As summer comes to an end, my thoughts generally turn to travel destinations that can offer more than a beach and sunshine.
I’d like to think that I have an adventurous streak, and that I’m not afraid to try something new – but with so much publicity about LGBT rights in countries around the world, I’m also cautious about where I go, and who is the recipient of my hard-earned tourism spend.
I suppose what I’m most concerned about is receiving warm and genuine welcome.
I’m aware of course that the experience for tourists or hotel guests in a particular destination can be hugely different to the everyday realities faced by LGBTI people who might live in that country.
However the appeal of a beautiful beach or stunning landscape, no matter how idyllic, loses its luster for me if I know that the local LGBTI population is being denied their basic rights just for being themselves.
While I don’t want to be too contentious, this is an important issue, so rather than starting by dismissing the 78 or so countries where homosexuality is illegal, I’m going to focus on a destination that is taking LGBT tourism seriously – Helsinki.
If I was in any doubt about how comfortable Finland is about sex and sexuality, I was recently assured by the recent release of a set of Tom of Finland stamps by Itella, the Finnish postal service.
These stamps have been the biggest-selling Finnish stamps ever thanks to huge international interest, and I’m certainly going to enjoy putting them on my postcards that I’ll send back to friends and family.
This is of course the capital of Finland, the stunningly beautiful Daughter of the Baltic.
Founded by King Gustav Vasa of Sweden in 1550, much of the present architecture dates from the beginning of the 19th century, when the city was rebuilt by the Tsars of Russia in the same style as imperial St Petersburg, and the city became the Finnish capital in 1812.
A true gateway between East and West, Helsinki’s character has been determined by an intriguing mix of influences and cultures, and yet she still retains a distinct character all of her own.
Swedish kings and Russian Tsars have certainly made their impact, but the Finnish language is most closely related to other regional Baltic Sea languages such as Estonian, which tells us that Finland’s culture is as unique and Nordic as they come.
I love this history of course, but when it comes to being an out and proud LGBTI traveler, Helsinki really interests me as a city that is pulling out the stops to make people like me feel welcome – by providing the resources I need to plan a stress-free and genuinely welcoming visit.
Thanks to the local tourist board Visit Helsinki, a thriving LGBT business network has been developed with the sole aim of providing product that really suits my needs as a gay traveler.
Many local businesses have enrolled in the network, including hotels, bars, restaurants and shops, meaning that I can easily find the establishments that not only want my business, but are also investing time and money in training their staff to make sure that they are relaxed and comfortable when I do arrive.
There are also tour operators as part of the network too, which means that if I feel like putting my feet up and letting an expert put my trip together for me, which might include an extra few days outside of the city, then I can.
This could include a mini-cruise to Tallinn or St Petersburg, or a trip further north to try and see the spectacular Northern Lights, which are best viewed in the winter months.
All this can be arranged safe in the knowledge that my sexuality isn’t something that I have to be guarded about when I’m booking or enjoying my stay.
On arrival I’m pleased to find that the staff are just as welcoming to me and my boyfriend as I had been lead to believe, and even had a few tips of where I should head of their own.
Luckily I’ve been doing some research of my own and so I have a pretty good idea of where I want to start.
The first stop is to pick up my Helsinki Card at the tourist information center on the Esplanade in the center of the city.
This is one of the tips I learned from the Tips and Offers section of the Visit Helsinki website.
It gives various benefits for visitors including unlimited use of public transport, entry to sights and attractions, discounts and a nifty guide book too.
In terms of orienting oneself the city is quite a manageable size, and the center is easily explored on foot.
The Market Square is a great place to start, with booths serving interesting local snacks, souvenirs and trinkets. A few blocks away is the impressive Senate Square, which is dominated by the famous Lutheran Cathedral and flanked by the Senate and University of Helsinki buildings.
The port area is located nearby, in the center of the city just in front of the parade of neoclassical buildings in front of the Cathedral. From here you can catch a ferry to the island fortress of Suomenlinna, which sits on islands in the bay and makes for a fascinating day out.
Alternatively you can just grab a coffee (apparently Finns drink the most coffee in the world – and they make them strong here) to watch a real working port in action while enjoying the views of the sea and the Russian Uspenski Cathedral, which sits on a hillside above the port.
These are experiences that you can only get in Helsinki of course, and another distinctly Finnish experience not to miss is to go to a public sauna (pronounced sow-na as in female pig, rather than saw-na as in tool for sawing wood in Finland).
The two that I tried had very distinct atmospheres.
Firstly the Harjutorin sauna in the district of Kallio is easily reached in ten minutes on one of the efficient trams that run through the city. This sauna is very much a public institution and offers a no nonsense approach to working up a sweat.
The second is the beautiful Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall in the centre of the city, whose beautiful central swimming hall is just delightful, and you can be served drinks overlooking swimmers from your own private booth.