Finland/Sweden 3/9/2023

Thursday 3/9/2023 - Exploring Helsinki

We woke up at 7:30 a.m., showered, and went downstairs to breakfast. We sat in the enclosed terrace. The set-up was a little awkward; there was a shortcut to get to the buffet from the terrace, but it involved a narrow staircase which was a bit challenging for Craig to traverse with his MS and a full plate.

The buffet was lovely. We loaded our plates with scrambled eggs, bacon, baked Finnish pancakes with vanilla sauce, yogurt, cereal, fruit, and cheese. We had coffee, orange juice, and apple juice to drink.

It was all delicious, but my stomach started to not feel so well. This isn't entirely uncommon for me, as my body adjusts to a new time zone. I wasn't able to finish my breakfast. This was unfortunate, as big buffet breakfasts like this usually suffice for breakfast as well as lunch for us. We went back to the room and within minutes I got sick, apparently because of the jet lag. But after that I recovered quickly and was ready to do some sightseeing in Helsinki. Today was our free day before meeting up with the tour group this evening.

Yesterday on our ride from the airport to the city center, our driver V. had pointed out some interesting churches, as well as the harbor area. These were just a short walk from the hotel, so we decided to check them out this morning. The weather was chilly but sunny, and the skies were a gorgeous blue.

We started at the Helsinki Cathedral, a Finnish Evangelical Lutheran church. It was built between 1830 and 1852. It is a gorgeous church, neoclassical in style, with green domes. A grand staircase leads up to the church. There were small buildings on either side of the main church, and we were not sure what these were.

The Cathedral is located at Senate Square, between the University of Helsinki and the Government Palace. As we walked through this area, we had to be mindful of the electric trams which run through the city in addition to the usual traffic.

There is a statue of Alexander II of Russia in the center of the square. He was venerated for giving Finland more autonomy when they were still under Russian rule. (Finland gained its independence in 1917).

We happened upon the changing of the guards in front of a military barracks.

Next, we walked to Uspenski Cathedral, the Orthodox cathedral, which was built between 1862–1868. Its red brick exterior reminded us of the Orthodox cathedrals we had seen in Moscow and St. Petersburg, only here the domes were gilded in gold rather than multicolored like St. Basil's or the Church On Spilled Blood.

We walked down by the harbor, and many people were out walking their dogs. We crossed a bridge that had many "love locks" attached to it.

A decommissioned mine stands by the water as a monument to those who were injured and/or killed demining 60,000 sea mines from the Finnish Sea from 1944-1952. 2000 men and 200 vessels participated, with 28 people killed and 35 disabled.

We saw an icebreaker named the VOIMA in port. We learned that Finland designed 80% and built 60% of the 150 icebreakers currently in operation around the world.

There were many walking trails around here and we could have continued on in the same direction, but we decided that we should turn around and start to head back in direction of the hotel. We ultimately had to go in that direction to get to the cat cafe later this afternoon.

As we made our way back toward the esplanade, we decided to go for a ride on the SkyWheel to get a different perspective on the city. We sat in an enclosed gondola and had a 12 minute ride. We could see the outdoor heated pool that Outi had mentioned to us on the phone last night. It would probably be fun to swim outdoors in the winter, but it was too much overhead for what we were planning to do today.

After our SkyWheel ride, we passed a tent where they were selling food in the market square area. This area is very popular in the summer, but in the winter there were just a handful of food tents and souvenir stands. I saw that they had reindeer hot dogs. I have been dreaming about reindeer sausages since we first had them in Alaska over 20 years ago. We usually skip lunch when we get such a big breakfast buffet, but since my stomach was empty following my episode of being sick, a reindeer hot dog sounded very enticing to me. We decided to each get a hot dog (served with pickles and crispy onions). I got a Pepsi and Craig got a Fat Pete's IPA. We sat at a table in the tent to enjoy our lunch. It was delicious!

We still had some time to kill before our 3 p.m. appointment at the cat cafe. We decided to start making our way in the direction of the cafe, stopping at points of interest along the way. The city is very walkable, and we wanted to explore on foot rather than getting a cab...we would be taking a bus tour of the city tomorrow, and today we wanted to get a good feel for the lay of the land that only walking can give you.

We stopped at an academic bookstore which had a Moomin section. The Moomins are beloved Finnish children's book characters. They are everywhere in Finland! We took a photo with a Moomin stuffed animal. (In fact, we first became acquainted with the Moomins during a trip to a bookstore in St. Petersburg after having many vodka shots). I checked the English language section of the bookstore to make sure that they didn't have any newly translated versions of works by my favorite Nordic author, the Icelandic Ragnar Jonasson. Alas, they did not.

We walked past the train station, and eventually found ourselves in front of the cat cafe. We still had 45 minutes before our appointment, so we went into a nearby record store (Levykauppa Äx). What better place to kill time? The store had a large room full of vinyl and a smaller room full of CD's. It's always fun to flip through bins of brand new LP's, enjoying the full sized cover art. There were a lot of heavy metal albums, many from bands we are not familiar with.

