Get a taste of nautical Helsinki
Seafaring history meets casual dining aboard these three Helsinki-based ships.
Helsinki in summer is at its best on the water. The Daughter of the Baltic is blinged out with 300 gem-like islands and 100 kilometres of sparkling shoreline. For those on a short visit, a meal or drink afloat is a good prelude.
There are rudimentary snack bars on the ferries to islands such as Suomenlinna, Pihlajasaari, and recently-opened Lonna and Vallisaari. For more atmospheric dining and drinking, here are a few local faves.
Beacon for the thirsty
Near Helsinki’s Market Square and the Presidential Palace looms the bright-red M/L Relandersgrund, an 1888 steel ship moored by Katajanokka harbour. Finland’s oldest surviving lighthouse ship was sunk during the 1918 Finnish Civil War and repaired in Tallinn. After decades in the Åland Islands and Lake Saimaa, it was rescued from a breaking yard in 1991 and taken back to Tallinn for more repairs. The ambitious restoration project earned an award from the Finnish Lighthouse Association.
After serving sailors in the eastern port of Kotka, the ship relocated to Helsinki. For a decade, she’s been docked at the end of the city’s busiest shopping street, Aleksanterinkatu. There’s shopping onboard, too, with a nautical gift shop below deck.
“This boat is so quaint,” says Sheba Bains, surrounded by her three daughters on the aft deck. The family from New Jersey are spending a day in Helsinki during a Baltic cruise – and seemed to be drawn magnetically back onboard a ship.
“We’re just relaxing and enjoying some Finnish beer. We always like to try local beer wherever we go, but in St Petersburg they would only give us Heineken!”
Local craft beers – at premium prices – include Suomenlinna’s own microbrewery, and Stallhagen from Åland. The menu is light fare such as chèvre sandwiches with sundried tomatoes and fresh basil.
Jazz and microbrews
Offering a grittier, more local experience is the Flying Dutch in the once-working-class neighbourhood of Hakaniemi. Also known as Pikkudami (“the Little Dame”), she’s anchored by Pitkäsilta or “Long Bridge” – actually the city’s shortest – which bears artillery pockmarks from the Finnish Civil War in 1918.
Built as a canal boat in the Netherlands in 1897, the Dame sailed perilously to Finland in 1973, though she was not designed for seafaring. Here she was refitted at the Nautor yacht company’s yard to serve as its CEO’s home. The vessel was rescued from nearly-sinking disrepair by current owner Hanski Haarala in 2001.
After repairs and serving as a river restaurant in Salo, the ship moved to Helsinki in 2008. This summer there’s expanded seating in a small park alongside the vessel, with a heated tent to extend the season. The small menu ranges from crayfish-feta salad to pulled pork sandwiches.
“Salmon soup remains our most popular dish, but our chef is bringing in more Asian and street food offerings,” says Haarala. “This year we’ve also expanded our beer assortment to include about 50 microbrews.”
Many regulars come by after work to sip and chat as old-time reggae and R&B serenade in the background. Sometimes there’s live music featuring the likes of saxophonist Jussi Kannaste, head of the Sibelius Academy Jazz Department.
“The gigs at Flying Dutch have been unforgettable,” he says. “Quiet summer nights by the sea, the audience sitting a metre away from you quietly listening. What else could you wish for?”
Set sail for Porvoo
More nautical adventure and exploration perhaps? Book a table in the Captain’s Salon aboard the M/S J.L. Runeberg. This 104-year-old steamship cruises between Helsinki’s Market Square and the historic town of Porvoo, a voyage of just over three hours through the archipelago.
There are also Sunday lunch buffets and a Midsummer’s Eve cruise with supper and accordion music. There are occasional trips to Haikko Manor and Lovisa, which inspired painter Albert Edelfelt and composer Jean Sibelius respectively.
Lucky passengers may spot a seal or get to hear stories from skipper Ted Lönnroos, a raconteur who’s been steering the Runeberg for more than 30 years. Like the other restaurant boats, this one was also close to being scrapped several times but was restored to elegance through volunteer effort, most recently in the ’80s.
Along the way, there’s time to savour salmon soup with dark, molasses-rich archipelago bread, chased with beer, cider or wine and/or coffee, and a Runeberg tart. These rummy raspberry pastries are named after the national poet, whose home is near the boat’s river quay in Porvoo.
A round-trip journey allows several hours to explore Finland’s second-oldest town – where the country took its first steps towards independence with the Diet of Porvoo in 1809. Just don’t get lost in its winding cobblestone streets, antique shops, or riverside bars and restaurants.
Text Wif Stenger Photos Hernan Patiῆo