[ 3 DAYS IN ... ]

Torni Tower, Helsinki's only "skyscraper," has a rooftop observation deck on the 12th floor that offers splendid views of the city.

Finland's Finest

An excellent time to visit
is in July, when the weather
is at its best

Legend has it that Santa's Workshop is in Finland, somewhere above the Arctic Circle where the reindeer roam and snow covers the ground half the year. Freezing throughout the winter, this land is magically transformed into a warm, sunny vacation land between May and September, and even Santa has been spotted on the beach when the holidays are long over.

Day 1
Inner harbor, Esplanade, City Center

Day 2
Senate Square, city museum and bus tour

Day 3
Outdoor museum, boat ride and more museums

If you go...
Hotels, restaurants, factoids, and websites

Continental Europe's most northern and remote capital city is an underappreciated gem. Helsinki, in faraway Finland, is a place you would never drive to, but it is easily accessed by air, sea or rail. This efficient and entertaining city is clean and green, with parks, cafes, museums and shops of all kinds, and a picturesque harbor lined with excursion boats and a bustling waterfront market.

Founded relatively late by European standards, in the 17th century, and designated as the capital in 1812, the small town was initially built of wood and burned down several times, so nearly all the buildings we see today are no more than 200 years old. The nation is quite young, achieving its independence only in 1917 after a century of occupation by Russia and 650 years of control by Sweden. Caught between the two countries, it was devastated by the wars between the two larger powers, but now it is free and independent, enjoying one of the world's highest standards of living.

Helsinki's modern town planners have done an excellent job of creating a livable city, praised by the Harvard Architectural Digest as the "Best Designed City in Europe."

This is a small capital, with only 500,000 residents, but there is an underground metro system and numerous light-rail trams running along main streets.

Finland is the sixth-largest country in Europe, but with only 5 million people, it is one of the least crowded nations in the world.

Because of Helsinki's concentrated urban center, visitors will find it easy to see the sights on foot. You can see nearly everything in a couple of days and have part of the third day left over for an excursion out of town.

July is an excellent time to visit because the weather is at its best, the city is not crowded and hotel rates tend to drop. July is the peak month for locals to take their vacations. Business travel also grinds to a halt, leaving hotels looking for customers and lowering their rates to lure the few remaining travelers. Temperatures are mild, usually in the 70s, and the days have 20 hours of sunshine. There will still be plenty of locals remaining in town. Most are friendly, fluent in English and spend a lot of time outdoors enjoying the fleeting good weather.

Market Square, a colorful outdoor food market next to the harbor is open from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, offering fresh produce, prepared food, souvenirs and crafts.

Day One

Inner harbor, Esplanade, City Center

Market Square is a great place to start your explorations. The colorful outdoor food market next to the harbor is open from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, offering fresh produce and prepared foods, along with souvenir and craft booths. Most people working at the market are farmers or farm hands, often students on summer break. A smaller market, without the produce, reopens at 4 p.m.

This scenic waterfront is framed by boats bobbing on one side and a row of impressive buildings on the other, including City Hall, the Swedish Embassy and the Presidential Palace. Many excursion boats are docked here, offering lunch and dinner cruises, or several 90-minute sightseeing voyages along the city's shores and through the nearby archipelago.

The Old Market Hall is another wonderful harbor marketplace which has been a favorite food-lovers' hangout for 110 years. This beautiful old building has two long shopping aisles lined on both sides with merchants selling foods ranging from pastry snacks to gourmet ingredients. Sushi and smoked reindeer meat are sealed well enough for you to bring home as a gift. The market is such a pleasure that it inspired creation of a similar food hall in Boston at the Quincy Market, which has in turn served as a model for food courts everywhere.

After you've had enough of the market and harbor, walk toward the heart of town, heading for the park just beyond the large bronze fountain of Havis Amanda, the nude mermaid symbol of Helsinki.

Esplanade: The most popular park in town, called the Esplanade (they say Esplanadi) runs through the middle of downtown from the waterfront to the main commercial street of town, Mannerheimintie, three blocks away. This is the heart of town and a place most visitors come return to several times to relax, shop, sip and catch some entertainment at the central bandstand.

Two streets on each side of the Esplanade host stores selling Finnish goods, such as Marimekko fabrics, Aarika wooden jewelry and gifts, Hackman Arabia porcelain and Artek furniture. Especially along North Esplanade, these shops are noted for their world-famous Finnish designs, with a sleek, modern, functional look.

