Helsinki – a walking tour

The last stop of my week-long European vacation was Helsinki. Like many tours of European cities, the tour starts from the city square. In Helsinki, this place is called Senate Square. This is the oldest part of central Helsinki and around the square is the Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, and the University of Helsinki. During Christmastime, the city set up a number of Christmas markets around the city. This one in particular had a mobile sauna!!

Near the waterfront was the Old Market Hall. It has a small set of shops and cafes, but it seems to be mainly aimed at tourists.

I was recommended to go to the Soup Kitchen for some Finnish seafood soup. It has a tomato base, with some cut up veggies. The protein were chunks of salmon and shrimp. It had a savoury flavour that was somehow perfectly balanced by the acidity. I could taste the intensity of the flavour without it being overpowering – this is something I’d like to know how to replicate in my own home cooking!!

Another popular location in Helsinki is the Esplanadi. It’s essentially a urban park in downtown Helsinki with restaurants and cafes on the side for people to chill at.

On the nearby island of Suomenlinna is the site of an old Finnish sea fortress from the 18th century. It’s a pretty nice place to walk around with views of the water.

There’s also a museum for an old retired Finnish submarine too.

For dinner, I had the chance to try bear meat for the first time! It’s from a Russian-style restaurant called Ravintola Saslik.

The bear itself was grilled and wrapped in bacon. The bear tasted like a rougher red meat. It wasn’t that chewy and fell apart easily. It’s true when people say apex predators don’t taste as good. Unfortunately, I felt super lethargic that day from the hectic days of travelling, so I didn’t have the appetite to really enjoy this meal as much as I wanted to.

At night, the Christmas market at Senate Square is still bustling.

On my last night in Helsinki, I went out with some of the folks I met at the hostel I stayed at. We went out for dinner and drinks and I finished the trip with one last hurrah. I also learned that Finns really like to karaoke! It is said that Kimi Räikkönen really likes karaoke, despite his stone cold responses in his press conferences.

Here’s a bonus picture of a dog that I met while browsing a bookstore! Her name is Lola and she is the bookstore dog. She likes to lie there and take pets from passers-by!

Photos here

Tallinn – tour of the old town

My next stop in my vacation was Tallinn in Estonia. I first flew from Reykjavik To Helsinki and from there I took the ferry. The ferry ride was only two hours, but the ferry was loaded. It had multiple bars, cafeterias, lounges for first class passengers and even a casino and a duty free store. A ton of people went for the cafeteria as soon as they boarded the ship – it clearly wasn’t their first time. Planning this part of the trip was kind of spontaneous. Initially I planned on being in Helsinki for a couple of days until I realized how easy it was to make a trip to Estonia by ferry. The main touristy area is the old town.

The Christmas market going on at the time sold a lot of knick knacks aimed at tourists.

This old town reminded me a lot of the old towns in other cities in Europe. It’s one of the things that a lot of European cities have in common.

Nearby the town square, was a picturesque alley known as St. Catherine’s Passage. It looks like it come straight out of a movie.

The whole town is quite picturesque.

Following the stereotypes of a typical European old town, there’s also a grand cathedral, but since this is eastern Europe, this cathedral belongs to the Orthodox church.

Across from it is the parliament of Estonia. It almost looks like something from a Wes Anderson movie.

There are some nice lookout points too.

Aside from the old town historical sites, Estonia has also had to deal with its Soviet past. Tallinn, at least, decided to remove the old Soviet monuments, but understood their historical significance. So they put some of these statues in a sort of statue graveyard. Perhaps the United States can adopt this strategy as a compromise in their debate on whether or not to remove the old Confederate statues. A big difference is that it seems Estonia seems quite unified in their rejection of the Soviet ideology. They even have a museum about their occupation by the Soviet Union.

Tallinn also has some hipster areas too. They’ve sprung up all over the place! It’s not *all* historical sites.

Photos here

A very brief tour of Reykjavik

Seeing that I spent so much time outside of Reyjavik, I really only spent a handful of hours here and there in this city. The best experience I had here was eating all the different kinds of stereotypical Icelandic food! On my first night staying in Reykjavkik, I had the “Icelandic Gourmet Feast” at Tapas Barinn. The name of that sounds totally like something like you would see from a tourist trap kind of place (I highly doubt locals eat this stuff on the regular), but everything was really good and I still recommend it even after going!

Smoked puffin with blueberry “brennivín” sauce
Lobster tails baked in garlic
Icelandic arctic char with candy beets salad, asparagus and elderflower-hollandaise
Pan-fried blue ling with lobster sauce
Grilled Icelandic lamb tenderloin with beer-butterscotch sauce
Minke Whale with sweet potato mash and malt sauce
This was a lamb dish that I don’t remember what it was because it was on the house!
White chocolate “Skyr” mousse with passion coulis

I was totally sold on this meal even before I went to Iceland. The part of this meal that I was most excited for was the puffin and the minke whale! I had never eaten them before! Puffin is supposed to have a bit of a fishy taste to it, but since it was smoked, that taste wasn’t very strong. It doesn’t really have a distinct flavour and was a bit chewy. It tastes a bit like minke whale, and minke whale tastes like really chewy red meat – without the strong flavours like beef, and not that fishy. The lobster tails were also amazing. I didn’t even know lobsters can be this tiny, or maybe it was a crayfish that was lost in translation?

