First Impressions: Helsinki, Finland

We arrived in the middle of the night and in the middle of winter.

Perhaps this was why instantly I felt like there was a little magic in the air? Or should I say on the ground. Because it was the snow piled up around me; slushy in parts, icy in others and discolouring on the edges; and yet it was snow! So much snow! I can't help it. Snow lifts my spirits and pulls out childhood memories of being utterly thrilled by this unusual white stuff. Depending on where you come from - and what kind of person you are too, I suppose - snow is either precious and magical or just a part of everyday winter life.We had fair warning. In addition to the weather reports we've been monitoring over the last few weeks, through the dark of night from the rectangle of the plane's window we could see patches of snow awaiting us below as we approached Helsinki airport. And NewMan was absolutely right when he told me that the pixellated clouds we flew through were a snow storm.

Of course, I expected snow - I was excited for snow - but I naively didn't expect or anticipate as much snow. It was a stupidly pleasant surprise to see it piled up on roadsides on our way to the hotel and then to feel dainty snowflakes land on my nose during my first steps on Helsinki's streets yesterday.At night and from the view of our taxi, the centre of Helsinki was eerily empty of people and while this was understandable - it was 2am and snowing - it struck this city girl as a little unusual for a capital city to be so quiet at any time of day.

You see I don't think the snow would keep people indoors. I can already sense that the snow is not a big deal here. Loved or hated, it's fully expected and the tram snowplough we saw clearing the tramways in the deep of the night suggests that the city rises to the occasion without pomp or ceremony. I admire that. When you grow up in a country where snow means chaos, cancelled trains and days off work or school, then you can perhaps forgive with my fascination that for five months of the year the Finns (and of course many other nationalities) go about their business in their capital city without a single blink at a few feet of snow.Grit. This is the main reason why Helsinki still works under multiple layers of snow that glazes over into ice all too quickly. I think the sound of grit mixed with snow crunching under my boots will forever remind me of this city. Furthermore, I have no idea how but every time I venture outside  the smallest pieces of this special stuff find their way into the insides of my boots making for occasionally uncomfortable walking, but this grit has enabled me to explore the city safely so I've started to welcome it between my toes and under the soles of my feet. A cloudy sky accompanied my first walk around the city. I criss-crossed central Helsinki with no intention to see anything in particular; just to find my bearings and a small sense of the city, to hopefully understand a bit more about a country and city that is new to me. I'm not sure I achieved this but I do know that one of my first impressions is that the city feels soft to me; the buildings are tall, solid and strong and the design of many could be described as stark; in this way I passingly thought that Helsinki reminds me of Berlin, however, look a little closer and there are small, understated, soft details; Art Deco style brass door handles, romantic Art Nouveau arches, gothic like fonts for business names and the buildings that make up this central part of town are all painted in soft pastel colours - gentle oranges, yellows, creams and a few blues. What I like most is that buildings do not copy the colour of their neighbour.I walked to the waterfront, which isn't hard in Helsinki as so much of the city is surrounded by water. I smiled at the shifting plates of ice lying on the water's surface and silently applauded a small tug or fishing boat carving its way through it, heading out to sea past one of the huge cruise ships that regularly sails to Saint Petersburg.

Saving the must-do sights for another day I walked back to my hotel noticing a surprising number of well looked after and unlocked bikes left outside offices and shops and indeed a few being ridden. I'm not sure I'd brave cycling on the snow that continues to layer on the roads, but as you may know, any city that has bikes - some  unlocked  - waiting for bike-loving owners outside shops is a city I already feel warm inside for.

The Finnish people seem accommodating, resourceful and uncomplicated. They may not enthuse warmth at every opportunity - there has been at least one occasion already where my smile hasn't been mirrored despite my best Cheshire Cat grinning efforts - but without exception the Finnish folk we've encountered have proved helpful and happy to answer our questions. Last night as we headed out to find dinner I saw doors left wide open onto the street. I thought it slightly strange considering temperatures had dropped well below freezing but after walking past the first one I realised this is a way for restaurants and bars to let customers know that they're open, a second door staying firmly shut a step inside to keep the heat in for those who've accepted this welcoming gesture. I like this.

Oh and another thing is the tap water in Helsinki. I have no idea why but it tastes delicious.

I'm not sure if it's the cold getting to me or maybe there really is something in that tap water, but despite your cloudy skies, icy ground and the smallest lack of smiles, Helsinki you are making me happy.

Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
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