A week in Helsinki

I spent last week in the Helsinki metro area to attend NordDesign 2014 at Aalto University. My colleague Youngbok Hong and I presented some work we've done to create a senior capstone course that combines service design and interaction design theories and practices together in one course. You can read our paper here if you're so inclined. I thought I would collect my thoughts about the trip here so anyone can see what I did and maybe find some recommendations if you ever find yourself in that part of the world.

Outside Helsinki Cathedral or "The Church" as the locals seemed to call it.

Outside Helsinki Cathedral or "The Church" as the locals seemed to call it.

The weather

The weather was perfect for me: mid-60s during the day and low 40s at night. It rained almost every day but it came and went very quickly. The rain was very strange; it would come from nowhere and usually be sunny while it was raining. I went to a sauna where you swim in the Baltic Sea swim after you sit in sauna. The water was freezing—only 59 F—so I got in and out very quickly. The locals, however, thought it was comfortable and stayed in for way too long.

The city

Helsinki is a ideal size for touring. I only used public transportation a few times and was able to walk everywhere else. The city is relatively compact with most of the sights very close together. There are only about 600,000 people in the city itself so it was never very crowded and public transit was extremely comfortable even during rush hour.

Overall, the architecture was odd mostly because of the mix of old and new-ish buildings. The time period of the buildings varied dramatically from block to block. The nicer areas were clearly Victorian, some areas were soviet-inspired, and others were neoclassical (very similar to the colonial US). I interpreted it as a mix of continental + Eastern European styles. There was very little contemporary/modern architecture outside of the huge shopping malls and art museums.

One of the more interesting places we visited was Suomenlinna, an old military island from the 1700s. There was a lot of history there (Finland has an interesting past and a lot of conflict with both Sweden and Russia). The island was also a prison camp in the early 1900s. There were some great views of the city from there and some very beautiful 18th Century architecture. It was a very short boat ride to get there but it felt like another world.

Some of my overall favorite sights:

Click on the photos below to see a larger version. Hover over the large version to see a caption.

The food

I was a little worried about the food prior to arriving but that was uncalled for; the food was great! There was a lot of seafood (salmon, crayfish, smelt, shrimp), berries (lingonberries, cranberries, strawberries, blueberries, and cloudberries), root vegetables (potato, carrots, beets), amazing bread (most of it was rye based but didn't have the strong caraway taste that american rye bread has; also really good donuts that aren't as sweet as ours and have berry jam filling. I had one with raspberry and one with cloudberry), and a very nice porridge for breakfast (topped with dried fruit and jam). On the beverage end there was good coffee and good beer everywhere. I was pleasantly surprised by the food. 

The design

Finnish design is amazing. Their industrial design is especially nice and has had a huge influence on the rest of the world even though we don't think about it.  Marimekko (fashion) and Iittala (glassware) and Artek (furniture) are three of the leaders. If you shop at Crate and Barrel you've probably seen Marimekko before. If you've seen any modernist furniture ever, it was probably influenced by the Aaltos and Artek.

In the tech space, they seem to have a rapidly growing start-up scene. It seems to be fueled by the collapse of Nokia and the rise of Angry Birds (which was created by Finns). Some of this activity is even being helped by the government (via Aalto University). Startup Sauna and Slush are two examples of the growing industry. They have a different approach than we do though, it's more socially focused (a general theme in the Scandinavian approach to life and work.)

Random thoughts

  • Finnish (and all the Nordic languages for that matter) is very difficult to read as an English speaker. From what I understand, they conjugate words in a very different way. If I understand it correctly, they embed grammar like prepositions, cases, moods, etc. into the noun or verb (see some examples here). This means that words or place names get changed slightly when they are referenced in different ways. It also means that words are very long. The whole thing makes it much more difficult to navigate the city.
  • The Finns drink a lot of coffee. They make it more bitter than we do (even at Starbucks) but it is very good. They seem to take coffee very seriously so even if you get it from a metro convenience store it is still high quality.
  • Lapin Kulta was the poplar beer around town. It was great and reminded me of Grolsch.
  • It was an expensive city but not as expensive as it was made out to be. It was comparable to any large city in the U.S. Most of the expense came from the weak USD compared to Euros. For example, non-fancy meals were 12-20€, admission to museums was usually 10€, a bottle of water was 2€, a pint of beer was 6.5€, and public transit was 20€ for 5 days. Not bad at all.
  • Everyone speaks English there. They start taking it as young children (along with Swedish).

This was a really good trip. If you haven't had the chance to go, I hope you get there some day.