The proposal to escape the 40 degree temperatures that were threatening to hit the island in favour of more spring-like weather up North was a no-brainer really. Which is how last summer saw me extending a city-break in Tallinn into a much longer migration towards Finland.
If you’re trying to reach Finland from Malta, don’t bother. It’s much cheaper, easier and pleasant to simply take the ferry from Estonia to Helsinki, which is exactly what we did. This extended stay was a bit of an after-thought, but it turns out that the Finns are very well-organised and it’s pretty easy to organise a wonderful holiday, and accommodation on the fly.
There’s surprisingly plenty to do once there, as long as you don’t add luscious, long dinners to the mix as these don’t feature in Finnish culture. Well, if they do I must have missed them anyway. Other than that, good times are guaranteed whatever you’re into. Here are some highlights from my itinerary.
For the artists – My biggest discovery in Helsinki was the Oodi library, where I must have spent a good portion of my evenings, thus living up to my rep as nerdiest of nerds. There’s nothing nerdy about the space itself, though. For starters, the design of the building itself is superb – a glorious glass, steel and wood structure housing three levels of what goes way beyond being a library.
The ground floor is spacious, airy and clearly built with chilling in mind – there’s a huge cafe and several chess tables for the public to just sit at and have a go. A gorgeous double helix staircase takes you to the first floor, with a cinema, a multi-purpose hall and another cafe.
The second floor is a masterpiece in the subtle furthering of arts and culture – shared spaces can be booked for free to work, learn or practice your art. Want to teach your child cooking? Book the teaching kitchens. Want to record an album? Book the studio. Want to learn guitar? Book the instrument. Equipment is state-of-the-art, and includes a 3D laser printer, sewing machines, all kinds of musical instruments… you get the gist.
The third floor is the actual library, a fleet of bean bags inviting visitors to simply pick up a book and spend a few hours reading. There are also magazines, board games, films and sheet music. In good weather, the massive terrace is one of the most popular spots in the city, with views across Helsinki. Bonus – the library agreed to take up two copies of my book The Patient in Hospital Zero, so now I spend my time obsessively looking to see if they’re being checked out. They are.
The best thing about the Oodi is the good use that Finns get out of it. So many children playing chess and reading, teenagers looking for the latest graphic novels or simply playing video games, families spending the evening there… the sense of community is heart-warming.
For the hipster – Make like the kids, get your Hakuna matata on and take a gorgeous 15-minute stroll from the city center towards Scandic Park, by the lake. Here you will find stunning sunsets and a totally cute SUP Rental that doubles up as live DJ stand by night. SUP adventures, spritz by the lakeside and groups of youngsters just enjoying the alternative vibe. What’s not to like?
For the shopaholic – The centre of Helsinki has enough shopping malls to satisfy the militant Maltese shopper. Prices aren’t particularly great, but you do get a lot more variety and interesting brands than the ones we get in our neck of woods. Stockmann and Kamppi are the ones you need to look out for – Stockmann is a tad more fun because I got to gawk at designer wear that I couldn’t afford. I did spot a couple of limited edition Doc Martens that I coveted, though they didn’t stock my size.
For the explorer – There are other gorgeous places outside of Helsinki to explore, and even getting to the remote areas is actually very easy. We focused on Turku – not remote at all, and a mere two-hour train ride towards the south-east coast.
Turku sits at the mouth of the Aurora River and,if you’re averse to walking, a small ferry will transport you for free across the banks of the river. Honestly, Turku is what our own Bugibba should look like in an ideal world. Lazy boat trips, pop-up bars, teenagers munching on ice-cream and waffles, restaurants and boat pubs linking the river bank, outdoor music festivals that don’t turn into a nuisance for residents… Unlike Bugibba, it’s also clean as a whistle and packed with green spaces. To be fair, the climate does lend itself to greenery a tad more than Bugibba does, but surely we can at least aim to achieve at least 40 per cent of the Turku beauty?
We did venture further afield onto the islands. Given how remote they are, they are surprisingly easy to get to. The public transport system in Turku is ace. The 4.32PM bus was actually at the designated stop at 4.32PM, and it took us through some gorgeous scenery until we arrived at our equally-gorgeous destination.
If you’re visiting in the warmer months, it would be very remiss not to do a bit of island-hopping. There isn’t much to do apart from enjoy nature and explore the walking treks, which is pretty much as close to perfect bliss as I ever got. The bigger islands are connected by bridges, so a short bus ride from the mainland got us to Hirvensalo and Satava in no time. There’s also a water-bus that operates in summer, but we didn’t use it.
