Welcome to a slightly different post, one where we don’t share what to do or what to see, but we reminisce about past experiences in a city that is very special to us – Helsinki.
2020 has been a weird year, to say the least. 12 months ago, my biggest concern was replacing my passport and US visa in time for our 2 month road trip across the American Southwest – now, it’s surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, and hoping that we won’t have to spend several more months in lockdown in 2021.
During those long, dreary, identical lockdown days, between a Zoom cookout and a bout of insomnia, I found myself thinking about freedom.
For over a decade, I saw ‘freedom’ as the ability of jet setting away on a whim – it was only when the virus rocked our world that I appreciated how much freedom I took for granted.
Freedom to enjoy nature is just one example. I’ve always been able to go for a run in a park, or drive to the mountains and leave city life behind – until our 9 week lockdown in March/April, when I left my house for a grand total of 4 hours combined.
Unable to leave home even for a quick walk, I sought refuge in my imagination. One place seemed to float to the top of my consciousness more than any other. The capital of a country we love deeply, that over the course of several visits started to feel a little bit like home.
A city where we had so many wonderful experiences – from helicopter flights and ice swimming in winter, to kayaking and hiking across its islands in summer. A city where we always felt safe – even when our adventures didn’t quite go as planned. A city where we have a ‘travel family’ ready to welcome us with open arms.
The place that I found myself thinking about over and over again was Helsinki, the Finnish capital.
Recently, Helsinki has been named ‘The New City of the Free’, honouring freedom in all its different perceptions – freedom to love, freedom to feel safe, to breathe, to enjoy nature, and to enjoy a good work/life balance.
To celebrate this, we decided to share two Helsinki Freedom stories, from our visits to the Finnish capital.
Helsinki, A Home in Nature
In Finland, night doesn’t exist in summer. That was one of the first lessons we learned during our summer 2016 hike across Finland, from Porvoo to the Åland Islands.
In June, the sun sets as late as 11 pm, and rises again at 4 am – in between, you get an endless twilight, the sky turning from peach to mauve and dusty blue, until the sun finally rises again.
Our idea was covering the 400+ km between Porvoo and Turku entirely on foot, planning the route from day to day, and sleeping out whenever possible to take advantage of Finland’s Everyman’s Right – people’s right to access land for recreation and wild camping.
However, Nick and I had overestimated our hiking and orientation abilities, and the first few days of our adventure had been an absolute disaster. We had got lost time and time again, taking 8+ hour hiking instead of just three or four.
Luckily, the sun set so late that we didn’t have to worry about hiking in the dark – at the same time, lack of darkness meant we never got to have a full night sleep.
This trip will be a nightmare, we both thought as we hiked towards Helsinki. We crossed Vantaa and its suburbs, waiting for the city to appear. We crossed a park, circled around a lake where a few brave swimmers exercised after work.
You could clearly hear the splash of water on their wetsuits, their strokes slicing through the steel-blue surface of the lake.
Then we found ourselves in a small forest, surrounded by birdsong and edible berries. Afterwards, we saw another lake, another park, and more nature. Where is the city, we both kept wondering. Have we got lost once again?
We must have been immersed in our thoughts, and not realised that we took a wrong turn, crossed a small canal, and the landscape around us had changed again – we were surrounded by reeds, their silvery tops swaying in the wind.
Ahead of us, along the path, we saw a small hut on the edge of a small lake, coated in stillness. It was probably 6 or 7 pm, but the sun shone high in the sky. We sat in the hut, realising as we entered it was a birdwatching hide – that’s when we realised we had gone down the wrong way once again, and found ourselves in Lammassaari, one of Helsinki’s 300+ islands.
We sat in the hide for a while, looking out. Arctic terns darted through the sky, diving in and out of the lake. Ducks floated on the surface, followed by their fluffy babies. Google Maps told us we were only 20 minutes away by bus from the city centre – yet, we were surrounded by nature, birds, and silence.
Most of Lammassaari is made of swamps and lagoons, so walkways made of wooden planks known as ‘duckboards’ were laid out to get around. We followed a random one to the southern end of Lammassaari, where we crossed to the nearby island of Kuusiluoto.
Lammassaari means ‘sheep island’ in Finnish, but sheep are actually found in Kuusiluoto. I almost fell over when I saw the first one, a black sheep eating mouthful after mouthful of bright pink flowers from a bush bordering the path.
