Helsinki: City Time and Place

Posted by in Culture, Design, Travel


There is no doubt there is a clear delineation between my formative years in New Zealand and Finland. Both are known as clean, green destinations. Both are sparsely populated, both have risen from relative global slumber to be desired liveable countries and both now command a good degree of personal wealth to be able to do so.

In this piece I will try and illustrate the mysterious pathways of how events or memories from a distant past can regain their relevance in a new or previously unvisited terrain.

Let’s start in New Zealand, though not the NZ of my youth but of the more recent past of the early 2000’s. On late night television was a rather cool music show called M2; cool graphics and a cool theme tune. All in all unusual for NZ.

If anything such imagery took its cue from the design meccas of Europe and one of those would undoubtedly be the Finnish capital Helsinki. Sure enough design is one of the factors that lead to my visit, another is that like China teachers are well respected here.

The pilot on my flight out of Doha calls it Helsinski (Hel-since-ki) and before long the A320’s engines roar into life thrusting me and the other passengers into the Qatari night; banking and swerving to the point it unnerves me.

Approaching Vantaa (Helsinki’s airport) we fly low over the underlying calm of the Gulf of Finland, perhaps a similar serenity to Wellington’s Evans Bay when there was a northerly wind blowing, less so in a southerly – the only time you would land over Evans Bay.

So what about these mysterious pathways, well, in my mind we can only take a city or country as we find it and sometimes those cities or countries remind us of other points, moments and memories in our histories. Each traveller following their own fascinating path, some of us momentarily intersect each other sharing some of the same cities but never the same journey.

But what of the cities history? Some of these remnants remain in ghost lettering on buildings, disused tram tracks that surface through the cobbled areas such as the waterfront or in artefacts found in second hand stores.

What would Helsinki have been like in the 50s or even the 80s? I don’t know, I can only take it as seen from my personal standpoint in 2017. Notwithstanding the city museum goes some way to telling us, the casual visitor.

‘The history of Helsinki is like a Kaleidoscope. Each person sees the city differently, both through their own history and from the perspective of their residential district.’ 

This gets back to what I mentioned in one of my Shenzhen blogs about not only taking a city as you find it but developing a closeness to the suburb or district that you encounter first or that which becomes a defacto home base, in Helsinki’s case the former farmland of Katajanokka. There is however a prelude…


A new country begins with its point of entry, in this case Vantaa Airport which is unmistakably Nordic; quiet, quirky, and designed to perfection. It takes 31 minutes to reach Eliel Saarinen’s Central Station (which in turn houses perhaps the most grandiose Burger King I’ve ever seen!)

Also present is Robert’s Coffee which I first encountered way back in Auckland 10 years after said music show. I mention it because it’s that which provides the soundtrack to this my first visit to Europe since 2011 and coincidently the same year I left New Zealand (it was a year of serious travelling).

The trams supply another backward glance to the Antipodes in that they are a similar colour to those in Melbourne; deep green with – some would say tan, some would say mustard or yellow ochre. Nevertheless the resemblance is more than uncanny and yet another example of how something as simple as a colour combination can trigger a memory from the past and bring it to the surface.

They are quick and reliable and speed to my destination via two of Helsinki’s most prominent landmarks; the green domed cathedral and the red brick of the Orthodox Lutheran Church and it’s these two that I pounce on soon after check-in.

For lunch I settle on Picnic (a chain seen all over Helsinki) for a penne pesto pasta which the girls cook at my request which is nice considering it was the previous days lunch deal. As it’s been two days in transit, I amble back to base for an essential rest and my first sauna (can’t say I was too enamoured with the experience but do as the Romans do).

The afternoon is made up of a swift walkabout around the peninsular that is home for the next few days. I chance on the Viking Line terminal, the Alepa supermarket picking up a mint latte (it’s an acquired taste but makes a change from 7-11 and Starbucks) and apple tart which are consumed while walking a coastal path of gravel.

When the Orthodox church returns to view my journey ventures inwards to the back streets where lies a Nepalese restaurant. You can take the boy out of Asia but you can’t shake the undeniable charm of the Orientals, especially when it comes to cuisine. It turns out to be the first of many.

Why so many Nepalese restaurants in Helsinki I don’t know. Perhaps the artic weather reminds them of home. Speaking of temperature it is nippy, easily half that I left behind in China yet it is much better weather to walk around in. I adorn my deep blue winter coat and know that in a Finnish winter it would be woefully inept.


Helsinki is a city that in summer months basks in light for a good proportion of the day yet it’s like an English town in winter when it comes to waking up. In other words my attempt to locate breakfast in the immediate vicinity draws a blank and I return to the hotel’s Bistro Avanto for the buffet at 10euros (about £8 or 77rmb if you’re reading in China).

