely:

  • Holiday potential – the most important factor, surely?!
  • Ease of getting there for a long weekend – direct flights, not in the middle of nowhere.
  • Relatively low altitude – running up a ski jump would be hard enough without having to battle 3000-metre altitude.

That last point narrowed the options somewhat, what with ski jumps generally being in the mountains 😉 All of which led us to …

Finlanda weekend in Helsinki and a day out to the nearby city of Lahti, home to one rather large ski jump.

How to train for the Red Bull 400

Three months of vigorous training ensued. We even hired a trainer to help us – Gavin of Fitness Framework in York. To say he pushed us hard was an understatement:

Glutes were strengthened, legs lunged, arms pumped and our cores crunched within an inch of their lives.

The Red Bull 400 reality hits home

The weekend finally arrived. Following a direct flight from Manchester and a lovely day or so exploring Helsinki, the Saturday dawned with blazing hot sunshine. After feasting on a carb-and-protein-tastic breakfast of eggs on toast, we crammed some bananas, water and sunscreen into a rucksack, and caught the tram to the station for our one-hour train journey to Lahti.

[box type=”info”]We used the Whim App for city transport within Helsinki itself. An 80 minute Zone 1 journey mobile ticket was 2.20 Euro. Mobile tickets are cheaper than those bought from ticket machines. Disclosure: Whim provided us with App travel credit for this trip.[/box]

The nerves were already kicking in by this point. We knew there were about 700 runners, which meant the chances of us being in the top 160 (80 women and 80 men) to reach the finals were fairly small.

We’d like to say our nerves were steadied after reaching the venue, but … er … they weren’t!

The heats

The heats are 300-metres rather than the full 400. I was in the last of the women’s heats, and Andrew in the first of the men’s, which gave us a chance to watch and see what we were in for!

What we were in for was pain, a whole lot of pain! My speed was pretty good until the steepest part of the hill kicked in; and after then it was a serious but steady scramble to the top.

My calves were burning, and my respiratory system was at full tilt – even drawing breath was difficult. The lactic acid was so bad that when the slope levelled out again, it was practically impossible to move my legs again, never mind run.

My result: 101st out of 205 ladies in the heats, in a time of 4:33.

Then it was Andrew’s turn. Andrew’s heat was straight after mine, which meant I was slowly recovering my breath and coughing my way back down (using a staircase this time!), whilst he was bounding up.

Andrew Hill Red Bull 400 Lahti Finland

Was he screaming all the way up? Image by Victor Engström and used with permission of the Red Bull Content Pool.

Andrew managed an impressive time of 3:29, coming 182nd out of 328 men.

We were both a bit disappointed not to make the finals, although our bodies were pretty happy not to have to do it again!

Resting after the Red Bull 400 ski jump run, Lahti, Finland

After all that, we needed a good lie down

What kind of people win?

We weren’t kidding about the athletic competition: podium winners included the women’s world indoor marathon record holder, a men’s Gold Olympic medalist in cross-country ski-ing and a professional ice hockey player!!

Does the Red Bull 400 hurt?

Er, yes! It’s honestly the hardest my respiratory system has EVER worked, and we had to walk backwards up hills the following day and take more buses, our calves hurt that much. Fortunately our glutes, core and arms came through unscathed, so the training definitely paid off (thanks Gavin!)

The pain was worth it though, as with the help of friends, family and colleagues we raised £600 for The Prince’s Trust, a charity that supports disadvantaged young people in jobs, education and training.

[box type=”info”]We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in the Kallio neighbourhood of Helsinki (££ discount off your first Airbnb stay with this link). Help the site by using this link, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

My top Red Bull 400 tips

  1. Train.
  2. Train some more.
  3. Be proud of your slightly crazy British reverse-Eddie the Eagle endeavours 🙂

Have you ever planned a holiday around a sporting event, a crazy one or otherwise? Share your stories below!

4 reasons to visit Timişoara before 2021

Timişoara, Romania, will be European Capital of Culture 2021, but it’s got plenty to offer visitors now. Here’s why you should visit Timişoara before the crowds do. 

Visit Timisoara2010 check out Timisoara sign

Check out Timisoara before the crowds do!

Reason 1: Architecture in Timişoara is fabulous

Its buildings may be less well recognised than those of its Romanian counterparts Sibiu, Sighişoara and Brasov; but Timişoara’s architecture is fabulous. Baroque and Austro-Hungarian influences are everywhere.

After three days in the city, my own architectural highlights were: The Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral on the southern edge of Victoriei Square; and the colourful Porto-esque buildings of Unirii Square.