Unlike Lammassaari, where the only trees we saw were a few isolated birch groves, in Kuusiluoto we found ourselves surrounded by trees. Aspens, maples, black alders, and more birch trees.
We walked past a cabin, and saw smoke billow out of the chimney of a tent sauna. A few hundred meters down the road, a group of young people were hard at work building a new cabin – the frame was just about done, they were carrying wooden planks to build the entrance steps.
That’s where I understood. Walking into Helsinki, I kept wondering where nature ‘ended’ and the city ‘began’. In Lammassaari and Kuusiluoto, I understood there’s no such thing – nature and the city are one and the same.
After many visits to Helsinki, I wrote in my post about Helsinki Islands, the Finnish love for nature is like the love for a family member. Nature is a companion, a refuge, an entity to respect deeply.
Helsinki has the best urban nature I’ve ever seen during my travels. There are lakes and forests, meadows and rocks, islands and islets, beaches and coves. A giant playground with plenty of places for locals to escape to, finding freedom just around the corner from their homes.
A City Where Dreams Come True
All we could hear was the sound of paddles slicing through the water. Swish, swish, splash. We were supposed to proceeded in a straight line – our guide in front, Nick and I following behind, each of us in our kayaks.
We had set off from the kayak centre in Vuosaari, an island in the eastern part of Helsinki. The plan was spending the afternoon touring some little islands off the shore of Eastern Helsinki – a part of the city that is mainly residential, rarely visited by tourists.
It was mid-June. The sky was blue, but the air was still crisp. We wore spraydecks to protect our legs – the sea water still had that icy edge revealing that, sometimes, the temperature still dipped into single digits at night, despite the fact that Midsummer was just around the corner.
‘No way I could live here – Finland is way too cold’ I thought as I did my best to keep my kayak straight. I was surprised by the fact that our kayaking guide was Italian – a fun guy named Marco, in his thirties, with blue eyes and a goatee.
I thought Finland was a weird place to move to for someone from Italy. More so if they come from a seaside town, like Marco did, a place where the sun shines from May to October. Why would one swap a long summer with a cold, long, dreary winter? Heck, it was June and it was still cold!
We kayaked to an island called Malkasaari. Marco explained it was a recreational island, where people could simply row to, pitch their tent and spend the night. All for free. We sat and shared glasses of tangy, bright orange sea buckthorn juice – meanwhile, a blush-pink bird hopped around us.
How did you end up moving here? I found the courage to ask Marco.
Well, it was because of my girlfriend. But I love living here. There’s so much nature to enjoy, right in the city, and people respect it, he replied.
I looked around, and couldn’t help agreeing with him. I had never been to a city that sets aside such vast natural spaces just for recreational purposes, allowing people to fish, forage, and camp for free.
The ‘leave no trace’ principle was also obeyed to the letter – there was no trace of human passage, not even a stray tissue fallen from someone’s pocket.
Yet, I suspected there would be more to the story – and I was right. ‘In Helsinki, people love to experiment’ he explained.
In Italy, if you tell someone you have an idea for a new job or business venture, most people will laugh and recommend you stick with that boring ‘office job’ you hate.
When Marco said he wanted to work outdoors to his friends back home, they laughed. In Finland, they said ‘go for it’, and offered to make introductions – within weeks, he was working his dream job as an outdoor guide, taking people hiking and kayaking all over Europe.
Our break was over. We packed our glasses and snacks, and we hopped back into our kayaks to continue our tour. We sailed past Satamasaari, an island with summer cabins where locals spend the weekend, and circled Loppikaari, a bird sanctuary. Right opposite we saw a cormorant on a rock, with its glistening wings spread open, catching the sun rays.
I thought about our Finnish friends, and Marco was right. Helsinki locals have a creative energy I have rarely encountered elsewhere. They’re not afraid to chase their dreams and hop onto new adventures, no matter their age.
Sometimes their endeavours will have a happy ending, sometimes less so, but the important thing is not being afraid to try something new.
Nature, positive thinking, experimentation, innovative mindset – when chasing your dreams, it’s important to be surrounded by the right kind of positive energy. And who knows, just like Marco, Helsinki may be the place where your dreams may come true.
This post was brought to you as part of the Helsinki Freedom campaign, promoted by MyHelsinki in partnership with PING Helsinki.