Within a few pages of any Finland travel guide, you’ll come across the word “Sisu.”
It loosely translates to “guts,” a reference to Finland’s resilience in the face of invading armies (Sweden and Russia haven’t always been the friendliest of neighbors), and harsh winters (we were there in March and trust me, it was harsh).
For centuries, “Sisu” has been used to describe the Finnish spirit. And one could say all that courage and determination has really paid off.
Today, Finland is home to some of the world’s best health care, literacy rates and education services. Finnish women were the first in the world to have full voting rights. And the capital Helsinki repeatedly receives honors as one of the most livable cities in the world.
It’s not a bad place to visit either. To help you get the most from your trip, here are five dos and four don’ts for exploring mainland Europe’s northernmost capital.
Do bring a lot of money
Let’s get one thing established right away: Helsinki is expensive. Most rooms in the city center hover around US $200 per night. A lunch of falafel sandwiches and one Coke set us back almost $40. Two pints of craft beer cost nearly $25.
The good news is the hotel rooms are modern, comfortable and include prolific breakfasts. The food is delicious. And the beers are strong.
Don’t pass up the Helsinki Card
Designed for travelers, the Helsinki Card scores you free unlimited rides on the city’s public transit system, free entry to 20 museums, and discounts at select restaurants, attractions and tours. The card also includes free ferry transfer to the nearby Suomenlinna sea fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Helsinki Card costs about $50 for 24 hours, $80 for 72 hours. I know that sounds pricey. But consider this: without it, a single tram ride costs more than $4 and museum entry hovers around $14. A 24-hour Helsinki Card could pay for itself in a well-planned day of sightseeing.
Do take public transit
Greg and I normally like to explore a city on foot, but considering it was below freezing and we’re thin-skinned Floridians, we jumped on the tram, subway or bus whenever we could. We never waited more than a few minutes for our ride. The metro was especially handy for exploring the Russian and Ukrainian restaurants in the Sörnäinen neighborhood north of the city center.
Don’t wait for a server
You’ll die of hunger (or sobriety) waiting for someone to take your order. The majority of the restaurants and pubs we visited required guests to place their orders at the bar before taking a seat. Get in line. Pay for your selection. And then grab a table.
Do try the reindeer
It tastes like beef. But you can’t make Rudolph jokes after eating a hamburger.
Don’t forget your gum
After a breakfast of salmon and pickled herring, an afternoon exploring the city’s prolific coffee shop scene, and an early evening tasting Finnish craft brews, you’ll be happy you packed some gum. Trust me.
Do look up
A mile and a half stroll will take you past an art nouveau train station, a church carved out of granite, a neoclassical cathedral, and a dome-topped Russian Orthodox church, as well as sculptures of patriotic poets, Russian reformers and naked blacksmiths.
Helsinki’s commitment to building a cityscape that’s functional and visually appealing earned it the status as the 2012 World Design Capital.
Keep your eyes open or you may miss the subtle details that make Helsinki so popular with the art crowd.
Don’t save it all for Sunday
I arrived on a Sunday and was surprised by how quiet the city was. The few restaurants that were open had long lines. There was no one hanging out in the popular Esplanade Park. And the shops closed earlier than I expected.
Make sure you get out during the week and on Saturday, when the city is downright lively.
Do try the Sahti
One of the oldest primitive beers still in circulation, Sahti is a Finnish farmhouse ale with a strong body and an even stronger punch (most Sahtis are at least 7% ABV, almost double that of a typical American light beer.)
The beer is filtered through juniper branches, giving it berry overtones and a pretty ruby shine. No hops and minimal carbonation make this a truly unique brew.
Helsinki’s modern beer scene is thriving, but its ancient one is just as interesting.