HELSINKI — Part tourist trap, part true Finnish experience: welcome to Helsinki’s Market Square. Known as Kauppatori to the locals, the seaside square is a bustling place to enjoy a taste of Finland.
I’m sitting on a weathered, wooden bench in the Monday afternoon sunshine, watching the seagulls wheeling through the cloudless blue sky. Flanking me on either side are sightseeing boats with a steady stream of tourists. Spread across the cobblestoned square are orange-canopied vendors, hawking salmon soup, fur hats, and Finland-themed paraphernalia.
I came to this square thinking I’d see just tourists – a reasonable expectation, given its listing as one of Lonely Planet’s top tourist sights. The square’s coastal location on the edge of the Baltic Sea is reputed as a flocking point for tourists in search of salty delicacies. Visitors of all nationalities mill about, welcoming the breeze of crisp Nordic air. It’s a perfect day to be out and about, with sunny skies and mild temperatures it’s not too warm to try hot fried fish.
I was surprised to see a number of locals enjoying Kauppatori along with the tourists, a few who seemed to be regulars at the stalls offering coffee. For these Finns, Market Square is a place to pick up the day’s freshest catch, enjoy coffee with friends, or catch the ferry for a summer picnic on Pihlajasaari island. On this weekday afternoon, the Finns here are mostly retirees taking advantage of the season’s first seasonable temperatures.
The square is a destination in itself, but it is also the gateway to Helsinki’s many islands, including another famous sight. Several docks provide departure points for ferries, for both sightseeing companies and the city-operated ferry to Suomenlinna, the historic island sea fortress. The UNESCO world heritage site is a short 15-minute trip away, providing tourists with another reason to visit the square.
Two Asian women walk around the square, cameras first, documenting the surroundings they’re too busy to enjoy now. They don’t see me perched on my salt-stained seat, nor do they seem to notice the Finns watching them disdainfully over the edge of their paper coffee cups. One is sporting a bright yellow quintessential Marimekko poppy print purse and posing in front of a resting ferry, fingers held in a peace sign in front of the “sightseeing tours!” sign. As typical tourists, they have a fishy meal followed by a ferry ride to see the watery sights of Helsinki.
An older Finnish woman is distracted from her conversation by two tourists nearby, legs dangling over the dock’s edge. The baseball-capped men laugh as they share their plate of tiny steaming vendace fish with the relentless gulls, drawing a flock of the scavengers to the water’s edge. Towing her wheeled shopping bag behind her, the senior lady approaches the culprits and yells at them, shaking her fist. They might not understand her words, but they look suitably chastised and scurry away.
On the bench adjacent to mine is a solitary woman with a blonde ponytail. Her expensive-looking digital camera and incessant photographing of her lettu, a typical Finnish crepe, betray her as a tourist. But since it’s Monday, most people here are. She finally eats her treat and drains her beer, then gets up close and personal with one of the winged nuisances, taking portraits of them as they strut along the worn stone pier. The Finnish woman keeps an eye on her, making sure she doesn’t commit the same feeding folly as the male tourists.
A crew of 10 Swiss tourists disembarks from ‘Doris,’ a double-decker sightseeing ship, sporting their red-and-white national colours on gaudy scarves, hats, and handheld flags. The Ice Hockey World Championship tournament has brought them to the city, but time between games allows for a taste of Nordic life. They don’t stay long in the square – presumably, they have a team to cheer on, which is just fine for the locals.
The city’s trouble with alcoholics makes an appearance with Oskari, a 40-something Finnish man with a lazy eye and slurred speech. He plops down next to me and, realizing I speak English, begins to ramble looping, nonsensical sentences. Though it’s only two in the afternoon, the man cracks open a Karhu, Finland’s most popular beer, spraying me with lager. I make my escape to the market hall, which is the indoor equivalent to the stalls found in the square outside.
Kauppatori has an eclectic mix of all kinds of people against a backdrop of traditional Finnish food and activities. If you’re planning on going, make sure you like seafood, ferry rides, and beer baths.