Port of Helsinki
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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.
Top Helsinki Itineraries
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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.
Good to Know
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.
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.
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.
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
Food and Drink
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)
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).
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)