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.