After two days of intense guided tours, the only thing that sounded as good as a sea day was a free day to do whatever we want. And since we were docked in Helsinki when we woke up, we had most of the day to explore Finland’s capital city however we wanted.
We took our bags with us up to the Garden Café for breakfast and we disembarked after we were full and caffeinated. The ship’s shore excursions desk sold tickets to one of the Hop On Hop Off bus lines onboard and they were selling tickets outside the ship for $34 per person (charged to your stateroom). The other alternative the ship offered for a DIY city tour was a $15 round trip transfer to Market Square. Both of these options were sub-optimal – no one should pay $34 for a 24 hour Hop On Hop Off bus ticket. I couldn’t do it. Even when they told me the prices would be the same everywhere. Couldn’t pull the trigger. I’d have rather walked to town.
Right outside the security gate, though, City Sightseeing was selling tickets to their sightseeing bus. They weren’t allowed inside because they weren’t affiliated with the ship, but a one day ticket was only €22 (after a small discount from showing them our City Sightseeing ticket stubs from Tallinn). And not only did we get a better deal, since the rest of the people coming off the ship didn’t know better and were buying tickets to the other bus, we had near empty buses all day (with lightning fast wifi!) while the other buses were jam packed.
I love riding around the Hop On Hop Off bus, listening to the commentary and the local music. It’s one of the best ways to acquaint yourself to a city and see the highlights, especially if the city doesn’t seem large enough to merit a guided tour.
My first impression of Helsinki was that it almost reminded me of Milwaukee, a quiet little big city. While Helsinki is the biggest city in Finland, it only has a population of 400,000 (I know, I know – that’s a lot of people – but my “little” home city of Chicago has a population of 2.7 million!). The city is modern, clean and easy to navigate. As we drove around more, it reminded me a bit more of San Francisco, with its waterfront markets, sloping streets and public art displays.
We hopped off the bus at the stop for Market Square, which left us off at Havis Amanda, a bronze mermaid statue sculpted by Finnish sculptor Ville Vallgreen. Market Square was steps away towards the waterfront, with booths with freshly cut flowers, farm fresh produce and cafes lined up neatly in rows. There were pop up coffee shops, fresh seafood on the grill (which would have been great if, you know, I ate seafood) and rows of Finnish women knitting caps and scarves at picnic tables. We relished in taking our time perusing all of the booths because we had no plans and nowhere else to be but wherever we wanted to, settling in at crepe booth with beautiful Marimekko-esque tablecloths for a Crepe Cointreau. We didn’t buy much – just a jar of locally made jam to take back, I think. Prices trended higher in Finland than they had in Tallinn for similar items.
After we made our way through the market, we hopped back on the bus and made our way towards the stop nearest to the Rock Church. The Rock Church (formally the Temppeliaukio Church) is a Lutheran church that was built in the late 1960s after nearly 30 years of planning and construction. It is known as the Rock Church because it is quite literally built in a cave of sorts, literally built in solid rock. It costs €3 to go in and see the church and it really is quite stunning on a sunny day, when rays of light stream in from the windows and breaks in through the rocks up above.
Our next hop off stop was for the Sibelius Monument, which Stephanie nicknamed the puffy paint monument because of the small details on the monument that look like puffy paint squiggles. The Sibelius Monument is one of the most well known monuments in Helsinki, built in 1967 as a tribute to famed Finnish composer Jean Sibelius on the ten year anniversary of his death. The monument is located in one of Helsinki’s many parks, a little bit of a hike from the bus stop. Many tour busses stop there, as it one of the main photo stops on most tours, but if you can find time to visit in between the tour stops, it really is stunning to take in. And don’t forget to step inside and look up!
The Sibelius Monument was our last hop off stop and we decided to ride the remainder of the loop back to the cruise terminal. The bus took us past the Olympic Stadium (home of the 1952 Summer Games) and made an extended stop at Senate Square, where the University of Helsinki, the Helsinki Cathedral, the Sederholm House and the Government Palace each hold anchor.
