Thursday, February 16, 2012

Easter Festivities in Helsinki

Go for a Campervan adventure in Helsinki. Feel the freedom of a campervan when you are able to do whatever you want and change your plans at a whim. While you're roadtripping around you could celebrate Easter with the Finns.

In the Senate Square is an Easter Dramatisation procession. Over a hundred professional and amateur actors participate in an event that beautifully depicts the Easter story. Be sure to watch the event on the 6th April till the 7th April.

Take part in Finnish cultural merriment of Easter and join in the Easter Bonfire. On Easter Sunday, children dress up as trolls and gather together at the festival grounds on Seurasaari island. A small bonfire is lit for the children, to be followed later by a larger bonfire to sit around and enjoy. Children will sing songs and recite poetry around the fire.

Easter bonfire IM5987 Kokko palaa C
By Anneli Salo - Wikimedia Commons

A beautiful experience that would be a treat to be a part of. Spend your time in a Campervan while your in Helsinki or anywhere else in Finland.

Find a Campervan at Scandinavia Motorhomes. Has anyone experienced a Helsinki Easter before?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Beaches in Helsinki

There are still a lot of people who think that the weather in Finland in general and Helsinki in particular is just too cold for swimming. On the contrary. Helsinki has surprisingly warm summers and with more than 300 islands off Helsinki and a coastline of about 100 kilometres, surely the city has a lot to offer in terms of beaches.

The Finns love the beach. A favourite among locals is the Hietaniemi Beach or Hietsu as the locals say. This is the most popular beach in the city mainly because of its proximity to the centre of Helsinki. There is beach volleyball in the area and other beach amenities. Near the beach is Sibelius Park. Other beaches in proximity to Hietsu are the beaches of Munkkiniemi and Mustikkamaa. A trip to Mustikkamaa beach could be combined with a trip to Helsinki Zoo.

If you are touring Helsinki in a campervan you can park in Rastila Caravan Park and hit the beach of Rastila. Summer and winter swimming is offered in Rastila beach. Facilities include cabins, saunas, showers, children’s playground and restaurants.

Panorama of Aurinkolahti beach
Photo by kallerna, Wikimedia Commons

Suomenlinna is home to a fortress that dates back to the 18th century. There are six small islands and surrounded by rocky shores. The beaches are a mixture of rocks and sand so there really is no place to stretch and sunbathe. However, the views from those rocky shores are worth the trip.

There are beaches east of Helsinki and savvy travellers opt for these peaceful beaches with beautiful ridges. Kallithea and Laajasalo are great choices more so for those who want spacious beaches with a spectacular view of the archipelago.

West of Helsinki is the beautiful beach of Very. The beach has facilities for surfing, volleyball and golfing on top of a great sandy beach for sunbathing. The beach is located on the outskirts of Pori which is about 1.5 hours from Tampere. The beaches of Helsinki are not found in seashores alone as there are four beaches along the Vantaa River one of which is the Pikkukoski. It is interesting to note that dogs are not allowed in public beaches but there are places that do allow dogs such as in Tervasaari Island.
Hietaniemi beach
Photo by Miksa76, Wikimedia Commons

Other beaches in and around Helsinki are:
  • Aurinkolahti
  • Furuvik
  • Hevossalmi
  • Hietaranta
  • Jollas
  • Kallahden kainalo
  • Kallahdenniemi
  • Kivinokka
  • Laajasalo
  • Lauttasaari Kasinoranta
  • Lauttasaari outdoor recreation area
  • Lehtisaari
  • Malmi
  • Marjaniemi
  • Pakila
  • Pihlajasaari
  • Porvariskuninkaanpuisto
  • Pukinmäki
  • Puotila
  • Seurasaari
  • Seurasaari Uimala
  • Uunisaari
  • Tuorinniemi
Helsinki is also famous for its nudist beaches. Nudism is not uncommon in Finland because it is an accepted practice when enjoying the benefits of a sauna or steam bath. Seurasaari Nude beach offers separate beaches for men and women. The Pihlajasaari beach is near Helsinki and is a unisex nudist beach. The beach here is great for sunbathing but a bit rocky for swimming. The Yvteri beach is another unisex nudist beach. The beach here is great for swimming and sunbathing. If you feel that getting naked in a beach is too much for you to handle, there is the Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall right in the center of Helsinki where swimsuits are not required. Swim time for men and women are different.

