Fortresses & Coffee, Helsinki (Day 2)

Day two in Helsinki started with an interesting challenge – how to set up the shower and then take a shower.  You see, the bathroom in our hotel room was the size of a small closet (corner sink, toilet, and a shower head/pipes like this).  There was a little space between the toilet and the wall, close to the shower head and a curtain.  It was a tight squeeze, and  I won’t say showing over a toilet is my preferred method, but it got the job done, so I can’t really complain.

It was raining outside, so we settled on tackling breakfast/brunch and a trip to an art museum in the AM and reassessed to see if the rain would stop in the afternoon.  There was a light drizzle as we exited the hotel, which turned into a downpour as we neared our destination – Karl Fazer Cafe.  I’d like to say we ate there, but there was a line that wasn’t moving and it looked like (around) a two hour wait.  As such, we popped out and went to the #2 brunch destination in town – La Torrefazione.  This was a little, upstairs cafe maybe 4-5 blocks away.  We settled into a table next to a floor to ceiling window and waited for our orders of sandwiches and hot chocolate/coffee.  Here I was served the best hot chocolate of my life.  No hyperbole.  It was perfect.  Jim also said it was the best coffee he’s had in a very long time (France isn’t really known for great coffee).  The sandwiches were equally tasty & just what we needed.  As I savored my hot chocolate, I gazed out the window with rock music playing over head, watching the Finns outside.  That’s when it hit me.  Helsinki is the Seattle of Europe…and I fell a little bit in love.

Once recharged, we set forth for our first museum trip – Ateneum, which is Finland’s “premiere” art gallery featuring Finnish art.  We started in the portraits gallery (which was backwards), which housed self-portraits of various Finnish painters.  As we continued through the rooms, we found paintings by those artists.  What was interesting here was the importance of portraits to Finns and understanding the work.  Art spanned the 18th century to modern pieces, taking you on a historical Finnish art journey throughout the museum (though it also houses foreign art, as well – I saw a Chagall I loved).  The featured exhibition was actually an American portrait artist – Alice Neel, who painted from 1926 and 1984, really coming to prominence during the 1970s feminist movement.  I had not been familiar with Alice Neel nor her work.  While I can appreciate the combination of realism and expressionism and messages of the times (and her state of mind, relationships) in the art, I found much of her work to follow a somber tone (though that may have been due more to reading the meanings behind the works, which weren’t necessarily happy).  Regardless, if you’re interested in seeing a great culmination of Finnish art, this is a definite must visit.

The rain was replaced with bright sun, and we next set out to visit the Fortress of Finland – Suomenlinna.  Just a short ferry ride away, we bought our tickets and sat back to enjoy the ride.

Founded in 1748 while Finland was part of Sweden, Suomenlinna was originally referred to as Sveborg (which is still on the ferries and signage today).  Throughout history, Sveborg has served as a naval base throughout many wars.  The Finnish War of 1808 saw the fortress surrendered to Russia, where it remained a Russian naval base until the Finnish Civil War of 1918 when it was annexed and renamed Suomenlinna.   It’s no surprise residents (with great pride) refer to this land as their “national treasure.”  In 1991, Suomenlinna was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites as a unique monument to military architecture.

Armed with a map, we set out to explore the islands by foot, starting at the Main Quay (photo of me above, Helsinki is in the distant background) and ending at the King’s Gate quay (photo of Jim below).

The weather was perfect, just a little windy and very damp.  It was a lot of walking, but truly beautiful views along the way with churches, restaurants/cafes, museums, dry-docks, submarines, etc.  This is the perfect way to spend a nice day in Helsinki.  And, like our waitress from Olo, we would NOT recommend coming out here if it’s even sort of sprinkling or raining (it’d be muddy & miserable).

We decided to do a little city sight-seeing before dinner and grabbed another coffee/hot chocolate from Fratello (La Torrefazione’s sister cafe) to sip as we visited Tuomiokirkko, a Lutheran Cathedral visible from almost every Helsinki photo you might see.  It’s also known for its sky high stairs (a reminder of God’s supremacy).  Along with the Esplanade Park and Rautatientori (Railway Square), which also houses the Finnish National Theatre.

Following the sight seeing, we got ourselves cleaned up made our way to our second Helsinki dinner at Ravintola Kuu.  Up until now, everything we’d done in Helsinki was within relatively close walking distance.  Kuu, however, was a good 25 minute walk from downtown, but it was worth it.  The restaurant was warm, cozy, and completely packed.  The food was also delicious here, and we especially loved the salmon soup, the reindeer steak, and pistachio cake.  Jim and I joked that I had never been faced with the actuality of a reindeer until it was served to me in Finland (I guess I always thought it was just part of the Santa Claus myth).  After eating it, I feel the culinary world has been holding out on me.  Now, if you have never had reindeer, let me tell you it is the most tender and delicious meat.  It was like filet mignon, but a little gamier.  As good as the food was, the real star was our waitress.  She was a real trip and full of interesting Finnish factoids.  For example, We learned a reindeer cannot be farm raised.  They just walk hundreds of miles foraging and such up to Norway and back down to Finland.  So, reindeer mostly stay in Finland (this was in response to me gushing about how much I liked it).  Additionally, she told us a tale about Finnish cheese, figs, and crackers.  She said this was a Finnish meal fit for men working in the forest, as it would give them the energy they needed to do whatever it is that Finnish men in the forest do.  As an add-on, the crackers/hard, unleavened bread we were served is referred to as “school bread” in Finland.  She said all Finnish households serve this bread, as it is the bread provided all through elementary/middle/high school in Finland.  Full disclosure, this bread had been brought to us when we first sat down with butter we tried it.  It tasted good (a bit like straight rye), but it was hard as a rock.  The waitress then told us later, “You know, in Sweden they add wheat and sugar to this bread.  We wouldn’t dream of doing that in Finland.”  We got a good chuckle out of that one, and this conversation became a recurring topic as we traveled through to Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo, and Bergen (spoiler alert – it’s better with wheat & sugar).

After dinner, we opted for a cocktail at the rooftop bar in the Torvi hotel, which boasted of panoramic views of the city called Ateljee Bar.  It was a beautiful view, but probably would’ve been better in the daylight, as you can see from my photo below.  In addition to the bar having a great view, the bathrooms also have amazing near floor to ceiling windows with views of the city.   I’d recommend this, just a little earlier.


All in all, a full Day 2 in Helsinki.  Wouldn’t change a thing.


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