We visited Helsinki the summer of 2015 for a week of friendly people, excellent food and tons of sunshine. Helsinki is the capital of Finland, which is the home of Santa Claus, reindeer, Nokia, and Angry Birds.
Here are 12 things I bet you didn't know about Helsinki Finland:
1. It has only been an independent country for 99 years
Finland was part of Sweden until 1809, when it was ceded to Russia. It declared independence from Russia in 1917. The Finns had to fight twice against Russia in World War II to keep the Soviet's from taking the nation back, but they were ultimately successful and remained an independent country.
2. Prosperity abounds
Finland is a Scandinavian country. It shares borders with Sweden, Norway and Russia. Similar to other Scandinavian countries, Finland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with one of the highest GDPs per capita. Education is outstanding in Finland, with post-secondary tuition free for most citizens. The strong educational system created a population that is technologically advanced.
The prosperity of Finland is evident everywhere, although it is apparent more in the cleanliness of the streets than in the placement of high-end stores. The Finns seem too pragmatic to worry too much about flashy signs of wealth, even though their standard of living is high and they can certainly afford designer bags if they want them.
I also didn't see anyone panhandling, and unlike most cities, I saw no sign of people with obvious alcohol or drug dependency. I'm sure they have residents with issues just like everywhere, but either they were in another area of the city, or they do a better job of rehabilitating people (I think it's the latter, as they have an excellent social system in Finland).
Public grounds were beautifully maintained, with colorful flowers spilling out of pots in front of most buildings. And although I didn't see every part of Helsinki, I saw no signs of disrepair.
3. There is still a substantial Swedish influence
The Swedish impact is noticeable in Helsinki. All street signs are in both Finnish and Swedish (and I could not pronounce the street names in either Finnish or Swedish!). And although Finland hasn't been a part of Sweden for more than 200 years, there are still many residents who speak Swedish as their first language. The Russian influence is much less noticeable, although there are some public buildings built in the Slavic style.
4. Suomenlinna Fortress played a part in defence of 3 countries!
We spent a day at the Suomenlinna Fortress, which is a World Heritage Site. The fortress was built in 1747 on six islands. Suomenlinna means "Castle of Finland" which is fitting for this fortress. Reachable only by boat, we used the ferry to get to Suomenlinna.
Suomenlinna has historical relevance as it played a role in defence of Sweden, Russia, and Finland. Originally named Sveaborg, Suomenlinna got its current name after liberation from Russia.
Six museums call Suomenlinna home, including the official Suomenlinna museum, a military museum, and a toy museum.
We walked around Suomenlinna as the trails are easy to navigate. Large cannons were a frequent visual reminder that this was once a military fortress. Enormous anchors lay along side of the paths, once hooked to the warships that sailors worked on at Suomenlinna.
The rocky shores provided a natural deterrent to invaders. The old garrison buildings, no longer needed by the troops, were converted to homes for the estimated 800 inhabitants of Suomenlinna. Some of the buildings remind me of hobbit houses, built into the earth, with the walls and roof made out of the grass that grows wild on the islands.
5. Helsinki is only 712 km from the Arctic Circle
The building walls we saw in Suomenlinna were thick, a testimony to the cold winters they have in Finland. Although Helsinki does not get as much snow in the winter as Lapland to the north, they still have challenging winters. The reward for the proximity to the Arctic is the Northern Lights that are among some of the best in the world. Aurora Borealis, the fluorescent light that illuminates the night sky, glows when you get close to Northern Finland, which is in the Arctic Circle.
6. Long Days
Helsinki is located at 60 degrees latitude, which is the roughly the same as Whitehorse, Yukon ad Fairbanks, Alaska. The days in mid-July were long, with the sun setting late. We walked around at 11 pm with dusk-like light. The flip side of this, of course, is that they have what is called the Polar Night in the winter months. During the Polar Night, the sun never truly rises and the best natural light is similar to dusk.
7. You can buy t-shirts, reindeer meat and everything in between in the Market Square
We wandered down to Market Square near the harbour. Shopping was plentiful, with wares ranging from cheap tourist souvenirs to expensive jewelry. Street food vendors sold ice cream, berries and reindeer meat. The berries were the sweetest and most flavorful I've ever eaten. I think it's because the long days of sunlight in the summer months make for a long growing season. Beside Market Square is Esplanade Park, where people enjoy the sunny days and the food they bought from the Market Square vendors.
8. Helsinki hosted the 1952 Olympics
We attended an event at the Olympic Stadium. Helsinki hosted the Olympics in 1952 – and it was the summer Olympics, which is a bit odd, considering that the Finish athletes do so much better at the winter Olympics than the summer Olympics.
