Norway, Denmark, and Sweden were all incredible countries with a lot to offer. We decided to add one more country to top our Scandinavia trip off, and we were glad we did. Finland was pretty amazing, and as draining as our whirlwind trip was, we felt we topped it all of on a high note. With a limited amount of time there; we tried to cram as much as we could in a short time, but ended it on an amazing experience at one of the greatest Finnish traditions, the sauna.
We were lucky enough to find a night cruise from Stockholm to Helsinki through Viking Line Cruises. We set sail on the Gabriella Cruise ship, and got a private room (with private bathroom) for $104 total! Our private room had 4 beds, so if you travel there with multiple people it is a steal. Even with the 3 of us it breaks down to about $35 per person for travel and lodging! Can’t beat that. The cruise is complete with all the bells and whistles of restaurants, bars, play areas, arcades, and shopping… there is plenty to do and eat. For us, it was more a place to relax and just get to the next place. We had a nice seafood dinner, played in the play areas, and bought some drinks at the duty-free shop to enjoy at some window seating on a busy deck, and went to bed. The Baltic Sea was a bit rocky as we tried to get some sleep, but we took some meds and knocked out to wake up in a brand new country.
In front of the Gabriella still docked in Stockholm, that was the first snowfall we saw on our trip but not the last.Our room was waaaay below deck and probably why it was so cheap. Pros: Being closer to the bottom of the ship actually makes for less turbulence on rough seas… the upper decks will feel the waves a lot more than you. Cons: You don’t get a window, instead you have a fake porthole which is just a mirror.
Leaving Stockholm, we stepped into the cold just for a second to get one last picture of the beautiful night. Finding some much needed R&R for Evie in the play areas of the ship. She tried her best to make friends but unfortunately most of the kids did not speak any english. Grabbing some drinks next to a window, but the little one is definitely feeling a little stir crazy. We went to the play spaces a couple times that night.Evie was never a fan of mussels until having these. She was uninterested in her kid’s burger once this showed up. Now she says it’s one of her favorite foods.
Helsinki had a different vibe to it as soon as we stepped off the boat. Right away we noticed 3 things. The first was the dramatic change of weather. It was covered in snow, the wind was blowing, and the cold immediately hit our bones. We had arrived in Norway to a colorful October fall, but arrived in Finland in a white-cold November. The streets weren’t as busy, and the people we saw were busy getting to where they needed to be. Our destination port was practically empty and we searched for someone to help us find our way to where we needed to be. The second thing we immediately noticed was the change in language. The words were different from the rest of Scandinavia. Certain words we found elsewhere were different in Helsinki, for instance we had become used to seeing the word for ‘exit’ at all the airports and train stations. ‘Exit’ in Norwegian is utgang, in Swedish is utgång, in Danish is udgang… but in Finnish was ulostulo. Apparently, the language is closer to Estonian than it is to Scandinavian, and when spoken it sounds more like a mix of Scandinavian and Russian to me. What comfort we had felt learning the Scandinavian dialect was quickly erased with a whole new language barrier, but (as in the other countries we visited) English-speakers were all mixed in and we didn’t feel like we were completely without communication. The third thing that we realized (and should have caught the clues on the cruise ship) was that they were a country that uses Euros and not the Krone/Krona that we were using. It wasn’t hard to exchange cash for Euro or pull out Euros from an ATM, but our minds were already used to converting Krone/Krona to a US Dollar, that the change to a Euro threw us off a bit.
Waking up in a new city would be more exciting if we didn’t see all this frost on windows. We could feel the cold air already creeping in.Getting to Helsinki’s Central Railway (also known as Helsingin päärautatieasema and the hub for most public transportation) where we were scheduled to pick up our apartment keys from a kiosk inside. Our host left instructions, walkable food options, close by attractions, and emergency numbers for us.
We purchased a HSL Travel Card to get around. This ticket basically covers any transportation you may need in and around Helsinki. Trains, trams, busses, even ferries are covered by the pass and we were able to get from airport to attractions to home and everywhere in between on this one ticket. Evie was free, and we paid about $19/pp for a 3-day pass. Surprisingly, we were never once asked to show proof of this. We hopped on and off every type of transportation and never had to pull it out to show anyone. One thing we did splurge on, and didn’t need to with the HSL travel card, was a sightseeing tour with Strömma Panorama Tour. For an additional $34/pp (Evie free) we were able to sit in a comfortable double-decker, fully heated, english-headsetted, tour of all the major sights which we decided to book because of how cold and snowy it was there. We got to see all the major sights, however it would have been nice to stop to take a nice photo or two, it was also very cold. The tour did let us get out at the Lutheran Temppelixaukio Church to let us explore the church totally built inside solid rock, so that was nice.
Taking the ferry to Soumenlinna, our pace was a little faster so we could hide inside the heated boat.One of the bus stops closest to our place. The double decker sightseeing bus. Evie wanted to play in the snow and was not happy to be there.The Rock Temple Church.
We booked our apartment through Expedia Apartment Rentals and found a really centrally located apartment for about $88/night. We ate breakfasts and dinners at home pretty regularly and did plenty of exploring during the day. Grocery stores were all over and we were able to really get some great eats on the way back home from a long day. This saved a lot on our daily budget, but also after a long day in the cold (and when the nights are dark pretty early) we just wanted to get home and relax.
