Helsinki, on a budget

Spring in Finland was a beautiful experience despite the cold. Although it’s known for being an expensive city, my private tour guide (aka my Finnish friend) showed me there are many inexpensive and even free places in the city.

If you’re visiting when it’s cold, which statistically you will unless you visit in the heart of summer, you need to join in the Finnish tradition of sweating your butt off in a sauna. I’m lucky enough to have known a local who invited me to share in her apartment building’s sauna. There are many public options available. A famous one is Kotiharjun, keep in mind that it’s closed on Mondays.

Getting around
The metro and bus tickets can easily be purchased from your cellphone with the HSL app. You only need to show the online ticket to the bus driver or ticket controller in the metro.
Honestly, I never got asked to show my ticket in the metro, but my local friend mentioned that the fines are quite high, so I rather pay the €2.80 one way or €8 for the full day and be on the safe side.
The more days you include in your ticket, the cheaper it is. The one way ticket includes transfers since it’s valid up to almost 2 hours from purchase and includes 1, 2 or all 3 zones. Helsinki is divided into zones A, B and C. For transport to and from the airport you need an ABC ticket. You can also map your route using the HSL app and it will show which is the quickest way to get there with public transport along with live time tables.

“Free” is my second favorite word.


FREE places to visit
“Free” is my second favorite word. The first one being “food”, of course.
If you travel loads or you’re on a budget here are some great ways to explore Helsinki.
There’s a small but cute botanical garden in Helsinki known as the Winter Garden with no entrance fee. You’ll find diverse flora, such as succulents that transported me back to Mexico, palm trees which reminded me of California, beautiful orchids, lilies… etc. This seemed to be the place were locals get their wedding photos taken since rain or shine, it’ll be safe in the greenhouse. Also, it’s worth nothing that there is a free and clean restroom available inside. A very important note when you’ve been exploring the city all day.

Next to the Winter Garden, you can walk over to Linnanmaki, a fairly large attraction park. Also worth nothing that the restrooms are clean and free, but most importantly, there’s a tall tower where you can get a panoramic view of the city. Entrance to the park and the tower is free.

Iiu
Iiu Susiraja, Finnish artist

If you’re in Helsinki on the first Friday of the month, you can enter any museum for free! I chose to check out Kiasma, Museum of Contemporary Art, where I was introduced to an amazing Finnish artist Iiu Susiraja. Her self-portraits are so thought and laugh provoking, I was truly inspired by her boldness.

There are many other museums to choose from such as the National Museum of Finland where you can learn about Finland’s history, including the civil war from where the bullet holes in certain monuments come from. There’s also the Finnish Museum of Natural History, famous for the sculptures of the coffee drinking-sun bathing giraffes on the balcony. Here is a list by Culture Trip of the best museums in Finland. If you’re undecided, you can see the current exhibits on display on the museum’s website or simply, flip a coin.

The islands

When in Helsinki, a day trip to Suomenlinna island is a must. The ferry is not technically free but it is included with the metro day pass. You also have the option of going island hoping for €10, a good idea on a sunny day. Suomenlinna is a world heritage and an old army fortress where you can explore the old tunnels and touch the huge cannons (pun intended) facing the Baltic Sea. It also has some beautiful views and beaches where you can chill. Also, we happened to passed by a pirate ship on our way back to land. Anything can happen in Helsinki.

There are two places that stayed with me from my visit…

Landmarks

There are two places that stayed with me from my visit: the Uspenski Cathedral and Sibelius monument.
cathedral

After exploring so much of Europe, cathedrals rarely impress me anymore, but Uspenski was a breath of fresh air… literally, it’s next to the port.

This beautiful brick, turquoise and gold cathedral sits on top of a hill surrounded by boulders. The interior has a very minimalistic decor, definitely not what I am used with Spanish, Italian, French or Belgium cathedrals. Definitely worth the visit since it’s next to the port with the ferries departing for the islands, and also near the market.

Sibelius
It’s hard to believe that the Sibelius monument was built in the 60’s since the design looks so modern and it’s 600+ metal pipes look shinning new.

