Study abroad at the University of Helsinki, Finland

Posted by: Students Worldwide

Published on: 08/09/2021

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Student life abroad at the University of Helsinki, Jacob Evans

 

I studied at the University of Helsinki for the 2019/20 academic year, and it was the best decision I have ever made. A beautifully contemporary city located in a magnificent country, Helsinki is the best location for those who adore the outdoors, enjoy relaxed living, and wish study in a city of culture, innovation, and efficiency.

The University

Helsinki is home to a number of Universities, but I was at The University of Helsinki which has four campuses. I was fortunate to study at the Viikki and Kumpula campuses, where the centres for science and environment are held. These two campuses are located around 20 minutes from the city centre campus but were just a 10-minute walk from my accommodation. What’s great about studying here is the ability to study from many courses and travel across the city. Viikki is for biology, environmental science, and forestry whilst Kumpula is for chemistry and physics. Then the city centre is for the social sciences. You can go to all of them, it will just require planning properly once you get your accommodation as you may have to travel between campuses. I did this and it was super fun to have new settings. I found the flexibility in studies so helpful, and you can choose modules from all campuses. It’s important to remember to not freak out when you find out you’re studying master’s courses. These are the modules in English and are the same level as undergraduate modules. I was enrolled on ECGS (Environmental Change and Global Sustainability) but I chose modules from forestry, marketing, chemistry and biology. Essentially, whatever I saw was interesting.

The City

Helsinki itself has roughly 650,000 people, but due to urban growth, the wider metropolitan area now encompasses the cities of Vantaa and Espoo. These all form the bustling Helsinki Metropolitan area of approximately 1.2 million. However, this number is deceiving, as Helsinki can be quiet, understated and calm, much akin to its people. The Helsinki transport system HSL is divided into 4 zones, all of which can be accessed via your mobile phone. I bought a travel card and bought my stay until the end, which meant I had unlimited travel throughout the Helsinki area, so if you get on the wrong bus you don’t have to pay again. Additionally, for single tickets, these last 90 minutes so it gives you sufficient time to use as many buses, trams and trains as needed.

 

First picture is the Cathedral, taken on my final trip to the city centre.

 

The main places on interest in Helsinki are obviously based off of your interests. The most prominent buildings are:

 

  • Cathedral and Senate square – the ‘postcard building’. Beautiful green topped building atop dozens of steps. Iconic landmark located in a vibrant area of the town next to the bay. The neighbouring Senate Square hosts the Christmas markets and other major gatherings amidst the backdrop of the ocean and the cathedral.

 

  • Uspenski Cathedral – main cathedral of the Orthodox Church of Finland. Redbrick building with golden cupolas providing an insight into the Russian impact on Helsinki and Finland’s history.

 

  • Sibelius monument – a monument located in Sibelius Park – a tribute to one of Finland’s most famous figures. The makeshift tree is made of over 600 organ pipes and synonymous of the influence arts and music has in Helsinki and its allure.

 

  • Temppeliaukio Church – Lutheran church literally built into solid rock with a big skylight on top. Really popular location in Töölo, very near to Sibelius Park.

 

  • Presidential Palace and Esplanadi – Located a stones throw from the Cathedral, this is one of the three official homes of the President and overlooks the market square. The adjoining esplanade is Helsinki’s most famous park where water features, musicians and venders gather.

 

  • Kaisa house – city centre library. Really interesting and trippy architecture, oh, and there’s books. I enjoy studying here.

 

  • Parliament House – opposite Kaisa. A nice landmark in the city centre, use it as a way point if you get lost.

 

  • Olympic Stadium – Helsinki hosted the 1952 Summer Olympics. Cool location of sporting history.

 

Second picture is the sinister Uspenski Cathedral

 

Aside from staring at buildings all day there are also lots of other things to do. There are many high streets with many Exeter approved brands such as Ralph Lauren and Guess, but also lots of independent places if that’s your vibe. As Helsinki is essentially a peninsula there is water everywhere and many islands to visit, as well as beaches. Interesting places include:

 

  • Base Bar, a heavy metal bar in the city centre, heavy metal is really popular in Helsinki, so come here to get your rock fix, and your leather fix. They serve Newcastle Brown Ale as well should you be craving British delicacies.

 

  • Aussiebar – The only place I found with live rugby. You can watch all your rugby, football and even some rugby league, whilst being served by a g’day from the guys behind the bar.

 

  • Café Regatta – an Instagram spot for all the influencers, quaint wooden café nestled along the shore.

 

  • Nuuksio National Park – it’s strange to be able to go to a massive national park using the city transport – but that is so indicative of Finland and their relationship with nature. Awesome place to see lakes, forests, wildlife and have wild barbecues with friends whilst still being in the city limits.

 

  • Hiateniemi beach – best beach in Helsinki with a free volleyball court and gym apparatus, again a great place to go with friends or anyone if you fancy a beach day.

 

  • Porvoo – a 30-minute bus ride from the city is the old town of Porvoo. One of just 6 medieval towns in Finland. Great insight to Finnish culture and history; also has a fabulous river walk.

 

  • Suomenlinna – a 15-minute boat journey from the bay, Suomenlinna is an old naval base and UNESCO world heritage site accessible with the HSL travel card for zone A. A really interesting island with permanent residents and historical memorabilia. There are small beaches as well, an excellent place to watch the sunset and sunrise over the Baltic.

 

Transport

Helsinki is unbelievably efficient. Trains, trams, and busses are regular, and always on time. Moreover, the travel card is exceptional value, and the city is excellent for walking. Overall, the best public transport I have ever seen and certainly a point of inspiration for many cities across the world.