Several excellent restaurants are found along both sides of the park, including the renowned Cafe Strindberg, which has an outdoor sidewalk terrace, as well as a lovely second-floor dining room. A more extravagant choice would be the deluxe Savoy Restaurant, on the other side of the park at the top of an eight-story building, offering Finnish haute cuisine.

The Tourist Information Office is also on North Esplanade. Here you can find information about events, free maps, tour brochures, hotel bookings and agents to answer basic questions. You can also sign up for tours on the spot. The office is open from 9 a.m. daily.

While at the Tourist Information Office, consider purchasing the Helsinki Card, also available at most hotels. This discount card provides free and reduced admission to a variety of attractions and transportation. It costs $28 for 24 hours or $40 for 48 hours and can be a very good value.

Seurasaari is an outdoor folk museum of 85 old Finnish buildings, dating from as far back as the 17th century, assembled from across the country to create a cultural park.

City center: The main shopping district of Helsinki is found in a compact area between the Esplanade and the train station, just four blocks square with the large department store, Stockmann, in the center. Department stores are open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., while malls and smaller shops close an hour earlier. The two most important shopping streets, Mannerheimintie and Aleksanterinkatu intersect at Stockmann, forming a busy little plaza called Three Blacksmiths Square. Trams run along both of these main streets, making it very easy to get here from anywhere in the city. Two blocks further along Mannerheimintie is Helsinki's second-largest department store, Sokos.

This shopping neighborhood offers the gamut of retail experience. Attractive stores line the streets, modern malls occupy the blocks' interiors and several large department stores anchor the complex. In addition to the Forum, the town's largest mall with 125 stores, look for smaller hidden malls. Simple doorways will lead into a vast interior space of dazzling chrome, marble and glass with sleek escalators to whisk you through multiple levels of shopping nirvana. Three of the best are Kiseleff Bazaar, Kluuvi Shopping Center and Kamp Galleria, on Aleksanterinkatu Street.

There are many places to eat and drink in this shopping zone. One unusual restaurant chain with relatively low prices is the Unicafe, operated for University of Helsinki students but open to the public, with the best food deals in town. There are a half-dozen of these self-service cafeterias in the city center.

Torni Tower: By now it is probably late afternoon, but there is one more highlight: Helsinki's only "skyscraper," the Torni Tower, with a rooftop observation deck on the 12th floor looking out over the city. Located behind the Forum Mall at 26 Yrjonkatu St., the Torni is a pleasant hotel operated by the Sokos chain and is also home to the Vista Bar.

Good restaurants are expensive, but you should splurge and try some of the local cuisine. Two restaurants -- Chez Dominique, a French-Scandinavian gourmet restaurant, and G.W. Sundmans, serving innovative Scandinavian cuisine in a former sea captain's home -- recently received Michelin stars. Both are in the heart of the city.

The ferry is the best way to reach Suomenlinna from the Market Square. The promenade provides a distraction during the ride.

Day Two

Senate Square, city museum and bus tour

Senate Square: This is the main ceremonial center of town, dominated by Helsinki's famous cathedral. A statue of Czar Alexander II stands in the plaza center, reminding of Finland's occupation by Imperial Russia from 1809 to 1917. Curiously, you cannot find any statues of the czars in Russia today, but the one here is prominently displayed to honor Alexander, who financed the square's construction and the surrounding neighborhood.

Alexander wanted Helsinki to look like St. Petersburg, just a few hundred miles to the east and Russia's capital at that time. In the 1830s he sent Carl Engel, an eminent German architect, to design the Lutheran cathedral and surrounding buildings. Finnish architecture, as a result, shares many similarities with the Russian style, particularly in the use of neoclassical columns in the ancient Greek manner.

The University of Helsinki's main building across the square was also designed by Engel in the same Russian neoclassical style, which gives this broad plaza a harmonious, uniform look.

Completing the square, across from the cathedral, is a row of old merchants' houses, including Sederholm House, the oldest stone house in town. Built in 1757, it now houses a small museum.

Behind Senate Square: The blocks behind the cathedral are some of the most majestic in Helsinki, with more neoclassical buildings by Engel and impressive monuments.

