Many visitors come to Finland with images of glimmering lakes and the wind soughing in softwood trees. It is something that they can really find even if they get no further than a congress hotel in the centre of Helsinki. They are unlikely to find another European capital where the natural environment penetrates so deeply into the city centre.
The city stands on a peninsula which rose from the sea after the Ice Age. Indeed, the land is still rising - at about 30 centimetres a century. There is a fine archipelago just offshore and softwood forests grow right to the edge of the Baltic. It makes an unbeatable combination.
Shortage of time is no obstacle to an outing into nature. You need only twenty minutes or so to reach dense forest or the unique environment of the archipelago. To get a good idea of the special features of the latter, you need go no further than Harakka, which lies not much more than a stone's throw offshore and is one of the more than 300 islands within the city limits. It is a place where the original nature of the outer islands exists side-by-side with the cultural environment of a Russian fortification. It is now a nature centre, with marked trails and the services of a guide also available. You need five minutes to get there using the boat that departs regularly (as long as the sea is unfrozen) from beside a popular tourist café on the edge of Kaivopuisto park.
In winter, visitors can walk to Harakka across the ice, which is probably quite an experience in itself for people from some parts of the world. The sea off Helsinki usually freezes over in January and remains in the grip of ice for at least a couple of months. It is advisable to look what the locals are doing; if there are plenty of them on the ice, you know it is safe to venture onto it. Then follow the beaten paths in the snow.
The Viikki-Vanhankaupunkinlahti area, which is geographically around the centre point of Helsinki, offers valuable wetland bird habitats, varied forest scenery and historical agricultural landscapes. Like other beauty spots, the area can be reached by public transport, which functions excellently everywhere in Helsinki. It is criss- crossed by many paths and trails and makes an ideal place for excursions at any time of the year.
The Viikki bird wetland is a nature reserve covering over 250 hectares, a nutrient rich Baltic bay now almost completely overgrown. A total of 284 species, some rare, have been spotted there and about 2,000 pairs nest regularly.
You need not be an ornithologist to find Viikki interesting. All around the nature reserve is one of the oldest estates in the Helsinki region. Its lands have been tilled continuously since the 16th century and it is now used for teaching and research purposes by the University of Helsinki. It includes a dendrological section, where one can see many species of trees by following a two-kilometre signposted path.
The island of Lammassaari in the middle of Vanhankaupunginlahti Bay has paths through deciduous woodland and offers visitors a small taste of Finnish holiday cottage culture. There are more than a hundred tiny cottages on the island. The only way to get there in summer is along plank walkways through the wetland.
August and September offer green-minded visitors a special nature experience: mushroom picking. Everyone has a legal right to walk the forest freely and pick berries and mushrooms. The experience is most rewarding if you have Finnish company with you, because most Finns still have a living relationship with nature and retain a pretty good grasp of skills that their ancestors learned long ago. People accustomed to being out and about in nature are able to identify most of the mushroom varieties that one can eat in safety. Mushrooms collect heavy metals from the soil and it is better to pick them well away from the city centre. There is any amount of suitable places within half an hour's radius.
A good place to get the feel of the forest is at Haltiala, a part of the vast Keskuspuisto central park where a patch of primeval forest has been preserved. Another good place is the museum island of Seurasaari, which has some of the city's most stately pines.
Those with a yen for genuine wilderness will head a little out of the city to the Nuuksio upland lake district, which is only 45 minutes from the centre of Helsinki. The forests there are home to an animal found in few other parts of Europe, the flying squirrel Pteromys volans. As near as it is, the city is remote and one hears only the wind in the trees, the calls of the whooper swan, the hoots of owls and the howls of foxes on a spring night. The dominant landscape features are the rocky pine forests and the 150 lakes and ponds that dot the valleys. The core of Nuuksio is a national park, which is surrounded by a recreational area with many services for visitors. Those who go there need a sense of adventure and reasonable physical condition, because the topography is rough and demanding in places.
Even if your time is really at a premium, you can still find some nature spots right in the heart of the city. Kaisaniemenpuisto park beside the Botanical Gardens is popular with city ornithologists. Ideal for an evening stroll is a circuit of Töölönlahti Bay, an interesting route at any time of the year. Along the way you will see hundreds of birds in the bay, trees, parks, old wooden villas and some of the city's most impressive public buildings.
Nature is safe and close at hand in Helsinki. Get out and sample it!