It's always fun to buy local music when we travel, and I remembered that our friend Chris had introduced us to the music of Steve 'n' Seagulls a few years ago. They are a Finnish band who do bluegrass/country versions of popular heavy metal songs. We had enjoyed them on Youtube, so I decided to see if this store had any of their CD's. They had two different discs in stock, and I bought them.

By the time we were done in the record store, it was 3 p.m., time to go to the Helkatti Cat Cafe. We love the concept of cat cafes, and I actually volunteer at a cat cafe that recently opened at home (shoutout to Uri, Cora, and the good folks at Kitty Cat Cafe and Adoption Lounge). We wanted to see this cafe after finding out about it online.

Each cafe operates differently, depending on local laws and regulations. This one charges 5 Euros to enter for 90 minutes, and they serve snacks, desserts, beer/wine, coffee, soft drinks, etc. for purchase. You have to book in advance, which we did online last night.

At 3 p.m., they unlocked the door and let us in. We were asked to take off our shoes, and then we were shown to our table. First impressions were that the cafe was dark and cozy. It felt a bit like an antique store, with hollowed-out console TV's being used as cat beds, and a gramophone.

Unlike Kitty Cat Cafe, where you can fall in love with a cat and adopt it, the 10 cats (and two bunnies) at Helkatti live there permanently.

From the water decanters to the coffee mugs to the tables and chairs, almost everything is cat shaped or has a picture of a cat on it. Even my red currant lemonade had a cat on the label! Craig had a Luomu Leevi Organic Lager (no cat on that label, but you can't win 'em all!) There are trees and elevated walkways for the cats to enjoy, and even a fish tank. The cats wander around between tables (one even likes to lounge in the restroom!)

Feeding time came and they put down a bunch of bowls of food, and it was quite entertaining. Some cats insisted on stealing others' bowls when their own were empty. When our time was up, we put our shoes back on and they unlocked the door to let us out. It was very cool and we were glad that we were able to check it out during our free day in Helsinki.

We then walked back to the hotel and took a little rest. I did some Facebook/Instagram posts. Then at 7:15 p.m, we went to the lounge on the second floor of the hotel and we met Gosia, our Abercrombie & Kent tour leader, and the other members of our group. Our group would be 17 in total, and 15 of us were here for the reception/dinner. Two members were missing, as their flight had been delayed and their luggage was still in transit.

Our first impressions of Gosia were wonderful; she was friendly and knowledgable and immediately made us feel comfortable. We got a good first impression of others in the group as well. Sometimes group dynamics can be tough, but this seemed to be a great group of well-seasoned travelers who were all excited to get this tour underway.

Our group consisted of
  • Brian and Kezia
  • Molly and Rick
  • Katie and Carey
  • Humberto and Max
  • John and Liang
  • Cindy and Kevin
  • Valerie
  • Susan and Adrian (not present)
We had champagne and canapes (duck on a cracker) while Gosia (born in Poland but now living in Denmark) gave us a 30 minute introductory overview of the trip, and then we went downstairs to the Brasserie restaurant for our welcome dinner.

There was a pre-fixe menu which was very fancy. We had several choices for each course. We got the beetroot appetizer (beetroot tartare, mustard seeds, kohlrabi and truffle cream) and the glazed parsnip main course (glazed parsnip, fried King Oyster mushrooms, salad of Beluga lentils and seaweed and vegan Bechamel sauce). Craig had been interested in the other option for the main course (poached pike perch, blue mussels, Savoy cabbage roll with fennel froth), but with his scallop allergy, the staff recommended that he have the parsnip instead. I had red wine and Craig had white.

We sat with Humberto and Max, a lovely couple who live in Guayaquil Ecuador. They have a non-profit which helps moms and babies with HIV. If pregnant women are given HIV drugs and have a C-section, and the babies are given HIV drugs after birth, then their babies can be free of HIV. We had not been aware that this was possible, and it was fascinating to us. We also sat with Gosia, and Katie and Carey from Seattle.

Craig had creme brulee with citrus salad, lemon grass, and sea buckthorn caramel for dessert, and I had the Vegan Queen, a raspberry and white chocolate mousse, blueberry, and elderflower.

We had great conversation with our tablemates, and, before we knew it, it was 10:30. We all said our goodnights and went to our rooms, as we would have an early start tomorrow for our official city tour.

Despite being jet-lagged, the dinner had really pumped me up for the trip and I was unable to fall asleep. I didn't sleep well all night.


Cat Cafe
Helsinki Cathedral

Helsinki Cathedral

Bridge covered by love locks

Bridge covered by love locks

Uspenski Cathedral

Uspenski Cathedral

Icebreaker VOIMA

Icebreaker VOIMA





Lunch at Market Square

Lunch at Market Square

With a Moomin friend at the academic bookstore

With a Moomin friend at the academic bookstore

Helkatti Cat Cafe

Helkatti Cat Cafe

See all photos from March 9

Previous Day Trip Overview

Back to Craig and Steph's Vacations
Next day

Read our guest book   Guest book Sign our guest book
Please send any questions or comments to
All photographs and text copyright 1996-Present except where noted.