Helsinki Card

President Tarja Halonen

29.4.2015 Text: Helsinki This Week Photos: Helsinki This Week
My Helsinki_Tarja Halonen

Tarja Halonen was President of the Republic of Finland in 2000–2012. She was Finland’s first female head of state. Since her term of office, President Halonen has held international positions of trust, represented Finland at various functions and participated in domestic social debate. For spring 2015, she headed for Harvard University as a guest lecturer of Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders. She intends to focus on issues related to sustainable development during her three-month tenure.

Do you have a favourite restaurant you take guests from other cities or countries to?

Well, there’s actually a number of places, it depends on what kind of person is visiting. If we have visitors from, say, the West and they aren’t also going to Saint Petersburg on the same trip (and even if they are), taking them to a Russian restaurant is a good way to give them a feel for Eastern Europe. An especially good choice is Bellevue, one of Helsinki’s oldest Russian eateries. 

But if you want to introduce Finnish guests from outside Helsinki to something slightly exotic, my home neighbourhood Kallio offers wonderful options. The whole length of Kolmas linja, for example, is packed with different types of restaurants. The Thai eatery Lemongrass and Sandro’s are both very good. And if you’re looking for a romantic working-class Kallio tavern, you’ll find some along the same street. Good food can also be found on the other side of Helsinginkatu; Blinit, next to the Helsinki Hall of Culture, serves great blinis and the new Abattoir area along Sörnäisten Rantatie is packed with all kinds of fun.

If you want to venture outside Kallio or the other places I mentioned, South Helsinki’s Eerikinkatu is home to lots of good restaurants. Just be adventurous and go find a place that you like. All in all, today’s Helsinki is a really good food city.

Where do you live?

In Hakaniemi. Or that’s how I define my neighbourhood. There’s been some dispute whether or not a district called Hakaniemi even exists or if it is more proper to call it part of either Kallio or Sörnäinen. But I always say that I live in Hakaniemi.

Your childhood was spent in Kallio, next to the neighbourhood you live in now. What draws you to the area?

Kallio has many dimensions. You can come across old neighbourhood grannies who have never eaten anything but the simplest Finnish dishes like herring casserole or sausage and vegetable soup, and can themselves whip up a fantastic meal from these humble ingredients. This is the local colour, my heritage, the customs of the working class.   

Kallio has always been a place that people move into, and I think this makes local residents, in their unpolished way, a bit more open and receptive to anything new. Back in the day, people moved to Kallio from the countryside, but now we’re seeing more of an ethnic migration. It’s not as pronounced as it is in Helsinki’s eastern suburbs, but nevertheless readily apparent here in Kallio as well.

The presence of many arts schools also adds its own stamp – and I’m not just talking about third-level institutions. Arts education is available here starting from the primary level. My old school, which is now known as the Kallio Upper Secondary School of Performing Arts, is also here, as is the Upper Secondary School of Visual Arts.  


1. Swimming
Helsinki is full of fine bathing beaches. My foreign friends have asked me if it is really possible to do wild swimming in Finland. For many, the opportunity to freely enter natural waters for a swim is uncommon. So, bring a towel and take your guests to explore our numerous beaches. And if this happens in early summer when the water is still cold, you’ll introduce them to a real extreme sport. 
2. Allotment gardens
Helsinki has many allotment gardens. The Vallila allotments are close to the centre and the Herttoniemi and Marjaniemi allotments are just little further out. And there are many others on top of these. The allotment gardens are part of the City of Helsinki’s green areas, which means that anyone can freely enter for a stroll. Please keep in mind that the garden huts are summer homes for some people, so you should respect their privacy.  It is possible to see familiar public faces at many of these allotments, but don’t forget that they among the others are not there to be gawked at.   
3. Water buses and cruises
We’ve needed to arrange a programme for a large group a few times and we came up with the idea of leasing a water bus to take our party to Vuosaari by sea. The return trip was less romantic, as we took the metro back into the centre. But it’s quite unbelievable how much you can see when travelling over water. Oh, and Vallisaari, which was earlier only used by the military, has also been opened to the public. It is largely in a natural state and a great place to visit.
5. Summer light
You should make the light of Finland’s summer enjoyable for yourself and your guests. A little picnic late at night can be a unique experience, which I warmly recommend! Never forget that Finland is an ecological country and, if you can carry a full bottle of wine to the picnic, you are surely able to bring the empty bottle back, too.

What places would you recommend in Hakaniemi area?

An example of the interesting things you find in Kallio is Hakaniemi Market Hall. The selection of foodstuffs, such as meat, fish and spices, on sale there is genuinely excellent. Hot food is served on the ground floor and there’s a cafeteria upstairs. They named a table after me when I became President of the Republic. There’s also a Marimekko store on the top floor. 

Close to the market hall, next door to the Etola rubber and plastic goods store, is Cafe Tienda, a very popular Spanish cafeteria run by young people. It’s worth a visit even outside happy hour, when sandwiches and coffee are sold at a discount. Hakaniemi is also home to several ecological shops for people with green leanings. 

You have travelled a lot and seen many different cities and countries. Why should tourists choose Helsinki as their destination?

Helsinki is a conveniently sized small big city. It has much more to offer than is usual for a city of half a million people. The nation’s administration and lots of Finnish history is focused here: we’ve got Parliament, Government, the old Empire-style city centre by Engel… 

In addition, many of Finland’s fine museums are located in Helsinki, as is the national opera, ballet and the excellent Music Centre. Finland is also an exceptionally good country for theatre, with respect both to the programme on offer and the price level. Finnish tickets prices are very reasonable in international comparison, although you can’t, of course, buy tickets with mere pocket change.  

Summer is right around the corner. Are you a summer person?

I consider myself more an all-year type, but October-November can feel a bit difficult. For me, summer is gardening time. I’ve had an allotment garden in Marjaniemi for 40 years. More recently, I’ve inherited a small place in the countryside as well. I hire help to keep the garden there presentable, but I always do the upkeep of the allotment garden and its hut myself.

What’s best about the Finnish summer?

The light, without a doubt. 

Are you familiar with Helsinki This Week?

I am indeed. We always recommend it when friends or family are visiting. Sometimes me and my husband use it ourself when we are looking for things to do. We just pick up a copy at the tourist information office.  

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