9. The food is local, fresh, and cleverly prepared
Many restaurants use local produce and meat in their dishes. We noshed on chicken with berry compote, salads made with local greens, and burgers made with locally raised beef. I admit that I didn't try the reindeer (because...Christmas!). Reindeer is available at many restaurants, similar to eating deer here in Canada.
The food was considerably better than I imagined it to be. I had visions of picked herring at every meal, not my favorite!
10. It's expensive
Most of Europe is quite costly, but Finland seemed more so. Their welfare system ensures that everyone is allowed a good standard of living, but that comes with higher taxes, including the taxes that tourists pay. I had a margarita at a pub, and when I did the conversion to Canadian, it was $25. For one drink, and a single ounce at that! I quit doing the conversion after that night.
11. The transportation system is fantastic
We used public transportation almost exclusively in Helsinki. They have a great system, using trains, buses, and ferries to move people around. The busses got packed near the end of the work day, but the residents didn't seem to mind sharing with a bunch of English speaking tourists.
12. Everyone speaks English
Speaking of English, we were very lucky that everyone spoke English. Thankfully we didn't have to try to figure out how to speak Finnish because the words are very long and contain a lot of vowels. The people seemed happy to speak English for us and they didn't mind helping us. We had to ask directions a few times and the residents were pleasantly accommodating to us. All restaurant menus were in Finnish and English, so we didn't accidently order something like reindeer.
I had a fantastic time in Helsinki. I plan to go back and see all of the Scandinavian countries, including northern Finland. Helsinki is a hidden gem, and we enjoyed it immensely.
150 years ago, Canada became a country, albeit a much smaller one. Since then, Canada has grown much in size, reputation and as a favorite for travellers from around the world. Lonely Planet recognized these accomplishments last year and ranked Canada as the #1 travel destination in 2017. With the addition of free National Parks all year long, 2017 is the perfect time to visit the Great White North!
I am always interested in Canadian adventures, so I thought I'd check out G Adventure's website to see what tours they have planned this year. Since G Adventures is a Canadian based travel company, I figured they would have something going on this year to celebrate our sesquicentennial. Instead, all I saw were the same eight tours as last year, and the year before. Thinking maybe there was some big announcement coming for 2017, I emailed G Adventures asking about it, hoping, praying, that maybe there was something, something, anything at all… but I received no response.
Now, don't get me wrong. G Adventures has eight great Canadian tours, and they all look really awesome, but they only show off a small sliver of what Canada has to offer. In fact, four of the tours are almost exactly the same:
The Island of the Dolls is in Xochimilco, a borough south of Mexico City. While it would be faster to take a car from Mexico City to Xochimilco, the traffic is dense and the roads are very congested. Instead, if you're going there, I'd recommend taking metro, which is easy and the cheapest in the world. What you gain in comfort, however, you lose in speed, as the train ride takes about 2 hours.
Mexico City and Xochimilco both sit in the Valley of Mexico. Until about a millennium ago, the whole region around Mexico City was surrounded by a massive body of water. Over the centuries due to both climate change and interference by humans, most of this water has dried up, for the exception of Xochimilco. With networks of canals crisscrossing the borough, car transportation is difficult and water transportation is essential. I'm sure there were motorized boats somewhere in the waters of Xochimilco, but I never saw any. Instead, canoes and rafts are common on the water. However, the most popular vessel is a trajinera – a colourful gonadal-like boat that is pushed along the water with a wooden pole.
Xochimilco is known worldwide for their Floating Gardens market, which are essentially canoes floating down the canals, selling wares to tourists on trajineras. These include things like food, drinks, silver rings, trinkets, ponchos and sombreros. Occasionally other trajineras full of Mariachi bands will approach tourists and offer to play beside them on the water.
Love poutine, Justin Trudeau and just about everything Québécois? G Adventures had the right idea including Montréal in two of their Canadian tours, but Montréal isn't the only noteworthy place to visit in Québec. Now, this tour doesn't give Québec the justice it deserves either, but hopefully it inspires you to take your time to explore the wonders it has to offer. Québec is a beautiful province with a long history, stretching back over four centuries, so this tour is dedicated to the incredible history and culture of French Canada.
Our fictional tour starts in Montréal. If you've read my Five Historic Canadian Cities article last week, you already know Montréal is one of Canada's most lively cities. Packed with some of Canada's most impressive scientific museums, Montréal is also home to an archeological and historical museum, Pointe-à-Callière. Inside one of the most unique buildings in Old Montréal, this museum ventures deep into the history of the city and explores its foundation, its struggles and its changes. With 375 years of history, to uncover this museum starts off with the discovery of Hochelaga and showcases various sections of the original sewer system. The museum also has several illustrations showing the plagues and fires that once decimated the early city. The museum also has an interactive section about the pirates that once terrorized the St. Lawrence River. This museum is one of my absolute favorites, so if you love museums as much as I, you'll want to check it out.