Paul Easton joined Keri Jones on the Great Destinations Radio Show to discuss his recent visit to Helsinki. And Paul says you need to track down a tractor for a good meal, visit a church carved from solid rock and take a ferry to an island prison.
When Paul joined me he’d just returned from his first trip to the Finnish capital. He told me that he had expected the city to be ‘outside of his comfort zone’ because he doesn’t speak Finnish, but he found that English was widely spoken. In fact in one restaurant, Zetor, the menu was presented in sixteen different languages! It’s clearly an international city that expects and welcomes tourists.
I asked Paul what the city looked like. I know it was never behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ but I imagined it to have stark, functional, concrete buildings. But I was wrong. “It’s not like Bratislava. It’s warmer,” said Paul. “It is architecturally different.” The Central Railway Station is an art nouveaux design and is “quite magnificent,” he told me.
Other noteworthy buildings include the Finnish Musuem of Contemporary Art. “It’s curved at one end and is all glass and mirrors,” he said. It’s near to the Parliament Building, which is also impressive with its huge columns. Paul admired the Finlandia Concert Hall and Opera House. “They’re both very different,” he recalled. The landmark building is the city’s cathedral. “It’s white, with a dome and on high ground. It dominates the skyline when you go out to sea,” he told me.
Paul found the city to be an outdoors destination during his summer visit. Lots of locals appeared to congregate at the Esplanadi. Many went there to watch the buskers and there’s a daily live music event throughout summertime.
Paul’s favourite find was also a music venue. “A friend once sang at a concert at the Rock Church and told me I had to visit this place,” he told me. It’s carved out of a mound of solid rock and is topped with a skylight and copper dome, which allows the sunlight to flood in. Inside the walls are the stark rock faces and there’s seating like a regular church. It is used for worship as well as music events. “It’s not like going into a cave!” he added.
There are over a hundred islands around the capital and Paul says one of the best is Suomenlinna. You’ll find a former fortress there and prison inmates add to the small resident population. There’s a regular foot ferry with a few car spaces that sails from Helsinki harbour. And Paul says the island is a great destination for people who want to explore the natural beauty. “It’s a nice place with lots of walking, mainly on cobbles,” Paul says. His tip is to use a Helsinki public transport day ticket on the route, as the pleasure boat operators charge extra.
“So what was the food like?” I asked Paul. He told me that he’d wanted to sample local cuisine and he had ordered reindeer, which was “very gamey, like venison.” Near the waterfront market he also tried elk sausages. “They were tasty and meaty like German bratwurst,” he recalled. Fish lovers won’t starve either, with plenty of perch and a whitebait like dish called vendance on offer.
Paul tracked down Zetor, the tractor restaurant, following a friend’s recommendation. They serve Finnish food and the menu is popular. The décor is memorable too. “The inside is like an old barn with farm equipment and tractors,” he says.
Food and drink in Helsinki is pricey and Paul recommends taking plenty of cash – there’s a reason why Finns take the ‘booze cruise’ ferry over to Estonia to fill up on cheap alcohol!
So here comes the acid test. “Would you go back?” I asked him. “Yes,” was his reply. “I’d go back in the winter to see the Christmas markets.”
You can listen to Paul Easton reviewing his trip to Helsinki here:
Photo: Parliament building in Helsinki by Eduskuntatalo under Creative Commons Licence