Quite a hike for breakfast however the bubbly Finnish girl speaks impeccable English and there’s a more than reasonable spread on including Finnish pancake and Karjalan Pie (pr. Carillion cake or rice pie). Apparently the Finnish use the latter name as the town of Karjalan is now part of Russia.

The morning is dedicated to the design district with back to back visits to both the Architecture and Design museums. I’d say the latter was the one that most concerned me as I thought it would be just product or furniture design. But it’s not necessarily the case.

There is a good smattering of products like Eero Aarnio’s Ball Chair, an old Braun stereo and a bright red Olivetti typewriter. It is easily the better of the two museums; beautifully designed and everything I was expecting Finland to deliver.

The Architecture Museum exhibits something which again harks back to New Zealand. For those a similar age to me who might be familiar with the Wellington of the late 70s or early 80s there was a turquoise coloured UFO shaped object (not a building as such) located in the central city.

Remember this was the era of UK TV shows like Space 1999 and Tomorrow’s World. It turns out the green flying saucer may have been a copy or perhaps a prototype of Matti Suuronen’s Futuro House which is one of the exhibits albeit in yellow (truth be known I’d rather the green one but it’s an irrelevant factor here).

On the same street, Korkeavuorenkatu, are several cafes all of which open around 8am, thus I knew where to head the next morning. Also worth checking out is the adjacent St John’s Church as it’s less touristy and on my visit is completely empty allowing me to soak up the atmosphere which would be a non-starter at either of Helsinki’s main sites. A Japanese couple walk in (I can tell from the gents cap) so I greet them in Japanese which raises a smile.

Following the two museums I make good on my own promise of lunch which becomes nothing more than a Mustikkapiirakka (blueberry pastry) at Cafe Ursula. Frequented by copious amounts of cheeky sparrows and more worryingly, creatures not too far removed from Hitchcock’s film The Birds.

Not sure whether they are a variant of the more common blackbird or a vulture, but they could certainly be classed as the latter. They look sinister, threatening and ready to grab your lunch with their talons in a rapid swoop from the gables!

The afternoon is more or less an aimless amble for food (burrito at Tortilla House) with the very amiable host who answers all my questions without huffing and puffing. The other thing with this place is that they only charge for what you have so I paid less, if only Subway would learn to do this.

The secondary mission is to walk and in the process better understand the street layout in the limited time I have. By now most of the museums will be closed for the day though the sun still shines fierce through the deep blue sky with amazing cloud cover!

In this slow burning light another church, Mikael Agricolan, is visited though this time only from the outside. The doors are all locked though I can see it’s an anglican church and the bright green spire and cross are resplendently lit in natural lumen.


My destination is the Sis Deli and cafe over in the design district but something is different today, there are a host of Finnish flags out though I’m pretty sure this is not their national day. It is according to the man sat next to me in recognition of the poet Eino Leino.

The cafe itself sells a variety of smoothies including yet another throwback to NZ in the dark green Spirulina, vegan chocolates and other pastries (possibly not as healthy as the aforementioned). I settle on Latte and Korvapuusti (cinnamon bun).

It is still too early for the Paivalehti Museum (for news and media) which opens like most things at 11 so instead I jump on a tram to the Arabiankatu stop to visit the Aalto university. This proves in vain as they are due to relocate to the neighbouring city of Espoo, so checking out the campus vibe is pointless and in essence kills any chance of my studying in Finland.

Cool area though including the kind of apartments I would love to call my own but probably never will. Back in the city I visit Helsinki University which despite its somewhat dour exterior is light and airy inside. Check out the pictures of its library atrium.

The Kamppi Chapel church is another architectural addition to the centre of town. The idea is to give citizens a piece of quiet, a break in the weather so to speak from the everyday rush of the city. Though I would have thought there were already enough churches around to do that, nonetheless this one is the most centrally located and made entirely of three different types of wood.

Its creation is the epitome of Scandinavian design in that while it’s a wooden structure it also utilises nanotechnology in coating the exterior walls in a special wax. The interior ‘quiet’ space is full of dead air and is absolutely quiet save for iPhone camera clicks and coats and bags being placed on benches. Beyond that you could hear the proverbial pin drop.

Outside the early evening delivers a sermon from the heavens in the speckles of rain that shimmer as they cascade in the brilliant light. I duck into a nearby buffet (RAX) which grabs my attention, where I stuff myself on pizza, creamed potato and bad lasagne. It fills a hole and then some!