Home sweet home.Our snowy block outside the apartment.
Our first day was spent doing the UNESCO heritage site of Suomenlinna, the sea fortress that is an island off the coast. All the photos we saw in planning this are amazing, but we didn’t get the picturesque fort. We had the unforgiving Helsinki weather beat us down that day. It seemed like we actually came off-season, as nothing was really open but the local grocery store. The ferry there was pretty empty, and I was glad they did pretty regular drop offs and pick ups because standing on this small island in the gusty winds was a little brutal. We walked around trying to see all that we could before calling it a day and finding our way back home.
Hiding against the fortress walls because the wind was so brutal. Most of the island was open to the elements, so we didn’t have to spend too much time walking between places we carried Evie to speed things along.
The second day we booked that Panorama Tour. It was nice to be in the warm bus after braving the elements the day before. We saw so much in the 1.5 hours the whole tour took. After we got off the tour bus, we had a better idea of things we wanted to see closer up or neighborhoods we wanted to be in. It was a great way to get your bearings in a new city, and I’m glad we chose to splurge there. More confident about finding our way around, we decided to walk the rest of the day.
She was only interested in playing in the snow.The beautiful Esplanade Park in the center of Helsinki and statue of Johan Ludvig Runeberg. The park is surrounded by shops, hotels, and restaurants, and sometimes features live music on warmer days.The Senaatintori square has multiple places of interest like the beautiful Helsinki Cathedral. It is where government buildings meet religious buildings and educational buildings.Sibelius-monumentti among the trees. This sculpture dedicated to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and made of steel pipes but somehow looks like it fits right into the nature around.
As Helsinki was named the World Design Capital in 2012, we wanted to find out why. The Design District Helsinki is a collection of places for art, architecture, fashion, and industrial design. They have compiled a list of boutique shops, local artisans, museums, vintage stores, design services, and unique eateries… even spots for the kiddos. We kept an eye out for the circular sticker posted on the doorways, followed maps available online and in print, and tried to find as many as we could… much like a scavenger hunt of design. We were really inspired by the unique styles; ranging from sleek and minimal, to a bold art deco, to an ornate art nouveau.
We spent the better part of the second day and part of the third adventuring around and checking out the amazing design around every corner. The city has so much unique and interesting design but all creating this unforgettable and multi-dimensional city of Helsinki.
By the end of the third day, we were pretty exhausted. It was perfectly timed. We wanted to end the trip with an experience that the Finnish know all too well. The traditional sauna is something used on a weekly, sometimes daily, regiment out there. I had already been talking via email to Saara Lehtonen of the Kaurilan Sauna. I had found her on a Pinterest post that I had saved, and loved the idea of sharing her home experience with my family.
The Kaurilan Station, once a major transport location for troops who fought various Finnish wars. Once it fell into disrepair, Saara bought it and had it transported to make it her new home.
Named after a famous train station outside Helsinki, Saara purchased the actual station and moved it to its current location to re-configure it to be her home. She had created a small private sauna outside of her home and schedules guests and neighbors to come and enjoy it. In a country that has about 3 million saunas and an overall population of about 5 million, there are plenty of saunas to go around, so why did I choose hers?
Homemade candles with her homemade bread.Evie takes some time to play with Saara’s cats and swing on the tree swing. The sauna just outside the station home. It consists of a large living space with separate steam room.
First off, it’s her private home that she’s inviting us into, we took a bus and walked through a park and a streets of a neighborhood to get there. It was more intimate than the average public sauna that you can find all over Helsinki. Saara also takes the care and time in every aspect of your experience. You are welcomed into a warm fire with some fresh home-made bread that she had baked herself. She has crafted all the natural soaps, shampoos, even towels that you use while you are there, with a workshop in back where she makes more to sell at local artisan markets. The best part was her care to give us a private history and instructional on the customs of the Finnish sauna. I loved that she was so excited to welcome my 4-year old and help us to know how she would best enjoy it, where to sit and how to wash. It was nice to have a living area to break from the heat in, where we can have some water and eat some bread, until we were ready to return to steam.
Saara takes good care to make the space so cozy and inviting.
Saara was so sweet and accommodating, and that sauna was the best. We sweat out a couple weeks of vacation stress, the sore muscles of walking all around 4 countries, even just being in a hot room was the perfect escape from the cold Helsinki days. The 3 of us felt amazing, and had a great chat with Saara when it was all done about her home and its history. I highly recommend her and that whole experience if you happen to be out there. Seriously, I wish all vacations ended on that note.
Saara, Evie, and I in front of her home. She was busy making soaps and candles in her workshop in back for the upcoming winter markets in Helsinki.
The next day we caught an early train to the airport. As we watched the crazy election results happening back home, as we found our way on the plane headed back to Norway. I think the sauna was one of the highlights of the whole Scandinavian trip and I was so happy to end it on that note. Now looking back at what happened in those elections, I constantly think back to those last relaxing moments of 2016 and want to live in the memory of that.