18 JULY 2022


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Article from BTNews 18 JULY 2022

ON TOUR - Helsinki

Helsinki may be as far north as Anchorage but on a balmy summer’s day you would not know it.

With an invitation to join the Swan Hellenic Vega (see in a later BTN) it seemed a good idea to investigate a city only once visited before from a cruise.  Three nights in the summer was probably not enough but with the sun rising at 04:30 and going down at 22:30 the days are long.  

Before Putin’s war Helsinki was the starting point of the Trans-Siberian Railway via St Petersburg and Moscow to Anchorage.  

Finnair, a partner to British Airways, flies from Heathrow in around 3hrs and with the busy summer season uses the very comfortable Airbus A350, with a fine film selection in Economy, free basic wi-fi, and all the information you need supplied by a very clear 13inch screen. Order your food in advance, or pick up from the terminal.  The aircraft supply is limited.

Finland is on Western European time, 2hrs ahead of GMT.  The Finns like to make the use of the summer.  In winter the temperature can fall to -6°C and all the many lakes are suitable for skating.  The largest shopping mall in the city centre is underground.  

Let’s start with a negative.  Put your luggage in the hold.  Helsinki Vantaa Airport may now have a single bright new terminal, some would say a shopping arcade, but the walking, even by airport standards, is long.  The good news is that the railway station is integrated (use the elevator) with a 35min ride to Helsinki Central, frequent services, with booking a ticket very easy.  The station names are duplicated in Finnish and Swedish.  Do not be fooled when the signs change.  It’s the same station.

You don’t have to know the history of Finland to enjoy Helsinki, but its helps.

Before the Soviet revolution Finland was essentially under the jurisdiction of Sweden, then Russia and independent since 1917.  Stalin tried to use the war against Nazi Germany as an excuse to annex Finland but failed.  Today the country is a Republic, part of the EU, uses the Euro and has applied for membership of NATO. It is prosperous with public transport cheap, but dining out, very good but expensive.

Our abode for three nights was the Scandic Grand Central, adjoining the station, a protected building originally built in 1907 as the headquarters of the national rail system and Art Nouveau in style.  Offering just under 500 rooms and opened 15 months ago after a major and very effective reconstruction, its central location balances certain introduction growing pains.  

Go for one of the larger rooms with easy access to the public areas and you will be fine.  

The Editor-in-Chief (with wife) sought help and guidance from Helsinki Marketing, tasked with promoting the city to an international audience.  Most languages they cover and our guide for one morning, Maria, born in Spain, educated in the UK, and once married to a Finn, proved a splendid companion for a half day tour.  

We also took the obligatory hop-on hop-off bus, one of the best of its ilk, with a first-class commentary included in the Helsinki Card, which not only gave unlimited travel on the city’s fine tram network, but was good for the Metro and an early 20min boat trip across the harbour to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Suomenlinna island, once a fortress.

The ferry takes 15–20mins and offers magnificent views of Helsinki and the surroundings from the sea.  The island has something for everyone, nature lovers, historians with six museums including the submarine Vesikko built in Turko, joining the Finish Navy in 1936.  There are plenty of eating places and a music programme.  One million people visit the island annually.  Go early before it gets busy.

The bus tour starts at Senate Square dominated by the Russian designed Uspenski Cathedral.  The route includes the rebuilt Olympic Stadium from 1952. On the final day Great Britain won its only Gold Medal of that Olympics with Harry Llewellyn, Duggie Stewart, and Wilf White for the Equestrian Show taking the jumping team event. We also passed the Sibelius Monument, a tribute to Finland’s finest composer.  It is worth getting off for the Lutheran Temppeliaukio Church built directly into solid rock.

Not far from the station is The Helsinki Central Library known as Oodi with close by the outstanding Helsinki Music Centre and Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art.

The library has 100,000 books and also offers 3D printing and what it terms is an ‘urban workshop’ including advanced technology.  Sitting out on the balcony one gains a wonderful view of Finland’s Parliament building completed in 1931. The country has a single layer legislative system with no upper house, the elected President having veto power over parliamentary decisions, although this power can be overruled by a majority vote in the Parliament.

The magnificent Eteläesplanadi plaza dates from the time of Peter the Great and his craving for Paris and its boulevards.  It is a stylish avenue with up-market shops, the city’s top hotel, the Kämp, and on the harbour front at the end the Market Square, with the obligatory stalls selling farm produce and fish.  What happens in winter we were not told?

We managed the Metro during our short stay, emerging by yet another lake and a clearly popular children’s playground.  

The Finnish rail system has a fine reputation with double-deck coaches and on-board dining.  We took a short one-hour journey to Hämeenlinna a small town again by a lake. This part of Finland is flat and not inspiring.  The train goes on for a further 8hrs to Rovaniemi in Lapland on the Artic Circle with its airport served by Finnair.



When it comes to food the Finns excel and our short stay was highlighted by excellent dining, very well served, and light. Finnish cuisine differs from neighbouring Scandinavian countries because it has one foot on either side of its borders – Russia in the East and Sweden in the West.

We dined in three outstanding restaurants, each meal perfect for the time of day, and fitting in effortlessly with our programme. We stuck to Finnish cuisine and ingredients.


On our first full day we took lunch at the Restaurant Töölönranta out in the open in a lovely setting overlooking Töölönlahti Bay. From the station it was an easy 20min walk past the Parliament building with the Finnish National Opera close by.  

The kitchen serves up what it calls modern Scandinavian cuisine with European touches. The prices were equal to central London.  My starter char-grilled cured salmon, malt and pickled summer vegetables priced at €14, a perfect grilled flank steak and celeriac with herb butter €26, and the desserts including Finnish cheeses, jam and crispbread (€13).

Our second dinner was at the restaurant Ateljé Finne, an even shorter walk from the station, set out in a very unpretentious manner, rather like an English town café rather than a smart city diner.  Ateljé Finne is one of the restaurants owned by Antto Melasniemi, a Finnish chef who says “‘I’m not too keen on food nationalism, but I do like to make use of things that come from where I come from. I call it the ‘east Nordic’ food culture.”  The choice was à la carte or a three-course offering. They have a wide wine list with classic, old-world wines.


The Brasserie & Pub Alexanderplats is an easy-going restaurant located in Eteläesplanadi opposite the Swedish Theatre.  It is clearly very popular where English and Finnish are the vernaculars.  Alexanderplats concept of a brasserie means that you will get more European dishes.  The interior decoration is full of design classics from popular national stylists including Arne Jacobsen, Ilmari Tapiovaara and Alvar Aalto. New art deco inspired artwork has been created specifically for the restaurant by Alvar Gullichsen. Alexanderplats holds a place among the top five restaurants in Finland.


On the subject of eating, at one point in the trip I tried a reindeer burger (and chips), the meat patties of real quality.  The world’s largest burger proprietor was left miles behind!

What Helsinki is like in the winter with the average temperature – 1.3°C we have yet to sample.





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