Hometown Debrief

Spring in Helsinki, Finland

by Laura Palotie
A A little boat to Suomenlinna. Photo by Erin Skurdal

Not that we'd ever tire of springtime in Paris. But what about Helsinki? Local editor and writer Laura Palotie makes a case for visiting the capital of this Nordic country (without really trying). Sign us up for seaside bike rides and fresh-picked strawberries. 

Occupation: Writer, deputy editor of Blue Wings, Finnair’s in-flight magazine.

Best spot for people-watching: Having grown up here, I enjoy watching people discover Helsinki for the first time. There’s no better spot for this than the white Helsinki Cathedral, the city’s most famous landmark. There are always tourists outside the church with cameras in hand, and during the summers the cathedral steps are a popular rest stop for locals. People sunbathe and snack on fresh strawberries and peas — as a result, the ground in many parts of the city center becomes speckled with discarded stems and pods. 

Local coffee shop: Finland takes pride in being the world’s most avidly coffee-consuming country — we drink three times as much coffee per capita as the United States  but a serious espresso culture didn’t arrive in Helsinki until recently. For more than a century, Finns drank runny, bitter brews in fabulous surroundings. I dare to say that our cafes, many of which were established in the 1800s, are some of the world’s most beautiful. I love Engel, which is located right across from the Helsinki Cathedral in the Senate Square and shows movies in its courtyard in the summers. Ekberg, meanwhile, offers the best pastries in town and emulates the look of central European coffeehouses. 

Cafe Engel

Nice and quiet. Photo: Courtesy of Cafe Engel

Ekberg

Afternoon snack at Ekberg. Photo: Laura Palotie

Helsinki Cathedral

Helsinki Cathedral. Photo: Laura Palotie

Where you go when you need inspiration: The spacious Kappeli (“Chapel”) café and restaurant in Esplanade Park in the middle of the city has floor-to-ceiling windows and a giant chandelier hanging from its wooden ceiling. It’s located close to the always busy Market Square, so it’s popular with tourists. However, Kappeli is also the go-to place for my friend and I to write on Sunday afternoons. I like sitting by the window, listening to conversations in different languages, and looking out at the harbor.

Your office is located: In the neighborhood of Munkkivuori, roughly 20 minutes by bus from the center of town. The ten-story building houses the offices of both insurance company Pohjola and the country’s largest magazine publisher, Sanoma Magazines. Munkkivuori is located close to the southern end of Helsinki’s large Central Park, so some of my colleagues get to work on cross-country skis.

You wish your office was located: I’ve lived a trans-Atlantic life for almost 15 years now and am in many ways an Americanized Finn, so I’m often nostalgic for the hectic streets of New York.

Your preferred mode of travel: The bus runs on time and gets me almost door to door, so the public transportation is a blessing when the temperatures drop below 10 degrees Celsius. When the weather is nice, I love my bike. It’s a bike-friendly city  there are bike paths almost everywhere.

Suomenlinna

Your favorite joy ride: There’s a bike path that runs from my neighborhood through three islands and along the shore into our office in Munkkivuori. In the late spring and summer, the sea sparkles and lots of birds nest by the shores  sometimes the Canadian geese hiss at me when I pedal by.

Where do you go when you want to be in the middle of it all? Finland loves its festivals, and in such a sparsely populated country, being part of a crowd can feel therapeutic. Numerous music festivals are held throughout the year, especially during the summer months, and film festivals are equally prominent. I recently went to the popular DocPoint documentary film festival, where showings of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Ĺ˝iĹžek’s deconstruction of cinema, was playing to packed houses. It made me proud to live in such a culturally engaged city.

Where do you go when you need an escape? Since my father was a preteen, our family has spent summers in a former fisherman’s cottage on an island off the southern coast of Finland. Finns commonly head out to small cottages during their summer vacations. Many probably wouldn’t consider our cottage authentic enough because it has electricity and running water.

