Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to this Helsinki itinerary. I have a tendency to think of Nordic countries as always having been wealthy and prosperous. Of course, this is far from the case. The many Swedish and Norwegian immigrants who came to the United States in times of famine can attest to that.
But perhaps no Nordic country has had a more complicated history than Finland. And what better way to learn about Finnish military history than with a visit to the Suomenlinna Fortress? Join me for this Helsinki itinerary, and we will tour Suomenlinna Fortress, find some ghosts, and smell what the Rock Church is cooking.
24 Hours: Helsinki Itinerary
Where to Stay?
It can be very expensive to spend 24 hours on a Helsinki Itinerary. Not because the city is dirty or dangerous, as it’s clean and incredibly safe. The problem is that Helsinki, like many other Scandinavian cities, is quite expensive. And I wanted to spend all my money on Michelin star restaurants, not hotels.
So if you’re on a budget, but don’t want to share a room with strangers, I suggest the Yard Hostel. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and the staff is extremely friendly. They even helped collect my bag when AirFrance lost my bag. Also the location couldn’t be more convenient. You don’t want to waste any of your 24 hours in Helsinki itinerary commuting.
24 Hours: Helsinki Itinerary
What to Pack?
Finland can be on the rainy side. So the two most important things you’ll need to bring are an umbrella and some rain boots. My favorite travel umbrella is the Repel Teflon Waterproof Umbrella. It is strong enough to stand up to the sometimes-quite-strong winds of Finland.
For rain boots, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them out and about without feeling like some gauche American with gross feet.
Finally, if you’re not from Europe, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. European electrical outlets don’t work with either American or British plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
24 Hours: Helsinki Itinerary
Morning: Suomenlinna Fortress
Suomenlinna Fortress is a World Heritage Site that dates back to the 18th century. Just wandering around, you’ll learn how Finland transferred from Sweden to Russia back to Finland again. And one of the best parts of visiting Suomenlinna is getting there! For this Helsinki Itinerary, you’ll take a 15 minute ferry ride that leaves from the centrally located Market Square.
You can basically see the whole city from here!
Once you arrive at Suomenlinna Fortress, I recommend stopping in the Suomenlinna Museum and buying a ticket for the walking tour. A ticket for the Ehrensvard Museum is included with the price of admission. Your friendly Finnish guide will teach you much more than…
approximately top 5: suomenlinna fortress
1) Fortress Walls
You really can’t miss the walls at Suomenlinna Fortress. They are all around you! Suomenlinna was originally constructed by the Swedes back when they were occupying Finland in the 1700s. The Swedish name for the place was Sveabard. When the Russians took over Finland in the early 1800s, they kept the name, even though Sveabard means “Sweden’s Castle”. However, when Finland finally got control over their own country, they renamed it Suomenlinna, which means “Finland’s Castle.”
As with any fortress, these walls have seen a lot of drama in their day. They were even used as Russian defense against the British during the Crimea War. However, our guide pointed out that they were also used as defense against a more common enemy: the wolf. I definitely would see a movie about a group of Russians and Finns trying to keep a bunch of zombie wolves at bay during the Crimean War. It could be called Crimean and Punishment.
2) Piper Park
And now we come to the most amazing ghost story ever told. Apparently there was a rich girl and a poor boy on Suomenlinna Fortress who fell in love. But their love could never be! So they did the really sensible thing and tried to drown themselves in this park. The boy drowned straight away, but the rich girl was kept afloat by her poofy skirts. She was rescued by a gentleman, and apparently he was a dashing one because she…fell in love with him and married him instead. Now apparently the park is haunted by the ghost of the poor drowned kid.
I have so many thoughts! The first is that I bet this was that rich girl’s plan all along. Second, does that ghost haunt the park just singing “Love Stinks”? If not, he should. Also, why has no one made a movie of this story? It’s basically Titanic if Kate Winslet had only been pretending to be in love with Leonardo DiCaprio so she could drown him and get rescued by a dashing sea captain and have his babies.
