When I posted a recap of Stockholm recently, I communicated the desire to get beyond stereotypes which is a lazy way of grouping people into a tidy collective instead of looking at humans as the individuals they are. So as I started my write up of Helsinki, I was shocked to see the following sentence staring back at me.
I’m not surprised that Finland is known for great hockey players. After our visit to Helsinki, I've seen the rough and ready attitude comes naturally.
Ashamed, I stopped to ponder this further. How was this my prevailing sentiment after our four day visit?
Did our AirBnB host Teemu fit this description? No, in fact he was a refined young professional. And what about the lovely young women that served us lunch every day at the Market Square food tents? No hint of roughness there, either.
So even though I know better, why did I do it?
It's a combination of excuses, er, factors. First, we came directly from Stockholm and though it's not fair to compare them, I did it anyway. In contrast to Stockholm, Helsinki's rocky landscape can best be described as rugged and at times, handsome, but not conventionally beautiful. Architecturally, there are a few Art Nouveau buildings (mostly lining Senate Square) but overall Helsinki is quite austere with many areas of Soviet influenced architecture that served as stand-ins for Russia in a few 80's movies before western filmmakers were allowed in. Unlike the blockbuster museums of Stockholm, there are far fewer 'big draw' tourist attractions- one of the biggest being a church built into the rock.
So rougher than the typical Northern European capital.
The second factor would be my actual encounters with Finns. We spent time on four cruises either arriving or departing Helsinki and I can confirm the rowdiest people on the boat were Finnish. I also spent four days walking the streets, and think I'm being fair when I say there are more bearded, tattooed, motorcycle gang types here than the rest of Scandinavia. Not bearded, tattooed hipster types. Those dudes have coiffed hair whereas the average Helsinki guy wouldn't be caught dead using hair product.
Kind of rough.
While I can't say I love the look, I do appreciate that there is no pretense with the Finns. They know their reputation as the unrefined cousin of Scandinavia and seem to relish it. Even the women have the no-nonsense attitude as I found in the upscale department store Stockmann. I was looking for some eye cream and the saleswoman made this decidedly straightforward statement, ‘I have three types- this one is no good, this one is expensive and this one is a good enough.'
Apparently, the Finnish are disparaged not just in Scandinavia, but in the Baltics as well. Norway and Sweden have set aside their differences to unify in their mutual snootiness against Finland, but the Estonians have a legit beef. Turns out there are multiple two-hour ferry rides between Helsinki and Tallinn, with the majority of passengers being Finns who loudly party on their way over, buy as much booze in the Tallinn ferry terminal liquor store as they can carry, then turn around and party back to Helsinki. 70%* don’t even set foot on land.
Ok, so Helsinki isn't supermodel-beautiful or flashy or filled with cultural delights, but that doesn't mean we didn't have a great time. We just had to work a little harder.
Without the pressure to 'see something', we simply enjoyed the rocky splendor of their waterfront parks with several long, relaxing walks.
It was too warm to do a traditional sauna, so we took a day trip to the historic fortress on Suomenlinna Island.
We visited a couple of well-known sites like the Sibelius monument and Cathedral.
We bummed around the downtown area, visited all of their malls and sampled Karl Fazer chocolates.
And while we didn't visit any dynamo restaurants, that doesn't mean we didn't eat well. We found great food at the Market Square food stalls, including hefty platters of reindeer meatballs or grilled salmon with potatoes and veg as well as huge bowls of salmon soup. Not only were these meals filling and delicious, they were relatively healthy and CHEAP, like 8-10 euros, which after outrageously expensive Stockholm, was a welcome change.
So yes, Helsinki is a bit rough around the edges, but it's honest, and we found it to be a pleasant enough place to spend a few days.
And just like the eye cream I bought at Stockmanns', it's good enough.
*According to the informed but unscientific observation of our Estonian friend Joonas.