The adventure so far:
We arrived in Helsinki on time and intact, though a little tired. Thankfully, Helsinki is a strikingly welcoming place to get around as a family. From the comfortable changing stations in all the restrooms, to the free ‘strollers’ to use in the airport, it really shows that they value accessibility for parents. On top of this, even though it’s the largest airport in the country, the Helsinki-Vantaa airport felt largely empty. There were no crowds, no big lines at customs. We were through and waiting for baggage in a matter of minutes.
From there, we followed the signs to the train to the city. Helsinki has a new-ish direct high speed train that takes you downtown in about 25 minutes. It too was clean, accessible, and quiet. We enjoyed the trip through so many green fields and trees! So nice after leaving from Los Angeles in the summer.
Once we got to the central station, we got on the local train out to the neighborhood where our Airbnb was. Again, easy and clean. We’d looked up the stations and trains before going (you can never be too prepared) so we made it with minimal confusion. I use this system across the world. Though in northern Europe, you can just about count on signage in English, or locals who can answer your questions, it’s good to have an idea of what stops, what direction, and if applicable what color line you’re looking for. This kind of down to the details research has saved me, especially in places like Shanghai or Tokyo, where the language barrier is worse.
Our condo was in Ruoholahti, which isn’t quite the center of town, but also isn’t far. Helsinki isn’t a big place in general, so between walking, biking, and the easy on/off trams around the city, we felt plenty in the middle of it all. We rented a three bedroom flat that was spacious and homey. Our hosts were very nice and accommodating. By American standards European Airbnbs are usually a mix as they tend to go heavy on the location, and light on a few amenities most of us are used to. Dishwashers are rare in the smaller units, as are clothes dryers. However, it was a MUCH better deal for us than a hotel. Hotels are expensive, lack the ability to do your own cooking, and don’t have separate rooms to put the baby to bed in. For stays longer than a night or two, it’s a great option.
We settled in and took a much needed nap, and then headed out to explore the city for a bit. It was high summer, some of the nicest weather they’d had yet in the season, and still the city was very easy to get around and lacked big crowds at the major attractions. So, so nice when you’re bringing the baby around. At times we could even let her walk down the sidewalks next to us without worrying she would run into anyone.
She LOVED it, and even got used to how to get to the train station, and what train to get on. This kid was made for this town!
We got dinner at- you guessed it- Vapiano our first night. Why break with tradition. As advertised, it was good quality and affordable. I will say we actually had a harder time than expected finding restaurants in this city. Between their limited hours, and menus it was hard to agree on, we did a bit of wandering around. If we go back, that’s one thing I would research more.
The next day, more rested, we set out to enjoy the nature in and around Helsinki of which there’s plenty. We headed up the shore from our flat to check out the open air museum, which is an island park that has quite a number of traditional buildings on display amidst the forest. Again, it was very quiet and no crowds.
The ‘museum’ was free to wander around. Tickets were only required for guided tours and events. The island also has a bathhouse, as well as several beach areas. We took a loop trail through, but we had more things to do in the day, so we didn’t spend hours.
This walk also takes you past one of the most advertised (as much as anything is in Helsinki) attractions. The Sebelius Monument is one of the iconic sights in the city. You can walk around and through it, which makes for some fun pictures.
Before going, we’d looked up what to do as a family in Helsinki, and came across a fun and unique museum called the “Childrens’ Town.” It’s indoors, in the city center, and best of all- Free! We made a point to check it out, and it was a hit! It consists of two floors of the building and has a bunch of different exhibits, all of which are play-with-able. There’s a farmyard, a boat, a puppet show, a store, a classroom, and more.
The exhibits highlight Finnish society and history, in a playful kid-friendly way. The upper floors of the City Museum have adult exhibits that we also had a walk though. What was particularly striking about taking Baby Flyer here was how clean and safe it was. This was due to the design, but also simply to how conscientious and respectful the other patrons were. Parents were attentive, and were meticulous in tidying up after their kids were done playing. The museum didn’t need a big staff, and was therefore able to be free, likely in part due to this. It was so refreshing!
I’ll also take the time to say that while the city didn’t have all that many people in it (which isn’t just our perception, the entire country has only about 5 million people-less than the population of LA County alone) there were plenty of other babies and kids around. There were a fair share of strollers on the sidewalks, and yes, both here and especially in Copenhagen we did see some babies napping in their strollers outside shops and restaurants while their parents were inside.