It has a magical feel because it seems to be floating above the water when seen from a distance facing the lake. Jean Sibelius is a Finnish classical music composer during the romantic era. The monument was built by Finnish sculptor Eila Hiltunen.

A smaller version of the monument sits in the United Nations building in NYC.

What & where to eat
Cinnamon buns! These are not as sweet as the American version since they’re less glazy and more cinnamony, which I adore. Cinnamon is life for me, specially in coffee, so few things are better than Finnish coffee with a cinnamon pastry…. except, of course, for tacos.
Another must try are the potato and rice cakes. They’re like open faced empanadas filled with either mashed potatoes or rice. The best way to have them is with the eggy butter, which is literally melted butter mixed with mashed hard boiled eggs. You can find these cakes in the market near the port, but they are much more affordable at supermarkets, although you’ll need to make the eggy butter yourself. Definitely an easy recipe.

Salmon and Reindeer are very common in Finland. You’ll even find reindeer kebabs in the market, as well as their antlers for sale at the outdoor market. I didn’t have the heart to try the reindeer meat but I did have an amazing salmon burrito worth the €12 at Soma Sushiburrito. I also remember seeing a huge salmon sandwich in the market for only €6.


Where to drink

Helsinki is known as an expensive city, so expect to pay up to €8 or €9 for a beer. Also, alcohol is restricted in the city. Hard liquor, wine and high percentage alcohol beers can only be bought at bars or in liquor stores which have limited opening hours.

If you’re into craft beers, I recommend B-Side Bar. It has a very chill vibe, friendly bartenders and it’s in an artsy square that holds concerts in the summer. Another artsy and lively area in the summer is Kulttuuritehdas Korjaamo (cultural center). It is an old tram hall that is now used for outdoor drinking, music, art exhibits, food and it even has a movie theater. Definitely worth checking out during the summer or warmer days.

Another artsy and chill bar, despite the name is Bar Molotov. The walls are covered with random stuff and you could spend the whole evening exploring all the knick knacks used as decoration in this bar or you could also relax after a day of touring the city while playing board games and enjoying a long drink. This is a local specialty cocktail with gin and different flavors such as cranberry and grapefruit. Don’t expect anything fancy since it’s premixed and comes from the draft, still pretty good.

There’s quite a few bars, restaurants and cafes you can check out on Vaasankatu street (where Bar Molotov is). It’s a hip area with some cool street art, worth exploring during the day or night.


For more activities in Helsinki you can visit the city’s website. You can also save in Google maps all the list of all the places I’ve mentioned above. If it’s too cold to explore the city, I recommend taking a break in one of the many malls in the city. There are some underground ones with loads of restaurants and shops, including the famous Moomins stores. Enjoy your time in this beautiful city and always BE PRESENT.

Vienna

Language spoken: German
Most people I spoke with understood and spoke English, yet it’s always a good idea to learn the basics when visiting another country.

  • Please = bitte (pronounced bitter)
  • Thank you = danke (like anchor with a d in front)
  • Hello (formal) = Grüßgott (groose-got)
  • Hello (informal) = Servus (sair-vuss)
  • Goodbye (formal) = Auf Wiedersehen (owf-vee-duh-zane)
  • Goodbye (informal)
    – Tschüss (chuce; Austrogerman)
    – Baba (bah-bah; Viennese)
    – Ciao (quite acceptable)

Where to stay on a budget:
Wombat’s Hostel
Cool place to meet people.
Centric
The hostel has everything BUT A/C.
Cheap drinks (including a free one for guests) at the bar.
Lots of places for chilling, including a naturally lit cafe/lounge area used for breakfast.
There’s a larger one in Budapest. It’s located in the Jewish Quarter (District VII).

Where to eat on a budget:
Kolar
Good, local spot in the Jewish Quarter. Kind of hidden so keep an eye.
Good prices and large location, including terrace and many indoor tables.
Has a wide variety of local brews and serves a sort of calzone in pita bread… sooo good!
Service was great and people spoke English, even the ones who didn’t, tried their best to understand us. There’s WiFi so you can use Google Translate for any specifics like dietary restrictions.

