It didn’t take us long to realize that Leg #2 of the World Trip is going to be completely different than Leg #1. Europe and South America can feel like polar opposites. Don’t get me wrong, I loved South America. There’s so much variety and so much to see and do there (Check-out our South America section). But it was time for a change in continents.
We hadn’t planned to hit Scandinavia during our World Trip. Bryan lived in Sweden for 6-months during college and visited much of Scandinavia and Western Europe. Plus, Scandinavia is extremely pricey. However, Bryan compared flights to Europe and it worked out much cheaper for us to fly into Helsinki, Finland and take a ferry to Tallinn, Estonia to begin our travels through Eastern Europe. It’s a good central point because you can take ferries to several countries including Russia, Sweden, Germany, and Estonia. We’re really glad we decided to spend a few days in Finland’s capital city.
Helsinki, Finland is pristine. Rarely have we seen a piece of trash on the ground, or anything dirty for that matter. It’s orderly, clean, and peaceful. The cars stop at stoplights and stop signs and rarely blare their horns (completely opposite of South America!). Pedestrians just walk right into cross walks and the cars stop. We’d be dead if we tried that during our last leg! Helsinki, Finland is exactly what you probably picture a Scandinavian city to look like – lots of blonde haired, blue-eyed people (many with braids), brand new Volvos everywhere (even taxis), huge pine trees, rugged coastline, and picturesque city streets. Helsinki still has a Russian and Eastern European feel though, especially in some of the architecture. Finland just gained independence from Russia in 1917.
Helsinki, Finland was scheduled to host the Olympics in 1940. The games were supposed to be held in Tokyo and were moved to Helsinki. They built an enormous stadium but then the Olympics were cancelled due to World War II. Helsinki finally did have the chance to host the games in 1952. Today a portion of the Olympic Stadium is converted into a hostel which is where we stayed.
The air in Helsinki is so clean that it feels like you are breathing in air from a national park, not a huge capital city. Perhaps this is due in a large part to the number of people who ride their bikes instead of drive. There are bikers everywhere in Helsinki, and of every age. In front of office buildings there are hundreds of bikes parked in bike racks. The Finnish ride their bikes rain or shine, and even through the frigid, snowy winters. Along with the lack of smog and traffic in Helsinki, all the biking is probably related to the lack of obesity among the Finnish. We saw very few overweight people in Helsinki.
Speaking of the lack of obesity, what exactly do the Finnish eat? Reindeer, elk, various types of fish (salmon, cod, herring, etc.), and berries are common Finnish foods. Don’t tell Santa, but Bryan and I have had Reindeer for lunch the past two days. Reindeer meatballs are delicious – tender, juicy, and full of flavor. I’d like them even more if I could get the image of Rudolph out of my head. Reindeer meat comes at a pretty penny though. The market was selling it for 79 Euros per kilogram, which is $40 USD per pound! Could you imagine if ground beef cost that much? The Finnish also love their coffee. They are the biggest coffee drinkers in the world; drinking twice as much as many other European countries. Our 19-year old tour guide on the city walking tour said she already drinks 6 cups of coffee per day, and her parents each drink 12 cups.
There’s plenty to do in Helsinki. Along with many museums and old churches, Helsinki has lots of beautiful parks, an attractive market, an amusement park, awesome shops and restaurants, sports, a harbor, and much more. The city is a major port for cruise ships. The most popular tourist attraction is Suomenlinna, the largest sea fortress in the world. It’s a series of five islands that are connected by bridges and used as a fortress by the Swedish, Russians, and Finnish. It’s now an outdoor museum and a great place for a picnic or to spend a sunny day exploring. The Finnish seem to spend as much time outside as possible this time of year. The summer temperatures are perfect and the days are long. It’s been in the high 60’s/low 70’s (Fahrenheit) since we’ve been here. It doesn’t get dark until nearly midnight and gets light again before 4 a.m. Winters are cold and dark though, with only a few hours of sunlight each day.
A major convenience we’ve experienced in Helsinki is that everyone seems to be able to speak English. We have yet to encounter someone that can’t. In fact, the guy that we bought our ferry tickets from spoke seven languages. Finland is a bilingual county – Finnish and Swedish. Nearly everything (including all street signs) is written in Finnish, Swedish, and many times English.
I hope to return to Finland someday in the future. Bryan has been to Northern Finland but I haven’t. I’d love to return around Christmas time to see Santa’s Village (in Rovaniemi, Finland) rent a cabin in the snow, see the Northern Lights, and maybe even head over to Sweden to stay in the Ice Hotel. That’s a trip I’d rather wait and take when we have jobs and children.
Tonight we will take a 90 minute ferry ride to Tallinn, Estonia. We will be celebrating our 8-year wedding anniversary tomorrow. Little did I know eight years ago that we’d be in Estonia. In fact, I don’t even think I’d heard of Estonia back then!