I know that a great many nerds will be heading to Helsinki for the WorldCon next year, so I wanted to say some things about my experiences there that might be helpful.
So many things are in English. So many. Sooooo many. I did not encounter anyone in a service role in Helsinki (and only one in Turku) who did not speak English. They didn’t seem to expect Americans in early May, but people from everywhere else were using English as the lingua franca, so: really you will be fine.
A great many things, including hotel breakfasts, had gluten-free and dairy-free options clearly marked, so if those are concerns for you, it should be quite possible for you to travel well with some attention and forethought. This was not an issue for me, but I have friends for whom it is, and I was very pleased to see how well things would be handled for them.
I am a morning person. Apparently so is much of the Norden. Specifically: do not expect to go sit in a little cafe or bakery or coffee shop in the evening in Helsinki. That is not a thing I could find that they do. A few restaurants are open late–not very late by my standards. In the summer you can sit in a park and it will be still fairly light and gorgeous. Otherwise, what is open late is bars. If you want to do something that is not sitting in a bar drinking, you will need to plan a room party, or you will need to go out to a park. It is very easy to misjudge how late it is because of how light it is. You can walk around looking at architecture and statues, and this will be great fun. You can hang out in the lovely parks, how wonderful, highly recommended. But what you cannot do is sit in a cafe with your friends and eat the lovely pastries or drink the lovely non-alcoholic beverages in the evening. You had better get that out of your system in the morning or the afternoon. Dessert comes with supper or not at all; stash some Fazer in your bag if you get peckish in the evening.
Speaking of which: go to the Fazer Cafe. Seriously, go. It is…look, it probably won’t be the intensely emotional experience for you that it was for me (I nearly cried, for historical political reasons), but it’ll still be lovely. The windows are full of glass globes of flowers and chocolates. It’s not just a chocolate shop, it’s an elegant sensory experience from the early 20th century. Basically from the time when Karl Fazer’s politics triumphed and the Russians were out of Helsinki for good. It is gracious. Go. You may think that the Finland 2017 bid parties were just being eccentric with all the Fazer chocolates. No. This is the chocolate shop where people gathered to conspire against the tsar. (A lot of people don’t know that even in Finland.) It is so fiercely Finnish it brings a tear to your eyes. Well, to my eyes. And this thing full of grace and beauty and good taste and opposed to the authoritarians won GO GIVE THEM MONEY FOR CHOCOLATE OR A BISCUIT OR SOMETHING I AM NOT JOKING. There is a buffet. They serve actual food. If I had known that we might have eaten it, but the hotel breakfast was so lavish I was full of mustard herring and blueberry soup and Karelian pastry.
(Just eat it, it’s good. It’s got rye flour on the outside and rice in the middle. I don’t know, I’m not Finnish, much less Karelian. That’s all much further east than me. But they’re little pancakey football things. You can get them in Finnish supermarkets and museum cafes and everything. They’re better fresh, though, like in the buffet of a nice hotel breakfast. You can eat them with egg butter or strawberry jam or what you like.)
There is a restaurant called Zetor in downtown Helsinki that is very kitschy in its decor. There is an actual tractor in this restaurant, in keeping with its Finnish country food theme. However. You can get Finnish comfort cooking. Its menu is in many languages, it marks dietary needs clearly, and you are in Finland. You should try some Finnish food. It is not dreadfully expensive, and they will serve you cloudberry wine with your pyttipanna. They will serve you reindeer or blinis, or mushroom barley risotto. They will serve you boar sausages or salmon soup. Go, eat the Finnish food.
You will see a lot of restaurants labeled Nepalese. In my experience with their menus, this is mostly what would get called Indian food in North America, very little of what I think of as specifically Nepalese dishes. It is, however, a really great idea to put Indian sauces on Finnish pike perch. If you eat fish at all and you eat Indian food at all: yes. Do that.
I hear that public transit in Helsinki is quite good. I didn’t take any. I walked and walked and walked. I went to museums and also many architectural sites, churches and modern things and 19th century building after 19th century building. (With jet lag, my American sense of “hey, that must be an important building!” misled me for…um…miles, actually. I kept seeing the something a block or two down and thinking, “That’s about 150, 200 years old, it must be important!” And no. Just that I had not adjusted to the continent I was on, architecturally. Then when we stumbled upon the President’s house, it looked…just like all the other unprepossessing 19th century Finnish buildings. Oh Finland.)
And we went up to the Sibelius Monument, which Tim has lovely pictures of over at his Patreon so you can see for yourself why it’s worth going there by some means or another. The Helsinki Art Museum was not really worth it except for the Tove Jansson murals, and is also hard to find how to get in. The National Museum is lovely, and Kiasma is alarming and great if you like really modern art. (I had to flee the terrifying art.) But my favorite Helsinki thing is honestly just Helsinki. Just walking and walking and looking at Helsinki.
People keep asking me if I’m going for the Helsinki WorldCon. My dears: I have no idea. The vertigo is not kind enough to let me plan things more than a year in advance with travel of that magnitude. So: while I would love to make some kind of plan that involves striding around Helsinki with some of my favorite nerds in tow going, “Look! It’s a statue of this writer! and here’s why that’s important! and here’s who built this church!”, I honestly don’t know. I wish that you would all stop asking. I will say when I know. But in the meantime: the Sibelius Monument! The Fazer Cafe! Zetor! I am telling you the things as best I can.