The ABCs of Helsinki

Best TripAdvisor review I ever read was one that called Helsinki “… a lesson in ABCs (Another Bloody Church).” They were so right.

Good thing I like visiting churches.

My first day in the city, I set out for Helsinki Cathedral.

This journey turned into a lesson in making sure you have a good map. I’m an unconnected traveller. I have a laptop but it stays in my hotel room, and while I carry a phone with me for emergencies, I deliberately don’t connect it to the local network. I’ve never once had Google get me from point a to point b without multiple wrong turnings, and will happily take a paper map over an online one any day.

I prefer the PopOut Map brand, but the available cities are limited, and Helsinki isn’t one of them. I wound up with something from International Travel Maps, a brand I’d never used before and a mistake I won’t make again. On it, Helsinki Cathedral was simply listed as “Church.” Needless to say, I didn’t find the cathedral on day one.

I did on day two, though. It was nice – quite small and simple compared to many other cathedrals I’ve visited, with clean lines and soothing colours.

This all made it feel a bit underwhelming at first, but the beautiful pipe organ made up for it.

So, too, did the shadows cast by the chandeliers like the one in the photo above. The general consensus among friends is that they, “look like a tree frog was dancing with muddy feet.”

They’re not wrong.

My next stop was Kallio Church.

Kallio was a stumble-upon find, something looming at the end of a street I needed to cross to get wherever I was going. Of course I immediately took a detour. It was well worth it. I found some of the artwork and lighting quite beautiful, and a mosaic wall of small brass plaques engraved with parishioner names and the dates of their births and deaths was genuinely interesting.

The church itself fell somewhat above Helsinki Cathedral on the grandeur spectrum. It had a much higher ceiling, and a bit more in terms of flourishes. But it still felt a bit … understated. As churches go.

I was there during a rehearsal, so I spent my time exploring to the music of a talented guitarist with a pleasant voice. I didn’t stay long, as I thought it impolite to be clumping about in my winter boots snapping photos during the rehearsal. But I did sit in one of the pews at the back for a few minutes to enjoy the music.

Speaking of understated churches, I’m not sure I’ve even seen one as simple as the Kamppi Chapel, also known as the Chapel of Silence.

The chapel is right in the heart of downtown, in the middle of a shopping district and within spitting distance of the train station. It was built as a place where people could find a moment of quiet in a busy area.

It’s built out of strips of wood that have been skillfully shaped and fitted together. The craftsmanship is extraordinary, and the simplicity of the interior means that work doesn’t get lost in chaos. And while the pews are simple boxes seats, comfort is taken into account in the form of a stack of cushions available for use, piled against one wall.

The only thing you could hear of all the hustle and bustle immediately outside was the occasional deep rumble of a large truck driving by, but I didn’t find the atmosphere particularly relaxing. That so simple a structure could achieve almost complete silence in an area that lively was fascinating. But it was also built in such a way that the acoustics magnified every sound I made, so no matter how carefully I moved, the slightest rustle was amplified multiple times over. I found myself not wanting to so much as breathe, as breaking the silence for which the chapel was built seemed somehow rude.

But for the architectural detail alone, it’s a must-see.

Another place worth visiting for the architecture is the Temppeliaukio Church, or Rock Church. It is, as the name implies, built into solid rock.

This is a super cool feature.

I think I spent more time at the Rock Church than any other in Helsinki, despite the fact that it was busier – mostly due to a tour group that I was hoping to outlast so I could get the place to myself. I think they won in the long run, but not before I had the chance to be impressed by the church’s dedication to maintaining its rocky theme throughout, even to the point of having a holy water font made of rock, while also making sure the decor suited the structure. Plus the organ’s copper pipes tied in nicely with the copper roof.

I had to take a ferry ride for this next one, in Suomenlinna, also known as the fortress islands. Suomenlinna, which is spread out over several islands, was originally built to protect Helsinki from attack by sea. The church occupies the highest point on one of the islands.

The tourism website said the church wasn’t open to visitors at that time of year, but I figured what the hell, I’ll try the door anyway. To my surprise, it opened. (Helsinki’s tourism website is dreadfully inaccurate. This will continue to be relevant.)

Suomenlinna Church was cute, with pews that are super low to the ground and a sweet little pipe organ. But without doubt, my favourite part was the Art Deco chandelier. It was so incongruous within the classic surroundings. I mean, it was actually quite gorgeous, just … out of place.

This brings us to the last of the Helsinki churches I visited – Uspenski Cathedral.

Both the Helsinki tourism website and the cathedral’s own website stated Uspenski was open until 7pm daily. So one afternoon when I was in that area of the city, I stopped by. It was 3pm on the dot when I arrived, and I heard the lock snick quite literally as I reached for the door handle. A sign on a noticeboard near the door stated the church was closing early that day. Okay, I thought, no biggie, I’ll come back tomorrow – although it would have been nice if the hours had been updated on at least one of the websites.

Tomorrow came, and I returned to the cathedral for my second try, to find it had closed at 4pm. This, it turned out, was its normal closing time, not 7pm. Yep. Both websites were incorrect.

Day three arrived, and getting into Uspenski Cathedral had become my mission in life. I got up early and made it my first stop of the day. And it worked! I got in the door!

Only to discover it was undergoing extensive restoration work, and most of it was blocked by scaffolding.

It was the second time on this trip that the official tourism website had failed to mention work being done on a site, either closing it or severely limiting access. (The first was Olympic Stadium.) After tromping several kilometres a day for several days, I wasn’t the most impressed.

Still, what I could see was quite blingy and over-the-top and, after the reserve of all of Helsinki’s other churches I’d visited, it ultimately brought a grin to my face. So I count it as a win.

And there you have it. That TripAdvior review was right – Helsinki’s all about the ABCs. And they’re nice places to visit. I found an overall tranquility in them that many churches lack, and appreciated their relative simplicity.

But even taking all five of these into consideration as a group, they can’t hold a candle to Turku Cathedral, which I’d visited a few days earlier, in Finland’s former capital city.

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