Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The benefits of a Helsinki Card

Purchasing a tourist card  is something to consider when taking a city break but is it good value or do you worry you may end up visiting a whole host of mediocre museums to ensure you have saved money?

Having tried these cards on several European city breaks, I can honestly say they have certainly been worth having, particularly if you opt for the 72 hour card, which is proportionately much better value.

In Helsinki I was given a complimentary 72 hour Helsinki Card for my own use, courtesy of Visit Helsinki: my husband Dougie purchased his own. The cost of one card is 64 euros for 72 hours (54 for 48 hours, 44 for 24 hours).

We tried not to make sightseeing decisions based purely on whether they were now 'free' but this is a hard habit to break. One of the great advantages of the card, however, is that, if a museum doesn't inspire, you don't have the overwhelming urge to stick it out because 'we've paid so we'd better get our money's worth'.

How did we use the Helsinki Card? 


Image: Visit Helsinki
If there is any likelihood of you using public transport in Helsinki, the card will make the whole process so much easier. Yes, you can don your sturdy shoes and walk to many of the attractions in the city but it's lovely to know that if your feet are aching, you can always take a tram to bring you back to the centre again. On one rainy afternoon, we jumped on a tram and completed a figure of eight around the city until the weather changed.

One of the main attractions in Helsinki is Suomenlinna island - you can't 'do' Helsinki without taking a trip there. With the Helsinki card you don't need to pay for the ferry (5 euros return)

Another beautiful island is Seurasaari. With our Helsinki card we were able to take the bus to the water's edge before crossing the bridge on foot - a saving of about 5-6 euros on the return ticket.


Suomenlinna Museum (Free, saving 6.50 euros )
The museum tells the history of the fortress from the 18th century to the present day. Our favourite part was the 25 minute widescreen film which was surprisingly informative. I normally switch off or become fidgety when museums show films but this time I kept my headphones on to the very end - so it must have been good!

Suomenlinna conducted tour (Free, saving 10 euros).
If we had been paying as we go, I doubt we would have chosen to take the tour and yet this proved to be one of the highlights of the day with guide, Michael's knowledge and sense of humour.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma (Free, saving 12 euros)
An eye-catching building on the outside matches the contemporary work shown within: a variety of changing exhibitions showing the latest developments in visual art. The Face to Face exhibition appealed to me and, in particular, a video exploring the reactions of Alzheimer's sufferers to a pianist playing music from their youth.

Design Museum (Free entry, saving 10 euros)
An enjoyable, if rather short, canter around Finland's national design and industrial art museum. We loved the Finnish fashion exhibition and these crazy outfits.

Kunsthalle Helsinki (50% saving on 10 euro ticket)
We made a bee-line for the Taidehalli to see the current Julian Opie exhibition. Despite him being a British artist, the only time we had seen his work up close before had been in the elevators of The Thief Hotel in Oslo. Strong colours, the use of graphic LED animations, huge 3D sculptures and intricate mosaics made for a stunning exhibition.

Sports Museum of Finland (Free, saving 5 euros)
Located at the Olympic stadium, this proved to be a super little museum. Dougie, being more sporty than me, found it all fascinating stuff, reading about all the famous sportsmen including the Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi. He also spent an inordinate amount of time playing X Box tennis and downhill skiing, until I had to drag him away as there was a young child eager to have a try. Whilst the Flying Scotsman was hitting the virtual slopes, I rather enjoyed reading about Finland's more unusual sports such as wife-carrying, mobile phone throwing and swamp volleyball.

Olympic Stadium Tower (3 euros, saving of 2 euros)
A fabulous way to see the views across the city. A quick elevator ride up to the top of the 72 metre tower and Helsinki in all its glory is laid before you. The entry fee also allows you into the stadium itself. I would recommend a cushion for the wooden slatted seats if you were actually going to watch something there.

Finnair SkyWheel (free, saving 12 euros)
Another super way to see Helsinki from on high, the SkyWheel operates all year round. Like all the other attractions we visited during our stay, there were no queues. The ride last 10-12 minutes, taking passengers to a height of about 40m.

What else could we have done?

The choice of a Panorama sightseeing tour by bus (free, saving 31 euros) or a boat trip on the canal route (free, saving 24 euros). I can't believe we didn't take the opportunity to choose from either of these amazing offers. Next time...

There were many more 'free' museums we could have visited - military, photography, architecture - but there is a limit to what you can reasonably do in 72 hours and still have time to eat, drink and sleep.  There were also discounts for attractions such as Helsinki Zoo, Linnanmaki Amusement Park, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, a number of restaurants and a selection of shops.

Not counting transport, we would each have paid about 66 euros for the attractions we visited in three days. If we add in ferries, trams and buses on top of that you can see that 64 euros for a 72 hour card is good value - even more so if we had taken one of the special inclusive tours.

