According to science, it takes us just a few minutes after meeting someone to decide whether or not we would date them. I like to think that the same is true when we travel. We’re wired to make snap judgments about a place even after spending only a short time there. So when I spent a night in Helsinki (a real one this time), I made my own snap judgments about the city.
When I went to Norway, I met a local that told me Finland was the ugliest, most boring of the Nordic countries. Having visited all of them now, I can’t say that I agree. Like all the Scandinavian capitals, there’s an eerie calmness to it. It’s dark for most of the year and the freezing temperatures keep people indoors most of the time. So walking along the frozen waterways on a blanket of snow makes you feel like you’re the last remaining person on earth. Don’t get me wrong, you would never feel threatened or unsafe in Helsinki. Just completely alone. Like if you slipped on ice and broke your head open, they wouldn’t find you until springtime.
But while it shares that vibe with its western neighbors, Helsinki has a lot of charm that is all its own. Because I think Finland might be the working man’s Nordic country. Whereas Sweden is all perfection and high-class, the atmosphere in Helsinki is a lot more working class (for Nordic standards). There’s a level of down-to-earthness that you can’t find somewhere like Stockholm. While I’m sure there’s plenty of salmon mousse and caviar, it’s also the kind of city that isn’t always so ostentatious. For instance, I went to a nice restaurant by the docks where the signature dish is the herring that sailors have enjoyed there since the 1800s. Herring is basically a hair above anchovies, but damn, it was incredible.
The city doesn’t feel as expensive as the other Nordic capitals (though it definitely is). For example, you can take a train into Helsinki from the airport for 5 Euro. The equivalent in Stockholm is five times the cost and a third of the distance. You don’t even wanna know how much it costs to get to Reykjavík from the airport in Iceland.
Perhaps because of the geographical proximity to Russia, the people feel a little coarser in Helsinki. Like they’re not sold on all the happiness over in Denmark, but they find their own way to get their kicks. On the way home late at night, I saw two grown men hiding behind a mountain of snow throwing snowballs at passing cars. It’s kind of funny, kind of dickish, and totally something you’d see in the Boston of Scandinavia. That being said, you’d be hard pressed to find a driver that won’t immediately screech to a halt for you if you’re even in the vicinity of a crosswalk. They definitely mind their manners. And honestly, there’s no bigger assholes in Scandinavia than the Swedes anyway. Helsinki benefits from having nice people that don’t think they’re better than you.
I kind of expected Helsinki to be another generic cold city and was pleasantly surprised. The city itself is pretty, clean, and orderly. Though there may not be a ton of famous tourist spots, there are some spectacular churches, which definitely have a Russian influence. If you’re visiting and you’re not much for sightseeing, you can always enjoy a local beer in a nice pub or go to a sauna by the waterfront. It seems like a really fun place, without being an obnoxious European party town. I get the feeling it might be an even better city to live in than to visit. Like it would be the most relaxing quiet life in the world, or it might inspire you to join the crew of an Arctic expedition.
I’m not saying the other Nordic countries aren’t worth visiting (they absolutely are!), but maybe we should stop letting Norway and Denmark get all the attention. Don’t forget, you can see the northern lights in Finland, too! And Helsinki is a treasure trove of beauty and good times.