People and Language

Virtually everyone in Helsinki is bilingual, and some know many more. Shops have English labels; cashiers are all fluent and every passer by can direct you in English when you’re lost. There is a stereotype of Finnish people being very cold, introverted, and blunt, and its somewhat true, but I have to stress, not in a bad way at all. The people are very dignified, respectful of personal space and essentially do not care for any small talk or general BS. Basically, if you’re someone who hates when a randomer sparks up horrible small talk, or hate being over-affectionate when going about daily life then Finland is for you. With wonderfully dry humour, Finnish people have their priorities sorted and have a fantastically relaxed expression and demeanour. It was also very refreshing to see mutual respect, everyone respects each other and, more explicitly the environment. Finnish people have an intimate relationship with their environment and the city has easy access to a range of national parks and green spaces.

Nightlife

Helsinki is rather larger. Therefore, there is a greater variety of places for you to experience. For general nights out there is Heidi’s Bier Bar and Maxine with its skyline view. But Helsinki also has a strong techno and underground scene with places like Post Bar and Aaniwalli bringing in exciting new DJ’s every week. There are obviously lots of student nights and themed events, so anything you want is available. As mentioned, heavy metal is huge in Finland so there are plenty of places to scream and run at other leather-cladded people.

Pub culture is also massive in Finland. It’s perfectly normal for someone to walk in, have a pint and leave all by themselves. So, as students its great; there are pubs everywhere for you to chill, play cards and play pool – which is often free as well. There are a hugely disproportionate number of karaoke bars in Finland which can be some serious fun.

Trips

Helsinki is in a great location; a very Eastern country in regard to the “Western World” which allowed me to travel to some great places. Alongside local travel company Timetravels there are a range of student trips to get involved with. As a result, I went to St Petersburg and Moscow without a visa, and travelled to Lapland (see below). The boat across the sea to Tallinn can cost as little as 7EUR and is where Finnish students go to stock up on booze. I travelled to Tallinn frequently and not only is it cheap, but it is strikingly beautiful with a pristine old town with gothic architecture rising above the surrounding modern city. An excellent day trip and for 20 quid return you cannot go wrong. Other easily accessible places include Stockholm, Copenhagen, Riga, Vilnius, and Gdansk.

 

 

Within Finland itself are other awesome places to check out. Cities like Tampere, Turku and Lahti are easily accessible from Helsinki and the national train service is also regular, efficient, and cost-effective. These are all places I would recommend checking out. There are also hundreds of small villages and places located next to the sea or the multitude of lakes Finland possesses. I could not recommend highly enough, taking time to rent a cabin in the woods with your friends. It is the epitome of Finnish life, quiet, nature, sauna, fishing boats, BBQ, beers and friends. During the summer, the sun rises at 3 AM and sets at 11PM, so you can always watch the sunsets/rises on the waterfront.

Lapland was undoubtedly one of the highlights as well. It turns out Finland is pretty big and a 20-hour bus journey to Kilpisjarvi really paid homage to that. Myself, a friend and about 20 other students did a trip to Lapland with Timetravels, staying at the most northwest town in Finland, Kilpisjarvi. Here we dog sled in -28 degrees, drove snowmobiles over a frozen lake to the tripoint between Sweden, Norway, and Finland. We also visited Tromso in Norway, then finished off with the best evening of my time abroad. In the small fishing village of Skibotn in Northern Norway we swam in the Arctic ocean, stayed in the sauna, and then saw the incredible aurora borealis. This was mid-February, and anyone looking to see the Northern Lights, visiting Lapland between December and March is no guarantee, but highly likely. We were fortunate to witness this incredible spectacle on our final evening before another vile 20-hour journey south.

 

 

Helsinki

Not once did I feel homesick whilst in Finland, there was always somewhere to go, places to see and people to meet. Finland is an underrated and underappreciated country. They have almost 200,000 lakes and 200,000 islands, so if you love nature it is an exceptional place to visit, with bears, lynx and moose amongst many more animals.  As a country that has been under Swedish and Russian rule, there are also intriguing cities and architecture highlighting the tumultuous past. For an experience of a modern, efficient, and clean city escape, Helsinki is perfect, and with so many places available as day trips, visiting Tallinn, for example, you can make a fantastic holiday here. Then of course, visiting Lapland is beyond exciting, you get to visit Santa Claus village, and the serenity of the Arctic. Dogsledding through the snow-laden forest, coupled with the magnificent Aurora Borealis display really is something you have to experience.

 

 

Studying here was equally as impressive. Opportunities to thrive in different settings, assessment in entirely new formats and an emphasis on collective learning encourages major academic success. The array of modules and study options means you fundamentally learn without a strict binary of education. Living abroad is also never-ending fun. At Helsinki, the Exchange students have their own accommodation block, so I ended up living in a nice complex with about 150 other foreign people. My flat had Spanish, Italian, French, Turkish and German and I ended up meeting people from every corner of the globe. This was such a good way of doing things, and the people who lived in the block also studied at the same campus as me, so you create really strong and close friendships. I made friends for life, and some I have continued to see, 2 years after leaving. Before we all left, we rented a van and drove to Savonlinna, a picturesque island situated on our own gigantic lake. The height of summer, enjoying eternal memories with people from all over the world. I could not have asked for a better year abroad, or to spend it with better people. The final weekend encapsulated everything that Finland is about. Your own beach, essentially your own lake, sauna, beers, and friendship. It’s what makes me happy, and it will make you happy too.

 

Credit – Jacob Evans

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