Vanhakaupunki or Old City in Helsinki

It seems that every famous Scandinavian city has an “old town” or “old city” and the city of Helsinki is no exemption. The old city is not right in the centre of the city but is 5 kilometres north of modern day Helsinki city centre. The old city is now called Vanhakaupunki which is near the Helsinki University Biotechnology campus and a Technical Museum.

Vanhakaupunki is quite “young” at 450 years old. The buildings in the area are picture perfect with their façade and attractive colours. However, Vanhakaupunki is not Prague in terms of its old yet beautiful architectural wonders. The old city is teeming with parks and gardens that render the place quite picturesque. The River Vantaa cuts across the old town. On one side, kayak races are held in the rapids (vanhankaupunginkoski). On the other side or end, the river passes through an old dam to the sea. The view here is quite interesting. Fishing downstream is an activity that should not be missed.

Vanhankaupunginkoski in Helsinki
Photo by Oula Lehtinen, Wikimedia Commons

The name directly translates as “old city”. Don`t expect something like Prague, because there is not any of the past century buildings left here. But there are lovely parks and gardens. River Vantaa joins to sea here and there is a rapid (vanhankaupunginkoski) where kayak races are held. On the other side of area river goes to sea through old dam, making an interesting scene – and good fishing downstream.

Helsinki was founded by Swedish king Gustav Vasa in June 1550 near the mouth of the Vantaa River near the village of medieval Koskela. The city commercially competed with Tallinn in Estonia as a trading post. It was also the objective of the new city to reduce the illegal trading by peasants. Helsinki’s initial population came from Ulvila, Rauma, Tammisaari and Porvoo as ordered by the king. In 1640, Helsinki was moved to better harbour conditions in Vironniemi that slowly the old town of Vanhakaupunki was deserted.

In 1876, the Vanhakaupunki hydropower plant launched its operation. After 100 years of operation the plant was shut down. In 2000 the power plant was restored and somehow resumed operations as a “museum” power plant open for visitors in the summer. The environmental-friendly power plant is no longer operative as desired as its power is dependent on the water level of the Vantaa River.

Six miles off Vanhakaupunki is the island of Pihlajasaari. It actually consists of two small islands connected by a bridge and can only be reached by boat. In the summer a commuter boat transports visitors between Pihlajasaari and Kaivopuisto every two hours. A boat ride to Porvoo is also available.

Today, Vanhakaupunki is now an area of around 0.32 square meter west of the bay. There are about 230 residents in Vanhakaupunki. Vanhankaupungin peruspiiri circle has a larger area of 5.38 square meters and a population of more than 17,000.
A trip to the beautiful city of Vanhakaupunki is certainly worth the trouble.

Hakaniemi Market Square in Helsinki

Hakaniemi is an old unofficial district in Helsinki but is nevertheless a part of the city center. The place was historically known as a working glass district back in the days. The rising cost of daily living has risen through the years that today; Hakaniemi is now at equal to the rest of Helsinki.

What is there to see in Hakaniemi? The market square is the most dominant area of Hakaniemi. The market square is where the head offices of the Social Democratic Party of Finland and the headquarters of numerous other trade unions in Helsinki. The marketplace is colorful and lively and has the animation and aroma of Oriental food stores complete with a modest number of Asian imported products. To date there are only less than 2,500 Southeast Asians living in Helsinki and most of them are of Indian-descent. Asian food have strong taste which is a pure departure from the generally bland Finnish cooking.

The Hakaniemi market square
Photo by Jisis, Wikimedia Commons

The Hakaniemi Market Square is quite large and has a direct access to the water. There is a variety stalls in the Market Square. The stalls offer traditional treats and foods, handicrafts and other types of souvenirs. In the summer the market square teems with locals and tourists sipping coffee in open air cafés. During the winter, heated café tents are put up in the square for those who would like to seep steaming cup of coffee. Best paired with hot coffee is sugared donut or a meat pie. In the month of October, the Hakaniemi Market Square is host to the Herring Market, a traditional event in Helsinki as old as time.

If you happen to be travelling in a motorhome, what a great adventure would it be if you could go to a market hall, buy the ingredients for a spectacular meal and cook in the comforts of your motorhome.

