• Image about Helsinki
THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE: Lutheran Cathedral sits on Senate Square. Helsinki observes the darkest days of the year with the Season of Light celebration by inviting various artists to transform buildings and monuments throughout the city into brilliantly lit pieces of art.
Ralph Larmann/Helsinki City Tourist & Convention Bureau

An unassuming town filled with humble people, Helsinki doesn’t go to great lengths to win you over. With so much to offer, it doesn’t need to.

It is, at this very moment, somewhere around minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit — the temperature at which a beard freezes and the metal frames of sunglasses begin to feel like branding irons perched upon naked cheekbones. And the wind — dear God, the wind. Like a thousand white-hot pinpricks against exposed skin. And all around, there is only snow — up to the calf, sometimes to the waist. Signs warn, in so many words: Do not venture off the path or you may never be seen again.

I landed in Helsinki just 12 hours ago and spent the flight browsing the few Scandinavian guidebooks available, by Rick Steves and Michelin. Each contains copious pictures of and references to one of Helsinki’s most famous tourist destinations: the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, which was built in 1748 by the Swedes and captured by the Russians 60 years later, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage hot spot. The books promise a pastoral picnic playground spread over connected islands — verdant gardens, outdoor cafés, a brewery with vista views and half a dozen museums scattered among the red-stone ruins that overlook the Baltic Sea.

  • Image about Helsinki
Lutheran Cathedral gets a lighting treatment by artist Mikki Kunttu.
Ralph Larmann/Helsinki City Tourist & Convention Bureau
But that’s during Finland’s vaunted summer, when the sun stays up past 11 p.m. and Finns, deprived of light and warmth most of the year, are all too happy to keep it company. It’s mid-February now, when the sun makes only brief, blessed cameos. The Baltic is frozen over and under, and to reach Suomenlinna at this time of year, you must take a ferry that crunches through thick, foreboding slush for the entire 20-minute voyage. Suomenlinna tops most out-of-towners’ to-do lists; I’d been told countless times before visiting that it must be walked in its entirety, many thousands of meters. But locals to whom I would later recount the frostbitten visit would always say the same thing: “At this time of year?” Finns don’t grin a lot; they certainly don’t laugh easily. But go ahead and tell a native you’ve been to Suomenlinna in February. It kills every time.

Fast Fact:
American Airlines now offers nonstop flights between Chicago O’Hareand Helsinki. To make a reservation, please go to AA.com or call (800) 433-7300.

And so on this morning, for as long as my face and fingertips and bones can stand it, I stand on a cliff next to a cannon that hasn’t fired a shot in anger in ages. I stare out into the white-gray, frozen-over expanse. I can see no one and hear nothing, save the sound of my breath freezing upon contact with the air.
In summer, Suomenlinna may indeed be enchanting. But in winter, it’s downright exhilarating.