The first stop on our trip was Helsinki. Our flights to Europe were with Finnair, and as we were going to have to change planes at Helsinki airport it made sense to stay a few nights and explore. We've visited Stockholm before (and I went to Norway as a child) but never Finland, and since I love all things Nordic it was a great opportunity to spend some time there.
Finland is quite expensive so after briefly looking at hotels we booked an AirBnB apartment - it was perfect, big enough for the four of us and in a great area. We arrived after the long flight from Sydney and felt instantly at home. I loved the mid-century furniture, the Marimekko curtains, and the collection of Moomin mugs. I realised afterwards that it was the same apartment that Lisa Congdon had stayed at (see her lovely picture of the kitchen window here - it gives a much better idea of how nice it was than my iPhone snap).
I love staying in apartments when we travel as a family - it's great to have a bit more room so we can put the children to bed early and not have to worry about disturbing them, and having a washing machine is helpful because we travel very light. And I find it so useful to have a kitchen to make breakfast or a cup of coffee if you're jetlagged (or woken by a jetlagged small person) and awake at 4am. It felt more like a proper taste of life in the city too, rather than being at a hotel. There was a supermarket around the corner, so I stocked up on cereal, yoghurt and things to make sandwiches. Somehow looking through supermarkets in new countries is so much fun; we discovered Moomin biscuits and Angry Birds yoghurt, which were both very popular with the children. Did you know that Angry Birds are Finnish? I did not, but it turns out that they are and it is almost impossible to buy things that do not have Angry Birds and Moomins on them when in Finland.
Helsinki is a compact city and has excellent public transport, so it was very easy to explore. We caught a bus from the airport to where we were staying, and after that used the trams to get in and out of the centre of town. There is plenty to do with children - our highlights were:
- The Tove Jansson exhibition at the Ateneum Gallery. It's Tove Jansson's 100th anniversary this year, and as part of the celebrations there is a retrospective of her work at the Ateneum. There were Moomin tableaux for the children, and I was interested to see Jansson's paintings. There is also an excellent cafe and gift shop at the museum, and an area where the children could dress up as Moomin characters and look at the books.
- The boat trip out to Suomelinna - we explored the island, looked at the old fortifications, spent time in the different playgrounds and had a delicious lunch at Valimo. The reviews on Tripadvisor for Suomelinna were mixed, with some people saying there was not much to do there, but we liked it - it reminded me a bit of Cockatoo Island, in that there is lots of space, and it's still a bit wild and industrial. The ferry ride out there was fun too, and it was good to see Helsinki from the water.
- The Hakaniemi Market - a big foodhall, with lots of things to take away or eat at a table near by. The upstairs has stalls selling handcrafts and other nice souvenier-y things, as well as a Marimekko outlet (although it seems you can't throw a rock in Helsinki without hitting a Marimekko outlet. I love Marimekko designs, but didn't actually buy anything while we were there because there's a store in Sydney now).
- The Botanical Gardens, which are small but quite wild and fun for roaming about in. The children found a spot to play under a tree and I loved seeing the trees just getting their leaves and early spring flowers.
- Stockmann - the biggest department store in Helsinki. When it rains (as it almost certainly will) you can hide out here and look in the toy department if you have small people with you, or at the very nice clothes, homewares and books if you do not. There is a subterranean food hall with all sorts of delicious groceries, bread and prepared meals - I had fun choosing things to take home for dinner.
- The Arabia Outlets - another good wet weather expedition, we caught the tram to Arabia and explored the Iitala, Fiskars and Finlayson outlets. The centre also has a public library with a kids section which our children enjoyed (all the books are in Finnish, but there are toys and other kids), a coffee shop, post office, a supermarket downstairs and some gift stores.
We also visited the Design Museum, which is in a pretty part of the city, and spent time walking around the central part of the city: the Esplanadii Park, and the area around Stockmann, the Cathedral and the Central Train Station. There are lots of beautiful buildings and interesting stores to potter in. Obviously, with only three days to explore we just scratched the surface - if we had longer I would have loved to visit the Aalto House and Museum, the Rock Church and even made a day trip to Tallinn in Estonia. But we've worked out that it's much more enjoyable for everyone to just pick a few things and do them at a slow pace rather than trying to cram too much in to a day, and it's important to fit in time to play and explore rather than just doing sights and galleries. To be honest, it's a very enjoyable way to travel - I don't feel the same guilt that I did pre-children if we don't see all the sights in a city, and we spend more time pottering and people watching, which is lots of fun. We really enjoyed Helsinki, especially as it was a "bonus" destination, and would love to come back to Finland one day and see more of the country.
Books and films about Finland:
When we are planning a holiday I like to read books and watch films set in the places we are going, and I try and find some for the children too. Before we left, I re-watched Kamome Shokudou, one of my favourite Japanese films, which is set in Helsinki (I bought my copy via eBay). I also watched a wonderful BBC documentary on Tove Jansson, Moominland Tales: The Life of Tove Jansson via YouTube. I borrowed The Year of the Hare, from our local library, and also Helsinki White. I really disliked the story of Helsinki White - it was an extremely violent and mysogynistic detective story - BUT it's written by an American who lives in Finland, so it had lots of interesting historic and cultural details. If it wasn't for that I wouldn't have finished it. The Year of the Hare, in contrast, is very gentle, reflective and beautifully written, and also gives details about life in Finland. I couldn't find any of Tove Jansson's adult fiction at the library but am keen to read The Summer Book, especially after hearing about it in the Moominland Tales documentary.
For the children, I borrowed Moomin books from the library. Ali and I read Finn Family Moomintroll, Comet in Moomin Valley and Moominpappa's Memoirs. There are also picture-book versions of some of the stories, Milla enjoyed Moomin and the New Friend. This year I gave the children books as Easter gifts, and Ali's was The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My, which is gorgeous - it's hardcover with incredibly detailed illustrations and cutaways; definitely one to keep. We found a lot of animated Moomin episodes on YouTube, which the children enjoyed watching while we were away. While we were there I bought a copy of Hooray for Helsinki from the Ateneum museum shop, and it is lovely - bright colourful pictures that cover most of the places we visited, and has a lot of Finnish Design information in child-friendly form too (I try to buy a picture book about or set in each country we visit with the children, and we are starting to build up a library of them).
The travel guides we used were the Wallpaper City Guide Helsinki, and the Crumpled City Helsinki Map, plus lots of online resources (e.g. this one about Finnish foods - I tried 11 of them) and the Lonely Planet guides in the apartment. It is difficult to buy guides that just cover Helsinki (or even just Finland - lots of them are "Finland and Estonia" etc.) and since we were just there for a few days it seemed a waste to get a big book. I have to say though, the Wallpaper guide compared unfavourably to the Lonely Planet ones - I think you need to use it in conjunction with a proper guide book as it mostly has shop and restaurant recommendations, and no maps or information on how to use public transport etc. It is possibly more aimed at glamorous hipster types than people travelling with children, but I did enjoy reading it magazine-style.