As Spring comes around, my thoughts – like so many people – turn to travel, and making plans for my next much-needed trip away. I’d like to think that I have an adventurous streak, and that I’m not afraid to try something new – but with so much publicity about LGBT rights in countries right around the world I’m also cautious about where I go, and who is the recipient of my hard earned tourism spending.
I suppose what I’m most concerned about is that the welcome that I receive will be warm and genuine. I’m aware of course that the experience for tourists or hotel guests in a particular destination can be hugely different to the everyday realities faced by LGBT people who might live in that country. However the appeal of a beautiful beach or stunning landscape, no matter how idyllic, loses its lustre for me if I know that the local LGBT population are being denied their basic rights just for being themselves.
While I don’t want to be too contentious this is an important issue (for me at least), so rather than starting by dismissing the 78 or so countries where homosexuality is illegal to some degree or another, I’m going to focus on a destination that is taking LGBT tourism seriously – Helsinki.
If I was in any doubt about how comfortable Finland is about sex and sexuality, I was recently completely assured by the release of a set of Tom of Finland stamps by Itella, the Finnish postal service. Certainly I’m going to enjoy putting these on my postcards that I’ll send back to friends and family.
Daughter of the Baltic
This is of course the capital of Finland, the stunningly beautiful “Daughter of the Baltic”. Founded by King Gustav Vasa of Sweden in 1550, much of the present architecture dates from the beginning of the 19th century, when the city was rebuilt by the Tsars of Russia in the same style as imperial St. Petersburg, and the city became the Finnish capital in 1812.
A true gateway between East and West, Helsinki’s character has been determined by an intriguing mix of influences and cultures, and yet she still retains a distinct character all of her own. Swedish kings and Russian Tsars have certainly made their impact, but the Finnish language is most closely related to other regional Baltic Sea languages such as Estonian, which tells us that Finland’s culture is as unique and Nordic as they come.
I love this history of course, but when it comes to being an out and proud LGBT traveller, Helsinki really interests me as a place that is really pulling out the stops to make people like me feel welcome – by providing the resources I need to plan a stress-free and genuinely welcoming visit.
The power of the network
Thanks to the local tourist board – Visit Helsinki – a thriving LGBT business network has been developed – with the sole aim of providing product that really suits my needs as a gay traveller. Many local businesses have enrolled in the network, including hotels, bars, restaurants and shops, meaning that I can easily find the establishments that not only want my business, but are also investing time and money in training their staff to make sure that they are relaxed and comfortable when I do arrive.
There are also tour operators as part of the network too, which means that if I feel like putting my feet up and letting an expert put my trip together for me, which might include an extra few days outside of the city, then I can. All this of course safe in the knowledge that my sexuality isn’t something that I have to be guarded about when I’m booking or enjoying my stay.
Actions prove the point
On arrival I’m pleased to find that the staff are just as welcoming to me and my boyfriend as I had been lead to believe, and even had a few tips of where I should head of their own. Luckily I’ve been doing some research of my own and so I have a pretty good idea of where I want to start.
The first stop is to pick up my Helsinki Card at the tourist information centre on the Esplanade in the centre of the city. This is one of the tips I learned about from the ‘tips and offers’ section of the Visit Helsinki website, and which gives various benefits for visitors including unlimited use of public transport, entry to sights and attractions, discounts and a nifty guide book too.
In terms of orienting oneself the city is quite a manageable size, and the centre is easily explored on foot. The Market Square is a great place to start with booths serving interesting local snacks, souvenirs and trinkets. A few blocks away is the impressive Senate Square with is dominated by the famous Lutheran Cathedral and flanked by the Senate and University of Helsinki buildings.
The port area is located in the centre of the city just in front of the stunning Neoclassical parade of buildings in front of the Cathedral, and from here you can catch a ferry to the island fortress of Suomenlinna which sits on islands in the bay, and makes for a fantastic and fascinating day out. Alternatively you can just grab a coffee (apparently Finns drink the most coffee in the world – and they make them strong here) to watch a real working port in action while enjoying the views of the sea and the Russian Uspenski Cathedral which sits on a hillside above the port.
These are experiences that you can only get in Helsinki of course, and another distinctly Finnish experience not to miss is to go to a public sauna (pronounced sow-na as in female pig, rather than saw-na as in tool for sawing wood in Finland).
The two that I tried had very distinct atmospheres and are both worth both a mention and a visit. Firstly the Harjutorin sauna in the district of Kallio is easily reached in ten minutes on one of the efficient trams that run through the city. This sauna is very much a public institution and offers a no nonsense approach to working up a sweat. The second is the beautiful Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall in the centre of the city, whose beautiful central swimming hall is just delightful, and you can be served drinks overlooking swimmers from your own private room.
If saunas are taken seriously here – and they are – then so too is design, which is very important in the lives of the Finnish and is simply now really a part of the national character. The famous Finnish designer Alvar Aalto gained global recognition for his work, but other local designers such as Tapio Wirkkala and Ilmari Tapiovaara are also well known and celebrated in Finland for their own contributions to Finnish design. You may be lucky to live in a town where Iitaala has a retail store – this specialist glassmaker and homewares designer is based in – you guessed it – Finland, and you will find their flagship store on the Esplanade right in the centre of Helsinki.
One of the best places to learn about Helsinki’s wonderful design ethic is in the cities Design District, which is a short walk to the south of the main Esplanade. Even if design isn’t your thing this really is a must-do when in the city. Apart form the excellent design museum there are dozens of shops that sell all manner of goods that would not look out of place in the most stylish of homes.
Finnish design is exemplified by simplicity and functionality, but there is also clever and inventive use of natural materials in sustainable ways. The goods here are made to last, as was the classic Finnish furniture of the 1940s and 50s, and these hardwearing, inexpensive and stylish pieces have now become much sought-after vintage design classics.
Shopping in Helsinki feels like an adventure, and I came away with several unique gifts at reasonable prices.
If the shopping is an adventure, then the food was an odyssey for the palate.
While restaurants such as Kolo and A21 Dining are reinterpreting local classics, for me it was the traditional dishes that really stood out.
Restaurants such as Lappi and Saaga and Café Kahvila Suomi can feel a little touristy, but dishes like reindeer carpaccio, roasted Elk and hot smoked salmon fillets make it worth it.
For delicious, fresh, and simply cooked seafood, a visit to the Fishmarket near the South Harbour in the city centre also highly recommended.
More information on Helsinki and the LGBT network is available here.
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