The islands are very sparsely populated, and most residences are only used in the warmer months – and honestly, this is their biggest attraction. We visited some friends in Satava, and the walk from the bus stop to their house was a real highlight, as it was pretty much like a scene straight out of Snow White. Yup. We had wild deer walking casually a few metres away from us.
Be aware that it can get very dark, very fast in woodland areas, and the streets won’t necessarily be well-lit, so do make sure that you know your way back and that you have access to transport and don’t end up missing the last bus back to the mainland.
For the foodie – In Finland, it’s more about the quality than the quantity, so be prepared for small portions (by our standards) of whatever it is you order. If you want cheap and cheerful, chances are that the food market opposite Market Square is your best bet. So much fresh fruit, ready to eat, at very friendly prices! There are also stalls selling traditional Finnish food (including reindeer meat, but there was no way I was eating Rudolph’s friend), and heated tents where you can sit and enjoy the hustle and bustle.
Weirdly, given the cold climate, Finland is well-known for its stellar soft-serve ice-cream. Helsinki is dotted with ice-cream kiosk, and it’s worth sampling even if just for the Tanti vibes and the nostalgia.
If it’s proper restaurants you’re after, and you’re prepared to pay for the privilege, HOKU is a must-do. It’s located at the top floor of Kamppi shopping mall, and make sure you book because it’s very popular. Also, because you’ll want a table by the glass facade so you can feast your eyes on half of Helsinki as you eat. The theme is Asian fusion, and I’ll be honest – we’ve had better in Malta for half the price. They do serve wicked cocktails, and my philosophy is in for a penny, in for (many) pounds. The whole experience, when you consider the vibe and the view, was worth it.
Restaurant service tends to be fast – expect to be done with your three-course meal in under an hour. The Finns clearly haven’t yet gotten the hang of sitting back over a leisurely dinner for the joy of it. The one time I asked for a ten-minute delay between the main course and dessert, the server looked at me as though I had just asked for some intimate time with her mother. Happily, Finland’s other many attractions more than make up for this.
Restaurants close early even in the summer, so don’t do the Maltese thing of popping in for dinner at 9PM, or you’ll be facing a very bad case of the hangries. Unless you’re brave enough to try one of the Fizza kiosks, which promise ‘fresh pizza at any time in three minutes’ as long as you insert the correct change. What they actually deliver, though, is sadness and desperation.
Oh yeah – don’t bother buying water. Bottled water is ludicrously expensive because buying it is very much optional and a luxury. Tap water is perfectly potable and you’ll find drinking fountains everywhere, so make sure you keep a refillable bottle handy. Restaurants will also offer tap water as a matter of course.
Watch out for – Finland is notoriously expensive. Even the most basic meal with set you back a minimum of €50 per person. Alcohol is prohibitively expensive, and it is taken for granted that when asking for wine you mean a glass, as opposed to the entire bottle. If you’re taking the ferry from Tallinn, don’t scoff at the Finns carting cratefuls of duty-free booze. Join them and get a couple of bottles of your favourite tipple to last throughout your stay.
Where to stay – We used Radisson Hotels throughout our stay in Finland. In Helsinki we opted for the Radisson Blu Royal, bang in the centre. The standard rooms are spacious, sound-proofed and have blackout curtains (you’ll need them in summer, when the sun is trying to peek into your room at midnight).
The buffet breakfast is very busy, but also very good – I couldn’t get enough of the fresh waffles, and they did make a mean coffee which is unusual at hotel chains. This being Finland, we also had access to the sauna, which we did make good use of. Works wonders to soothe the muscles after a day of non-stop walking.
In Turku we opted for the Radisson Blu Marina Palace and we splurged on a riverside room. Pricey, but very much worth the money. The service here was a touch above the rest – our reservation got lost and not only did they sort everything out despite the hotel being very busy, but they also threw in a discount. The room itself was the sort that makes you want to lounge about with a glass of wine, which we did, with a view of the promenade from within the room itself thanks to the glass facade. Breakfast was superior to the usual 5-star fare and I was impressed by how well they cater for specific nutrition needs. My hack – download the Radisson app and make full use of all the discounts. You can shave off a good 15 per cent of your total bill by booking through that.
When to go – I mean, Finland and snow go hand in hand, so there is that to consider. In my case I just wanted so mild sunshine and the possibility of walking around without freezing my butt off, so July was the perfect time to visit. Visiting the islands during winter is probably not feasible unless you really know your way around, so that’s also a good reason to pick the warmer weather.
Getting there – There are no direct flights from Malta to Helsinki. We took a Ryanair flight to Tallinn, Estonia and took the Tallink ferry straight to Helsinki.