And not forgetting the shabby chic edifices at various street corners around town. There’s a whole load of renovation going on – no doubt one of two of these will have been transformed into boutique hotels by the time of Timişoara 2021!

With Timişoara’s architecture comes an associated arts and cultural sceneopera at the opera house, open air theatre in the park, and some rather funky sculptures dotted about town.

Visit Timisoara2021 culture heart sculpture

Andrew and I loved this sculpture 😉

Reason 2 to visit Timişoara: the city has a place in history

By December 1989 the Iron Curtain was well and truly buckling. Communism was already on its way out and legislative change on its way in, in countries including Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Romania was next.

The Revolution in Romania started in Timişoara, and you can learn all about it in the worthwhile Museum of the Revolution.

Although clearly underfunded, the museum is well presented, and some English-speaking staff can give you an overview of the different exhibits. Particularly powerful is a 20-minute video (subtitled) showing actual footage from the start of the Romanian Revolution on 16 December 1989 and the days that followed. In some cases it’s pretty brutal – protestors being shot by their own Army as the regime desperately tried to suppress the uprising.

The video, whilst harrowing, made me think about how different my life would’ve been if I’d been a teenager in Timişoara in 1989, instead of in Yorkshire, England.

Around town you can see many of the buildings brought to prominence during the revolution, and there’s also a memorial statue in Victoriei Square.

Reason 3: Timişoara has a lively outdoor café and bar culture

Like much of the rest of the Balkans, stopping for a coffee at a pavement café is one of the best things to do in Timişoara, and indeed in Romania as a whole.

Café’s are plentiful, particularly on Victoriei Square, Unirii Square and the surrounding streets.

visit Timisoara2021 coffee culture

cramming over the Eastern Europe phrasebook with a coffee

For a bit of a change, though, head down to the Bega Canal for some cool bars with extensive beer and cocktail menus. Honestly, it would be rude not to!

visit Timisoara2021 Bega canal bars

browsing the rather extensive cocktail menu at a Bega Canal bar. I went for a mojito 🙂

In September 2017, coffees and beers cost around 4-10 lei (£0.80-£2), cocktails around 15 lei (£3).

[box type=”info”]We stayed in the homely Pension Dinu Residence B&B in Timişoara, which we reserved through booking.com. We also used the Lonely Planet Guide to Romania & Bulgaria for our trip. Help the site by buying through these links, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

Reason 4 to visit Timişoara: it hasn’t been overtaken by tourist hoards

Timişoara has some domestic tourism and isn’t exactly off the beaten track, but there were very few foreign voices to be heard – a smattering of German speakers, a couple (literally one couple) from either the US or Canada, and that was about it! We were there for three days and heard not a single other English voice. It was bliss.

[box type=”info”]Many Romanians working in cafes, bars, restaurants and museums speak some English – anything from a few words to fully fluent. If you do get stuck with the lingo, knowledge of other Latin languages will help – we found French, Spanish and Italian useful when English wasn’t spoken. Romanian has similarities to Italian in particular, which helps when you see it written down. This Lonely Planet Eastern Europe Phrasebook was also handy. Help the site by buying through this link, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

Stop to take a picture in Timişoara and people will wait patiently for you to finish, so as not to not be in the way of your photo. That’s how unused the city is to mass tourism.

As 2021 approaches, word will get out and the world and his dog may well want to visit Timişoara! As the city’s own slogan for 2021 says, “Shine your light – light up your city” … I expect there’ll be many lights shining! My recommendation: visit Timişoara before the crowds do.

Is Timişoara on your wish-list, or have you already visited? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Day trips from Catania by public transport

Sicily’s second city of Catania makes an ideal base for day trips by public transport to Taormina, Syracuse and Mount Etna. Here’s what to see and how to get there.

Catania day trip 1: Taormina – for ancient ruins and vertiginous viewpoints

Taormina is famed for its ruined Greek theatre, which dates back to the 3rd century BC. Teatro Greco may be hyped up, but it’s worth the visit – the relatively intact amphitheatre looks to the stage, and Mount Etna looms (or smokes!) as a backdrop.

day trips from Catania by public transport - Taormina Teatro Greco

The Teatro Greco in Taormina. Who wouldn’t want to take a day trip here?

The rest of Taormina is postcard pretty, but has the accompanying tourist factor. Prices are far higher than Catania and elsewhere in Sicily.

