As in my previous post, you can see why Finland is a pretty great place to live.
That said, it is a hard place to just up and visit. I always tell people who want to come out here that is is worth a few days stop on a tour of other cities. Use it as a base camp to visit St. Petersburg or Estonia. But maybe not for your first time in Europe; it really isn’t all that “European.” Unless you live here or know someone who does, it is hard to know what to do.
More over and most importantly, you have to hit good weather. There are a few weeks in the summer that are pretty solid, but it is still pretty hit or miss. When my mom visited in March, the weather was supposed to be fine, but they were some of the windiest days we have had. And that Baltic wind is cold, ya’ll. Cut straight into your bones, cold. Which makes wandering the city rather…miserable. If you are visiting, I suggest late June through early September. Other than that, the weather is iffy, a lot of places are closed, the stalls in the Market disappear and the outdoor patios shutter up.
This time around, my parents seemed to have brought the nice weather with them. Either end of their trip was cold and gray and wet, but the 4 full days that they were here proved to be the final nice days at the end of the too-short Finnish summer.
My lovely parents made us the first stop on their Grand 30th Wedding Anniversary European Tour. From Helsinki then went to Nice and explored little towns in southern France (who knew direct flights from Helsinki were 50 bucks?!) and then after that, we met them in Paris, as our flights and stay were our Christmas present last year.
So what do you do when you parents come and visit you in your first home-away-from-home, in a brand new city?
Obviously, you act like tourists the whole time. And you go to all those restaurants you have wanted to go to (as well as some of your local favorites). Here are the highlights:
Day 1: Do the tourist thing
Visit the iconic Churches that grace Helsinki’s skyline.
Wander the Kauppatori -Market Square- where you can oggle all sorts of Finnish tourist goodies. Make sure your parents leave with something ridiculously awesome….like a reindeer pelt. Oh, and fuzzy sherling slippers for yourself for those cold winter months.
Show them your neighborhood, eat lunch at an obscure German restaurant down the street, and then take a boat tour of the archipelago. Because Helsinki is best seen from the water. Plus, there is a really awesome sea fortress in the harbor. Even if you have been living here for a year, you will learn something about the city.
Take the jet-lagged parents home for a nap before dinner. Tonight is the night that you break the bank and go to that really awesome place you have always wanted to go to for dinner, Saaristo! We love having our parents in town!
Meet for dinner. Not just any old restaurant, meet at the harbor so your little boat can pick you up and take you to the island in the harbor, where you will be dining in that beautiful 1898 Art Nouveau Villa that looks over the city. The place that you always love to look at and, upon finding out that it was a restaurant, determined you had to go. When you find out they are having pre-fixe crayfish menus, you order everyone’s menu a week ahead of time and hope you get that awesome table in the round turret of the building. And then jump up and down when they seat you in the round turret of the building.
Then you and your family and proceed to have a ridiculously fun time dissecting crayfish, looking at the beautiful city from the water, and enjoying fabulous Finnish cuisine. Traditional dinner: check! Unparalleled setting: check!
Day 2: Do the local thing
First, host your parents for brunch at your apartment! Give them directions via public transit and see if they make it: They made it! And dad brought you flowers!
Rent bikes and plan a route around the city that hits every key point. Bonus: it is sunny and gorgeous today. (What is this, Finland? Showing off for my parents-they’ll think it is always like this!)
Upon rental, end up filming a segment for Finnish tourism with your family! (so maybe not so “local” day). They will awkwardly strap a GoPro to your bike and follow you around for a while, then ask questions. Unintelligibly babble stupid answers. Everyone should visit Finland because we moved here without really knowing where it was! Good work: you did America proud!
Continue on bike ride around the waterfront. Here is the coolest part of Helsinki: after you leave the tourist zone, you ride around through the expensive neighborhood, with sweeping views of the Baltic and gorgeous turn of the century Empire buildings. Next you ride into the old shipyards, now a funky urban development. Next, its the beaches and forests, and old cemetery, boat harbors, and eventually, your destination: Seurasaari, a forested island connected to the mainland by a single pedestrian bridge.
Tour this open air museum, where old wooden structures that demonstrate the lives of various early Finnish people have been transported. Beautiful stave churches and old wooden wind mills, live stock corrals, and old, long, Viking-esque “church boats” that transported full communities to the nearest church.
Afterwards, its time for a little, snack break, don’t you think?
Why not stop at Cafe Regatta on your way back for some cloudy apple juice and some open fire sausage roasting?
By the time you get back to the city, those outdoor, seaside cafes are looking pretty friendly. Why not stop for a refreshment before returning your bikes? Rest up and hang out for a while
Now that is a perfect Finnish day!
Top it off with tapas at one of your favorite local joints, Kombo, which turns out to be their favorite meal. All you do in this little basement restaurant is tell them how hungry you are, and they bring you a size-appropriate plate of the tapas of the day. And they are all delicious!
(FYI: If you everr come across e-bikes when looking at rentals, get them. They are so fun! Think a normal bike with a small motor. You basically shift gears with power levels, so you basically do no work. Best part: they have a tiny little throttle that propels you up hills and passed people! It is so awesome!)
Day 3: Do that Estonia thing
So you are running out of entertaining things to do in Helsinki? What, your parents don’t want to watch you play around on the computer and run errands? Sheesh.
Ok, I guess you have to go to Tallinn!
Although you thought about making this happen, it wan’t until dad insisted that you bought last minute early morning ferry tickets to Tallinn, Estonia so your parents can enjoy the quaint old town. Be sure to rush the boat so you get a good seat for the ensuing entertainment (though, at 730 in the morning, even the ferry was quiet, despite the poor DJ’s attempts to ensnare people in “Guess that Song” and Bingo)
Once in Tallinn, it is pretty simple: wander around. Go through the tiny streets and into some of the shops and marvel at USSR memorabilia. Sit in a cafe in the main old square. Hike to the top of the city walls so you can look out over the rambling old rooftops. Sit down at the hoakiest but most awesome restaurant so you can enjoy spiced beer out of clay mugs and eat heavy meat dishes, while the waiter speaks like a medieval peasant.
Somehow, dad tweaked his knee the day before, but champions through the day and partakes in all activities! Thanks for pushing through, pops!
Day 4: Their last day- Do that wandering thing
Hubby is at work. Let the parents sleep in, rest their knees, and take a slow morning. Wander through shops and along the beautiful park. Let them experience the Metro for the first time so you can meet the hubby for an early lunch at your favorite spot, Sandros. Marrakesh Madness is a nice break from Baltic cuisine.
Then wander through your favorite park, through the gardens, along the lake, and back towards town where you can take a nap in your parent’s hotel room.
When its dinner time, head to the pizza spot around the corner for a relaxed meal and some funky pizzas (figs, nuts, arugula, and savory ice cream on top?!) Then hit up the famous Finnish chocolate company for some ice cream and a walk in the park before sending your parents back to pack their bags.
But don’t be sad! You will see them next week! (Not a common phrase we get to use when saying goodbye)