Thursday 10 November 2011

Helsinki Essential Running Route

Click here for route map 
Length: 9.2 km (5.7 miles), or break it into 2 loops of 4- and 5-km
Terrain contains some small hills

Helsinki running routes:
Helsinki Essential downtown route
Helsinki North route

Western shore route
Soumenlinna Fortress island route
For more running routes, see Route List.
Pictures courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Hopefully, you (as a runner) will be visiting Helsinki in the summer. The first time I went there, in a November, there were already lots of icy patches all over the sidewalks, and I could barely walk around, much less run. Somehow, I managed a few runs anyway, but I was dancing around the ice the whole time.

But in the summer, the town is a running paradise: waterfront everywhere and never-ending evening sunshine. One evening, towards the end of a long run, I ran by Hietaniemi beach at about 10 p.m. and the beach was still full of people, swimming, lying out in the sunshine, playing volleyball and just acting as if it were still 3 in the afternoon. It looked so great, I just had to join them, and I kicked off my running shoes and went for a swim.

Helsinki Cathedral, photo by WordShore
Helsinki shares the same landscape features as other Scandinavian towns. When you move from inland areas towards the coast, there is a slow transition from land to sea. It is never quite just one or the other. Inland areas are full of big lakes, and the coastline is a jumble of bays, fjords and islands, making it almost impossible to tell if a bit of land is part of the mainland or not, or if that stretch of water ahead is part of the Baltic or not.

There's a somewhat provincial air to the city, another characteristic it shares with all Scandinavian towns. And it also has lots of ferry landings and an island where the navy has had its headquarters for centuries, full of old admiralty buildings, just like those found in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo.

The Essential Helsinki Route
Here's a route that will capture a lot of the essence of Helsinki, in my opinion: lots of waterfront, and a mixture of downtown and quiet neighborhoods and parks. Except for one small hill, the route is flat.

The route starts right in the heart of downtown Helsinki, in the Senate Square (Senatintori) in front of the white, domed cathedral. This Lutheran church is the main landmark for the city. There is a monument to Russian Czar Alexander II in the middle of the square. The Russians ruled Finland for a couple of hundred years (after the Swedes had ruled it during the centuries before), until the Russian Revolution toppled the empire.

The big, classical building to the left is the main university building.

Facing the massive steps going up to the cathedral, run off northwards along the cathedral's right side, along Snelmaninkantu.

Just behind the cathedral you'll see two more impressive classical buildings. On the left side is the Finnish National Bank, and on the right is the old parliament building (House of the Estates).

Just after that building, turn right on Rauhankatu and run eastwards the few blocks to the waterfront.

Cross the waterfront drive and turn right to run south directly along the water. There are normally a few windjammers tied up here, and other yachts. Off to the left, you can see your next destination: Katajanokka island. This is the traditional home of the navy (Swedish, then Russian, then Finnish).

Just when you approach Uspenski (Russian Orthodox) Cathedral, with its golden domes, turn left to cross over the little footbridge, then turn left to keep running along the water on the island.

Uspenski Cathedral, photo by Robban Andersson
There is another yacht marina along the shore here. After a while, you'll see some very impressive-looking, massive ships docked-up. This is the fleet of Finnish ice-breakers. When you live this far north, you don't mess around!

And just across from the ships, you'll see the classical facade of the Foreign Ministry, in a rennovated Russian navy building.

Keep running along the shore as it turns to the right, southeast, with a little park. Across the water you can see the island-studded bay.

Right after the first half of the park, turn right to run into the new neighborhood along Merikasarminkatu. This area was redeveloped from the old navy shipyard. You'll find yourself following tram tracks.

You are now running along the backside of the foreign ministry. You will soon come to a strange, factory-like building behind a curved brick wall along the right side. This is now a Best Western Hotel, but was once a prison! They now have a Jailbird Restaurant where you drink from tin cups.

When you come to Kruunuvuorenkatu, keep running straight along Pikku Satamakatu for 3 blocks, as you run straight towards the docks. Turn right at Katajanokanlaituri to run past the Scandic Grand Marina hotel in its refurbished docklands building.

Keep running straight ahead, with the docks to your right for the last few blocks. You will leave the island at the northern tip of the downtown harbor. There is a pedestrian bridge to Kauppatori, the waterside marketplace straight ahead. The waterfront is full of market stands and cafés. Along the right side of the market is a long, classical building, the Presidential Palace.

