I wanted to get my bearings, so my first stop was the train station, very easy to find since the Finnair bus had left me across the street.

Finnair bus in Helsinki

The Finnair bus is a great way to get downtown. It only costs 5.2 Euros, and drops you off in front of the railway station.
Helsinki train station

The Finnair bus leaves you in front of the Helsinki railway station.

I walked into the waiting room and was glad to see a bank of computers connected to the internet. The cost was one hour for two Euros: put the money into a vending machine and get a ticket with a username and password, then log on. The ticket was good for up to three days, I took advantage of this to send messages home to let friends and family know that I had arrived safely.

Considering my far north location and the time of year, the weather was surprisingly mild: it never went below freezing while I was in Helsinki.

Now it was time for food!

I had done a search of restaurants on the Helsinki Tourist & Convention Bureau website and had found one restaurant that looked promising. I set off down the main street, Mannerheimintie. I used the street signs on the corners, but soon found that they did not list the names of the streets, they listed directions to local landmarks, such as the post office, train station, etc. And to make it more confusing, they are in two languages, Finnish and Swedish.

Helsinki street sign

These two words say the same thing: the top one is Finnish, the bottom is Swedish.

The street signs are actually posted on the buildings: great for walkers, but it must be very difficult for drivers to see them.

Helsinki street sign

This street sign, giving the name of the street, was mounted on a building at the intersection. Again, both words mean the same, but one is Finnish, the other Swedish.

I found the restaurant I was looking for, but it was closed for a private event. So, back downtown.

I knew I had to buy some souvenirs for Mrs. Happy Flier so I went to a local department store. Or at least I tried to. I got there a few minutes before 4 p.m. and saw everyone leaving. I did not know that Helsinki has strict blue laws: everything, other than restaurants, bars, and movie theaters, closes at 4 p.m. on Saturday and does not reopen until Monday. So, I was out of luck on the souvenirs.

I decided to head to the Arctic Ice Bar. Perhaps you’ve read about a place like this: everything in the bar, including the bar and the tables is made of ice. We don’t have anything like this in Central Texas, so I knew I had to go there.

First problem is that it is hard to find. It’s at Yliopistonkatu 5, but is actually in the rear area of the La Bodega Restaurant. So, that’s what you have to look for. Enter La Bodega and tell the hostess you want to visit the Arctic Ice Bar.

The Arctic Ice Bar

The Arctic Ice Bar. Except for the glasses and bottles, everything is made of ice!

They’ll take you through the Mexican restaurant to the Bar. The cost is ten Euros to get in the bar and have one drink. Before you enter the Bar, they’ll give you an overcoat; the temperature in the Bar is only 20 degrees F and the overcoat will come in handy.

The Arctic Ice Bar

The bartender only comes into the bar when there are customers. At least we knew the drinks would be cold!

The Bar is small, maybe 150 square feet. Its maximum capacity is only 10 people. I went in, the only other people were a couple visiting from Estonia. You choose among 5 different vodka drinks: these are strong! Finish your drink and you are done. You’ll be in and out in less than 15 minutes. But it makes for some interesting photos.

Even the table was made of ice! I may be a Happy Flier, but it’s cold in there!

I walked around the downtown area looking for a place to eat. I was surprised at how many all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets I saw. Even more surprising was how many Tex-Mex restaurants I saw. I am sure these are all fine establishments, but I just couldn’t see flying almost 7,000 miles from Texas to Finland to eat a burrito! So I passed on these.

The Texas Restaurant
The Texas Restaurant

Texas has a great influence everywhere. Here are two Helsinki restaurants, Amarillo, and Texas.

I had been concerned about a possible language barrier while in Helsinki, but that was not an issue. Everyone I spoke to either spoke English, or was with someone who did.

The Euro vs. the Dollar, the battle is over

I continued my search for a restaurant; fortunately they are all over the place in downtown Helsinki. I went up to one and looked at the menu in the window; it featured a wide variety of appetizers and entrees, and even had listings in English! The appetizers were $13 to $20 each, pretty expensive!

But wait! Those prices aren’t in Dollars, they are in Euros! The appetizers were $19.50 to $30 each! And the entrees were 20 to 35 Euros each! ($30-$50) I was hungry, but not so hungry that I would pay $70 for dinner.

I kept walking and checking prices, but they all seemed to be in the same price range. Finally, I broke down and got something to eat at (and I really hate admitting this) McDonald’s. A chicken sandwich, small fries, and small Coke cost $13.50! Helsinki will remain expensive as long as the Dollar remains weak against the Euro.

McDonalds

Yes, those are the golden arches of McDonald’s.

I’ve eaten, I’ve visited the Ice Bar, but I haven’t gambled yet! The Grand Casino Helsinki is located a just few blocks from the train station. If you have ever been to a fancy casino in Las Vegas, you’ll be disappointed by the Grand Casino. It is not nearly as large or oppulent as the Vegas casinos. It’s much smaller, but still nice, perhaps similar to some of the riverboat casinos.

I had to show my passport and have my picture taken to get into the casino. It offers the normal casino highlights: slot machines, Texas Hold ‘Em, Blackjack, etc. I hit the slots, lost a little bit of money, and left. At 6:30 in the evening. the casino was not very crowded, perhaps it would have been later in the evening.

I left and visited a bar that a FlyerTalk friend had recommended, U. Kaleva, located at 3 Kalavenkatu. Although the bar is less than a block off the main street it has the feel of a neighborhood bar: small, not very fancy, and you get the feeling that everyone in the bar knows everyone else. Even at the early time of 7 p.m. the bar was standing-room-only. This was not a singles bar, this was a place where everyone went to share good times with each other.

I had a couple of beers, enjoying the feel of the place, and left.

I went down the street and found Baxters, a combination bar and restaurant. I found a place near the bar and sat and watched the show. Even though I can’t speak a word of Finnish, it was real easy to watch the universal rituals that were going on between the young men and women who were there.

I still had several hours until the 5 a.m. bus from the train station to Vantaa airport, so I relaxed and enjoyed the excellent Finnish beer. My favorite was Koff, brewed in Finland. I enjoyed my time at Baxters, but when I noticed it had taken me almost two hours to finish a beer, I knew it was time to leave.

I was hungry again and looked elsewhere for a restaurant, I did not want to return to McDonalds. I walked around many of the downtown streets, but never found an affordable restaurant. Unfortunately, I ended up at Southern Fried Chicken for another $13 sampling of Helsinki’s fast food.

I went back to Baxters but could not get in, there was a long line of people waiting to get in. As I walked around I saw that was the normal situation at all the clubs. Helsinki has a lively nightlife in the downtown area, and every club I saw had a long line waiting to get in.

Another beer at U. Kaleva and I was ready to head home. I had not slept well on the flight over, and my internal clock was now totally out of whack.

So, I spent my last few hours in Helsinki walking through downtown. I’ll admit I went back to McDonalds for a hot chocolate at 3 a.m.

At 4:30 I was back at the train station, at 5 a.m. I boarded the bus for the ride back to the airport