Posts tagged ‘Helsinki’

Only in Helsinki: 5 Things You Will Find Nowhere Else

As a profiler of the weird and wonderful, I couldn’t wait to get to Finland, a country that stages world championships in phone throwing, wife carrying, mosquito catching and air guitar.

Where else would you find speeding tickets based on the offender’s income? Once, the director of Nokia revved up his Harley a bit too vigorously and was issued a ticket for 116,000 Euros.

I knew Helsinki, Finland’s capital, would not disappoint my passion for the one-off, quirky and unique.

Here are the top five things you can only find in Helsinki, a city that regularly doubles for St. Petersburg in movies:

1. Its Parliament House has its own sauna chambers. Although the impressive 200-seat Parliament House is currently being revonated (MP’s are meeting in nearby Sibelius Academy until 2017), you can bet that they won’t leave out the sauna chambers, a popular forum for debates.

In Finland, the sauna is a point of a national pride, a weekly ritual practice by 99 percent of the population. There are more saunas than cars in Finland and, unlike the rest of us who view a hop in the sauna as a luxury, the Finns consider their weekly sauna as a necessity, right up there with food, rye bread and vodka. Any business worth its credit rating has a company sauna as do most passenger and cargo ships, every home and apartment building. A popular Finnish Finnish TV talk show that ran for two years featured hosts in a sauna chatting up celebs and government officials. Even former president Tarja Halonen (the Conan O’Brien look-alike) was interviewed wearing nothing but a towel.

2. Per capita, Helsinki has the world’s most heavy metal bands. The normally underground head-banging, double bass drums and suicidal lyrics of heavy metal are “out” and widely celebrated all over Finland. It’s hard to find even a small town that doesn’t have at least one heavy metal group: there’s 53 for every 100,000 people, according to The Wire.

Helsinki streets are crowded with metal theme clubs, the Tuska Festival (Tuska means agony in Finnish), a three-day open-air festival draws tens of thousands of metal maniacs from all over the world and The University of Helsinki offers a class on heavy metal music in contemporary society.

There’s a heavy metal children’s music band (It’s called Hevisaurus and members dress in dinosaur costumes) and if you go to the Helsinki Rock Shop, you won’t find gems or minerals but a wide selection of official band t-shirts (black and heavily-studded, of course) of Finland’s most successful heavy metal groups: The Sperm, Wigwam, Children of Bodom (named after a famous massacre on the quiet shores of Lake Bodom), Hanoi Rocks (reputed to have inspired Guns N’ Roses) and His Infernal Majesty, HIM that headlines a midnight show most New Year’s at long-time rock stalwart, the Tavastia Club.

3. It screened the world’s longest running movie (so far). The Lord of the Rings Trilogy has a running time of 558 minutes, but that’s a drop in the cinematic bucket compared to Modern Times Forever, a movie that ran in Helsinki for 240 hours. This ten-day movie was projected onto the side of the Stora Enso Building, an appropriate venue since well, the riveting plot revolved around what would happen to modern architecture (specifically the Stora Enso Buidling) if humankind disappeared. But alas, Helsinki will hold the record for only five more years as Swedish director Anders Weberg just released a 72-minute trailer for his proposed 720-hour movie, Ambiance.

4. Travelers can lose their wallets without worrying or having to call the embassy. Reader’s Digest, in a test to find the world’s most honest city, dropped 12 wallets in 16 cities around the globe. The wallets, each with a cellphone number, a family photo, business cards and the equivalent of $50 were left in parks, on sidewalks, near shopping malls. In Helsinki, 11 out of 12 were returned.

5. There’s a proposed law in Helsinki that will forbid schools to start before 9 a.m.. Not only do kids in Finland stay home until they’re 7 years old (compare that to the U.S. push for earlier and earlier education), but the school day doesn’t start typically start until 9, there’s twice as much recess and the kids go home earlier with little or no homework. While the U.S. sometimes struggles to find good teachers, in Finland, teacher wannabe’s are turned away. Only the top 10 percent are selected, they’re given status on par with doctors and lawyers and, most opposite to the U.S., they’re actually trusted to know the best way to teach their students. Probably most important is Finland consistently performs among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world.

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Helsinki’s urban castle set right in the heart of the Design District

Attention, Princess Wanna-be’s!

If your sights are still set on a castle, you should probably know that most kingdoms and their palaces are located in the countryside, far, far away from shopping, the latest fashion and a decent sushi bar.

Unless, of course, you go to Helsinki.

Glo Hotel Art, a 1903 Art Nouveau castle, is located right in the heart of Helsinki’s Design District, a 25-street area with upstart boutiques, oh-so-cool galleries and restaurants that put Downton Abby’s Mrs. Patmore to shame.

Without having to call for your squire or your butler, you can easily prepare for a night out with Prince Charming at the nearby design showrooms, neighborhood jewelry makers and antique shops. You won’t even need your horse and carriage to get to the Esplanade, the famous green promenade with parks, free concerts and inspiring shops like Marimekko, Aarikka and Stockman’s. From Glo Hotel Art, it’s a pleasant ten-minute walk.

