by Amber Musgrove-Benford (University of Helsinki, Finland)
With only just over a fortnight left before I move back to the UK after nine or so months in Finland, I thought I would look back at the top things I have done whilst living in Helsinki – and hopefully give you some ideas of what can be done while studying at UoH.
During my year abroad, I was lucky enough to visit Lapland twice.
First, in mid-December, two of my friends and I visited Ruka, a municipality located just North of Kuusamo and South of the Arctic Circle, known primarily for its skiing. Even though I am nothing short of a terrible skier, Ruka was so beautiful that even I enjoyed my few days there. For an afternoon ski pass (13:00 to 19:00), the cost is €43, which I found to be worth the money! Additionally, there are opportunities for cross country skiing in the area if that takes your fancy, as well as many ‘classic’ Lapland activities available such as husky rides or snowshoe expeditions.
In March, I also visited Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. A cold winter meant the snow was only just beginning to melt, and the city was relatively quiet after the Christmas season. Over a span of four days, we visited the Arktikum Museum (very good if you’re interested in Finnish history, Indigenous Sámi history, and sustainability); took a short husky ride; crossed the Arctic Circle; and finally, after long months of waiting and hoping, managed to catch a display of the Northern Lights.
May Day, or Vappu, is a huge celebration in Finland. It begins on the eve of May Day, with the washing and crowing of Havis Amanda – the statue and fountain affectionately known as Manta – in Kauppatori, Helsinki, and culminates in a huge two-day party across the city.
This tradition is, for want of a better word, a little strange, but the sense of community between students and ex-students (you can pick them out by their graduation caps) across the city at large is both huge and wonderful. Try Kaivopuisto on May Day itself for a student-led festival atmosphere!
Ever determined, I somehow managed to convince my friends to celebrate my birthday in Stockholm about four days after I had met them. This turned out to be a great decision on my part.
Stockholm is beautiful and full of culture, and only a (cheap) hour flight away from Helsinki. If flying isn’t for you, try the 17-hour ferry between the two cities if you’re brave, and explore the beautiful (Royal) architecture and the bustling night life in the Swedish Capital.
Turns out, I loved Stockholm so much on visiting that I’m going back in the summer!
Getting the Finnish Experience at Sompasauna
An hour away by public transport from the centre of Helsinki is Sompasauna, a community-led free-to-use(!!) sauna. Visiting will give you one of the most quintessentially Finnish experiences you can get – sauna is, after all, the most internationally used Finnish word.
I visited in early March, and after a short while in the 110 degree sauna, I swam in a hole cut in the ice above a lake. Aside from the health benefits, this will definitely give you a good story to tell your friends, family, and probably grandchildren.
Going to a Sit Sit
A must when you are in Helsinki is to take part in a sit-sit. This Finnish academic dinner is permeated by tradition and includes a three-course meal cooked by other students and lots of fun and singing. There will also often be a theme and dress code (one of my sit-sits had a dress code of “your home country” whilst the other was “Finnish stereotypes”), dancing and music.
The law society, Pykälä, runs many sit-sits throughout the academic year, but the ones tailored specifically for international students are particularly good!
Protesting for Ukraine
Living in a country which has a lengthy history of tension with Russia, as well as sharing an 800-mile border with them, meant there was an immense outpouring of support in Helsinki, and Finland generally, after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Through friends I found out about a protect in the centre of the city. It was incredibly moving to see such huge crowds of Finns and scores of other nationalities, including Russians, living in the city join together to march peacefully on the Russian Embassy.
Towards the end of my exchange, my friends and I decided to visit Turku, a city in the West of Finland. Much more historically influenced by Sweden, due to its geographical proximity, Turku, or Åbo, is particularly worth visiting on a hot, sunny day.
There’s a lot of history in Turku, including the cathedral and castle, though I would recommend setting aside enough time if visiting the castle museum (we found ourselves practically running to finish it before closing time). The city also has a wonderful food scene – who knew pear and blue cheese pizza could be so good?
The bus and train (both around 2 hours from Helsinki) cost €11 and €15 respectively so the trip is not too expensive and can be a nice introduction to Finland outside of the capital.
I’ve written about visiting Tallinn before, but the Estonian capital is both a UNESCO world heritage site (in the form of its old town) and a great place for a day trip. Only 2 hours away by ferry from Helsinki, Tallinn boasts beautiful architecture and is also very cheap, making it a must in my opinion, as well as a rite of passage for anyone to say they have truly lived as Helsinki natives do.
Taking Advantage of Free Museum Days
Many of the museums in Helsinki will offer free entry, sometimes for everyone, and sometimes for under 25s and students, as often as once a month. The city website myhelsinki.fi is updated with current events so is well worth checking out.
My friends and I took advantage of the free evening at the Ateneum (Finnish National Gallery) and really enjoyed it, though be mindful the museums will, naturally, be very busy and there will often be queues on free days!