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Tuomiokirkko Cathedral, Helsinki

A tale of three cities

Part two: Helsinki

After travelling from Stockholm to Finland by boat, Penny Bunting and family explore the capital city of Helsinki

Tuomiokirkko Cathedral, Helsinki

We arrived in Helsinki by train from Turku – the excellent, efficient train service whisked us straight to the central station in the heart of the city.

From here it's possible to take a tram or hop-on-hop-off bus to any part of Helsinki. There are a huge number of interesting attractions, museums and experiences in the capital. And if you're planning a lot of sightseeing, a Helsinki Card is a good idea. The card gets you free entry into 20 different attractions, as well as a free travel on public transport, and various sightseeing tours.

One of our recommended tours is the Beautiful Canal Route boat tour, which takes you on a scenic cruise through the waters surrounding Helsinki, passing under several low canal bridges and offering a great view of the city's coastline – and a different perspective of the city.

Islands in Helsinki harbour
City skyline, Helsinki

The tour heads out of the harbour towards the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress Island, giving you a glimpse of this fascinating, historic landmark (more about this later).

There are tiny, forested islands dotted throughout the harbour. Many of these islands have picturesque wooden cabins sitting on the shorelines – idyllic summer homes for city residents.

Make sure you wrap up warm for the tour – even on warm days in midsummer, it can get cold out on the water, and we were glad of our warm fleeces.

The Beautiful Canal Route tour sets sail from the pier alongside Helsinki's vibrant and colourful Kauppatori Market Square. Here you'll find dozens of stalls selling fresh fruit and flowers, as well as affordable souvenirs and high-quality handicrafts. There are plenty of eating options too, with street food stands preparing everything from hotdogs and pizzas to vegetable-stuffed crepes and locally caught seafood.

Summer cabins on islands in Helsinki harbour
Vegetables, Kauppatori Market, Helsinki
Tomatoes, Kauppatori Market, Helsinki
Cherries, Kauppatori Market, Helsinki
Sunflowers, Kauppatori Market, Helsinki

From the market square it's a short stroll up to the Tuomiokirkko Cathedral. The white towers of this imposing building – particularly striking against a blue summer sky – dominate the city skyline. The cathedral was built in the nineteenth century, and is reached by a high flight of steps – a popular hangout for locals, and resting spot for weary tourists.

Fountain, Helsinki
Tuomiokirkko Cathedral, view of street, Helsinki
Tuomiokirkko Cathedral rooftops, Helsinki

From the square immediately below the cathedral, the brightly coloured Hop On Hop Off sightseeing buses depart for a tour around the prominent landmarks of the city. There are 15 stops where you can join or leave the tour (the ticket, free with Helsinki Card, is valid for 24 hours) or you can stay on board for the complete tour, which takes about two hours. It's a good way to see a lot of the city and get your bearings. Look out for the Bad Bad Boy statue along the way (you can't really miss it, it's huge) – an amusing and slightly bizarre 8.5m model of a boy taking a sneaky pee.

One of the stops on the bus tour is Kiasma – Helsinki's Museum of Contemporary Art. Part of the Finnish National Gallery, Kiasma mainly focuses on Finnish and Scandinavian contemporary artists from the 1970s to the present day.

This innovative and absorbing modern art gallery is housed in a stunning, contemporary building of metal and glass. Inside, the gallery's curvaceous galleries house a series of modern art exhibitions, ranging from fascinating to far-out. Expect the unexpected, with plenty of interactive elements that will keep children entertained. One of our favourite exhibits was a dancing pot plant – connect your smartphone or MP3 player to a special unit, and watch the potted palm twirl to your favourite tunes.

Helsinki Central train station

View of the city from the harbour

Summer cabins

Imposing statues at Helsinki Central train station

For more conventional art, head to Atenum, near the central train station. Here Finnish paintings and sculptures from late 19th century through to the mid twentieth century are displayed in a building that dates from 1887.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

One of the most popular sights in Helsinki is the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site set on a cluster of small islands that are connected by bridges. Admission to Suomenlinna's museums, along with the short ferry ride to reach the islands, is included with a Helsinki Card.

Suomenlinna Sea Fortress

Suomenlinna Sea Fortress dates back to 1748, and was built during the Swedish era. A blue-marked walking trail leads visitors around the islands, and to all the main attractions.

The Suomenlinna museum is the first point of interest that many visitors head for. Giving a fascinating insight into the history of Suomenlinna, the museum looks at life in the naval base from the 18th century, through the Swedish, Russian and Finnish eras, to the present day.

Vesikko submarine controls

Another must-see attraction on the islands is the Submarine Vesikko. We had to queue for 15 minutes or so to get into the submarine – there's only enough space, within the submarine's cramped interior, for a handful of visitors at a time – but it was worth it, especially as none of us had been inside a submarine before.

Once inside, we were able to find out what life within this tiny space might have been like. Vesikko operated in the Finnish navy during World War Two, from 1939-44, and is the only submarine of its kind in Finland.

There's a bewildering bank of controls, tiny bunks where the passengers slept, and a narrow corridor-like galley kitchen. Life on board must have been noisy, hot and claustrophobic – and after 20 minutes we were glad to get back out into the fresh air and sunshine.

Perhaps one of the best ways to enjoy Suomenlinna is to simply wander, exploring the various bunkers, tunnels and crumbling fortress walls along the way. There are plenty of grassy slopes where you can enjoy a picnic, and there's even a diminutive beach – a good spot for a paddle on a warm day.

Read Part One: Stockholm to Turku

Suomenlinna Sea Fortress bunker

Where to stay

Ideally located just minutes from Helsinki Central railway station, Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel is an eco-friendly option that's stylish, friendly and comfortable.

Rooms are spacious, with comfortable beds and spotless, gleaming bathrooms featuring complimentary, natural toiletries by This Works. The buffet breakfast – served in a grand, high-ceilinged hall that dates back to 1917 – is outstanding, with an extensive range of fresh and delicious food.

The hotel supports the World Childhood Foundation – an organization that works to defend the rights of the child and promote better living conditions for vulnerable and exploited children all over the world.

Read our full review of Radisson Blu Plaza Helsinki.

Radisson Blu Plaza Helsinki

Green Adventures March 2018