Snellman Square is one block behind the Cathedral along Snellmaninkatu Street, with two of Helsinki's most exceptional buildings on each side. The Bank of Finland, in the style of a Renaissance palace, is fronted by a statue of J.W. Snellman, the father of Finnish money and a leader in the patriotic movement for independence. His statue sits on a pedestal pockmarked with holes from World War II battles. Finland was neutral during the war but got caught in cross-fires between the German and Russian armies.

Across from the bank is one of Helsinki's most beautiful buildings, the House of Commons, with its rich neoclassical motif of gilded Corinthian capitals and a Greek frieze like that of the Parthenon around the exterior. Also called the House of Estates, this was one of two chambers in the Senate, along with the House of Nobles, that functioned during Russian rule. It's now used only for special government occasions.

Ritarihuone Park is a lovely, small neighborhood park with tall trees and inviting benches, at the end of Aleksanterinkatu Street. Several impressive buildings frame this peaceful garden, including the House of Nobility, which formerly housed the governing body called the Diet, a 19th-century forerunner of the Parliament.

An impressive Russian Orthodox church, Uspenskin Cathedral, is seven blocks away on an island connected by bridges. This takes time to visit, so unless you are keen to visit this Moscow-style ensemble of elaborate onion domes and spiral towers, you can enjoy the view from a distance. It was built for the occupying Russian soldiers during the 19th century. Today, only 1 percent of the population belongs to the Orthodox Church. There is not much else to see on that island, which is headquarters for a fleet of ice-breaking ships that are essential for keeping Helsinki's harbor open during the winter when the ocean freezes.

Helsinki City Museum: Return to Senate Square and walk down Sofiankatu Street immediately in front of the Cathedral to the Helsinki City Museum. Separate display areas dramatically illustrate the three eras of the city: the Swedish, Russian and independent Finnish. Artifacts, costumes and pictures bring the city's story to life.

City tour: After your morning walk, take a 90-minute bus tour of the city, departing from the Tourist Information office on the Esplanade. Hourly departures are available between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The bus tour is a helpful way to supplement your walking tours. You have a choice between a tour with a guide speaking both Swedish and English, or a bus with prerecorded English narration and sound effects delivered over headphones. The routes are similar, with brief stops at Senate Square, the Sibelius Monument and Temppeliaukio Church, and worth the $22 fee and time.

The tours are conducted by Helsinki Expert, a company that has been providing a wide range of travel-related services since 1940. The company has 300 tour guides, provides bus services and hotel bookings, organized the Helsinki Card discounts, operates the shop at the Helsinki Tourist Information Office and publishes Helsinki This Week, a free guide with information about special events, shops, restaurants and related services.

Some of the sights on the bus route include:

>> The Parliament Building opened in 1931.

>> Finlandia Hall, the city's premier concert hall. Completed in 1975, the main auditorium seats 1,380 people, with a second hall seating 300. At the other end of the park is the Finnish National Opera, opened in 1993.

>> Helsinki's Olympic Stadium, built for the 1940 Olympics, which were canceled due to the war and rescheduled to 1952, when Finland played host to its one and only Olympic Games. The stadium, which seats 40,000 people, is still used for sports and music events.

>> Sibelius Monument. This remarkable modern sculpture is made of 600 tall pipes representing an organ and symbolizing the music of the great native composer Jean Sibelius.

>> Temppeliaukio Church, one of Helsinki's most popular attractions, commonly called the Church in the Rocks. Completed in 1969, it is a stunning amphitheater carved out of bedrock, with interior walls of rugged natural stone and a domed ceiling made from copper and glass.

The Torni Tower is also home to the cozy Vista Bar, where you can soak up the view while having a drink at an outdoor table.

Take the tram: An easy and affordable way to see Helsinki's sights is by hopping aboard the 3T tram. This route is perfect for tourists, as it passes by the Finlandia Hall, Parliament House, National Opera and Senate Square. You can get off at any stop, or you can loop around in an hour.

You can't get lost because the tram runs in a figure-8 loop through the city center and takes you back to where you boarded. Sights and stops along the route are displayed on an electronic panel during the summer months. For a slightly different sightseeing tour, try Sparakoff, a restored tram that serves as a moving restaurant, allowing you to enjoy the sights while sipping beer! A tour in a boat from Market Square is another way to see this maritime city.

The major museums: After lunch, consider visiting another one of the city's top museums clustered in the downtown area. There's time for one or two of these great attractions. Save the rest for tomorrow.

It is amazing that such a small city is home to 70 museums, many of which also have attractive cafes and gift shops. The top five are described here, followed by a partial list of the others.

