Helsinki, Finland - Stein Travel
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Helsinki

The mean annual temperature in efficient, elegant Helsinki hovers around 43°F (6°C), but this does not mean visitors need expect a chilly welcome. The funky Finns, known for their hip and happening sense of style, design and association with high technology, know how to warm hearts and minds in their modern, cosmopolitan capital.

The city, spread across a cluster of promontories and peninsulas, is 450 years old, its clean, wide avenues lined with buildings echoing centuries of architectural excellence from Gothic through Art Deco to cutting-edge contemporary. It all fits together in total harmony with nature, which invades the urban environment with green spaces when it is not blanketed in snow. Trees, flowers, hares, squirrels, pheasants and even the odd elk are often spied in the myriad parks in the centre of the city, the whole surrounded with crisp, unpolluted air and the bright blue waters of the Baltic Sea.

Despite the cold climate, the invigorating outdoors beckons in Helsinki even in the middle of winter. Recreation takes the form of ice skating, skiing, ice-fishing, sailing, cycling, soaking in saunas, or during the short-lived summer, sunbathing. After action, sit tucked in a rug outside one of the many street-side bars sipping hot 'gloggi' (spiced wine) and watch the wintry world go by. The city is also ideal for walking, the sights all concentrated in the central area beneath the towering cathedrals.

The great outdoors is also the setting for Helsinki's numerous festivals and fairs, like the May Day Carnival, October Herring Festival, the Helsinki City Marathon, annual Samba carnival and the midsummer festival, to name but a few. Events do move indoors when it comes to the city's rich cultural life, featuring some of the world's finest orchestras and choirs, rock concerts, film festivals, the Finnish National Opera and Ballet performances, and the output of countless theatre and dance troupes.

Whether visited as a snowy winter wonderland or scenic sun-splashed cityscape with almost permanent daylight, Helsinki is a unique destination that will delight the heart of any traveller.

Information & Facts

Climate

Helsinki has a climate that is transitional between maritime and continental. Summers are warm and bright, temperatures ranging from a cool 59°F (15°C) up to a hot 86°F (30°C) in the warmest month of July. Days are long and sunny, with up to 19 hours of daylight. Towards the end of September temperatures cool down drastically as days grow shorter, and by November the weather is at freezing point as the cold, snowy winter sets in. The city is blanketed by snow in winter, temperatures plummeting well below freezing to the point where the sea itself freezes over, and it is never fully daylight. Spring arrives late, in early April.

Getting Around

Helsinki has a simple and extremely efficient public transport system, rated one of the best in Europe, making it easy to hop onto trams, buses, the metro or a ferry with a single ticket purchased from the driver, ticket machines or even by SMS on a mobile phone. Special tourist tickets are available for visitors allowing for one, three or five days unlimited use of the public transport system. When the weather is good, why ride when you can walk? The city is so compact and pleasant that getting around on foot is an attractive option. Alternatively, in summer make use of the hundreds of kilometres of bike trails by picking up a bicycle for a small coin deposit at one of the bike racks dotted around the city centre. There are also plenty of taxis available to be hailed, ordered by telephone or boarded at one of the many taxi ranks. A car in the easily navigable city poses no problems, and there are several car hire agencies available.

Kids Attractions

There are many things for kids to do in Helsinki, including visiting the Helsinki Zoo on Korkeasaari Island or the interactive Heureka Science Centre. There are many parks in Helsinki that offer space to run around in, with Sinebrychoffin puisto being popular in the wintertime for sledding. Pihlajasaari Recreational Park has a nice beach, but look carefully where you go, as some areas are designated for nudists.

Language

Finnish and Swedish share status as Finland's official languages. Sami is spoken by the isolated population group in Lapland. English is taught at schools and is widely understood.

Money

The Euro (EUR) is the official currency of Finland. One Euro = 100 cents. Banks, ATMs and bureaux de change are available in all cities and airports; banks are closed on weekends. American Express, Diner's Club, Eurocard, Access, MasterCard and Visa are accepted in hotels, restaurants, and larger shops. Travellers cheques can be cashed in Helsinki and large cities, but ATMs are the easiest and most economical way to get cash.

Night Life

Helsinki may be cold, but the pulsating nightlife is enough to get this city hot and sweaty. With a number of trendy nightclubs, bars and pubs, visitors will have no problem making full use of the long, dark winter nights. Most of the nightlife in Helsinki is centred round Uudenmaankatu and Eerikinkatu where bars and clubs abound and crossing from one to the other is a quick dash across the cold street. Finns love their tango music too so expect to find plenty of sultry dancing in restaurants, bars and even the streets during the summer months, with the favourite outdoor dancing spot being Pavin tanssilava, in nearby Vantaa.