The Helsinki Card will save you money even if, like us, you aren't trying to fit in as many museums as possible. But the fact that it takes the hassle out of visiting places - not having to find the right money or use credit cards to buy tickets - makes for a less stressful experience. And psychologically, although you have paid an upfront fee, you can't help but feel you have complimentary access to much of what Helsinki has to offer when you wave that orange card around.

Thank you to Visit Helsinki for my 72 hour card. 


Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Finland for Foodies

Image credit: Boulevard Social.
I'm not normally a foodie. I don't often blog about restaurants and rarely photograph my dinner apart from the odd Instragrammed cocktail. When writing about our Helsinki holiday, however, I'm going to make an exception - apart from the photography: I still feel uncomfortable snapping my supper.

The restaurant scene in Helsinki was a revelation. I worried it might be all rolled herring and meatballs. I was wrong. Inspiration came from all corners of the globe. And the fact that all evening meals were taken within spitting distance of our hotel is another reason to heartily recommend the Klaus K as the place to stay.

The quality and dining experience was so good in the city, it certainly warrants its own blog post so, without further ado, I shall try and whet your appetite. If you really need a photo, have a look at the one above from Boulevard Social's website: that'll do nicely...

Pastor - Drink and Dine
Errottajankatu 4, 00120 Helsinki

It describes itself as an 'urban living room where you can eat, drink and hang out'. Its proximity to the Klaus K is quite remarkable: it can be accessed through a door from the hotel reception or you can walk round the corner and enter the traditional way.

A bar and restaurant, the place was buzzing on the Saturday we arrived with people drinking cocktails at the bar and lots of groups of friends sharing meals. Sharing was the key here and elsewhere on during our stay: food to be tasted and swapped and dipped into.

The inspiration is Peruvian with the 'nikkei' tradition mixing it with East Asia and a dollop of Spain.

What did we eat?

Tiger prawn & pineapple maki, Japanese BBQ sauce, rocoto chilli jam

Marinated whitefish, guacamole, crisp tortillas, Peruvian chilli sauce


Carne huancaina
Marinated grilled beef entrecôte, marinated tomatoes, chimichurri & huancaina sauce

Pan fried sea bass, Peruvian antibiose, coconut scented rice

We drank mohitos but I should have tried the pisco-based cocktails for a more authentic Peruvian experience. If we had managed a pud, I would have chosen a ginger and lime brûlée or maybe the roasted white chocolate mousse with caramelised banana and toffee ice-cream.

Restaurant Gaijin
Bulevardi 6, 00120 Helsinki

Owned by Tomi Björck and Matti Wikberg, Gaijin takes diners on a journey to North Asia, combining traditional Japanese and Korean dishes with those from the north of China, with a modern twist. 

The tables are quite close together but otherwise this was a superb dining extravaganza as we chose the Sunday special tasting menu which was accompanied by sake and three matching wines. Looking at the menu, I had no idea what much of this would taste like but it was extraordinarily good. In fact, I would go as far to say this was one of the best meals I have ever had.

What did we eat?

Squid cracker & whitefish
Crispy squid cracker, whitefish sashimi, red dragon dressing, togarashi-mayonnaise

'Salt & Pepper' soft shell and apple salad
Soft shell crab, tobiko roe dressing, fennal and apple salad
apple mustard dressing, hazelnut, dried mustard seeds

Grilled miso chicken skewer
Miso marinated grilled chicken, kombu soy, miso mayonnaise

X.O. scallops
Fried scallops, rare Chinese X.O. sauce, bonito, seaweed caviar

'Ramen style hot pot' pork cheek
Braised pork cheek, red dragon mayonnaise, 'spicy ramen' sauce, crispy noodles, spring onions.

Japanese rice

Apricot & Vanilla
White chocolate crème, crispy almond cracker, apricot sorbet

Matching drinks
Maboroshi Junmai Ginjo - Hiroshima, Japan
Gewurztraminer Riesling Fusion 2013 - Pillitteri Estate Winery, Ontario, Canada
Sidetrack 2011 - Chalk Hill, McLaren Vale, Australia
Superior - Choya, Osaka, Japan (ume wine)

Restaurant Boulevard Social
Bulevardi 6, 00120 Helsinki

Another Björck and Wikberg offering, next door although the same address as Gaijin. This time the flavours are from Greece, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco. A warm, bistro-style room with an emphasis again on sharing and socialising.

What did we eat?

