Sep 16, 2014

Baltic Cruise: Helsinki, Finland

Moving right along through Scandinavian waters, our next cruise port was the capital and largest city in Finland---Helsinki! You can go ahead and add this destination as another place I never thought I'd travel...and end up liking. Thanks to some travel-savvy friends (that was one awesome thing about living abroad with the military...we had lots of friends interested in the very same activities we were!), we teamed up and Google Mapped out a few of the must-see attractions in Helsinki. I'm less spontaneous when it comes to cruise travel, so having a plan to maximize our limited time in each port is crucial. With our map and plan in hand, we hopped a bus from the port to the city center and got exploring!

Wandering on foot is our ideal way to take in a new city, but I've got to say, Helsinki is a pretty big place. When we started our walk from where the bus dropped us off to our first sight, the Rock Church, we had no idea how far we would be walking. We wandered for what seemed like forever, finally reaching the Rock Church, sweat dripping off our foreheads. The weather was much warmer than we expected in just don't think of the Baltic states being hot, even in July! But I digress. Upon arriving, you could tell Helsinki's Rock Church (Temppeliaukio Church) was quite unique. It's basically an entire church excavated into a mound of rock. The exterior was interesting, but it was the interior that really wowed. The ceiling skylight was made entirely out of copper and it shined as the sun blazed through its panels sending this ethereal glow throughout the church. I've really never seen anything like it. After spending some time in the church, we decided we couldn't hoof it to all the sights we wanted to see around Helsinki, so we snagged a ride on one of the city's many trams and made our way to another famous Helsinki church.

Helsinki Cathedral had a much more commanding exterior than the Rock Church...the white stone literally radiated down the alleyways. It stood perched atop a hill of stairs that overlooked the cutest square, complete with bubbling fountains and happy tourists. The interior, compared to the Rock Church, was nothing to write home about. In fact, it was modest compared to most cathedrals we'd visited around Europe, a testament to its neoclassical style and construction time period. After snapping a dozen photos and enjoying a rest on the steps, we decided lunch was in order. Enter, Bryggeri Helsinki!

It was here that we experienced local Helsinki brews (as well as their versions of world favorites) and tried one of Finland's traditional dishes, reindeer stew! I was a little hesitant at first, but when in Finland, right? The reindeer was surprisingly tender and not as gamey in flavor as I fact, it fell right off the bone. The price tag, however, was we ordered 2 dishes and shared it among the 8 of us. We all much rather spend our money on beer...and that we did!

With full bellies, we set out for some shopping and to find Helsinki harbor & Market Square (Kauppatori) where we knew a large market was held daily. There were stalls upon stalls of craftsmen selling their wares and even more food tents with traditional snacks to sample. We tried some of the fresh fish caught that morning and even sampled fried anchovies. Not too shabby!

While not my favorite of our stops along the Baltic Sea (not enough kitsch for me), any city you tour with friends becomes a city to remember. We had a lovely day and tried lots of new things, a cruise port nicely explored. :)

[Additional photos courtesy of our travel buddy's Helsinki album! Thanks for sharing, Jon!]

Sep 12, 2014

Baltic Cruise: Stockholm, Sweden

Our Baltic sailing departed from one of the most popular cities in Scandinavia--Stockholm! Lucky for us, that meant we got to spend extra time exploring this Swedish gem. Truth be told, Stockholm had never really been on my travel radar. Even though it was a short plane ride away, in my mind it was so much father. Sometimes it takes cruising to multiple destinations to get you to see places you never considered before!

The night before our cruise set sail, D and I flew into Arlanda International just outside of Stockholm. Our flight got us to Sweden around 10pm, so instead of trying to hail a taxi or take a city bus, we opted to take the Arlanda Express straight into town (20 minute ride--kind of pricey, but at 11pm at night, you hardly give a crap--book early for discounts!). Thankfully, our hotel was just around the corner from where the train stopped, so we only had to lug our 4 suitcases about half a block (cruise packing is ridiculous, y'all). Once in our room at the fabulous Radisson Blu Royal Viking Hotel, we met up with friends for a nightcap at the SKYBAR and then crashed...HARD. Travel is exhausting! Bright and early the next morning after checking out, we had the hotel store our luggage and we hopped a tour bus to have a quick driving view of the city before boarding the cruise ship at noon. The weather was slightly drab, but we enjoyed the sights nevertheless. Stockholm is rich with history and boasts some stunning architecture, so our eyes were busy scanning the skyline for unique landmarks and traditional facades. I especially loved seeing the ABBA museum--pop culture is still alive and well in Stockholm!

Since our cruise also ended its sailing journey in Stockholm, we had another opportunity to wander the city before flying back to Germany that evening. We opted to take a tour and airport transfer with the cruise line, so we had a tour guide drop us off in Gamla Stan (Stockholm's Old Town) for part of the morning while the rest of the day was spent viewing Stockholm's colorful harbor from various vantage points. My favorite views were from could see City Hall, Gamla Stan, Riddarholmen, and Lake Malaren from its vistas. D loved learning about City Hall where the Nobel Prize award ceremony and banquet is held every year. Such a neat piece of history--past and present!

Even though Stockholm wasn't a key travel destination for me at the time, we definitely enjoyed learning and exploring all Sweden's capital city had to offer. From culture and history, all the way to great food and pop music, Stockholm surprises from all angles! I would absolutely visit again someday.
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