We are highlighting various destinations around the world and naturally we started with Helsinki, Finland. Helsinki is a very manageable, walkable city that is definitely the gateway to Russia.
How to get there: Air-Most major European airlines fly into Helsinki's airport that is 6 miles north of the city center. Finnair runs direct flights to/from New York-JFK, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami daily. Rail: The Finnish and Russian Rail services run a joint high-speed train, called Allegro, between St. Petersburg and Helsinki that makes the journey in less than 3.5 hours. An added bonus is that they perform border control and customs checks during the trip so when you arrive at your destination, you are off and running! Ship: Various ferries run between Helsinki and Tallinn, Estonia with sailing time being roughly 2 hours.
Where to Stay: The big Scandinavian chains are well represented in the Helsinki Center which is great for families with children because that means two things: rooms designed for children including bunkbeds and free breakfast, which is essential to a happy child and parent dynamic! We had a great stay at the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel. There are also excellent choices on AirBnB, which we've used with great success in Europe.
What to do: A great way to start your visit and see the city is by taking a ride on the Skywheel. A few steps away is the Allas Sea Pool which combines two items that Finns love: cold swims and hot sauna. The Allas has 3 pools, two which are heated and one that contains filtered sea water at the same temperature as the harbor. Take a dip in the sea and see how long you can last. Only two members of our family fully submerged on an October day when the water was 57 degrees. After you are sufficiently chilled, make a bee line to the sauna, where you can get your schvitz on at 175 degrees. Saunas are an essential part of Finnish life and are found at most hotels, fitness clubs or simply free standing establishments.
For a luxury steam with a view of the Baltic, check out Loyly! For a slice of history, take the ferry to the Suomenlinna fortress island. This UNESCO site can fill an entire day with six separate museums, guided tours through the village at the center of the island and 10 different restaurants and cafes. When you return to the city center/harbor areas, stroll through the Market Square where locals sell goods. Next to the Market is the Vanha Kauppahalli, a long food hall packed with fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood. Robert's Coffee in the Vanha is a fantastic place to get a cup and you will feel like a local as Finns drink more coffee per capita than any other people in the world!
The Stockmann Department Store in Helsinki is the largest department store in Scandinavia- and is fascinating, perhaps because unlike such places in France or other countries, the locals dominate. In a world where bookstores have become a rarity there's a fantastic one with an enormous selection of books, including ones in English. There's also a grocery store too, the perfect place to stock up if you're choosing to stay in an apartment/house.
What to eat: A few things to try while in Finland are their hearty rye breads, Finnish berries and the aforementioned coffee. Seafood dominates menus in central Helsinki and we dominated an array of delicacies at Salutorget near the harbor. Housed in an old bank and outfitted with gorgeous stained glass, Salutorget buzzes with the best kind of energy, while the kitchen churns out fabulous sea-based fare. Try the Salmon Soup, which is more brothy and less creamy than the fish soups from the other Scandi countries. Seafood not your thing? Try the Woolshed, Australian Gastropub, where the tomahawk steak will make even the most hardcore carnivore blush! There's a connection between Australia and Finland, why that connection exists is a puzzle to us. Do you know how this came about?
What you need to know before you go: Finland is part of the EU, so the Euro is the currency. It is part of the Schengen area, so as long as you are traveling from one of the other 25 European zone places, there will not be any Passport Control when you enter. While the national language is Finnish, English is pervasive. Score points by saying "kiitos", which means thank you! Public transport is excellent, so there is no need to rent a car.
Summary: Helsinki is a refreshing destination that isn't as overrun as Paris, Prague and the other well-traveled continental cities. It is a perfect stopover destination if you are headed to/from St. Petersburg in Russia or if you need a quick respite during a longer trip. Beware...after your family is exposed to the Finnish sauna, they will push you for one for your home - you have been warned!