When our plane landed in Helsinki, we felt like stars of a reality TV show. We had just under 24 hours to explore this city we had never before laid eyes on, and then it would be time to catch our onward flight.
Normally, I would not arrange to spend such a short amount of time in a brand-new place. I prefer to have a few days to get my bearings, relax and people-watch, and hit some of the major sights.
But in this case, our family was finishing up a monthlong trip through Eastern Europe. We had flown from California on Finnair because that airline offered the best deal on round-trip tickets from Los Angeles to Budapest. For our return trip, we were offered either a 12-hour or a 23-hour layover in Helsinki, the airline's hub.
Since we knew that 12 hours would not have given us time enough to even leave the airport, we took the overnight option and booked a single night at a hotel in the city center.
Before leaving on our trip, we had Googled Helsinki a few times to learn about the city, and one fact that sticks in my mind is that Helsinki has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the developed world. We also posted a query on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum for suggestions on how to spend our single day and night in the Finnish capital.
Responded one person to our query: "You can see all the main sights in Helsinki in one day. The city center is really compact and easy to navigate, so just head toward the Kauppatori (the Finnish word for market square). Helsinki really comes alive during the summer, and even though there may be a bite in the air, there will be lots of cafes and restaurants with tables outside along Esplanadi so that you can enjoy the sunshine. However, be prepared for food and drink to cost quite a lot — especially if you are arriving in Finland from somewhere like Estonia."
Our first stop at the airport, after withdrawing euros from an ATM, was the tourist office, where we purchased one-day transit passes for me, my wife and our 15-year-old daughter for just over $40. This turned out to be one of the best deals of our entire stay. The passes were good not only for Helsinki's local buses and trams, but they also covered the express bus back and forth from the airport to the city center and even the public ferry to Suomenlinna Island, one of the city's top attractions.
The airport bus was jam-packed with people and luggage, but it only took about 30 minutes before it dropped us off at the main train station, a walk of only five minutes or so from the Hotel Arthur, where we had booked a triple room for $143.
The hotel was worn but clean and had no air conditioning, which made for a hot, sticky night in late July. On a more positive note, a generous buffet breakfast was included in the price. We were traveling light because we had checked our bags all the way through, bringing with us to Helsinki only essentials such as medications in a small backpack. While this was handy for moving around, it meant we had no change of clothes for our layover, which turned out to be a questionable decision.
It was midafternoon when we stepped out of the hotel, armed with our transit passes and a tourist map provided by the desk clerk at the hotel who had circled a few key locations in blue ink.
We took a tram to Market Square and boarded a ferry for Suomenlinna, an island where the Swedes built a fort in 1748 when they ruled the territory that is now modern-day Finland. The fortress is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The ferry was packed with local families and tourists heading out to the island. Once the ferry docked, we joined the throngs who hiked among the ruined walls of the fortress, picnicked on the many green spaces or fished from a stone jetty. As we walked along the island's pathways, we even came across a well-dressed crowd having drinks before entering a theater for a performance of "Peter Pan."
Back on the mainland, we strolled through Market Square, where a New Orleans jazz band entertained the afternoon crowd. Nearby were some of the city's iconic sights, such Helsinki Cathedral, City Hall and Uspenski Cathedral. We snapped photos but didn't opt to tour any of these distinctive buildings.
Exploring on foot, we worked our way back toward our hotel, stopping for dinner at a Nepalese restaurant, where we enjoyed a meal of "momos" (dumplings) and curry dishes washed down with spiced chai tea. Finally we rode a tram to Storyville, a jazz club on the opposite side of the train station from our hotel. There we decided to sit in the open-air cafe across from the main club for a nightcap rather than descend to the club's basement, where a saxophone could be heard wailing into the night.
By this time, both our energy and our euros were waning. As the writer on the travel forum had warned, Helsinki's prices were a shock to the system after our travels in Eastern Europe, where things were much more affordable. A glass of beer, not even filled to the top, averaged $8, as compared to $2 or $3 in Budapest or Sophia. During our 23-hour stay, we spent all the euros ($538 worth) we had withdrawn from the ATM, including our costs for lodging, food, transportation and a few souvenirs.
The night turned steamy when we were caught in a brief but furious downpour. Teens congregating in an open plaza near a museum ducked for cover beneath an overpass, and we straggled back to our hotel, damp but grateful for the respite from the heat. The rain continued to pour during the night, loudly hissing and gurgling through the open windows of our hotel room.
The skies had cleared by morning. After breakfast, we went in search of a store where we could buy a change of clothing and settled on Finland T-shirts from a kiosk at the train station for about $20 apiece. Then it was on to the airport bus and our flight home.
WHEN YOU GO
For further information about visiting Helsinki, go to www.visithelsinki.fi/en or www.hsl.fi.
Joe Tash is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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