Food to try:
schnitzel-the-size-of
Schnitzel (breaded and flattened lamb or pork)

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Sacher cake (dense chocolate cake)

Food-related Landmarks:
Cafe Frauenhuber
This place is a bit fancier, hence, a bit pricier. You can get a drink or simply walk by the cafe where Mozart and Beethoven used to play.
If you’ve saved up for at least one nice dinner, this place serves great local food, including the schnitzel, which is a must try in Vienna if you have no dietary restrictions.

Cafe Central
First coffee shop in Vienna. Freud and Trotsky used to visit.
It’s supposed to be the most centric location in Vienna. Meaning that this coffee house is right in the middle of Vienna.

Figlmueller
THE place for Schnitzel. Reservations are required and can be made through the website. Be prepared for a huge proportion if you get the Schnitzel. It is meant for sharing.
Landmarks to see/visit:

vienna-1567865_1920.jpg
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
Medieval Cathedral from the Roman Empire. It has since been restored, and like everything in Vienna, is it immaculate.
There are classical concerts performed inside the Cathedral. I recommend checking the website for schedule and pricing.
Most walking tours depart from the Cathedral since it’s a centric location that connects with many shops and restaurants.

konzerte-im-mozarthausMozarthaus
Mozart lived and composed in this apartment in the 1700s for many years. This is an expensive area, and it is said that the cost of living here is what bankrupt him.
It has since been restored and now offers tours.
2076-juedisches-wien-synagoge-stadttempel-19to1.jpeg

Synagogue
A beautiful synagogue, now a Holocaust memorial site.
You can book a tour and see the interior.

Sigmund Freud Museum
The museum is basically an apartment. You literally have to get buzzed in to come in, both to the building, then to the apartment.
Even with student discount, it was more than I was expecting to pay. We opted for not going in since, from what we could see from the entrance, it was mainly composed of books and sketches. I could read these from my local library for free, I thought.

1200px-Wien_-_Schloss_Belvedere,_oberes_(2).JPGBelvedere Palace
The palace is further from the center. You’ll have to take the metro or light rail there. The price for a 100min ride is 2.40 EUR… not the cheapest. Still, you don’t have to enter the Palace, which is now a museum, to appreciate its beauty.

penacho_de_moctezuma_1000x793.JPGWeltmuseum Wien
My fellow Mexicans can enter this museum for free since it hosts “El Penacho de Moctezuma”.  A beautifully hand-made headdress with feathers and gold pieces. It was originally used as a sort of crown for Moctezuma II, the Aztec emperor during the Spanish Conquest. No similar pieces remain in Mexico, and according to the Weltmuseum, this piece would not survive the transatlantic flight. Hence, the free entrance to Mexican citizens to the museum. So bring your Mexican passport or IFE!

image_gallery.jpegRathaus
My friend and I found it ironically hilarious that the city call is called “Rathaus”.
Despite its name, the Rathaus is a beautiful and massive building. It holds multiple events. During the summer, I had the fortune of attending the summer film fest. The exterior is surrounded by pop up restaurants and bars, with plenty of seating facing a large screen playing films. I attended a space opera conducted by Venezuelan conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. Needless to say, this was an out of the world experience… get it? Because it’s a space opera?…. [Crickets].

20180726_124237Street Art
Last but not least, my favorite… street art.
Vienna has an amazing and extensive street art scene that goes along the river.
You can start your walk here. During the summer, they have local bands playing next to the river in the evenings.
To appreciate the art, I recommend walking along the river as far as you can. It goes along the metro line so you don’t feel like you’re stranded and heading to nowhere.
These murals have been approved by the city, but of course, there also a few rebel designs floating around.

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I hope you enjoy your time in Vienna. Other, relatively near,  cities that I greatly recommend are Prague, Krakow and Budapest. Remember to enjoy every moment of your trip, even when getting lost or tired, focus on the good things and BE PRESENT!

More info:
List of all places in Google Maps
Visiting Vienna