As of writing this, I have spent the day walking Helsinki with a French guy named Lucas. He was a perfect companion for the day. He was another photographer, enthusiastic traveler, and enough of a nerd to enter a design museum with me. We walked the city from dawn to dusk—albeit the Finnish sort, (9 am to 3:30pm.)
Helsinki is an attractive city, though, it isn’t quite as inspiring to me as Tallinn. Rather, inspiring in a different way.
Where Tallinn was cozy, organic, medieval and romantic, Helsinki is built on a grid and made up of buildings from the 18th and 19th century. Though certainly attractive as a whole, they don’t have the same individual character as Tallinn’s lilting medieval remnants.
Lucas and I started touring the streets just before sunrise. There were practically no people about, so we had the historic center to ourselves.
After a couple hours of walking about, we were freezing and ready to rest our feet. Lucas wanted to see the city library, and he led me there. Somewhere I wouldn’t have ended up otherwise—and it was absolutely my sorta place.
I am a passionate urbanist and I believe robust public spaces improve peoples lives by making their experience of the worldmore comfortable, convenient and pleasurable, as well as by promoting serendipitous encounters with strangers and therefore strengthening community. Libraries are perfect avenues to reach those goals, but only if they are more than just the collection of books. In recent years, cities across the globe have been striving to create more utilitarian libraries and other public spaces, and the library in Helsinki is a prime example.
Public study rooms, maker spaces, music studios, gaming spaces; there were loads of useful spaces within the library, as well as comfortable sitting spaces, a cafe and a restaurant. The building was three floors and only the third had any books. The book-lending element should never be lost, but it is lovely to see a city creating a space that is so expressly designed simply for its people to spend time in within.
That said, the place may be a little over designed… It has a lovely feel, but aesthetic architecture can go too far. I would never expect every new library in North Carolina to be quite like this, but we could stand to learn a few lessons from such progressive design.
We got lunch at a city market by the docks. It was full of wooden stalls, most of which were sadly closed. What was open was a Japanese restaurant from which we got fried pork over rice (Lucas) and chicken dumplings (me).
When later sharing photos, my family pointed out that this market was visited by the host of one of our favorite travel shows. Phil Rosenthal stars in Somebody Feed Phil, a lighthearted culinary travel show that I’d highly recommend checking out on Netflix when you get the chance.
From there we wandered though a park, to a closed observatory, through a street lined by embassies of every possible security level. The American Embassy was an expansive fortress lined with security cameras, 10ft tall walls and massive steel gates. By the time we reached the end of the street, passing the UK, France, Brazil and Italy, we encountered the quaint Danish embassy, which had nothing but a garden gate as a barrier. We stopped by a local grocery store, something I always enjoy doing when visiting a new country.
Finally, we ended our day at the Design Museum here in Helsinki, which is right up my alley. I adore learning about the minutia about every day things and the long stories that go into their creation and benefits to our lives. I focused on the museum, so I have no photos, but if you’re interested, some of the museum’s exhibits can be explored in 3D online for free! Just follow this link.
Helsinki really struck me and not in the way European cities typically do. Helsinki felt more North American with its wide streets, grid layout and plethora of modern development. Yet, the city is kind of an urbanist’s dream. Trams, buses and metro are so common that you’d have to go out of your way to find somewhere you couldn’t get to via public transit. There were no parts of the city that felt uninhabited, with locals pushed out by tourism or business. Instead, everything from laundromats to apartments and luxury restaurants all occupied the same spaces.
It’s a place I could definitely see myself living. Lucas, in fact, encouraged me to look into programs at his University in Norway, seeing how much I liked Helsinki. Apparently Oslo is an amazing city, and one for another trip.
The following are images from an enormously long wall of printed artwork near one of the many ports of Helsinki. This is hardly a quarter of what is there, but I hope you enjoy the snapshot.