Helsinki Market, photo by k*teen
We are now just a block south of the start of the run at Senate Square.

NOTE: You could just turn right now and run the block back to the starting point, if you want to shorten the run to 4km. From here, there is a second loop to the south of another 5km.

Just ahead of you, you'll see fountain and a long, tree-lined square, the Esplanadi. But we'll return through it later. Now, let's turn left and continue running southwards along the water at the main harbor.

Run behind the old market hall along the quay, towards the international ferry dock straight ahead. The shore-road makes a slight turn to the left, where a smaller street continues straight up the wooded hill. Cross the zebra-stripes to your right to then turn left and run uphill on the smaller, cobblestone street, called Eteläranta.

At the end of the block, the street turns right, but keep running on the path going straight uphill into the park ahead. Follow the main path as it curves around the hill. The classical, yellow astronomical observatory will appear on the right. This building sits atop the hill, and you will have some nice views from up here, yourself.

The old observatory, photo by Toinen Linja
Passing the observatory, run down the hill to the street along the south side of the hill, Tähtitorninkatu. You'll see another path with stairs continuing downhill between the buildings.

At the next street, Vuorimiehenkatu, cross the triangular cobblestoned plaza and keep running straight along Ullankatu, with the fenced gardens on your right.

At the next corner, you'll come to another triangular plaza, with St. Henry's (Catholic) Cathedral on the right. I'm already starting to lose count of cathedral on this run... St. Henry's looks more like a village church, though, for Helsinki's small Catholic community.

Running past St. Henry's, just keep going straight, on the paved path through Kaivopuisto Park. The path is called Iso Puistotie.

NOTE: At St. Henry's, you could also have taken the street called Itänen Puistotie, which runs parallel to the park path, through a beautiful neighborhood of villas. Sometime, you'll have to try it!

The path ends at the Helsinki's southern tip. There is a pier going out into the water that is worth running out to. The view is beautiful. You can see the old Swedish-build Sveaborg castle out on one of the islands, and the bay is full of other rocky islands and beacons, with ferries and other ships gliding by.

View from the pier, photo by Britta Sunshine Becker
So now turn west to continue along the waterfront, where you'll go by a marina nestled between the peninsula and a group of little rocky islands. My sailor's heart always starts beating faster when I run past this idyllic spot.

During one evening run along this spot, I watched a motorless sailboat gliding through the darkness back to the marina. Its lone skipper was contentedly whistling to himself as he occasionally shone his flashlight on his sail to make himself visible to any other boats. That was a scene of total freedom to me.

At the west end of the marina, you'll see the Carousel Café. Turn right here to head back into town. This avoids a busier street if you had continued to the end of the park.

The marina, photo by Avodrocc
You'll run through the marina parking lot, then straight north along Laivurinkatu, with its art nouveau apartment buildings. There are a lot of art nouveau buildings in Helsinki, but they tend to be much more subdued than those found in Brussels or Paris.

When you cross Tehtaankatu, a tram line turns into Laivurinkatu, and you just keep running straight ahead, next to the tram tracks.

In a few blocks, the road forks, where you take the right-hand street, Laivurinrinne (the tram tracks continue on the left-hand street). You'll run past the neo-gothic Johanneksen church, then the street runs into Annankatu, where you keep running north for 3 blocks.

When you reach Bulevardi, you'll see a square to the right. Run diagonally through the square towards your right. You'll see a classical church on the other side. This is the Vanha Kirkko ("old church", as you can guess, it's Helsinki's oldest church).

The old church, photo by Cai Franke
You will come out on Lönnrotinkatu, where you turn right and run the last bit into the downtown. In just one block you'll come to one of the busiest downtown streets, Mannerheimintie.

Cross the street: you'll see the big Stockmann's department store on the left and the rounded back-end of the Swedish Theater on the right.

Run straight, with the theater on your right, and then continue straight through the long Esplanadi park towards the market where we came through earlier. This is about the most popular and elegant hangouts in the whole city center.

Esplanadi, the elegant hangout downtown, photo by Cormac Byrne
Just before the presidential palace, turn left on Sofiankatu to run the last block past the Helsinki Museum to our starting place at Senate Square.

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