3) Ehrensvard Museum
Once the tour is over, take advantage of the free admission to the
Ehrensvard Museum. Ehrensvard was a Swedish commander who tried to improve conditions at Suomenlinna fortress. Apparently there were no Swedes who wanted to come here because there was nothing to do except fend off wolves and get drowned by mean, rich girls. So Ehrensvard livened up the place by having dances and inviting artists. He is buried in a place of honor on Suomenlinna Fortress. Many Finns don’t speak very highly of the period of Swedish occupation, so it’s impressive that Ehrensvard is well-regarded by many Finnish people as being a decent and cultivated man.
Sadly, as you can see from my photo above of the interior of the Ehrensvard Museum, his family very tragically had no faces. It’s amazing that they were able to accomplish so much despite not having basic things like a nose or eyes.
His son was the only member of the family born with a face. No one knows why. Maybe it skips a generation.
4) Cafe Vanille
At this point, if you are anything like me, you’ll be getting hungry. Cafe Vanille, on Suomenlinna Fortress, is an affordorable (affordable/adorable) place to get a bite to eat. I partook of a flaky meat pie and a buttery apricot cookie. These are both convenient treats to wrap up and take with you, so I imagine that the people patrolling Suomenlinna could have taken them as snacks to go as well. (Except for Ehrensvard and his family because they didn’t have mouths.)
I’m much luckier than the patrolmen on Suomenlinna though, even if they did have meat pies, because I get to eat mine on these heart shaped plates. Also I don’t have to worry about being eaten by wolves every night.
5) Suomenlinna Church
The Finns sure love their churches! This was the fourth church I had seen in Helsinki. (And the best is yet to come.) Suomenlinna Church used to be Russian Orthodox, but it was converted into a Lutheran Church after the Russians left. It was designed by the same architect who designed the Kremlin Palace in Moscow. One fun fact about this church is that it also doubles as a lighthouse. That seems like a metaphor somehow.
You can definitely go inside the church, but I spent most of my time trying and failing to get a good picture of the exterior. Sadly this dumb tree kept blocking my way. Stupid tree! I wish a wolf would eat you!
24 Hours: Helsinki Itinerary
Afternoon: Temppeliaukion Church
Suomenlinna Fortress is a pretty big attraction, so you’ll probably spend more like a morning and half the afternoon there. But what can we possibly do with only a half-ternoon on our Helsinki Itinerary? Well, no attraction in Helsinki can pack a big punch in a short amount of time the way Temppeliaukion Church can. This baby, which is explicably known as the Rock Church, is hands down the most intriguing of Helsinki’s many churches. Allow me to intrigue you further with…
three fun facts: Temppeliaukion Church
1) How Old Is This Church?
The Rock Church (I get tired of typing Temppeliaukion over and over) dates back to the 1960s. However, the Helsinkians had tried to build it much earlier in the 20th century. Unfortunately little things like “losing all their money in World War II” got in the way.
Even in the 1960s, there were some people who felt that Helsinki shouldn’t build such an expensive church. Students protested by writing Biafra on the building site. (Biafra was a location in Africa that was experiencing famine. The students felt that the money should go there instead.)
Finnish student protesters are so polite! All the political graffiti I saw in college was way more angry and graphic. You would never find anything more polite than Buck Fush.
2) Is that really a rock?
The Rock Church is no optical illusion. It’s actually carved out of the rock itself. The church is lit only by natural light, which is very eco-friendly. Going inside the church feels like entering a secret tunnel. Perhaps it’s how the early Christians felt, meeting in caves with only the natural light to guide their services. Of course, the early Christians didn’t have a giant copper ceiling or 500,000 visitors every year like Temppeliaukion Church does, so there are some key differences.
3) Are you ready to Rock Church?
Not only does the Rock Church have amazing natural light, it also has flawless natural acoustics. That’s why Temppeliaukion Church is such a popular place to hold concerts. I guess it brings new meaning to Rock and Roll! HAHAHAHA! (Actually, I think all the concerts here are classical or religious music. But I can never pass up a terrible pun.)