Green gazpacho & prawn cocktail
Prawns, apple grape gazpacho, coriander crème

Grilled chicken & vine leaf
Grilled chicken wrapped in vine leaves with chestnut, lemon aioli 


Roasted chicken 'ras el hanout'
'Ras el hanout' flavoured roasted chicken, grilled lemon sherry dressing, sesame hummus, 
grilled baby gem

Grilled lamb kafta 'Khashkhash'
Grilled kebab skewer of minced lamb, spicy tomato sauce, fennel salad, sesame hummus,
harissa, pita bread

To accompany the meal we had some wonderful Lebanese wine and a couple of cocktails:
Moroccan Flower Power - Absolut vodka, Aperol, grapefruit, elderflower and lemon
Burned Orange Sour - whisky, caramelised orange and lemon

We declined a dessert (what were we thinking?) I'm sure, with some belt loosening, I could have made room for a strawberry and pistachio baklava.

On our final evening, after experiencing another night of great food and warm, friendly service, we tipped the waitress and she brought back our change. We waved the saucer away, thanking her again for her hospitality. She seemed quite astonished and then whispered, "Thank you so much, You see, we don't have a tipping culture in Finland."

Having gamely tipped throughout the weekend, Dougie muttered 'Now you tell me!" and I realised that, despite all my pre-holiday planning, I hadn't picked up that little nugget of travel advice. I'm sure the staff of these fabulous restaurants are quite delighted about that.


Sunday, 19 July 2015

A message from Greece - what can tourists really expect?

Thinking about going to Greece for a holiday but worried about how tourism has been affected? A good friend of mine, Sally, has a holiday home there and has sent me this guest post from her spot under the beach umbrella. 

The beach at Stoupa, Greece.
Packing a suitcase this year for a summer break in Greece presented some dilemmas. A new bikini or a tin of powdered milk? Skirt or three tins of tuna?

In the end I settled for the standard requirements for a five week stay at our little hilltop house on the Greek mainland. Apart from one concession; a large packet of proper teabags. I simply couldn't risk there being no proper teabags and having to live on those awful yellow things that pass for teabags in most European countries.

Arriving in Stoupa, a Peloponnesian resort, much favoured by British holiday-makers and ex-pats, there was some trepidation. The news had been filled with the likelihood of a Grexit, pictures of riots in Athens and stories of fuel rationing and shortages in supermarkets.

However, the local supermarket appeared to be as well-stocked as ever (although water melon was now 1.24 euros, about a pound) with all the requirements for 'A Brit Abroad' - baked beans, ketchup and Yorkshire teabags included.

Aha, I thought, later that evening as we prepared to go down to for dinner. Maybe the beach will be deserted, tavernas quiet and restaurants closed? Or worse, graffiti will cover the walls of the local school or car hire office: the nearest police station being 8 miles away and the closest bank, 30, it was unlikely even upset Greeks would go that distance in the heat with a view to rioting or scribbling something rude on a wall.

Not so. Not only was every restaurant open, there was a brand new cocktail bar doing a roaring trade and the pizza place had to put out extra tables across the road (since the main beach road is closed to traffic from 8pm to 2am, this wasn't a problem)

The only life at the single ATM was a large ginger cat and although there appeared to be a noisy gathering at our favourite restaurant, this turned out to be a party who couldn't get seated and were squabbling about whether to wait, to go and drink another cocktail or three instead or go to another eatery.

Sitting down, we did run across a problem of epic proportions, it is true. The complimentary dish of olives did not divide exactly by three and our daughter decided she would rather have her boyfriend's roast wild boar than her own stuffed tomatoes. But hey, you can't have everything. And returning via the piano bar, my husband swore he heard a bum note played in a soulful rendition of The Long and Winding Road.

In short, Greece for holiday-makers, and, I suspect, many of the rural residents, remains largely untouched by the current crisis. The sea is as blue, the sun as hot and the beer as cold as it always is. Although I have picked unripe oranges to use as missiles should hordes of rioters appear and need repelling. Not the lemons though. They are perfectly ripe and far too good for that. They are, as always, destined for a large gin and tonic as the sun goes down.


Sally in Stoupa


Monday, 13 July 2015

Six of one and half a dozen of the other

It seems ages since I've updated my blog. I still want to write more about our trip to Helsinki but while I'm working on those posts, thought I'd share my column pieces with you. There's half a dozen articles for you to choose from - take your pick! From Dougie and his Duck tape (always great column material is my daft fella), through to our Silver Wedding Anniversary and the latest on a new play I'm involved in - all my news from the last couple of months in one handy package.

Survivalist husband Dougie is tooled up for all occasions

Enjoy all the stories of Dougie's uses for duct tape.

25 years and still on the road together

Remembering our wedding day - with organist problems and dodgy video camera work.

Taking a trip from Fenland to Finland

The highlights of our holiday in Helsinki

I'm working on my Welsh accent

Guess which part I've got in this farce we're putting on in November?

Sizzling night at Midsummer Ball

The annual local shindig. What do you think I bid for in the silent auction?

Spalding firepower spikes Cannon's guns

Watching Dougie's volleyball team win the Lincolnshire Cup Final