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Trip Report Why Not Helsinki?

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After three months in London earlier this year (monster trip report here somewhere!) we had five nights in Helsinki. I've been finishing up my blog posts on London but I've just started blogging about Helsinki so it seems like time to cobble together even the smallest Trip Report.

We really enjoyed the trip, though Helsinki isn't an obviously lovely city and most people would probably see it in a shorter time. Some friends who know us well were there for a week last year and though we would like it which was enough for us to give it a go. We stayed right in the center of town in what's called the design district and the hotel (Klaus K) worked out well for us. It's one of those design hotels with strange things hanging in odd places and young but attractive looking staff, you know the kind of place? But it was very reasonably priced (under $120 for an upgraded room) so the drawbacks didn't bother us too much.

July is a strange time to be in Helsinki because you have the wonderful light, bright nights but it isn't too busy as many Finns leave town to spend a month at they chalet or cabin in the country or on one of the small islands that seem to be everywhere. Apparently it's quite common to have an out of town place on an island. Can't say we know many people with that here in California, lucky Finns. Though I'm not sure I'd think they were as lucky if I visited in December. Because a lot of people have left town some of the restaurants were closed but overall we ate well, lots of fresh fish etc. My first blog post is on the food, which is always a good place to start.

As usually, despite staying longer than most visitors, we managed to miss the major attraction. In this case the UNESCO World Heritage Fortress of Suomenlinna on an island in Helsinki harbor. It's meant to be lovely and perhaps we would have seen it if we'd stayed longer. So what were we doing with ourselves? Well for us the attraction was design and Helsinki was named the world capital of design in 2012.

We were really happy to see a number of Alvar Aalto's buildings including the Olympic Stadium, Finlandia Hall and of course his home which is now a museum. The museum was very much worth seeing and we enjoyed the guided tour as well as using the trams to find our way out there. You would probably recognize many of Aalto's designs and I very much enjoyed visiting his design shop Artek.

On the design side of things there are lots of things to see including the Design Museum which does a good job of tracing the history of Finnish Design, highly recommended for people like myself for whom Finish Design is very exciting, I realize this maybe a small subset of a subset! There are also lots of design shops including small less well known ones and larger ones from the famous Finnish designers like Marimekko and the glass manufacturer Ittala.

Lets be clear we liked Helsinki but I'm not sure it would be the fist place you'd head if you hadn't been to lots of other places in Europe. NO buildings in the city are more than 200 years old because a large fire destroyed the town in the early 19th century. However. there are a lot of very interesting Art Nouveau buildings though they're more in the German Jungendstil vein, more restrained and more masculine. We were fascinated in the number of buildings from this period, entire neighborhoods or apartment buildings.

We did a lot of walking, round town and out along the waterfront. There are quite a number of interesting restored indoor markets which have some good food and crafts shops too. There's one that appeals to tourists down on the harbor but we liked the Hakaniemi Market Hall which I'd recommend. they often have soup places which seemed very popular at lunchtime. I also very much liked the Chapel of Silnce a beautiful modern Lutheran chapel which looks like an egg that descended from outer space into the middle of a shopping mall in Kaapmi!

WE did a lot of roaming around and we loved the trams which were easy to navigate. There's a lot of new building in the city and we went out to one suburb on a walk around a new mixed uses development. The tourist office promotes design tourism and they had an interesting self guided walk through the Arabia neighborhood which is north of the downtown.
It was interesting to see the ways in which they're incorporated public art and also how they have student accommodations right in there with buildings for families. It was really well done with beautiful walking paths along the waterfront and it seemed very livable, with places for your bikes and a community garden - the scale of everything seemed very nice. These Finn really value design and you could see the importance that's placed on sustainability and livability in these new developments.
I'd recommend the slim Wallpaper Guide. normally I find these a little too precious but for Helsinki it was great. Lots of good restaurants, neighborhoods, shops etc.

We were there on a Sunday and I visited the Sinebrychoff Art Museum, which is a lovely house museum that gives you a good sense for the Russian merchant class in the mid to late 19th century. The museum was near another of the restored markets where they had a flea market which was fun and right behind the museum was a park where people just bing there old things and sell or swap them. Apparently it's a very popular Sunday activity and there were lots of people there. For the most part it really was regular people with a few things, books, clothes, shoes, hanging out and chatting.

We enjoyed our five days in Helsinki and for design pilgrims it's a good destination. We took things at a quiet pace which was a contrast to Berlin which we headed to afterwards for eight days...,

I'll add some more of the blog posts as I write them

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