24 Hours: Helsinki Itinerary
Evening: Dinner at Juuri
Nordic cuisine has come such a long way since the days of eating cured reindeer meat whilst holed up in a fortress, praying that the wolves would not slay you this night. I could not resist the opportunity to try the freshest Finnish produce at Juuri. This restaurant specialize in Sapas, which are Finnish tapas. (If you’re wondering why they are not called Fapas, remember that the Finnish word for Finland is Suomi.
Allow me to take you through a journey of Finnish ingredients, as I take you through my tasting menu. We begin with a cocktail made from lingonberry and vodka. This is the most Nordic cocktail possible. Lingonberries are a tart berry that are insanely popular in Nordic countries. The lingonberry even features prominently in the Finnish epic Kalevala.
Next came a leek and potato amuse bouche. This was like a vichyssoise if you took out all the soup. A mild and pleasing start to the dinner.
The first sapa was an egg served with buckwheat and fennel. Before I went to Finland, I wasn’t aware of the connection between Finland and Russia. It’s not surprising to find ingredients in Finland, like buckwheat, that are so popular in Russia. I thought it was cute to serve it with a chicken egg when buckwheat is normally served with fish eggs.
24 Hour treat: horse meat
This next dish will be the most controversial. That’s right, it’s horse meat. You can’t eat horse in the United States, so this is my first experience with this dish. It was completely delicious! The meat is very low in fat and flavorful. It was served with a rhubarb pickle that added just the right sour note. I was never one of those little girls who liked horses because a horse bit my shoulder once at a petting zoo. (I didn’t see it come up behind me.) Now I am the one who bites the horse!
The soup course was a cauliflower soup served with an omelette. This was very soothing, and is also as white as a marshmallow caught in a snowstorm. Or as white as all the white on white art I saw in the Ateneum Museum.
24 Hour Treat: Arctic Char
I was so excited to find arctic char in Finland because I love its vaguely salmony taste. I had never eaten it outside of the West Coast of North America before. It was served here two ways: tartare and cooked. Alongside it was salsify, which is a kind of root vegetable found in Finland that tastes like an oyster. The main kinds of produce that grow in the wild in Finland are berries and roots because of the climate.
The meat course was an upscale twist on a Finnish comfort food: pork belly. Instead of being served with mashed potatoes, this was presented with semolina and a celery puree, which made the whole dish much lighter. I don’t understand why the upscale versions of things always seem to have less fat in them. If I’m paying more money, I want more fat! That’s just science.
24 Hour Treat: Finnish cheese
I was delighted by this tiny cheese course because after all the sapas, I couldn’t handle a full sized version. I’m afraid I don’t know the names of these cheeses except that none of them are Finlandia. One cheese was hard, white, and milder, while the other was a stinky blue. They were served with a carrot and mustard jam, which I really dug.
I’m a big fan of surprising flavor combinations, and I liked the sweetness of the carrot with the slightly bitter and tangy mustard and salty cheese. If I tried to replicate this at home, I’d probably just smear mustard on a Babybel cheese and stick a carrot into the whole thing because I am lazy.
I mentioned that there’s not a ton of fresh fruits in Finland, so they get a little creative with the dessert. This is spruce sprout served with yogurt and a cucumber sorbet. I had never eaten spruce sprout before, though I imagine it’s a less controversial ingredient than the horse flesh. It had a pleasantly citrusy taste. And I was also a fan of the cucumber sorbet. You eat with your brain as much as with your mouth, especially if you’re like the Ehrensvard family and you were born without a mouth. So that’s why I like to eat surprising dishes, like sorbet made from odd ingredients. (Though technically a cucumber is a fruit. That’s just science.)
That’s 24 Hours: Helsinki Itinerary
What would you do with 24 hours in Helsinki? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Helsinki? Did that rich girl murder that poor boy, yes or yes? And how did that family of Swedes survive for so long without faces? Please leave your thoughts below.
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours on a Helsinki itinerary. If you have time to add another Helsinki itinerary, try this itinerary.