National Library, Suomenlinna and sauna

National Library

This morning’s cultural exploration of Helsinki began at the impressive National Library of Finland. This houses the largest Russian literature collection outside of Russia. The ornate, neo-classical nineteenth-century building was designed by C L Engel, who also designed Helsinki Cathedral. On entering, we were quickly in the beautiful Cupola Hall.

In the Slavonic section, we had the pleasure of engaging with a knowledgeable librarian. She proudly showed us original serialised volumes of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, War and Peace, which were ultimately compiled into a single tome. The original title of the book, she told us, was 1805; she was impressed this was acknowledged in the great work’s British TV dramatization, of which she was an admirer; the screenwriters had done their research.

Our librarian’s own history was fascinating. Fluent in several languages, she was born on an island between Russia and Japan — possibly one of the disputed Kuril Islands just north of Hokkaido. She spent some of her childhood holidaying in Japan. The librarian’s husband was Finnish, and they lived in Estonia before fleeing when the USSR dissolved. Now firmly rooted in Finland, she welcomed researchers from around the world who sought access to the invaluable Russian texts, as libraries in Russia (in St Petersburg and Moscow) restrict handling of these fragile volumes to preserve them.

The librarian also shed light on the controversy surrounding the construction of Oodi Central Library, a modern landmark in Helsinki. She explained how the partly derelict area had previously been a hub for market stalls and small businesses, before the new library was built, which displaced local vendors. However, the Oodi has since become a beloved national treasure, a testament to the transformative power of public spaces.

Suomenlinna fortress

After our captivating visit to the National Library, we made our way to the ferry port, eager to explore the historic Suomenlinna fortress. The island is easily reached via a 15-minute ferry journey. You can use the handy HSL app to buy ferry tickets as well as train, bus, and tram tickets.

Suomenlinna (Castle of Finland) is part of a series of eight interconnected islands with a rich and storied past. The building of the sea fortress began when Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden in 1748. The Swedes called the fortress Sveaborg (Castle of Sweden). When war broke out between Sweden and Russia in 1788, the fortress was a naval base. In 1809, when Finland became an autonomous part of the Russian Empire, the fortress was surrendered to the Russians and became a Russian naval base until 1919.

In 1918, during Finland’s civil war, prisoners of war were transported to the fortress. In the 1920s, Finland annexed the islands and gave the fortress its current name, Suomenlinna. In the Second World War, the fortress served as a coastal artillery, anti-aircraft and submarine base. It wasn’t until 1973 that the Finnish military left the fortress and its management was handed over to the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The island joined the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1991 as a unique example of the military architecture of its time.

Old Market Hall

When we returned to the mainland, we went to the Old Market Hall for lunch, which is similar to the hall we went to on our first day. I had a beetroot, puy lentil dish topped with various seeds and a gently spiced hummus. It was surprisingly tasty.

In the afternoon, we went to Nige bookshop then wondered around the design district before walking back to our flat. We wanted a break before heading for a sauna we’d booked a couple of days ago.


No visit to Finland would be complete without a trip to the sauna. It’s practically illegal not to visit one if you’re a Finn! Finns sit nakedly in them without any self-consciousness.

There was a highly recommended sauna (Löyly Helsinki) quite close to us and it asked visitors to wear swimming costumes since the saunas were mixed use. When we got there, we were told there were two public and two private saunas. During our visit, the private saunas were available to the public.

You enter the male or female changing room through one door and, after changing and showering, exit via another. Whilst waiting for Helene, I listened in on one of the staff giving tips about taking a dip in the Baltic between sessions in the sauna. She said the trick was to descend the ladder without stopping. If you stop, she warned, you’ll lose the courage to immerse yourself in the sub-zero sea! The temperature outside was about 1°C; I couldn’t imagine how cold the Baltic was!

I was reminded of the time when we went to a local outdoor (unheated) swimming pool. The water temperature was about 20°C. This was fine. A couple of years later, we returned, this time slightly later in the year. The pool temperature was 17°C. Helene and I spent about 10 minutes standing in the knee-high water before mustering up the courage to dive in!

After the short talk about the Baltic, I went to the main area and there were people sitting around a fire in their swimwear. I wasn’t sure if this was a sauna or just a place to relax and drink between saunas! I asked staff to point out where the actual saunas were. Their locations weren’t obvious and one of them required going outside to another building!

Helene hadn’t been to a sauna before so we popped into all four, making sure to take regular breaks to hydrate ourselves. Some of the saunas were extremely hot. The convention is for the person sitting nearest to the stove to poor water on it (to increase heat). One ladle of water was enough but sometimes the person would pour two or even three (usually saying “one more?” daringly) and the release of heat would be overwhelming for some of us, especially if you were sitting on the upper benches where the heat rises.

Not surprisingly, spending time in the sauna warms you up so much that going outside in the cold virtually naked is not so bad for a short period. During one of those periods, I decided to descend the ladder into the Baltic. When I got to the bottom, I dipped my toe in, which was enough to tell me that no more of my body should enter and we retreated to the warmth of another sauna.

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