To escape the crowds, head up to the Monte Tauro viewpoint, a 20 minute signed schlep up from the bypass (Via Circonvallazione), which runs roughly parallel to the tourist drag of Corso Umberto. The views over Taormina are worth the effort.

day trips from Catania by public transport - view over Taormina

A steep hike, but well worth it!

How to get from Catania to Taormina on public transport

The Catania to Taormina bus departs from Catania’s main bus station. The main bus station (not to be confused with the bus stands and small lot in front of the train station) sits a block back from the main road that runs past the train station.

Buses between Catania and Taormina are run by Etna Trasporti. They’re every half hour or hour, depending on the time of day you depart, and take about an hour and ten minutes to make the journey. A return ticket is €8.50. You can find timetables at the Interbus website.

Buses arrive fairly centrally in Taormina in a small bus station. It’s about a 5-10 minute walk from here to the centre – just follow the line of gift shops! Catch the return bus from the same small bus station.

There is a Catania to Taormina train, but the station in Taormina is 2km downhill from the centre. It’s also infrequent. The bus is a better bet.

Catania day trip 2: Syracuse – for beautiful buildings and creepy catacombs

Syracuse’s historical centre is on the peninsula of Ortygia. You could spend hours wandering its alleyways and coastal lookouts.

day trips from Catania by public transport - Syracuse Ortygia

A photo-opp on every corner …

Despite the tourist-attracting UNESCO world heritage status, Syracuse feels a lot more real than Taormina, and prices – even in prime locations – are very reasonable.

The Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) is the centre piece of it all. This picture gives a flavour for how spectacular it is, and speaks louder than my words.

day trips from Catania by public transport - Syracuse Ortygia Piazza del Duomo

Niiiiiice! Syracuse’s Piazza del Duomo doesn’t disappoint.

Underneath the square, and accessible from it, are the Catacombs of St John. Now set out as a museum, they have some pretty interesting exhibits down there!

day trips from Catania by public transport - Syracuse Ortygia catacombs

One of the original inhabitants of Syracuse’s catacombs.

Away from Ortygia, Syracuse is also home to ancient Greek ruins, spread out over the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis. The 5th century Greek theatre is impressive – but – in my opinion, not a patch on the one at Taormina. However, the scale of the park overall is larger, and it’s worth a visit if you have a couple of hours to spare.

How to get from Catania to Syracuse on public transport

You can reach Syracuse by bus or train from Catania.

The train takes between 1hr 5 minutes and 1hr 20 minutes and costs €6.90 each way. Trains are every hour or two hours, depending on the time of day. You can find timetables and buy tickets at the Trenitalia website (available in English as well as Italian). Syracuse is Siracusa in Italian. As with all Italian trains, validate your ticket before you board.

There are also regular (approximately hourly) Interbus buses between Catania and Syracuse. They take around 1 hr 25 minutes. Find the timetable on the Interbus website.

Buses leave from the bus station in Catania, located as described in the Taormina day trip. They arrive at Syracuse’s bus station, which is a couple of blocks from its train station.

It’s a walk from Syracuse’s train and bus stations to the attractions. At a decent pace, it takes about 20 minutes to walk to Ortygia and around 20 minutes to the ruins. They’re in opposite directions from one another.

Catania day trip 3: Mount Etna – for mild adventures at altitude

The summits and craters of Europe’s most active volcano boast an other-worldly atmosphere, alternating between a dark ashy hell and a red landscaped Mars. Both are incredibly photogenic, especially against a bright sky.

day trips from Catania - visiting Mount Etna

A volcano, or Mars? This pic was taken in late April, and the hat/jacket and sunscreen were most definitely needed 🙂

From Refugio Sapienza at 2000 metres above sea level, you can cable car and/or walk/jeep to the summit and craters at 3000 metres.

At this altitude, be prepared for a possible shortness of breath, intense sun, and all weathers. There’s loose ash everywhere, so beach flip flops are not recommended ☺

How to take a day trip from Catania to Mount Etna

There’s only one bus a day each way between Catania and Mount Etna, so don’t miss it ☺

The AST bus from Catania departs from the small lot near the stands outside the railway station (not the main bus station) at 8.15am. It takes 2 hours – with a stop en-route – to reach Refugio Sapienza, which is the closest you can get on public transport. The return bus is at 4.30pm, arriving back in Catania for around 6pm.

Buy your bus tickets in advance from the ticket office, and your cable car / jeep tickets for the summit at the Refugio. Check out my full and detailed post about Mount Etna logistics, timetables and pricing to find out more.

