As is true with many cities in Europe, biking is a popular mode of transport in Helsinki, especially during summer. Even the hotel where we were staying offered free use of bikes for its guests. Unfortunately, they only have one left available by the time I came to ask and the rental office somewhere nearby doesn't open until an hour later. We were so ready for exploration anyway so even without bikes, we set off . . . to walk around the city.
We started our sneaker-shoes journey by heading straight for the Senate Square, the city's most historic public open space designed in the early 1800s. Right in the center of the square is a monument dedicated to the Russian tsar Alexander II (after Finland's annexation to Russia). Behind the monument stands the Lutheran Cathedral, a looming neoclassical structure in white and green that's clearly Helsinki's most recognizable. Since it was still early in the morning and there were not yet tour buses disgorging tourists, we lingered a bit and savored the architectural beauty all around us without the usual crowd.
Just close to the Senate Square, our eyes wandered into this 1762 house designed by Carl Ludvig Engel (credited with building many of the elegant buildings in St. Petersburg, Russia). A moment into framing my shot on this ocher facade with Ionic columns, a toddler runs followed by a mom pushing his stroller. My day just got all the more exciting!
Futher on, we stumbled into the Finnish War College and Military Museum, formerly a barracks built sometime in the 1880s. My knowledge of Scandinavian history is nil so I never thought this country would be involved in some war but in fact it was - with Russia from 1801-1809 and the Soviet Union during the so-called Winter War from 1939-1940.
We came expecting to be wowed by what's considered Helsinki's oldest remaining wooden house that dates back from the early 1800s. Called the Burger's House, it stands lonely and rather unimpressive amongst the taller brick buildings within the very quiet neighborhood of Kristianinkatu. There's a small museum inside.
We left the Burger's House and walked into Hesburger, Finland's own version of McDonalds. It's so popular (in the same way that Jollibee is to Pinoys) that it's got branches in Germany and in the Baltic states. We tried the burger and fries combo and swear it really tastes way better than McDonalds. There's something about the condiment they use that goes with the beef patty - it leans more on the sweet side which is what my Pinoy tastebud is partial to.
This being summer, the flowers are in bloom and where else could this be more revealing than in the Botanical Gardens of the University of Helsinki, right in the middle of Kaisaniemi Park. We walked through the park, down its maze of winding paths and wondered aloud how this place would look like in the dead of winter.
But on a glorious summer day like this, expect the Finns to go out - and bare it out, like these two guys on a motor boat along the Siltavuorensalmi.
Or perhaps, the younger Finns will troop to the movie houses and watch the Finnish version of "Eclipse".
Our DIY walking tour ends where most journeys begin and terminate in the city: at the Helsinki Central Railway Station (or Helsingin päärautatieasema if you can say it in Finnish in one breath). Opened in 1919, the facade features towering sculptures holding lamps which are vaguely reminiscent of pharaonic Egypt. Above the tracks, what seem like a web of steel hold the glass ceilings in place. As a major hub, this is Helsinki at its most frenetic. But as visitors, we're definitely taking our time here. After all, my feet is already sore.