arriving by ferry to grey September skies


... there are a few contenders for Europe's most expensive city when it comes to travel, but I can tell you now: it's not Helsinki. When planning my current little trip to the Baltics, I was pondering whether or not to take the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki, because I had heard of the obscene cost of living and everything there.

As so very often, how much a place costs in your eyes depends on your interests and expectations. For example, if you know where to eat cheaply (and there are many great options) and love culture, London is probably one of Europe's cheapest destinations, as museums are free and tickets for real theatre and gigs (not West End musical garb) much cheaper than anywhere in Europe. Same goes for Paris if you love architecture and markets, for example.

Now for Helsinki? It's not cheap by any standard, but I spent less there in two days than I regularly do in Dublin, Paris or Munich, and less than in Tokyo, Singapore or even Santiago de Chile. If your budget is rock bottom backpacker and you want to drink a lot for cheap, you might have to stay in Thailand, but if you can splurge a little, Helsinki gives you much better value for money than most other Western European capitals.

Let's look at a few figures:

Accommodation

This is without doubt the most crippling part. Even a cheap hostel dorm bed will set you back around €30... which can also easily happen in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland or Belgium. We shared a double room at Eurohostel, which is a 20 min walk or a 8 min tram ride into the centre, for €90 a night - about the same as you'd pay in Paris, London, Amsterdam or Dublin. Breakfast wasn't included and we had to pay €5 extra for (bad) internet access, but the hostel was modern and absolutely spotless, and staff wonderful in spite this being a large big HI institution. The only country I have found this kind of quality before was in Japan.

Food & Drink

Alcohol is expensive in Finnland, which is why the Finns regularly go on booze trips over to Tallinn. But it wasn't all that bad: a beer in central Helsinki set us back €6, which is cheaper than in Dublin and just a tiny bit more expensive than drinking in a fancy place in Central London or Paris.

We skipped restaurants altogether and had snacks from the market hall and at the harbour (€7-9 for a giant sandwich that will fill you up all day) as well as at the stalls along the harbour, which aren't as touristy as they seem - lots of locals stop by here, too. We had warm, delicious and filling salmon soup for €7 there. In the cafes, a coffee and pastry (heavenly cinnamon buns!) will set you back around €4. Not bad at all.

the Baltic sea from Suomenlinna
Restaurants, though, seemed to be in the same price range as the tourist cities of Ireland or Switzerland - expect €30-40 for a nice sit down meal if you just stumble into a random central place, although you can easily have a simple market lunch or cafe sandwich/soup meal for €10-15. I figure if you look hard enough, you can find something in between those price brackets, too (we just had spaghetti with pesto and a salad at the hostel).

Transport

A day pass for transport in Helsinki is €7, and is valid from 24 hrs from the time you validate it - much better value than those that are only valid for a certain area of town until midnight of the same day (looking at you London Travel Card...). You can also use it to take the ferry to Suomenlinna, the awesome fortress island, which is absolutely free apart from this. But really, all of Helsinki's sights are located in a compact area and if you don't want to go further out, you can easily walk most places and skip the transport card altogether.

Sights

But you don't want to, because you should really go and see Suomenlinna! We just went for a 3 hour visit, but you can easily spend an entire day on the island(s)!

Most churches are free to enter (if you are into churches), and the parks of Helsinki are beautiful, too. Helsinki has excellent museums, which cost around €6-8 to get in, cheaper than Paris and about the same as most other European capital museums.

Shopping

What have I come to? Obviously this is where 'budget travel' ends. Usually, I'm not a big souvenir buyer, but Finnish design found its way into my heart within minutes. It's cute but not overly so, a kind of toned-down version of Japanese kawaiiness. There are many nice boutiques selling cute t-shirts, wood and glass crafts and jewellery which are affordable. 'Traditional' souvenirs include woolen jumpers and hats, and everything made out of reindeer. Eeeew. Save them and your wallet.

Breaking things down:

the very ugly opera house
So, in two days in Helsinki (I arrived around 10 am the first day, and left at 6pm the next night), I spent €80 for food, accomodation, entrance fees to two museums and transport - had I known this, I would have booked a second night there as I really wanted to see more and we felt pretty rushed! We didn't really count every Euro, but had agreed in advance to just eat smalls meals out (and cooked dinner and breakfast at the hostel). We also spent €30 each for medium-range ballet seats (you can book online)... and me, another €80 on gifts, jewellery and other cute stuff, but the last two are absolutely voluntary and and only if you love cute shit and ballet!

Overall, Helsinki was not cheap, but not more expensive than the classic Western European capitals - but it felt like we got much more for our money! I'll be back to fill my room and wardrobe with cute Finnish stuff very soon!
cheeky seagulls hitching a ferry ride!

Another pro: the prices (and weather?) seems to keep away young backpackers of the very... repetitive kind, so most other tourist are very considerate (making even a large hostel a nice, clean and quiet place to stay) and the locals didn't seem annoyed by the tourists, but were very friendly.

Have you ever been relieved that a destination was cheaper than expected?









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