Also at the Hakaniemi Market Square are the head office of the Left Alliance Party and the famous Helsinki Hilton. Another famous building is the Ympyrätalo designed by Heikki and Kaila Kaija Sirén. The Hakaniemi Market Hall that was designed by Karl Hård af Segerstad, sometime in 1914 is a two-storey brick building in the market square. The Market Hall is a popular place to get organic food such as vegetables and fresh fish. The atmosphere is not that of a regular supermarket but more of that old brick building with that “old time” ambiance -with its fish smell et al. However, the market hall is clean and really a delight to visit. The Market Hall has over 50 stores in its two floors where you can almost anything under the Finnish skies. There is a shoe repair shop, a book store, a handicraft shop and a high fashion store and around 28 more specialty stores. There are six cafeterias in the Market Hall and there’s one on the first floor that offers affordable traditional Finnish food.

The area is still in the middle of a gentrification process and its clientele is diverse. Nevertheless, a trip to Hakaniemi Market Square is worth the trouble.

Seurasaari Island in Helsinki

Touring Helsinki in a motorhome is an experience by itself. Sightseeing in an unharried and unhurried manner is certainly viable when travelling in a campervan. Of course you need to make a list of the places you want to visit when in Helsinki and one recommended tourist site is the famous Seurasaari Island, just a few kilometres away from the city.

Seurasaari is a small island made famous by its Open-Air Museum and its nudist beach! The island is a tranquil and quiet oasis right in the heart of Helsinki. The Open-Air Museum was founded in 1909. The intention was to represent the last 400 years of Finnish way of life by the presentation of authentic houses and cottages, manors and farmsteads. The buildings were uprooted from their original locations and were transported to Seurasaari Island’s Open-Air Museum.

A midsommer bonfire in Seurasaari
Photo by Ralf Roletschek, Wikimedia Commons

The first group of structures relocated to Seurasaari Island was the Niemelä farm in Konginkangas from Central Finland. Most of the structures came from the 18th and 19th centuries and comprised mostly of wooden farm structures. The museum owes its existence to Axel Olai Hekel, a leading Finn ethnologist and vernacular architect. His mission was to collect typical buildings from different regions and provinces of Finland. Currently, there are 85 buildings in the museum the oldest of which is the 1686 Karuna Church. Very few buildings have been added in recent years as other provinces in Finland are into the preservation of their old buildings too.

The picturesque bridge from the mainland to the Seurasaari is a “must cross” One can take the bus number 24 from Lasipalatsi then cross the wooden bridge to the island or one can take a boat from the Market Square to the island. There are guides in costumes that are all part of the Open-Air Museum.

The best time to visit Seurasaari is during the summer. Plenty of tourists and Helsinkians troop to the islands to “breathe” in the peaceful rural scene. The island is teeming with wildlife as in hares and squirrels that live in the lush forests of the island. The island is at its elements during the Midsummer when a newly-wed couple is tasked to light a huge bonfire or juhannuskokko that is built on a small islet off the island. Tourists and locals alike stand side by side as they watch the crackling bonfire. Some are on Seurasaari Island and some are on boats anchored near the bonfire.

There are trails and paths that lead to two nudist beaches - one for men and one for women. There is no common nudist beach so one can stay safe “nude” in their own beaches. It is alright to swim in the nudist beach during winter months. Of course! But bear in mind that there are no saunas in the island. Only a hole in the ice to jump in! Cold!

There are restaurants, kiosks and cafés on the island should tourist have the urge to have a snack or meal. It is also alright to bring your own snacks and water. It is also alright to bring nuts to feed the squirrels.

Kaunissaari Island

A 2-hour boat ride off Helsinki in Sipoo is the island of Kaunissaari. The small island is only about 2 kilometers long and 800 meters wide. The island is a veritable sauna paradise as a trip to Kaunissaari is included in majority of sauna tours. If one wishes a great “first” time sauna experience inclusive of a plunge into a pool of cold water, a Kaunissaari trip is a must. Managed by the local Recreational Park, the sauna facilities were first established in 1959. The park covers about 100 hectares of land and around 790 hectares of water.

Kaunissaari literally means beautiful island, and indeed the name is justifiable. The quaint fishermen‘s village affords a view of the quiet and peaceful lives of its inhabitants as exemplified by their buildings and way of life. The island’s landscape of rocky shore is unique and has remained intact and unchanged for centuries. The island is sometimes referred to as the gem of the Eastern Gulf of Finland. Distinctly native to the islands are the fenced-in plots, boat sheds, landing stages, seaside storehouses and numerous gardens.

