Helsinki Part 1: City of Awesomeness

January 11, 2011

This is Part 1 of the Helsinki Double Feature.

I love Seattle, but Helsinki is giving it a run for it’s money.

I was planning on mulling over the experiences of this weekend for a bit before posting in order to twist them into some sort of enthralling epic of northness, but again, circumstances prevailed. Instead, I think I’ll run through an overview of the pros and cons of this city (which I’m still in, for the record), followed by a brief recap of what was done. Of course, we’ll start off with the cons, leaving the best for last:

1) No blow dryers in the airport bathrooms. This may not sound like a big deal, but after walking around in tennis shoes in a city that has been snowed on like crazy for who-knows-how-long then thawed for two days… let’s just say my podiatrist would be livid. If I die of trench-foot, please inform my next-of-kin.

2) The metro is only open until midnight. This is pretty silly for such a city. They certainly have the wherewithal to operate at least until the wee-hours of the morning, if not 24 hours a day. I’m assuming there is some functional or practical hurdle in the way. Hopefully this will be taken care of when the western extension is completed or when the system is automated (slated for 2013). The surface alignments (trams and buses) run much later.

3) I was sick. That honestly has nothing to do with Helsinki. It should not be held-accountable for me being sick, since I got sick before I even arrived. It still sucked though.

How about the pros? (In no particular order)

1) Architecture. The architecture of Helsinki is quite a thing, stay posted on my Facebook for a slough of pictures to see first-hand. The buildings all over town are beautiful, it’s a strange mix of Art Nouveau and Soviet-esque minimalism, throw some Northern European in there and it ends up being quite pleasing.

2) Public Transportation. I don’t even really know where to begin here. The design and routing is pretty optimal (if not a little sparse in places). The metro provides a reliable and fast backbone with very short headways while the more-numerous trams ply the less-demanding locations around the inner city. Where both of those fail, buses excel.

3) Location. Helsinki’s location right on the Baltic Sea is really cool. It’s got a ton of smaller islands surrounding the city seaward, and the entire bay freezes over in the winter. The visibility was a bit low while I was in town though, so it was hard to see what the coast is like in summer (I’ll surely be back though). It’s also at about 60 degrees north, so the hours of daylight vary wildly depending on season; this may not be your thing, but it’s certainly mine.

4) Language. I know that the Finns didn’t have much of a choice, but it’s still awesome. Uralic languages have always been pretty cool in my eyes, but I’ve got to say Finnish takes the cake among them (among them that I’ve heard, at least… I can’t speak on Khanty or Nenets or anything). It has very few consonant clusters and, like other Uralic languages, vowel harmony, so it ends up sounding very nice when spoken. It looks pretty nutty written as well. The phoneme length is something that is surely going to take some getting used to though. I’m not even going to get started on how cool the grammar is.

5) Immigrant food! I can’t even count the number of Thai, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc, etc restaurants I saw. I didn’t try any of them, so they might all suck… they looked pretty good though. There were also a number of stores dedicated to ingredients used in such cuisines.

6) People. Finns often get a bad rap when it comes to personability. I guess Seattleites do too though, so I might be biased. At any rate, I thought they were quite friendly. They weren’t overly-talkative or weird in any way, just comfortable to be around.

7) Free Wifi at the airport. This may seem like pretty standard fare, but it’s amazing how many don’t in Europe. All things considered, it was a shrewd business decision, being that it is allowing me to blog about how awesome Helsinki is FROM THE AIRPORT! Good move, guys.

The list goes on-and-on, but I think I’ll cut it there. I spent most of my time simply wandering the city, I didn’t do much museum-visiting or structured-sightseeing, rather, I rode the public transportation around and got off at places that looked cool. This afforded me quite a good overall view of the city, but lacked in anything particularly invasive. I’ll save that sort of tourism for next time. The entire center of Helsinki is great, but the place that really caught my eye was Ruoholahti. It’s at the end of the current metro line right on the southwest side of the city and the number 8 tram runs through it, so it’s really accessible. Looking at the surroundings, it’s one of those industrial-turned-gentrified neighborhoods that are so popular with the young middle class. It’s on a bit of a peninsula that used to be one of the active ports in the city. It has seen a large increase in residential and office real estate since the port was moved. The neighborhood is home to some pretty swanky condos and office spaces for the more “alternative” start-ups (you know the type: t-shirts, foosball table, beer fridge, funky furniture, etc). I’m certainly going to be keeping my eyes focused on housing availabilities around there.

Anyhow, I’ve got a plane to catch. Stay posted for the second installment of my Helsinki Double Feature!

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