Even though this blog is mostly focused on hiking and adventures, I initially started it 13 years ago as a travel blog! After a long pandemic, it’s exciting to finally have some travel adventures to write about. My last major trip was to New Zealand for my honeymoon just before the pandemic, so I’ve been excited to start traveling again. My cousin Katie is studying new media art in Helsinki, so I decided to book a trip to visit her in early 2022. I ended up cancelling that trip because of the Omicron outbreak, but I decided to make another attempt at it this year, and fortunately, this time it was successful!
Seth and I planned the trip for two weeks at the end of February, starting in Helsinki. The last time I was in Europe was 10 years ago when I lived in the UK for a year in 2012, and I forgot how fun it is to travel there. The last time I visited I was flying from the East Coast of Canada, so I had a lot further to go from Vancouver. We flew through Chicago and Stockholm, and it was a pretty rough flight over. Our flight was late leaving Vancouver and we had less than an hour to transfer when we arrived in Chicago. In most circumstances this would be plenty of time, but we were dismayed to learn that our flight to Stockholm was in another terminal and required us to transfer by bus and go through security again in order to make our flight. Security was extremely busy and after much running through the airport, we made it just in time for the final boarding call.
Fortunately, things went a lot smoother in Stockholm and we immediately indulged ourselves on the plentiful selection of pastries that seem to be available all over Europe. I tried as many as I could while we there and I’ve come to the conclusion that almond croissants are my favourite. Seth is more partial to the cinnamon buns. We flew through the night to get to Stockholm, but we didn’t sleep because of the time difference. It was a beautiful day in Stockholm when we arrived, with green grass, blue skies, and sun… not that we left the airport to enjoy it.
We had one final flight across the Baltic to Helsinki. It’s only about a 40 minute flight and as we approached Finland, the sun disappeared into the clouds and thick layer of mist lay over Finland. We only got our first glimpse just before landing in a snow covered wonderland. When I checked in with Katie before the trip, she told me it had been very warm and that Helsinki had no snow, but apparently we brought it with us because it snowed for 3 days straight after we landed. Everyone assured us Helsinki is much more beautiful in the snow and we enjoyed watching the snow settle on the trees and a think layer of sea-ice freeze over the Baltic.
Katie lives slightly outside Helsinki in a community called Espoo, where she’s going to school at Aalto University. Helsinki is well connected by bus and train though, so we didn’t have any problem getting around (except at the end of the trip when the buses went on strike!). We arrived at her place around 1pm, which is 3am Vancouver time, but we forced ourselves to stay awake to try and adjust to the jetlag as quickly as possible. It made for a long tiring day, but we didn’t regret it the next day.
We figured the easiest way to fight the exhaustion was to keep moving, so Katie took us out to explore Helsinki. We went for a little walk around her neighbourhood and were immediately introduced to how the Finns feel about cold therapy. Katie lives by the water and pointed out a dock that the locals frequently swim from year round. We were only there for about 10 minutes and saw a half dozen people coming in and out of the water. I like a good cold dunk, but it takes a special kind of person to get undressed in the freezing cold, get in the water, and then have to get dry and re-dressed… also in the freezing cold.
We jumped on the metro to make our way to downtown Helsinki. It was all a bit of a blur, but we visited the rail station and some of the large cathedrals that dominate the Helsinki skyline. I admit, Helsinki is not the first place I think of when I picture Europe, but it still felt very European. It’s not as iconic as London or Paris, but there’s lots of old and interesting architecture and I really liked how the city is nestled along the Baltic. We opted for an early supper along the water at a pizza restaurant, which was delicious, but the point at which we both started crashing. So we ended up returning to Katie’s and we were both asleep before 8am. Seth’s head hit the pillow at 7:30pm and I swear he was asleep in less than 30 seconds!
We woke up early the next morning to a beautiful sunrise. Our first full day was much less tiring, but no less eventful. Katie had classes, so we entertained ourselves by finding some more pastries in which to indulge and continuing our exploration of the downtown. Suomenlinna came highly recommended, so we decided to visit. It’s a small island located 15 minutes out of downtown Helsinki by ferry. It’s home to a small community of less than 1000 people and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a lot of history associated with this island, so I’ll do my best to summarize (my first attempt on Instagram was corrected by the official Suomenlinna account, whoops!).
Finland was originally part of the Kingdom of Sweden, which is why a lot of people in Finland still speak Swedish and you see Finnish, Swedish, and English on most signs. Suomenlinna was a military fortress constructed by Sweden in the mid 1700’s, and originally went by the name of Sveaborg, to protect against invasion from Russia. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful and the fortress was ceded to the Russians in the early 1800’s. It was held by the Russian’s until 1917, when Finland declared independence and Russia willingly departed the fortress and the country. It was renamed Suomenlinna by Finland.
It’s very well preserved and fun to visit a fortress that’s actually seen a bit of action throughout the years. I believe it’s Helsinki’s most popular tourist attraction and was especially beautiful in the snow. Unfortunately there are no guided walking tours in the off season (only on Saturdays) so we visited the museum first and then proceeded to walk around the entire island, exploring the stone walls and cannons and making a visit to King’s Bridge. In the evening, Katie showed us around her university campus and all the cool creative projects that are underway in the art building, and we finished the night with some Nepalese food.