Renovated in 2012, just in time for Helsinki’s year as World Design Capital, Glo Hotel Art combines the accouterments of a castle (well, maybe not a moat) with the cool factor of Finnish design. The stone lobby with its arches, stained glass windows, soft lighting and mysterious stairways evokes a cool Hogwarts vibe. Or would if Albus Dumbledore had admitted Art Nouveau muggle Alphonse Mucha to paint the walls.

The 170 guest rooms, accessed down a series of long corridors, are contemporary, hip and even have free, fast WiFi, something you can’t say about your everyday garden variety castle.

Although Madonna, while in Helsinki on her Sticky and Sweet Tour, stayed at Hotel Kamp on the Esplanade, Glo Hotel Art is one of six owned and operated by the same hotel group and treats all guests as if they were famous rock stars.

Although they don’t hold up lighters or begin swaying together when guests walk in, they’re unwaveringly kind, courteous and don’t even seem to mind dumb questions.

The breakfast (free to all Glo Art Hotel subjects, er guests) is fabulous, featuring Finnish lingonberries, cheese, pastries, breads and other local dishes. Even foamy lattes are thrown in for the asking.

Glo Hotel Art, Lönnrotinkatu 29, 00180 HELSINKI, Finland, +358 10 3444 100.

13 things you probably didn’t know about Finnish saunas

On a recent trip to Helsinki, I was fretting about my glaring lack of language skills. How, I wondered, was I ever going to pronounce all those really long words with so many vowels and umlauts?


Turns out, nearly everyone in Finland speaks English. And even better, I’ve known the most important Finnish word since I was four.

Yes, I’m talking about the word “sauna,” a Finnish word that has made its way into more than 100 languages. Except in Finland, it’s far more than a word–it’s a point of national pride, a weekly ritual practiced by 99 percent of the population.

There are more saunas than cars in Finland and, unlike the rest of us who view a hop in the sauna as a luxury, the Finns consider their weekly sauna as a necessity, right up there with food, rye bread and vodka.

Here are thirteen more things you probably don’t know about Finnish saunas:

1. Any business worth its credit rating has its own company sauna. Even Parliament House has its own sauna chambers, as does the Finnair lounge in the Helsinki airport., the Pyhasalmi zinc and copper mine (it’s 4600 feet underground, making it the deepest sauna in the world), most passenger and cargo ships and every home, summer cottage and apartment building.

2. A popular Finnish television talk show that ran for years featured two hosts in a sauna chatting up celebrities and government officials. Even former president Tarja Halonen (the Conan O’Brien look-alike) was interviewed wearing nothing but a towel.

3. When Finns travel abroad, the sauna goes, too. Those serving in the UN Peace Corps are well-known for the tent saunas they build at every base. And every Finnish diplomatic and consular mission around the world has its own sauna, as does the Finnish Church in London.

4. Speaking of churches, the sauna is considered an equally sacred place. Swearing, controversial topics and sex (although it’s a faux pas to wear clothes in a sauna) are strictly verboten.

5. During the Cold War, Finnish President Urho Kekkonen, who was born in a sauna, held political negotiations in his sauna at Tamminiemi. In fact, soon after Khrushchev attended Kekkonen’s 60th birthday party, where he sat for many hours in Kekkonen’s private wooden sauna, the Soviet government issued a communiqué expressing support for Finland’s intention to cooperate with the West.

6. American actor Danny Kaye, in Helsinki as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, was made a Knight of the Sauna Order by the Finnish Sauna Society. It’s a cultural association with more than 4000 members that publishes papers, organizes seminars and symposiums, supports scientific research and, of course, maintains a sauna for its members.

7. Jatkankamppa, a log cabin sauna in Finland’s Lakes District, can hold 60 people. It is is thought to be the world’s largest.

8. Teuva, a town in western Finland, hosts a mobile sauna rally every year. Dozens of wacky saunas built into telephone booths, farm equipment, old cars and even on the back of a bike are displayed.

9. In Finnish folklore, there’s a sauna-elf. It’s called a saunatonttu and is rumored to perform magic.

10. Saunas are not just used for bathing. In olden days, they were also used for drying flax, preparing malts and curing meat. There’s a famous Finnish proverb, “Build the sauna. Then the house.”

11. Another well-known proverb says a sauna without a birch whisk is like food without salt. Yes, the Finns lightly beat themselves with young birch twigs that allegedly raises blood circulation and speeds up the sweating process.

12. For years, saunas were lauded as the poor man’s pharmacy. Studies now show that sauna visits may aid in everything from rheumatoid pain and heart disease to stress and chronic fatigue.

13. If you plead “saunanjalkeinen,” which means you’re just out of the sauna and completely relaxed, you can get out of most anything.