Finnish National Museum: The museum's exhibits are the result of more than 170 years of collecting and represent the history of Finns, from prehistory to modern times.

Ateneum Art Museum: Finland's oldest and most respected art museum includes an impressive exhibition of Finnish art from the mid-1700s to the 1950s. Also on display are works by Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne.

Kiasma, Museum of Contemporary Art: Designed by New Yorker Stephen Hall, it looks minimalist on the outside, with solid walls shaped into odd geometric blocks, while an unusual interior floor plan is both disorientating and easy to navigate, turning your visit into an adventure. The Kiasma collection includes art from the 1960s onward, featuring changing exhibitions of paintings, space art, photographs, media art and sculpture.

Cable Factory: Finland's largest cultural center is in the Ruoholahti district of Helsinki. Formerly an industrial site for Nokia, the Cable Factory has been recently transformed into a modern center in which 900 artists work. Included within the complex are the Finnish Museum of Photography and the Theatre Museum. There is also a cafe and restaurant.

Sinebrychoff Art Museum: An impressive collection of old European art is housed in a wonderfully restored building. The collection includes especially portraits and artifacts from the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as visiting exhibitions.

The Natural History Museum is one of the many museums tourists can visit in Helsinki.

Day Three

Outdoor museum, boat ride and more museums

Folk Museum Park: Seurasaari is an outdoor folk museum of old Finnish buildings assembled from across the country to create a cultural park on an island in the Helsinki suburbs. Easily reached by public bus No. 24 from the central train station, the park is 15 minutes away from town, but the lush landscaping of trees and green pastures creates the feeling of being out in the countryside.

Some of the 85 buildings date to the 17th century. You can see typical homes of farmers, merchants and the bishop, ranging from little cottages to a grand mansion. Park guides in native costumes are available to tell you about the site.

Admission is 4.50 euros ($6). There are two English-language guided walks through the park, at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. daily.

Suomenlinna Fortifications: These popular islands a mile offshore are the site of an old military fortress that has been turned into a park, with acres of meadows ideal for picnicking. Also on view are massive defensive walls constructed centuries ago, a military museum, outdoor concert venues, cafes and restaurants. Suomenlinna is listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO and can be easily reached from the Market Square by frequent ferry service.

A museum located in the former inventory chambers of the navy tells the history of Suomenlinna naval fortress from the 18th century to this day. Admission is 5 euros. A guided walking tour of Suomenlinna takes in the main fortress sights, its history and life on the island today. The tour cost is 10 euros.

Helsinki Zoo: The zoo is home to species from all over the world including snow leopards, red pandas and animals unique to northern Europe. Admission is 5 euros. Boat transportation to Helsinki Zoo departs from the east side of the Market Square and from Hakaniemenranta next to the Hilton Helsinki Strand at 30-minute intervals from 10 a.m. Zoo admission is 8 euros.

Porvoo: If you choose only one of the above attractions today, you would have time to visit the nearby town of Porvoo for a half-day expedition.

Porvoo is Finland's second-oldest town, with ancient wooden buildings, picturesque yards and narrow lanes lined with original houses and shops. The town plan dates from the Middle Ages, and today's buildings still have that ambience.

Wander through the residential part of town, and peek into back yards open to the public. The main entrance doors of the houses were in back rather than on the street, as you will discover by walking up the narrow dirt driveways and looking around. Most back yards had additional dwellings for the staff and barns for the animals, and this is where the cooking was usually done.

Today the town survives on tourism, with some nice benefits for the visitor: The original buildings and atmosphere of the place are preserved with great care so that it will remain an attractive place, and many shops are waiting for your credit cards with a tempting array of wonderful goods.

When you have finally finished your Helsinki visit, take advantage of this remote location and continue traveling, either to St. Petersburg, seven hours away by direct train, or to Stockholm, Sweden, easily reached by comfortable overnight cruise ship. Two large ferries leave Helsinki at 6 p.m. nightly, each carrying up to 2,500 people for a pleasant cruise across the Baltic Sea to Sweden's capital.

Bon voyage!

Dennis Callan is president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and produces the "World Traveler" TV series, airing 6 to 7 p.m. Mondays on 'Olelo, channel 52. He frequently leads tours through Europe, Canada and the United States, and writes "Three Days in ..." for the Star-Bulletin the first Sunday of each month, explaining how to get the most out of three days in the world's great places. This is his 31st article in a continuing series, available at


If you go ...

