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Helsinki is a city with a variety of identities. Maybe it's the Russian influence (St. Petersburg is a quick train ride away). Maybe it's the strong appreciation of contemporary design -- the capital of Finland is home to Marimekko, world-renowned for its boldly patterned textiles; Kalevala, known for distinctive bronze and silver jewelry; and Iittala, known for glassware. The city also might be associated with the dark, cold and snowy winters that last half the year (fortunately, this is not the season for cruising). Helsinki embraces a bit of oddball fun, too. One annual festival features the tossing of Finnish-made Nokia cellphones, and another popular mainstay is a wife-carrying competition.
Finland differs from Nordic neighbors like Sweden and Norway because of its near-inexplicable language. (It originated as an oral language, rather than a written one, so it's very difficult to follow; Swedish is also widely spoken.) The country itself is one of Europe's newest; independence from Russia was achieved in 1917 following the Bolshevik Revolution.
Helsinki was founded in 1550 by Swedish King Gustav Vasa and offers monuments such as the Lutheran Cathedral (Lutheranism is one of the national religions), the onion-domed Uspenski Cathedral (Eastern Orthodox) and the neo-classical buildings in and around Senate Square. The city also features Kiasma, the avant-garde Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Design Museum.
Helsinki's other major plus is that it's bounded on three sides by the Baltic Sea. In summer, the city's waterfront is the liveliest place in Finland -- whether you're soaking up the sun at a cafe, riding the ferry to the island housing the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, or taking a boat tour of surrounding waterways.
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Finland is a country with a great enthusiasm for food and drink, and no one personifies the its love of spirits better than Carl Gustaf Mannerheim. Field Marshal Mannerheim saved Finland from a Communist Revolution in 1918 and from Soviet invasion in 1940, going on to become president. Marskin Ryypy (literally, the Marshal's Drink) was invented for Mannerheim, a heavy drinker, during World War II. It's a powerful shot of vodka and gin and several other ingredients. Ask for it at the bar of Hotel Kamp. (Pohjoisesplanadi 29)
If you dock at the South Harbour, you're within walking distance of Esplanadi where there are flagship stores of three great Finnish designers. You'll find the bright fabrics of Marimekko (Pohjoisesplanadi 33), the colorful glassware by Iittala (Pohjoisesplanadi 25) and the design classics of Alvar Aalto marketed at the shop he founded, Artek (Etelaesplanadi 18).
Finnish and Swedish are the two official languages of Helsinki, but you'll find most shop assistants and waitstaff in Helsinki speak English (the Finns find using English useful as the only language similar to theirs is Hungarian). A few Finnish phrases always help, of course.
Kiitos: Thank you
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The euro has been the currency of Finland since 1999. For currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. ATMs are located throughout the city center and around South Harbour.
Where You're Docked
There are two harbors in Helsinki. South Harbour is right in the center of the city, where ships tie up opposite the Presidential Palace. There is room for three ships (on Olympia Quay and Pakkahuone Quay) around this pretty, natural bay.
Located outside the city, West Harbour has been created for larger ships. Melkki Quay is located at the south end of West Harbour, 15 minutes by taxi to the city center. Katajanokka Quay is located slightly closer (10 minutes by taxi).
There is tourist information at both harbors and also money exchange, an ATM, luggage lockers, a trolley service and restaurants. It is easy to walk into the city center from South Harbour although taxis are usually available near the gate. There are taxis and also tram stops at West Harbour.
Cruise ships typically offer a shuttle (most charge about $5 to $10) from the ship, stopping at five locations between the Swedish Theatre and Market Square (at the harbor end of the Esplanade). Taxis also line up at the cruise ship terminal; a cab to Market Square or the Swedish Theatre will run about $15. The city is very walkable, and once downtown, you'll also find a good trolley system (there is no direct service from the pier). At the Swedish Theatre, you can catch hop-on, hop-off double-decker tourist buses that take you to the major sights (for about $25). These buses also operate from the harbors in peak season.
Watch Out For
Helsinki is a safe city where traditional Lutheran values mean that people have always looked after each other, but this does not mean the city is free of pickpockets. Take care of your money and your valuables in crowded places like the Market Hall or Market Square.
The city's waterfront is not only the takeoff point for boats and ferries but is also home to both indoor and outdoor markets (some vendors even sell their wares from boats). At Market Square, locals and tourists shop for flowers, fresh fruits and local delicacy herring. There are cozy cafes that are terrific places for a quick coffee -- and it's a great place for people-watching. (6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday)
Senate Square's prime attraction is the historic Lutheran Cathedral (Unioninkatu 2-9 29; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily). Another religious place worth visiting, also from the 1800s, is the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral (Kanavakatul 1; open 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 3 p.m. Sunday). The modernist Temppeliaukio Church (Lutherinkatu 3; open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 12:45 to 1:45 p.m. and 3:15 to 5:45 p.m. Sunday) is dubbed the Rock Church because it has been carved out of solid rock (it is a considerable walk to this church, so a cab or trolley may be advisable).
If you want to know more about Finland's history, check out the city's museums. The National Museum of Finland (Mannerheimintie 34; open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday to Sunday). Attracting quite a bit of attention is Helsinki's relatively new Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma (Finnish National Gallery, Mannerheiminaukio 2; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday). To learn about Finnish modern design, check out the Design Museum (Korkeavuorenkatu 23; open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily).
Music-lovers will want to visit Sibelius Park on Mechelininkatu (a long walk from downtown), home to an unusual monument featuring hundreds of steel pipes that pays homage to famous Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957).