There’s no chance my feeble attempt to burn some of these calories off by walking home (my tram ticket was still valid) is going to make any difference and I crash like a beached whale on my bed. There’ll be no need to eat until at least lunch time the next day. My body clock was beginning to align to a Helsinki time frame but not so my clothes, in the changeable weather I was either under or over dressed.


In small cities, a city loop tram ride (no 2/3 in Helsinki) offers an essential viewing platform if you are pushed for time. Away from the tourist hoards you see the real city, how the locals live and go about their daily lives.

I note several points of interest to return to later and alight the tram as my ticket expires to reprise my breakfast at the Sis cafe. This time I cover the apple bun and a mango smoothie. About €8 but necessary to cleanse the pizza and ice cream from the previous evening.

Still too early for the City Museum Robert’s Coffee calls and it’s a long overdue answer on my part. As they allow me to take photos and use their restroom without fuss I decide to repay the favour by purchasing a coffee and vanilla bun (a special offer at the time of writing as their lunch deal of salad and soup doesn’t appeal to me).

It is at this juncture of the day that some of the highlights of my earlier tram ride are given a sophomore inspection. First to the NONE SHOP (not just a cafe as I’d thought but additionally some sort of independent fashion house).

Then through two parks separated by train lines to walk around the Linjat Linjerna area where the cities more seedy underbelly lies. Think Thai massage, though unlike Amsterdam these women are not sitting pretty in their windows – during the day anyway.

It seems rather odd that they should exist in Helsinki at all as there are only 1.4 million people here so god knows the type of character utilises their services. Equally quirky is that many of these service providers shall we say sat in the shadow of another church. Across the way from an architects and not far from a couple of retro stores like Wanhakaarle which echo the ghosts of Helsinki past. (Think vinyl records, globes and other knick-knacks).

By early afternoon my lunch bells begin ringing and I sought somewhere new to munch. This could have been one of the many Nepalese restaurants, then remembering I hadn’t yet sampled the reindeer I ask some local tourist guides who direct me to a place called Zetor.

I end up next door in the delightful UniCafe. It feels good not only to be eating affordably but also supporting the current students, an excellent idea, if only I’d known about it earlier. Still, good to know should the more enigmatic nature of life and travel throw me back toward Finlandia.

My final cultural sojourn was to the National Museum – which really was quite disappointing and of the few cultural institutes I visit this was the only one I’m glad I didn’t pay to enter. The very genial man on reception duties had tipped me off that between 4-6 on a Friday was free and just as well.

The museum looks like a church and is spread over three floors (well two really as there was nothing on the third). Patrons be warned they offer double standards on carrying packs. They made me take mine off yet when I got in, I saw no end of people with bags as big as mine.

Quite what they thought I might make off with is anyone’s guess, the throne perhaps? That aside the only thing I dislike about Helsinki is the yapping seagulls which remind me of desolate British seaside towns in winter. Or the same towns coupled by naff funfairs and bad ice-cream in summer.

Other than the odd glitch I find the Finns to be amiable, quietly unassuming and like the Chinese generous in their will to help. On top of which their English is sickeningly flawless. No wonder my job prospects were slight.

Only on the metro and trams did I meet some stern faces and these belonged to elder folk. Was it demeaning to be speaking English to them or could they not? Did they think I was trying to sell them something or were they perceiving me in a negative way?

Perhaps my stubble, coupled with a lack of sleep may have made me look unfavourable, but even then the Finns seem a tolerable bunch, they don’t gloat about their achievements though you may rest assured they are smiling inside and are justifiably proud – and they should be. There is of course an epilogue…


We can only take a city or country as we find it and I suspect that if any one of us nomadic voyagers were here for more than a year, we would see many aspects of Helsinki – both the city and its people – unfold. Though they are images I will most likely never see in person.

Each traveller follows their own fascinating path, some of us momentarily intersect each other sharing some of the same cities but never the same journey. Mine continues south to the Baltic nations, each one hopefully as new, fresh and exciting as Helsinki; itself an absolute gem and a pleasure to visit.

Final words from the City Museum:
‘Watching all this, my eyes and mind become enmeshed in a tangle of countless images and thoughts that seem impossible to connect with each other and order into a comprehensible whole.’ Radio reporter Veikko Itkonen, 1938


Do you like this? Need a cultural teacher? Check out my UNIVERSITY page. Meanwhile, please also explore  The Atlas for more cultural shenanigans!

Spirit (album) – Depeche Mode
Reflection (album) – Brian Eno
Found Songs (album) – Olafur Arnalds
Painting and Dance (from I Advance Masked) – Andy Summers/Robert Fripp

Photos: KH