Here are places to stay, dine and visit while in Helsinki. When calling from America, use prefix 011-358-9.


My favorite: Hotel Rivoli Jardin, Kasarmikatu 40; call 681 500; fax 656 988;

Sokos Hotel Torni, Yrjönkatu 26; call 433 60; fax 4336 7100

Sokos Hotel Helsinki. Kluuvikatu 8; call 433 20; fax 176 014

Radisson SAS Plaza Hotel, Mikonkatu 23; call 77 590; fax 7759 7100;

Radisson SAS Royal Hotel, Runeberginkatu 2; call 69 580; fax 06958 7100;


Aino, Pohjoisesplanadi 21 Café Ekberg, Bulevardi 9; call 624 327

Café Kappeli, Etelaesplanadi 1; call 179 242

Carelia, Mannerheimintie 56; call 270 90 976

Chez Dominique, Ludviginkatu 3-5; call 612 7393

G.W. Sundmans, Eteläranta 16; call 622 64 10

Pravda, Etelaesplanadi 18; call 681 2060

Savoy, Etelaesplanadi 14; call 176 571

Stockmann A là Carte restaurant. Stockmann, Pohjoisesplanadi 41; call 270 6011

Unicafe Ylioppilasaukio, 3 Mannerheimintie; call 260 9491

Zetor, Mannerheimintie 3; call 666-966

Major museums

For detailed information about their collections, opening hours, locations and prices, see

Finnish National Museum: Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays to Sundays. Admission: 5 euros for adults, children under 18 free, special groups 3.50 euros/person. At Mannerheimintie 34:

Ateneum Art Museum: Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission: 5.50 euros for adults, under 18 free, special groups 4 euros. Special exhibitions: Adults 7.50 euros and special groups 6.50 euros. Free admission 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays. At Kaivokatu 2;

Kiasma, Museum of Contemporary Art: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, and 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays. Admission: 5.50 euros for adults, under 18 free, special groups 4 euros. Free admission 5 to 8:30 p.m. Fridays. At Mannerheiminaukio 2;

Cable Factory: Located in the Ruoholahti district of Helsinki, the Cable Factory is Finland's largest cultural center. At Tallberginkatu 1.

Sinebrychoff Art Museum: Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission: 7 euros for adults, under 18 free, special groups 6 euros. At Bulevardi 40;

Natural History Museum: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays. Admission: 4.20 euros for adults. At Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu 13;

Finland factoids

In addition to allowing easy access to city sites, a city bus tour also offers insight into Finnish society, environment and history. For example:

>> The two main ethnic groups in the country are Finnish and Swedish, so the country has two official languages, but 88 percent of Helsinki natives speak Finnish as their first language and nearly everyone speaks English.

>> Finland has the most successful economy in the world, according to a current study by the World Economic Forum, which bases its evaluation on economic competitiveness, growth, technology and infrastructure.

>> Finns pay the highest taxes in the world, along with the Danes and Swedes, averaging 35 percent and up to 60 percent on the highest incomes, as well as a 22 percent sales tax, in return for many social benefits, such as education through graduate school, generous child-care leave, $100-per-child monthly payments until the age of 16, and health care. Incomes are high, but the cost of living is also high.

>> Major industries include lumber and paper production, shipbuilding, metal manufacturing, engineering, tourism and telecommunications.

>> Finns are world famous for the design and manufacture of textiles, furniture, jewelry, ceramics, clothing and decorative arts.

>> Finland is not part of Scandinavia, nor are its people related ethnically to the Slavic people of Russia, which borders to the east. Instead, it is grouped with Scandinavia as the Nordic culture. The Finnish language is most closely related to Hungarian and Estonian.

>> Historians believe that ancestors of today's Finns migrated perhaps 8,000 years ago from the Ural Mountains in Central Asia, passing through what are now Hungary and Russia before settling in Finland.

>> The indigenous inhabitants are the Sami people, or Laplanders, who now live in the far north and herd reindeer. Many have settled in small towns and struggle to maintain their cultural traditions.

>> During the peak of winter, it stays dark throughout most of the day, with just a few hours of overcast twilight. In the north, the summer sun does not set for 73 days, but the winter night lasts for 1,752 hours.

Helsinki info

More information on the city is available at Pohjoisesplanadi 19. It is open Mondays through Fridays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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