A 15-minute ferry ride away, Suomenlinna Sea Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The fortress which dates to 1748, is set on a series of interconnected islands. Within the walls are numerous historic buildings and museums. Start at the visitors center and work your way through museums such as: Suomenlinna Museum, which displays military artifacts, the Suomenlinna Doll and Toy Museum and the Coastal Artillery Museum, among others. The fortress is also a residential community -- there are numerous cafes and restaurants as well as a brewpub. (Museums open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday).
Helsinki's train station is one of the more notable buildings in town, guarded by four stone-carved warriors from Finnish mythology. The figures have inspired set designers for the first "Batman" movie and the guardians of Gondor in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."
For lovers of art and artisan crafts, Helsinki is a fabulous shopping destination. The Design District offers numerous boutiques showcasing work from young Finnish designers -- head to Uudenmaankatu Street. The Esplanade, in the heart of the city, is Helsinki's version of Paris' Champs d'Elysee. Marimekko and Iittala each have stores in the Esplanade. If there's a live concert (often at lunchtime there are free dance and music performances), plunk yourself down in the grassy park or at one of the sidewalk cafes. Don't miss Stockmann (Aleksanterinkatu 52) the city's most elegant department store. Beyond the usual fare, it's got a nice array of Finnish-made housewares (candlesticks and the like) and craft items from around the country, including Lapland (the northernmost part of the country and, supposedly, the home of Santa Claus). It's also got a huge bookshop, the Academic Bookstore, with a good selection of works in English.
Been There, Done That
Ateneum Art Museum was opened in 1887 and today houses the largest collections of art in Finland with more than 20,000 works from the 1750s to the 1950s. (Kaivokatu 2; +358 9 61225510)
The Linnanmaki Amusement Park features water slides, a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel and an arcade. The park, set on a hilltop on Helsinki's outskirts, also offers a gorgeous view of the city. (Tivolikuja 1; open from 10 a.m. daily)
Korkeasaari, Helsinki's zoo, sits on an island of its own just spitting distance from downtown. Highlights include lynxes, wolves, vipers, brown eagles and, yes, reindeer. (Water “buses" depart from Market Square every 30 minutes; open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily)
Unique Lapland Winter World offers an indoor opportunity to discover the north of Finland with its igloos, tobogganing, kick sledging and tandem skiing inside a huge sports hall kept chilled at minus-5 degrees centigrade. (Savikiekontie 4; +358 500 899 999)
Helsinki has become a gourmet city in recent years with four Michelin-starred restaurants and very ambitious young restaurants snapping at their heels. You can eat cheaply at a Burger King or even have reindeer burgers at McDonald's, but it's worth spending a bit more to enjoy what this city has to offer. Restaurants tend to be small in Finland, so book ahead if you can.
Ligon berries are a local specialty in Sweden and Norway. These tart red berries are picked in the wild and used to accompany a variety of dishes. You'll also find bowls of them available at breakfast time -- often eaten with yogurt -- if you stay at a Helsinki hotel.
For a casual sandwich on the go, head for the indoor hall at Market Square.
For Scandinavian-style gourmet lunching, Savoy (Etalaesplanadi 14; open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday) and Sundmans (Etelaranta 16;open 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday) are good bets. Ravintola Teatteri (Pohjoisesplanadi 2; open from 11 a.m. daily) is a happening, bustling brasserie.
Best for a Leisurely Lunch. Enjoy a fine view of South Harbour at Pure Bistro, which is the latest venture by Michelin-starred chef Jouni Toivanen. (Katrinegatan 1; +358 50 5246046; open 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight Monday to Friday, 3 to 10 p.m. Saturday and 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday)
Best for Trends. Spis is an ambitious Nordic restaurant with a variety of tasting menus in the Design District. (Kaserngatan 26; +358 45 3051211; open 3 p.m. to midnight Tuesday to Saturday)
Best for Wines. Restaurant Ask, with its emphasis on organic and biodynamic farming, is also very imaginative in its wine pairings. (Estnasgatan 8; +358 40 5818100;open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, for dinner 6 p.m. to midnight Tuesday to Saturday)
Staying in Touch
There is a free Wi-Fi network available in several public premises maintained by the City of Helsinki. Find out details at City Hall (Pohjoisesplanadi 11-13, +358 9 3101691) where there are also six public-access customer computers equipped with Internet access, word processing and imaging programs. City Hall overlooks South Harbour. Proof of identity is required for access.
Best Choice for Getting out of Town: After a short city highlights tour, take a 45-minute drive along the picturesque coast to the popular artistic center of Porvoo, a colorful, cobblestoned town that dates to 1346. Check out the Old Quarter and visit the art shops.
Best Choice for Adventure Seekers: Get outfitted with protective gear, board a special rubber boat with a fiberglass reinforced hull and powerful engine, and take a fast ride through the Finnish archipelago. Full throttle is about 45 mph, and, yes, getting wet is part of the fun.
Best Choice for Architecture Lovers: After a city drive that encompasses most of Helsinki's culturally significant buildings, continue to Hvittrask, the birthplace and former home of Finnish architect Eero Saarinen (creator of the Arch of St. Louis, among other projects). The estate, which is well-known for its stone and log buildings, is now an exhibition center for Finnish arts and crafts.
For More Information
On the Web: Helsinki Tourism and Travel
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Baltic Ports
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--By Fran Golden, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Adrian Mourby, Cruise Critic contributor