This would seem unbelievable in America, and has in fact, gotten some expats in trouble with CPS unwittingly. However, these cities are very safe, and kidnapping is almost unheard of. It’s estimated there have been about 3 reported kidnappings in Copenhagen in the last 30 years or so, and if the story is true, some of those were mistaken acts by thieves just trying to take property without realizing they’d managed to take a snoozing baby as well.
We weren’t quite that brave, and Baby Flyer wasn’t feeling the stroller napping too often on this trip anyway. She much preferred to be out of the stroller and exploring on her own two feet.
We visited two more of the main attractions on our visit- the Fortress at Suomenlinna, and the Helsinki Zoo. The former we’d looked up before going, and had put on the list, while the latter seemed to be the place every local we managed to get to actually talk to us (the Finns are notorious for being a bit shy and reserved, a trait that Baby Flyer spent the entire four days trying to cure them of through forced games of peek-a-boo and other antics, at times much to their discomfort) suggested we go. This was true from the first locals we met on the flight over, to our hosts, to waitstaff.
Suomenlinna is a world heritage site situated on an island near the city center, and ferries run all day and are reasonably priced. You can get a simple round trip, or an island hopper ticket that lets you stop at a few more of the smaller islands in the harbor to explore. Suomenlinna itself is a large site with both relics of the old fortifications, and more modern buildings and restaurants and cafes. There’s plenty of nature, and a playground that Baby Flyer thoroughly enjoyed. Even better, just getting there on the boat was a cause for absolute joy.
We spent a few hours walking around and taking in the sights. As always is the case when traveling with toddlers, sometimes the best parts are impromptu. In this case, Baby Flyer’s favorite part was the flocks of wild geese wandering around that were quite tame, yet not aggressive. We had to console her for quite awhile when it was time to say bye bye to the birds to head back to the mainland. Luckily for her, these were far from the last birds she’d get to commune with on our trip.
The next day we did a little shopping and sightseeing, and then caught yet another boat- yes, in Helsinki, everything is boats- to the Zoo. Now, I think that you can learn a lot about the entire Finnish culture just from a quick walk through the Helsinki Zoo. I mean this in a good way, hear me out.
The culture, to an outsider, in many ways revolves around respect. Respect for other people’s interests and boundaries, and respect for the world and nature. You see this everywhere- people are reserved, almost unnervingly so to the common American, but they’re not pushy, they don’t assume, and public spaces are clean and safe. Likewise, their parks dominate the city, and tend toward the more natural, less manicured.
So now the Zoo. It likewise was beautiful and unlike any Zoo I’ve been to. There was as much open, non-cage and enclosure space as there was areas where the animals were kept. What’s more, the animals in most cases had so much space that they weren’t visible to us much at all. It was a statement that the wants of the animals were as important as our desire to see them. It’s not to say we didn’t see some, but more often than not….we just had to take their word for it that there was something in the enclosure.
None of this bothered Baby Flyer in the least, though we adults did get a pretty good laugh out of it. Since the Zoo takes up a small island of its own, there’s also beautiful views to be had as you wander around. Even more importantly, there were…. more birds for Baby Flyer.
After walking around most all of the major exhibits, and stopping for some ice cream, we headed back to the ferry to the City. We got dinner on one of the main shopping streets on the way back, and enjoyed some of the truly amazingly high quality street performers that seemed iconic of the city. A far cry from the ‘guy with a keyboard’ or ‘bucket drummer duo’ we used to happen upon in the Boston subway now and then.
Summer in Helsinki means mild temps, and long evenings as the light doesn’t really fade out until close to 11pm. It’s a perfect time to go and enjoy this modern-yet-historic city. This year Finland celebrated 100 years of independence, which in comparison to its neighbors isn’t much at all. Over the land’s history there has been plenty of influence in from cultures far older, and the country’s largest city reflects this- Swedish and Danish design elements, wide soviet-style street plans and squares, all with native Soumi sensibility. They’re low on cars, big on education, lake houses and saunas, and everything is nature.
I think we all agreed we were glad we’d been able to make the trip, and wouldn’t mind coming back. As a parting thought, we also got a new appreciation for a good gin & tonic! Having a cocktail with lunch (and or dinner) on vacation is a fun treat, and the one of choice featured local Napue gin, and cranberries for color. It was so good, we grabbed a bottle to take home from duty free on our return flight!
After our 4 days, it was sadly time to move on to our next port of call- literally- We had a boat to catch!
Nakemiin, Helsinki…. off to Tallinn, Estonia!
~CET, CAR & Baby Flyer