HELSINKI - A CHRISTMAS BREAK IN FINLAND
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Christmas displays, a stunning cathedral, naughty burgers and ice skating
James and I arrived in Helsinki by ferry crossing the Baltic Sea from Tallinn. I had booked the 10:30am ferry and you must board 20 minutes before the departure time. We arrived at the port at 10:11am and were told we couldn’t board. After pleading and pleading with the ticket office we were forced to buy new tickets for a ferry departing 2 hours later. If your plan is to combine Tallinn with Helsinki as I did, make sure you get to the ferry port in plenty of time as they are extremely strict about boarding times. Despite this slight hiccup (completely our fault for being unorganised) the ferry is a great way to combine Estonia and Finland into one short trip. The ferry takes around 2 hours so after a bite to eat and some relaxation you’re across the water before you know it.
Once we had arrived in Helsinki I called an Uber to take us to our apartment in the Ullanlinna district. We arrived to a lot of rain and darkness but this wasn’t going to stop us going out and exploring. We only had two days in Helsinki so we didn’t have time to waste. The walk from our apartment to the centre of Helsinki was around 20-25 minutes, there are also trams, buses and metros running frequently which allow you to get around and explore the city in it’s entirety. You will need to download the HSL app to use public transport and here you can also find the departure and arrival times. We made our way to the first stop on the list, the Stockmann Holiday Window. Anyone reading from the North East of England will be well aware of the infamous ‘Fenwicks Window’. Every Christmas Fenwicks Department Store set up a themed window display with moving figurines, music and story telling. It is magical for both children and adults and attracts so much attention from the surrounding Newcastle area and beyond. The Stockmann Holiday Window was similar. There was no story telling in this window but instead lots of Christmas themed ornaments spinning and sliding. It was nice to see but not a scratch on Fenwicks window. We continued through the main shopping street, Aleksanteninkatu and found our way to the Christmas Market in Senate Square. The market is set in front of the white Helsinki Cathedral which creates the perfect backdrop. As you walk towards the markets from the main shopping streets the bright fairy lights are enticing and the Christmas cheer hard to resist. In comparison to Tallinn I thought the products sold at the Helsinki market were a little more upmarket and sophisticated. The market was a similar size to that of Tallinn and the Helsinki market had some cosy sheltered drinking areas and a porter cabin cafe to grab some mulled wine and gingerbread. One of the most unique features of the Helsinki Christmas Market is the public outdoor sauna. The sauna is free of charge to enter and you cannot make a reservation, it is on a first come first served basis. The temperature was around -1/-2 degrees so there was no chance I was stripping off to get into that sauna but what an experience. If you tackle the cold better than I try out this public sauna.
After longing over all of the Christmas decorations I wished I could take back home with me, we made our way up some steep steps to visit the Helsinki Cathedral. It was a nice change not having to worry about whether I was covered up enough to enter into a church/cathedral. The cathedral was quite spectacular inside and it has become the stage for national festive services and one of the most popular attractions of Helsinki. From here I had planned to go ice skating. This is such a fun activity for all ages and a good way to warm up as you complete laps upon laps of the rink. There are a variety of different ice skating locations in Helsinki so choose the location which suits your plans best. Due to our ferry delay we were running out of time so decided against ice skating and instead headed for some dinner at Naughty Burger. This was around a 15 minute walk from Senate Square and set out like an American diner with colourful decor and plastic seating. It had the vibe of Five Guys or Steak n Shake (I became addicted to these burgers whilst working in Italy). The burgers were greasy but extremely tasty and exactly what it says on the tin, a naughty treat. The restaurant was packed with locals so it is clearly a hit all around town. With the bill totalling around 30 euros for two delicious burgers and fries I couldn’t complain. Our stomachs were full as we headed on a mini bar crawl to sample some of the Helsinki nightlife. We started at 8-bit Brewing, a gaming bar where there was the option to play Street Fighter, Donkey Kong and the like on a SNES console whilst enjoying a cold beer. We loved this bar and thought it was such an ingenious idea. You could easily spend hours here virtually drop kicking your friends to victory over and over again. Before our eyes turned square we moved on to our next stop Hemingways and ended the night at Bier Bier.
The rain was following us again but that didn’t stop us getting up and out and catching the tram to the most adorable little breakfast spot. Cafe Regatta is a cafe by the sea located close to Sibelius monument. It is a red, cottage style cafe which is extremely quaint inside. The cafe reminded me of something you would find in the world of Hansel and Gretel. We cosied our way into the bench style seating and warmed our hands on the candle that lit up our table. The cafe was filled with knick knacks, hanging pots and ornaments and the red theme continued on inside adding that Christmassy feel. We had coffees and fresh croissants and they were delicious.
Leaving this cute little cafe behind we faced the cold once more and headed to the nearby Sibelius Monument. The monument is made of steel pipes hanging at different levels and it pays homage to the composer of the Sibelius society. Continuing the sight seeing we began the 20 minute walk to the next stop, Temppeliaukion Church. This is an extremely impressive piece of architecture and it is known as the “rock church” with the interior exhibiting exposed rock features. It is only 3 euros to enter to sit in a pew and have a good look around or take the stairs to the mezzanine level and get a snap from the balcony. Our second church visit of the day took us closer to the Christmas markets with a 10 minute walk to find the Kamppi Church. This church is a peculiar shape and orangey/brown in colour. This chapel is known as the “Church of Silence” and irrespective of religion the church welcomes all people to enter for some peace and quiet leaving the buzzing Helsinki city centre behind. Our day was coming to a close and we would shortly be making our way back to Helsinki airport to catch our flight back to the UK. The last few hours were spent wisely, shopping for souvenirs and trinkets from the Christmas market and enjoying a warm cheesy panini and a coffee from Gran Delicato. We jumped on a train back to Helsinki airport and stopped for a Finnish Karhu beer before boarding the plane.
We chose to combine Tallinn and Helsinki which is a great way to maximise your short break and capture the magic of not only two Christmas markets but also two countries during one trip. The Christmas markets in both locations are fairly small and as much as there is sight seeing to do, you shouldn’t need longer than 2-3 days in each location to get a real feel for the culture and history of these beautiful cities. Book your trip for the beginning of December and get into the Christmas spirit early.
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