No visit to Helsinki is complete without seeing the famous Arctic Ice Bar at La Bodega, with its frigid temperature making for great photo opportunities even if it's overrun with tourists. The entry fee includes parka rental if you come unprepared. Head to the stylish Bar 9 in Uudenmaankatu 9 for a night out with the local trendoids, or neighbouring Bar Tapasta where the ultra-hip mingle while sipping on designer beers and nibbling on tapas. Con Hombres in Eerikinkatu 27 is the place to be seen working up a sweat to local techno music in the gay scene, while Stockholm Diskotek in Simonkatu 8 boasts three storeys, six bars and hundreds of Helsinki's hottest people partying the night away. For live music, Nosturi in Telakkakatu 8 is where some of Helsinki's hottest new bands showcase their talents while On the Rocks in Mikonkatu 15 is great for those looking for a heavy rock gig and a little moshing for good measure.

For a more cultured evening, head to Finlandia Hall for the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and other concert performances (this is the home of Sibelius after all). The Finnish National Opera performs regularly, and Helsinki's thriving jazz scene is personified in the UMO Jazz Orchestra, which plays at various venues around town.

For updated concert listings and gig guides, pick up a copy of the Helsinki Guide, available for free at most hotels and tourist centres.

Shopping

Home to bustling market places, luxury boutiques, enormous department stores and the largest shopping mall in the Nordic countries, shopping in Helsinki has its fair share of opportunities. They may not always be cheap, but the quality of the goods makes them worth their sometimes hefty price tags. Best buys in Helsinki include reindeer furs, Nordic wool, traditional wooden kitchen utensils and jewellery made out of Finland's national gemstone, spectrolite, which captures the magnificent blues and greens of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). You can also find liquors made from locally-grown cloudberries, cranberries, and Arctic brambleberries that make unique and special Helsinki souvenirs. Head to Itäkeskus in East Helsinki, the biggest shopping centre in Scandinavia, where nearly 240 shops selling everything from clothing and shoes to sports equipment and cameras will keep you on your toes. The Sello shopping centre in Espoo in the west of the city provides a slightly less exhausting day of spending and the Stockmann department store on the Aleksanterinkatum, which has become somewhat of an institution in Helsinki, sells everything from electrical goods and clothing to make up and teddy bears. Shopping streets in Helsinki include Aleksanterinkatu, Eerikinkatu, Fredrikinkatu and Uudenmaankatu where boutiques and specialist stores can be found. Market Square at the eastern end of Esplanadi is undoubtedly one of Helsinki's most popular tourist attractions and a great place to scoop up some souvenirs, especially during the spring and autumn months when the vendors are selling fresh Finnish produce, souvenirs and trinkets abound and the mix of Finns and international visitors make this vibrant market electric. Petrolheads should visit the market on the first Friday of the month when a display of old American cars lines the seaside square, while October brings much excitement as the annual Helsinki herring market takes place. Shops in Helsinki are generally open from 9am to 5:30pm from Monday to Friday while on Saturdays stores only stay open until 2pm and remain closed on Sundays.

Sightseeing

Straddling islands and lapped by the Baltic sea, Helsinki is a uniquely attractive and interesting city to visit. Many travellers choose to enjoy the sea air and enjoy the walk along the seaside which covers around four miles (7 km), taking visitors along Lapinlahti Bay past sights like the Sibelius Monument, Seurasaari Open-Air Museum, Hietaniemi Beach, a mini golf course and Mäntyniemi , the official residence of the President of Finland. The best time to enjoy this stretch of coastline is on a warm summer's day.

Visit the old Swedish fortress of Suomenlinna, admire the engineering genius of the Temppeliaukio Church (Church in the rock), have your picture taken in front of the Uspenski Cathedral or sip on a cup of coffee while you watch the world go by in neoclassical Senate Square. More active visitors should hire a bike and make their way around this picturesque city as it has an impressive network of bicycle routes.

Travellers should look into buying the Helsinki Card which entitles the bearer to unlimited free travel on public transport within the Helsinki area, free admission to a number of the city's and provides discounts on restaurants and other activities around Helsinki. Helsinki Cards are available for 24, 48 or 72 hours and prices start from EUR34.

Time

Local time is GMT +2 (GMT +3 from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October).

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