Snow brings light and life to Helsinki

[With this article, photographer Tim Bird is a finalist for Travel Photo Feature of the Year in the Excellence Awards of the British Guild of Travel Writers.] In recent years, southern Finland has experienced a prevalence of comparatively mild winters, in line with predictions and observations of climate change. Every so often, though, a series of snowstorms changes the way Helsinki residents look at their city (article includes slideshow).

The prolonged cold snap and plentiful snow that followed Christmas 2020 and continued into the first months of 2021 almost felt like something of a novelty in the Helsinki area.

In typically resourceful fashion, the Finns find ways to make the most of the wintry conditions, even while still observing social distancing and other guidelines that the Covid-19 pandemic necessitates. Extreme cold, with temperatures plummeting below minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit) at times, has accompanied heavy snow to a depth of more than half a metre (20 inches).

Helsinki remains prepared for these conditions and the challenges they present. A multitude of snow-clearing vehicles takes to the streets after each blizzard, while trams and buses continue to operate, undeterred.

One morning, citizens of Helsinki and the rest of the metropolitan area woke up to pink mists and floats of ice forming in the bays of the Baltic Sea. Our photo feature looks at full-blown, good old-fashioned Finnish winter making a welcome return to the Helsinki area.

Winter casts its spell in the Finnish capital

A person crosses the street in front of a building in a snowstorm.

Helsinki’s Central Railway Station takes its first hit from the fierce blizzards of early January 2021. Photo: Tim Bird

A person goes through a tree-lined park on cross-country skis.

A skier near the Vantaa River on the edge of Helsinki. Residents have been digging out their ski gear from attics and basements in order to take some welcome outdoor winter exercise. Photo: Tim Bird

A stately museum building is partially visible behind an enormous pile of snow.

A mountain of cleared snow forms on Railway Square in front of the Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Tim Bird

A ship progresses past the silhouette of a rocky island.

The ferry from the Suomenlinna sea fortress, a Unesco World Heritage site, arrives in South Harbour as early morning “sea smoke” forms over the freezing water. Photo: Tim Bird

The shore of an island towers over the silhouette of a swan.

A swan (lower right) bobs in the mist on the seaward side of the Suomenlinna sea fortress as the sun rises on a morning when the thermometer reads minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit). Photo: Tim Bird

A cyclist traverses a wide, flat expanse of snow.

One should always take great care when venturing onto the frozen Baltic Sea, but the ice in the shallower inlets became thick enough in early 2021 to support walkers and skiers – and even this cyclist. Photo: Tim Bird

An earthmoving machine piles snow into mounds in front of a government building.

On Senate Square, workers cleared snow into vast piles to await removal by dump trucks. Photo: Tim Bird

A person sits on a stool in the middle of a frozen bay, with apartment buildings in the background.

Ice fishers, such as this one close to the suburban neighbourhood of Arabianranta, practise their ancient and solitary pastime if winter brings cold enough temperatures. You have to bore a hole in the ice and drop a fishing line into the water below. Photo: Tim Bird

People on a bridge gaze at a waterfall with ice formations in front of it.

As the Vantaa River tumbles towards the sea at Vanhakaupunki (Old Town), the site of Helsinki’s founding in 1550, it accumulates in surreal, wonderful ice formations. Photo: Tim Bird

A man is up to his chest in water in a large hole in the snow-covered sea ice, with an exit ladder nearby and a view of Helsinki in the background.

Winter swimmers, such as this one at Uunisaari (Oven Island), just south of Helsinki, advocate the health benefits of regular winter swimming. Photo: Tim Bird

A person looks out of a window in a snow fort that has been made to resemble an angry face.

Perhaps as a result of spending more time at home, Finns have rediscovered creative snow and ice sculpting skills. This snow fort is the work of allotment gardeners in the suburb of Pakila, north of the capital. Photo: Tim Bird

A person on horseback crosses a snowy landscape of fields and trees.

A rider trots out in the morning mist close to the Tuomarinkylä stables, near the Vantaa River. Photo: Tim Bird

Downtown Helsinki is seen from across an expanse of water.

On a brisk morning in South Harbour, the sea is beginning to freeze, with the Lutheran Cathedral and the Sky Wheel visible in the background. Photo: Tim Bird

A dog dressed in cloth boots and a pink jacket stands on a snowy sidewalk.

Maybe Helsinki dogs have been getting some extra exercise during the pandemic period. They are often as well prepared for the weather as their owners. Photo: Tim Bird

Two ice hockey players skate past on an outdoor rink.

Winter goes by in a blur, as do these skaters practising their hockey moves at the enormous outdoor rink in Oulunkylä, just north of Helsinki. Photo: Tim Bird

Official disclaimer

Always take care when venturing onto a frozen sea or lake! Conditions can change quickly. Consult with the locals, and if the ice looks too thin or you’re otherwise in doubt, stay on dry land. Our slideshow is completely safe.

By Tim Bird, February 2021