[box type=”info”]I stayed in an Airbnb apartment for most of my time in Catania (££ discount off your first Airbnb stay with this link), and also had a one-night stay in the slightly fancy and recommended Liberty Hotel. I used the Lonely Planet Guide to Sicily as an overview guide. Help the site by using these links, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

These are just three possible day trips from Catania by public transport. And there are more … you could also take day trips to Noto and Enna. Catania itself is also full of charms – sometimes of the shabby chic variety. Just writing this makes me want to go back!

Have you used Catania as a base for day trips? Where else would you recommend? Share your tips and ideas below.

Best Berlin view: TV Tower or Victory Tower?

Which towering landmark offers the best Berlin viewpoint experience? I road-tested the Berlin TV Tower (Fernsehturm) and the Victory Tower (Siegessäule) and rated them on: best workout, best bar, best for being on a budget and best photo opportunities. Here’s what I found out …

I love climbing towers. The bring out the big kid in me – those feelings of exhilaration and of not being quite sure what you’ll find when you reach the top.

Fortunately, there are Berlin landmarks that allowed me to fulfil my urge to ascend. Both the Berlin TV Tower and the Victory Tower could be winners in a “Best Berlin View” competition, but which one did I rate best?

Which Berlin view gives you the best gym workout?

The iconic 1960s Berlin TV Tower stands at a massive 368 metres, with the indoor observation deck at 207 metres. Even though I love a challenge of Julie vs Stairs – I was glad there was a lift.

There’s a fair number of spiral stairs to ascend in the 67-metre high Victory Tower; and they’ll certainly give your legs a good workout. Luckily there’s a viewing platform part-way up for a breather.

Best Berlin view Victory Tower stairs

The spiral staircase (never-ending!) of the Victory Tower

Verdict: If stairs are your thing, the Victory Tower is a winner for a workout.

Best bar?

Best Berlin view TV Tower bar Berlini

Enjoying a Berlini

The TV Tower has a rather fine bar, serving some wonderful cocktails. Try the Berlini – refreshing! The downside: it’s busy. Put on / adopt a British queuing approach and you’ll get yourself a place at the bar – eventually!

The Victory Tower’s top viewing platform is tiny, but “having a bar” wasn’t an architectural priority for a monument built in the 1870s to commemorate victory in the Danish-Prussian war. Head instead to one of the nearby Tiergarten beer gardens.

Verdict: The Berlin TV tower’s bar wins hand down.

Best Berlin view TV Tower cool bar

Yes, the bar at the TV Tower really does look this cool

Which Berlin viewpoint is best for being on a budget?

The TV Tower isn’t cheap, with tickets starting at €13 for adults (about £11/$15). They’re best bought in advance online to skip the queues.

If you want to eat at the TV Tower restaurant – which is a floor above the general viewing platform – book waaaaaaaay ahead.

The Victory Tower is a rather more budget-friendly €3. Though getting to the top means going under your own steam.

Best Berlin view Victory Tower best for a budget

A victory for the Victory Tower in the “best for a budget” category

Verdict: If cost is your only factor, The Victory Tower is – of the two – your best Berlin viewpoint for a budget.

Which Berlin view will give you the best photos?

The TV Tower gives full 360-degree urban views of Berlin and you can amble around its circumference to your hearts’ content, snapping away. The only downside is that you may have some glare on your photos, as you’ll be taking pics through the glass of the inside observation deck.

Best Berlin view TV Tower photos

Fab views from the TV Tower, but with window-glare

The Victory Tower also offers 360-degree views of Berlin, but this time with the lush greens (season-depending!) of the Tiergarten in the foreground. It’s easier to get a good holiday snap from here, though you may have to elbow someone out of the way on the top lookout point to get it! The lower tier viewing platform is a better bet.

Best Berlin view Victory Tower views photos

Gorgeous uninterrupted views from the Victory Tower

Verdict: The views of Berlin from the Victory Tower were better for me. My photo skills weren’t enough to overcome the glare from the glass in the TV Tower. Pro photographers may do better!

 

[box type=”info”]I stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Berlin (££ discount off your first Airbnb stay with this link) and used the Lonely Planet Pocket Guide to Berlin for my trip. Help the site by using these links, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

A summary: TV Tower or Victory Tower for the best overall Berlin viewpoint experience?

If you’re after a quintessential Berlin experience, then the TV Tower is a good option. The fact that cocktails are on hand is just another bonus.

If I returned, though, I’d go back to the Victory Tower. The satisfaction from all that stair-climbing was tricky to beat!

Have you visited either of these two Berlin viewpoints? Which was your favourite and why? Do you know of  any other views of Berlin that shouldn’t be missed?