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.
Imagine the bustling streets of New York, then times it by ten. Add a dash of Chinese culture, a wallop of nature and half dozen fish balls that don’t actually contain any fish, and you have the beautiful city that is Hong Kong.
At 7.2 million people, Hong Kong is a dynamic city with an incredible history, towering skyscrapers and a unique mix of English and Chinese that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. While Hong Kong has existed for a millennium, it was officially founded in 1842 to solidify a truce between Great Britain and the Qing dynasty of China during the First Opium War. A decade after the British took control of Hong Kong, the Black Death swept into China, killing hundreds of thousands of people. It would remain part of Hong Kong’s life for a century.
During World War II, Hong Kong was captured by the Japanese. For three years and eight months the British-Chinese culture of the city was destroyed, replaced with Japanese text, language and art. The booming city of 1.6 million people was slashed to only 600,000. Japanese occupation was incredibly harsh for the Hongkongese, being the darkest part of their history. Japan ceased occupation on August 6th, 1945, in response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For forty-two more years, Hong Kong was controlled by the British, with the reunification between Hong Kong and mainland China finally occurring in 1997.
Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania shut its doors in 1970. A year later, in 1971, it would briefly reopen and house inmates from Holmesburg Prison after a devastating riot. After the prisoners were returned to Holmesburg, Eastern State would sit empty for over two decades. It would rot, decay and collapse. Trees and shrubs would grow into the structure and a clowder of cats would take residence. These hallowed halls would sit empty, the only noise being the chatter of startled birds and the trotter of feline paws.
The following decades would see various discussions of what to do with the building. Eventually, it was decided to preserve it and turn it into a tourist attraction. Although it officially opened for tours in 1994, attendants would have to sign a waiver and wear hardhats before entering until 2008. They had 10,000 visitors the opening year, a number of tourists not seen in the prison since 1858.
From 1829 to 1970, Eastern State Penitentiary underwent a variety of changes and transformations. This massive, sprawling, 11-acre complex was founded under the belief that solitary confinement was the cure needed to prevent criminals from committing future crimes. It was believed criminals who served in solitary confinement would turn to a higher power to reconcile with themselves for their crimes – hence feeling "penitent". To assist in this process, each cell was equipped with a slit window on the ceiling nicknamed "The Eye of God". It would be the only light source available to the inmate.
As I stood in the courtyard of Fort Henry, I heard screams emanating from within. Fort Henry was constructed to protect the Kingston Royal Dockyard from the invading American forces during the War of 1812. The threat was so real that the capital of Canada – which was then Kingston – was moved to Quebec to protect it. The docks are all that stood between the United States and the St. Lawrence River and both countries were all too familiar with how easily it would turn the tides of battle.
As the screams from inside Fort Henry faded, I turned to the man beside me. He had come with his family. We got talking, trying to calm our nerves as bloodied clowns and undead mimes began wandering out from inside the fort.