DUBAI: Before our press tour departed for Helsinki, we received a note reminding us that temperatures could drop to deep sub-zero levels, and were strongly advised to pack appropriate clothing for the three-day trip. So — lugging suitcases brimming with winter gear — I joined a crew of six who endured 11 hours aboard a Finnair flight (including a one-hour stop at the Red Sea resort city of Hurghada in Egypt for refueling).
Finland has a reputation for being dull and expensive, at least compared to its neighbors, and the freezing air that blasted my face on the way to the hotel didn’t improve my initial expectations of the capital city.
In a very short time, however, my preconceptions about Helsinki were turned on their head. It is actually a very tourist-friendly place, made even more pleasant by the warm and hospitable nature of the Finns and their ever-present smiles.
It was a bonus that winter in Helsinki this year was actually not as bad as expected (at least during our January visit), with the mercury shuttling between 2°C and -3°C, and the regular January snowfall many locals were looking forward to arrived, lightly, on our final day.
“Helsinki is experiencing a heat wave,” Severi Keinälä, Finland’s commissioner general for Expo 2020 Dubai, quipped to Arab News during a dinner for journalists at a showpiece event for Finland’s education system.
Sadly, my time in the city was short, and free time was limited to the evenings after work, so I had to make do with night-time jaunts around tourist spots that were within walking distance of the hotel. That meant no chance to meet Santa Claus or to see the spectacular Northern Lights in the country’s Lapland region.
First on my must-see list was Kamppi Chapel, located in a corner of Narinkkatori Square just a few steps from the hotel. Also known as the Chapel of Silence, it was designed by architects Mikko Summanen, Niko Sirola and Kimmo Lintula to be a sanctuary amid the hustle and bustle of the city center.
Beside the church sits Amos Rex, a subterranean privately-funded art museum whose concrete domes and a circa-1936 chimney-cum-clock tower dominate the site of what used to be a bus station. It houses mostly 20th-century works from Amos Anderson’s personal collection and is well worth a visit for art lovers.
Even though I was limited to post-work activities, downtown Helsinki still had plenty to offer late into the night. It was a hive of activity, with people dining, shopping, thronging around the beautiful Central Station — which boasts monumental granite walls, and a clock tower and statues around its main entrance — or jumping on one of the city’s ubiquitous trams.
For bibliophiles, the Helsinki Central Library Oodi is a great place. The layout and atmosphere were very different to what I expected — a beautiful open space and a stark contrast to my memories of strict librarians back home ready to pounce on visitors for making the slightest noise.
In its open-plan reading room in the upper floor, visitors can sit in executive chairs and read, or just marvel at the Finnish parliament building through the library’s high glass walls.
The green-domed Helsinki Cathedral is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. From the top of its steps in the Senate Square, the 19th-century church overlooks a statue of Tsar Alexander II — and a row of luxury retail stores.
Uspenski Cathedral, on the harbor-side, has a well-lit façade that casts an imposing presence from a distance at night. Built in 1868, the orthodox church’s golden cupolas and red-brick frontage remind visitors of Russia’s influence on Finland’s history.
There’s a French influence too, at least in Helsinki’s own version of Paris’ Bridge of Love on the way to Uspenski Cathedral. Like the famous French version, it is adorned with numerous padlocks, many with names engraved on them.
We did manage to squeeze in a daytime excursion too, to the city of Porvoo, about 30-minutes away from Helsinki. Its old town is a delight, with an abundance of charming 17th-century houses crowding the cobbled streets and crowned by the hilltop 15th-century cathedral.
On our final evening, our gracious hosts treated us to dinner at Helsinki’s renowned Lasipalatsi restaurant. We savored roasted Jerusalem artichoke with truffle yoghurt for starters, and grapefruit with roasted white chocolate and avocado for dessert.
For mains, the carnivores among us feasted on roast reindeer with rye and cloudberries — an authentically Finnish finale to our trip.
And don’t worry, Rudolph remains alive and well.