Senate Square was the last main stop on the bus before it began the journey back to the ship and if we had any extra time, I wouldn’t have minded another ride around. It was such a beautiful day and there were so many corners of the city we hadn’t even touched yet, but the ones we had were just so wonderfully unique that I ached to see more.
We hopped off the bus at the sea terminal and made our way into the small market inside, picking up boots, gloves and other cold weather gear, as well as a few souvenirs. Prices in the sea terminal market were much more reasonable than the prices in the shops inside the city, and the shopping was super convenient because it allowed us to bring our purchases right back to the ship and not have to tote around bags all day. The little market area also had some high speed wifi for free, so if you need to check in back home or want to post a picture to Instagram, you’ll find a much better connection there.
Once we dropped our bags off at the room, we grabbed quick lunch at the Garden Café. If I hadn’t mentioned it before, the Garden Café might be the most expansive buffet I’ve seen on a mainline cruise ship. There had to be something for everyone, and some of the cuisines (the Asian fare, in particular), were outstanding. We headed back to the room to relax and before settling in the room to relax, enjoying the warm sunlight that streamed onto our balcony.
I would have loved to watch our sailaway from Helsinki from the balcony – the sail out was beautiful — but despite the captain’s multiple warnings not to feed the birds, there were a bunch of people holding out bread for birds on their balconies, which meant swarms of seagulls and pigeons were flying around the ship and onto the balconies. It really was a shame, too – the archipelagos we passed as we cruised away from the mainland were fascinating. They’re tiny little islands, some of them with little tiny houses or structures, must make navigating such a big ship crazy difficult, but sailing through them is one of the things that makes sailing through the Baltics so unique.
While Stephanie took a nap, Mom and I went down to the shops to check out the Russian Bazaar they were featuring as the sale of the day. I was hoping to find some unique items, but it was the same stuff they sold in the sea terminal, and while some souvenirs were reasonable ($10 or under for some hair accessories, stickers and pouches), others were beyond outrageous. This definitely was not the itinerary for shoppers, which was a slight disappointment to me, but I had plenty of shopping ahead of me in Paris.
Later on in the evening, we opted for dinner in the dining room. The pace was a little slow, but the service was fantastic. There were a ton of options for dinner every night, both complimentary and for a fee, which really gave us the flexibility to choose the menu that appealed the most without having to resort to the Garden Café (though the Garden Café had made to order crepes and wasn’t a bad option!).
The Taste Dining Room
Classic Caesar Salad
Fried Mozzarella Cheese
Short Rib Ragu
Sirloin Steak Diane
My favorite after dinner activity was to walk around deck 8’s Waterfront. Though it was often cold (and, truly, I’ve never been on a cruise as cold as this one), the views of the water were spectacular.
Stephanie had caught a bit of a head cold and a cough and we stopped in the gift shop to see if they had some decongestant only to find the shop was sold out. Some sort of respiratory illness was going around the ship and nearly everywhere we went, someone was hacking, which meant I was dousing myself in antibacterial (and, subsequently, keeping myself away from all open flames) constantly. A good reminder to always keep those hands clean, and if you’re sick, always cough into the crook of your elbow, not into your hands!
Before we headed in for the night, we stopped at Guest Services to book our airport transfers. While they cost $30 each person, the airport was about 40 minutes to an hour (depending on traffic) from the port, which meant cab fare could approach $90 anyways, and they had mentioned cabs were few and far between at the port (something we’d noticed as we came onto the ship). Booking through the ship was a far more reliable way of getting to the airport, especially with how unfamiliar we still were with the Danish taxi system.
We called it a night from there. Though we were gaining an hour back as the clocks changed when we moved into Swedish waters, we were beyond exhausted. We’d been on port intensive cruises before, but something about this cruise was just…draining. Wonderful and full of adventure and discovery, but draining. So we skipped the shows and walking around the ship to sleep. We had an early morning planned for Sweden and we wanted to be as energized as possible for a full day in Stockholm.