I have been here in Helsinki for a little over 6 months now, so I think it’s time for an interim report. When I moved to here, it was the middle of winter. It was the darkest time of the year and with no snow yet. I guess it’s a good time to move somewhere, because then it can only get better. However, I do actually quite like winter, as long as it’s followed up by a summer eventually, and other than immigrants from further south in the world, I was also quite used to the darkness. But I still thought that Helsinki wasn’t exactly a “pretty” city. You may forgive me, after living in places like Edinburgh and Oxford, which are of such immediately obvious architectural (and also natural) beauty. On a visit before moving here, we climbed up a tower with view over the roofs of Helsinki: I didn’t see a cute medieval old town, delicate gothic spires or green fields and hills, as I was used to so far. Instead, I saw many square concrete buildings in the dark gray of winter, and thought to myself: “So you’re moving to an ugly city. But at least they have flats without draft and mould …”(something that cannot be taken for granted in the UK). In Helsinki, there really are quite a few eyesores, especially in the city centre area between the station and Kamppi, which (due to lack of knowledge of anywhere else) was the area I spent most time in in the beginning. Also, I strongly dislike large apartment buildings, and instead prefer seeing residential areas with cosy, small houses and pretty gardens – something which is virtually non-existent in Helsinki, at least in the areas I have seen so far.
So I decided that maybe Helsinki wasn’t a city to admire in wide angle, and I started looking for the small pretty bits, of which there are plenty, even in the areas full of hideous buildings. The first thing that stood out to me was the bare natural rock showing in random places. Helsinki is built on hard granite, part of the Baltic shield, and in many places throughout the city outcrops of rock can be seen – along the roadside (in winter decorated with picturesque frozen waterfalls), in the middle of parks, or close to the sea. One of them even has a church carved into it, the famous rock church Temppeliaukio. I bet if I keep looking long enough I’ll find one with a sauna in it… Helsinki also has many underground tunnels linking shops and metro stations, so that in adverse winter weather people can navigate easily through them. Some of them are carved in a way to make them look like natural caves, one of them even comes with cave paintings, and another one with birdsong. So even in the middle of the city you can always see a bit of raw nature and be reminded, that you’re not far from it.
I learned to like at least some of the apartment blocks: Many of them are very modern, with lots of glass, interesting shapes, and green courtyards. They look like the real life models of drawings in a modern architecture portfolio. Almost all of the buildings have large balconies for many of the flats, which usually have a removable glass front to protect them from the elements, and so can be properly used as a part of the house for most of the year. These balconies are the equivalent to small private gardens in other places: You can peek in from the street, admire the decorations, and imagine the people living in them – yes, I’m a creep. What’s gnomes and other pottery creatures in the average European garden is maritime inspired decoration on Helsinki’s balconies, and the greenery and tastefully assembled furniture on display is just as nice to look at as carefully tended gardens. My favourite spot for “balcony spotting”, by the way, is Aurinkolahti in the very east of Helsinki.
Then there are the pretty sights that really surprised me when coming across them, for example a few beautiful (but partly slightly derelict) wooden mansions just above Töölönlahti in the city centre. Töölönlahti itself, in fact, is one of the surprises: Right in the city centre, you can hide between birches and reeds and overlook the calm waters. There is a lovely wintergarden, which is free to visit and a great picnic spot especially on cold winter days. Going to the local zoo, I discovered the pretty island of mustikkamaa (blueberry land), which has its own treetop adventure course in the forest. Then we came across the coastal area on the southern tip of Lauttasaari, where many tiny and charming summercabins are hidden in the forest. Last week, we went to visit Hernesaari. A piece of re-claimed land jutting out to the sea, topped with huge, ugly industrial buildings. But turn your back on those on the eastern side of the peninsula, and you’ll enjoy the most wonderful views of green islands, a small boat harbour and the pretty houses of Eira. At the tip of Hernesaari, a trendy beach-promenade has been built, with bars, restaurants, palm trees, deckchairs, (a sauna of course…) and the general atmosphere of just having gone on a beach holiday. You just have to keep your eyes open in Helsinki, and you’ll find some great surprises!
Now that it is summer and the leaves have come out, I noticed how green Helsinki really is. There are parks, trees, little bits of green and flower everywhere, I can hear birds chirping wherever I go and the air smells lovely. I have a horrible sense of direction, which means I still get lost on a regular basis after having lived here for 6 months. In fact, almost every time I start walking from the train station into a particular direction and I think I know where I am going, suddenly Stockmann (a big department store, of which there is only one in the centre) pops out from an unexpected corner and I am completely confused again. However, this also means that I keep discovering new places often even without trying. A couple of weeks ago, I went for a short cycle after work. I wanted to get to a small path by the sea close to our house, but couldn’t find the way there, as apparently it can only be accessed through a very confusing industrial area. Instead, I discovered the most beautiful park, less than 5 minutes bike ride from our flat, with wonderful views over a small bay, some rocks perfect for sunbathing, lots of trees and green, colourful allotment gardens and a small rowing boat that seemed to have been left there just to complement the romantic picture. I already know that I will be spending a lot of time there this summer, as the area is so much prettier and more peaceful than the actual swimming beach, which looks out to electricity poles and other not so nice things.
There are plenty of places to go for walks in Helsinki too – the coast is never far away, and in most places it’s possible to walk along it and enjoy lovely views. From anywhere you can also quickly reach beautiful, quiet bits of nature that make you forget you’re in the middle of a metropolitan region with 1.4 million inhabitants. Then of course there are the countless islands, many of which are accessible either by bridges or on ferries. And there really is no shortage of amazing views (the trees can cover up a lot in the centre…), so I could even switch on my wide-angle-eye again. I have created an extra page on this blog to record all the walks we have done around Helsinki and surroundings, as I couldn’t find much about this online, so hopefully I’ll be able to fill this up quickly.
I don’t know if it’s just a streak of luck, or if Helsinki really is a lot drier and sunnier than any of the places I have lived in before: All of May, we had maybe 2-3 days with some cloud cover or even rain, otherwise there was just pure sunshine and blue skies all the time. Also June has so far been mainly quite nice. But even before that it was a lot less rainy than I am used to. In fact, I am starting to feel a bit worn out by it: Moving to Scotland had taught me to make use of every bit of sun that was there, so now I cannot just sit inside and ignore good weather, or if I do, I feel really bad about it. The amount of sunny days (and a daylength of now almost 19 hours!) here recently just mean that I feel like I always have to be on the move! It’s a good problem to have, really… Here some pictures of wonderful places in Helsinki that I have discovered in the past few months.