Oh and it’s true what people say about Iceland being really windy. I was told to open a car door slowly and to hold on tight as I open it to prevent the damage to the car door from swinging wide open from the wind.

Another place I went was Cafe Loki, just outside the Hallgrimskirkja. Everything tastes like what you’d expect, EXCEPT the thing in the middle. That is Hákarl, whcih is fermetted shark meat. Some people say it’s rotten shark.

This isn’t shark fin like what Chinese people like to eat, but this is actual shark meat. It’s a bit chewy and has a slightly sour flavour to it. Would not eat again.

After the meal, I checked out the Hallgrimskirkja. It’s a church, but the architecture on the outside is quite unique! It isn’t like the old baroque/gothic/etc style churches in a lot of parts of Europe.

I got to try some craft beers as well. They were pretty good – not better or worse than the craft beers I’m used to drinking. I do live in Seattle, so that might speak highly of Icelandic craft beers!

Clockwise from top left: 1) Viking lager; 2) Viking Rokkr; 3) Viking Red IPA; 4) Viking Stout; 5) Einstök White Ale; 6) Einstök Arctic Pale Ale

As a little bonus, I saw a guy get his ass kicked at the bar. Story was that the guy who got his ass kicked was being creepy towards some women and was asked to leave, but instead attacked the employee who happened to train in MMA…

That concludes my trip to Iceland! Photos here.

Iceland – Driving the Golden Circle

The next mini road trip I took was along the Golden Circle. It’s a popular route for people who like me who only have a short stay in Iceland. It has a nice variety of things to see like craters, waterfalls, and geysers. The drive was quite scenic as expected.

Kerid Crater

This crater was formed by a volcanic explosion, and when the magma from underneath the rock flowed out of the volcano, the empty cavity collapsed, forming the crater.

Gullfoss

Not a tiny waterfalls like the ones I showed along the Ring Road, this one is big. So big that companies have offered to put a hydroelectric dam on it, only for the offers to be rejected because people wanted the waterfall to stay as it was.

Icelandic horses

Along the drive, I passed by a sign that just said “come see Icelandic horses”. I figured why not? They’re furry!!

Geysir

This was my first time seeing actual exploding geysers! The water here is just naturally hot because of geothermal energy.

Because of the winter, I didn’t get the chance to see other things since there was only daylight for around four hours. After the three days of driving, I had racked up quite a bit of mileage on the car (1184.6 km)!

Photos here

Glacier hike in Iceland (Breiðamerkurjökull)

I spent one of my days in Iceland on a glacier hike at Breiðamerkurjökull. I booked it from here. It’s kind of pricey (> $250 USD), but it’s super hard to get to the glacier yourself, unless you know the way, are driving a 4×4 vehicle, and have the gear to hike the glacier. The tours also only have max around 8 people so it feels a bit more private. What I was going to see was this.

The tour started at 9am, and since it was winter, the sun was only starting to rise at around 10am. Our tour guide was a fellow from France who fell in love with an Icelandic girl and moved to Iceland to be with her. Now he works as a tour guide and has aspirations to run his own tour company.

As a part of the tour, we got all the gear. Hiking boots with crampons, an icepick and a harness in case we fell and needed a rope to get back out. I didn’t have real waterproof pants, and the next best thing I had were water resistant bike pants with jeans underneath.

When we walked over large patches of ice, we’d have the crampons on, and when the terrain went back to rocks, we’d take them off. Along the way, I chatted with the tour guide and the other tourists. One guy was visiting from Dallas, Texas and does work in the film industry doing post processing work. I had no idea that kind of profession paid that much considering he was travelling around Iceland and talked about his Porsche!

After about 30 minutes of walking, we got to the first cave. The cave walls were made of ice, but were either black or blue depending on how much volcanic ash was inside the ice.

Here’s another cave.

And another.

For the last stop of the tour, we reached the coast and got an amazing view of the glacier touching the water.

Afterward, we walked back all the way to where we parked and drove back to the meeting point. We thanked the tour guide and wished him all the best in starting his tour company. Next, I drove back to Reykjavik in the snow.

That snow eventually turned into heavy heavy wind and rain. As chance would have it, that’s when I needed to fill up my car. I stopped by the gas station to fill up only to realize that my inferior American credit card wouldn’t work on those machines because my card didn’t have a pin set up. The gas station didn’t have an attendant either. Luckily I found another gas station further down the road, and I was able to fill up and continue the rest of my journey.

Photos: here

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