Most underrated thing in your city: Helsinki is an extremely safe and kid-friendly city. Moms with strollers gather in coffee shops, high chairs and play corners at restaurants are in heavy use, and public transportation is safe enough for kids to travel to and from school on their own. In addition, reasonable working hours (many offices empty out by five) make it possible for families to spend time together.

Most overrated thing in your city: Helsinki’s seaside Market Square is considered a required stop for most visitors  it sells everything from fresh fish and berries to handicrafts, and is depicted in most tourist brochures  but aside from grabbing a pastry or a batch of strawberries, I try to avoid it in the summers. The seagulls circling above are some of the city’s most aggressive  they steal ice cream cones from people’s hands and poop on unsuspecting lunch patrons.

Market Square Seagull

Market Square seagull. Photo: Erin Skurdal

Favorite local shops: Helsinki has a Design District, and there are a lot of young clothing and accessories designers doing playful, creative things. I like looking for gifts at the museum shop at Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art and the Design Forum shop. The prices are often high, but both stock a nice crosscut of local creations that can spark ideas. I also like Limbo, which sells earrings in the shapes of animals and keys and other wild accessories. Overall, I recommend strolling along Annankatu, Uudenmaankatu, and Fredrikinkatu for fun clothing and accessories.

You dream about your meal at: Farang, a Thai-inspired restaurant inside the beautiful Taidehalli (“Art Hall”). It’s run by young chefs Tomi Björck and Matti Wikberg and is wildly popular; make a reservation at least a few days in advance. Helsinki hasn’t traditionally had a great selection of Asian foods, but spicy flavors suit the cold climate well. 

Favorite local icon/monument/institution: The 18th-century fortress island of Suomenlinna, accessible from the Market Square by a 15-minute ferry ride, is mentioned in every tourist brochure  and rightfully so. The juxtaposition of grassy fields, glistening ocean, and imposing stone walls is impressive, and it’s the go-to picnic spot for many Helsinki residents. Many of the fortress tunnels are open for exploration. 

Suomenlinna

Picturesque Suomenlinna. Photo: Erin Skurdal

The best thing about my neighborhood, Lauttasaari, is its proximity to water. It’s a great area for walks and bike rides, as there are lots of woodsy areas with wide gravel paths. There’s a beach here called Kasinonranta (“Casino Beach”). The water is rarely warm enough for me to swim in, but I like people-watching and eating ice cream at the café in the summers.

Current local buzz word: Normipäivä (loosely translated as “just a day in the life”). This is hardly a new word (it gained popularity after being featured in a sketch comedy show in the mid-2000s), but I’ve spent so much time abroad that I’m letting myself off the hook. It’s used sarcastically after one’s daily routines are interrupted by an unexpectedly annoying or delightful occurrence. "My husband surprised me with a Louis Vuitton purse. Normipäivä."

Best book or movie based in your fair city: Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki is known among international film buffs and enjoys Spielberg-sized fame here. His movies have heavy pacing, wry dialogue, and stoic, almost wooden performances. The Man Without a Past won the Cannes Grand Prix in 2002 and tells the story of an amnesiac who is taken in by a poor community in Helsinki. Like the city it depicts, the film is just self-serious enough to be utterly charming.

Best way to pass an evening: In New York, I meet friends in restaurants almost nightly; here I like making pasta sauce and sitting down with a glass of wine and a DVD. (Yes, movie rental establishments still prevail here.) Cooking simple meals and lighting a candle is the best way to escape the cold.

No trip to Helsinki is complete without: a communal sauna or swim. I like to water jog at Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall, which has been in use since 1928 and is modeled after a Roman bath. Bathing suits are optional, so there are separate hours for men and women. Naked swimming takes some getting used to, but I’ve come to appreciate the convenience of not having to lug around a bathing suit. There’s a lovely community atmosphere, with women of different generations making rounds in the pool and chatting in the sauna. An upstairs café, where you can have a post-workout glass of sparkling wine and a light meal, looks over the pool area.

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