Widen Your World

Seeing a city “like a local” may be a battered cliché. But it’s also a valid goal. And it’s considerably harder to do if you don’t know any of these “locals.”

I didn’t know a soul when I got to Helsinki. And it has been my experience that concierges or innkeepers or hostel staff members who field frequent questions like “Where do the locals go?” or “What’s your favorite?” end up reciting the same answers they give everyone else. Guidebooks and Web sites often point out “local haunts,” though if their audiences are big enough, there goes the neighborhood.

Another approach, considerably more organic, is to strike up conversations with residents and ask them what their favorite places or activities are — regardless of whether there will be tourists there or not. (Just because a place is “touristy” does not make it bad.) So that’s what I did, noting that any costs should also run 10 euros ($12.30, at $1.30 to the euro) or less.

(To obtain suggestions en masse and gather people’s ages and professions without seeming deranged, I temporarily removed my cloak of anonymity and introduced myself as a writer. But chattier travelers know that striking up conversations with random strangers you “happen” to sit next to in a public place will render the same results, if more slowly.)

Then I tested out their ideas. The half-dozen I’ll mention here were great, but none, not even a suggestion to go to a mediocre lunch buffet, was a complete loss. (I got a huge meal for 9 euros.) And put together, they left me with an impression of Helsinki as a city small enough to be manageable, worldly enough to be cosmopolitan and hip enough to feel cool in. It’s also set to the oddest of soundtracks: the utterly indecipherable Finnish language (though nearly everyone speaks English as well).

Helsinki, Finland's capital city is a beautiful European destination, bursting at the seams with history, natural beauty and friendly people. On the one hand, it's metropolitan; on the other, the delightfully provincial countryside is not far away. There are lots of reasons to add Helsinki to your list of must-see destinations. Here are seven for you to consider.

1. Pretty parks
There is no shortage of pretty parks in Helsinki, ideal for strolling through on a crisp, fall day ... or on a sunny summer day, for that matter. The University Botanical Gardens are pedestrian-friendly, featuring small footpaths for visitors. You'll enjoy a sensory experience as you take in the beauty of orchids, cacti and water lilies. Kaivopuisto is a seaside park, perfect for people-watching on the promenade and appreciating the view of sailboats on the sea. Other parks include Esplanadin puisto, Sinebrychoffin puisto and, like New York, Central Park. Grab a coffee to go and enjoy strolling the picturesque parks of Helsinki.

2. Churches
About 90 per cent of the Finnish population is Lutheran. Completed in 1852, the Lutheran Cathedral is an impressive, imposing church, sitting atop a magnificent staircase in Senate Square and is an identifying symbol of Helsinki. The Church in the Rock, completed in 1969, is a much more modern church, blasted into solid rock. This unique design and setting makes the church a must-see. The acoustics inside the church make it a popular venue for concerts; it’s worthwhile to try to get tickets to an event. The sound is staggering.

3. Designer shopping
Helsinki is known for being home to some amazing designer shopping, from high-end fashion to innovative home decor and design. Aleksanterinkatu is one of the city's main shopping streets and has lots of large stores like Helsinki's popular Stockmann department store. As the Finns say, "if you can't find it at Stockmann, you don't need it!" Running parallel is Esplanadi, which boasts smaller, more luxury boutiques and all are easily accessible by tram. Iittala Shop is a well-known brand of Finnish designer goods for your home; you'll find glassware and kitchen utensils all in beautiful and innovative designs.

4. Learn about Sibelius
The Sibelius music festival is an annual event that celebrates and honours the works of contemporary composer Jean Sibelius and takes place each year in September. The Finnish musical genius was born in 1865 and lived and studied in Helsinki before moving to a quiet country home with his family, in 1903. Visit Sibeliustalo (Sibelius Hall) in nearby Lahti and see one of the composer's favourite places to hang out – the luxurious Hotel Kamp, located in the heart of Helsinki.

5. Fabulous Finnish food
Finland's cuisine is both delicious and healthy – the perfect combination for travellers who want to enjoy authentic fare without packing on the pounds from overeating on the road. Helsinki has lots of restaurants to choose from and most serve typical Finnish dishes, made with locally grown produce. Berries are common, like blueberries, cloudberries and lingonberries. Did you know that Finland is home to 188,000 lakes? This means that fish is commonly on the menu. Smoked fish, like salmon, pike, perch and Baltic herring are popular options. And for meat-lovers, reindeer and moose meat are daring but delicious choices.

6. Helsinki: A gateway
Given its location along the southern coast of Finland on the Baltic Sea, Helsinki is perfectly situated to visit other European destinations. Baltic cruise lines offer service from Helsinki to Stockholm (between 15 and 17 hours sailing time). Short ferry rides (about an hour and a half) run multiple times a day between Helsinki and Tallinn in Estonia. Train travel from Helsinki to St. Petersburg is about 7 hours, depending on your route.

7. It's English-speaking

When you travel, it's wonderful to hear the charming sound of another language at every turn; it's one of those unmistakable reminders that you're not in Kansas anymore! However, it's a different thing altogether when you can't understand or read that language. Fortunately, most everyone in Helsinki speaks English. While it's lovely to hear fluent Finnish, it's also comforting to know that you'll be able to communicate with most everyone in hotels, restaurants and shops. But while you're there, don't pass up the opportunity to expand your own vocabulary. Hei, hei!

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