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