Rocky shore of Kaunissaari island
Photo by Pöllö, Wikimedia Commons

The Kaunissaari Island can be reached by boat from Kotka (Sapokka), from Pyhtää and from Vuosaari. The boat ride is from 1 to 2 hours. If you are touring Helsinki in a campervan, park your motorhome at any of the 7 motorhome parks in and around Helsinki and hop on a boat ride to Kaunissaari.

The beaches and rocky shores of Kaunissaari offer a wide range of activities for guests. For one, the beautiful sights in the islands serve as great photographic subjects. The water surrounding the island offer great fishing opportunities. Locals and international tourists are attracted by the possibility of a great catch. Fishing is allowed without the need for permits. The island also affords visitors the opportunity to camp or trek on the nature trails on the island.

The best time to take a tour of the island is during the summer months. There are boats at Sapokka Harbour right in front of the Maretarium Aquarium that ferry visitors to Kaunissaari 2 to 3 times a day. Starting in the middle of May and ending on mid September, boat rides to Kaunissaari from Vuosaari are available too.

The island of Kaunissaari is about 22 kilometers off the shores of Helsinki. The wind could suddenly blow without warning even on a warm summer day so it is best to take a wind breaker or warm jackets when going to the islands.

There are restaurants and cafés in the island. Note that the salmon pastries sold in one of the food shops is quite delicious and should be tasted. There are freshly smoked salmon sold at storehouses near the seashore. If you wish to know more about the island’s history visit the museum. A quiet and unhurried stroll in the quiet village is akin to a stroll in a fairy tale setting of charming wooden houses on wooded trails against a backdrop of the blue sea.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Parks in Helsinki

Helsinki’s geography deems this small country into a green and blue area. If you are not looking out into the blue sea, you are looking out into a green patch. Helsinki could be the “freshest” city in the world for 1/3 of its area is composed of parks. It has been said that one is never far from a park in the city.

Central Park in Helsinki is part of city’s history and townscape. Its area is around 10 square kilometers stretching from to the border of Helsinki and Vantaa in the north and Töölönlahti Bay in the south. The park is not a means to showcase beautiful flower gardens but is mostly woodland with gravel paths. The northernmost part of the park called the Paloheina forest is the city’s foremost centre for outdoor activities.

Central Park, Maunula outdoor hut with cafe
Photo by Paju, Wikimedia Commons

Kaisaniemen Puisto (Kaisaniemi Park) is 100 years and has been planned around a centrally located lake where most of the gardens are found. The park is famous for its beautiful landscape as aside from the plants and blooms in the park are various statues that complement the blooms and other plants. A coffee shop is situated at the park. The park is located along Kaisaniemi. The park is open every day. Admission is free.

Kasvitieteellinen Puutarha or the University Botanical Gardens is one of the most popular garden parks in Helsinki. The garden park is around 200 years old and is currently home to hundreds of botanical species showcased in flowerbeds. What make the botanical garden more attractive are the historic glasshouses. A gallery is situated between the small and large glasshouses and this is mainly used for short-term nature-related exhibitions. The park is open from 7am to 8pm from May to September and from 7am to 5 pm from October to April. Admission is free except for the glasshouses where €3 to €6 tickets are required. Located at 44 Unioninkatu.

Kaupungin Talvipuutarha (City Winter Gardens is located in 1 Hammarskjöldintie, Helsinki. Founded in 1893, the exotic winter garden has over 200 species of plants. Palm trees, camellas and Norfolk Island pines are found in the palm room. The cactus room has an explosion of different kinds of cacti on display. Christmas and Easter flowers bloom in time and the winter garden is never in need or want of flowering and towering plants the whole year. The rose garden outside is in full bloom during autumn and summer. The garden park is open Monday to Saturday from 12pm-3pm and on Sundays from 12 pm to 4pm. Admission is free.

Meilahden Arboretum is within walking distance of the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum and quite close to central Helsinki. As the name implies, the park houses some of the most impressive groupings of mature Finnish shrubs and trees. Bulbs and roses peak during the summer months. Location is at 2-3 Meilahdentie. Admission is free.

If would be great to rent a campervan and drive to other nature parks in Helsinki. Feeling a bit adventurous? Here are some nature parks that are worth a visit.

  • Nuuksion Kansallispuisto (Nuuksio National Park) in Nuuksio
  • Uutelan Luontopolku Park in Vuosaari
  • Kaivopuisto Park
  • Sibelius Park
  • Töölönlahti Bay

Remember to “dress” for a walk in the park!