By Rick Steves
Side-tripping from Stockholm? Think big...think Helsinki. For a luxurious yet affordable day trip, sail overnight from Stockholm, enjoy a day in Helsinki, and return to Stockholm the next evening.
Europe's most scenic cruise starts in Stockholm with lush archipelago scenery, a setting sun, and a royal smörgåsbord dinner. Spend the night dancing, gambling, baking in the sauna, and shopping with duty-free-crazy Finns and Swedes. After breakfast, the ship docks and it's "Hello, Helsinki."
Finland's capital, graced with stately architecture, is a colorful shopping town. Upon arrival, grab a seat on the daily bus tour that meets you at the dock. You'll get a two-hour rapid-fire overview of Finnish history and a quick look at the city's top monuments and churches. After the tour, gather a picnic lunch at the ruddy waterfront market.
For the afternoon you have a number of good choices. You can dive into Finnish culture at the Seurasaari Open-Air Folk Museum. Its collection of 100 historic buildings come from every corner of the country. Or bargain with Balts and Russians at the Hietalahti flea market, Finland's largest. Take a harbor cruise or follow the tourist office brochure on a brisk "do-it-yourself" walking tour.
For maximum window-shopping, people-watching, and sun-worshiping, wander through the Esplanade, the city's top two shopping streets with a park sandwiched in the middle.
Peek inside the prestigious Stockmann's department store — Finland's Harrods. The Esplanade feeds into the city's main intersection, where nearby you'll see the famous Three Blacksmiths statue. (Locals say, "If a virgin walks by, they'll strike the anvil." It doesn't work. I tried.)
Helsinki's churches are among the city's highlights. The Russian Orthodox Cathedral hovers above Market Square, eyeing the Lutheran Cathedral as warily as Russian culture eyes Europe's. The Lutheran Cathedral, with its prominent green dome and pristine interior, is neoclassical architecture at its best. Several blocks away, the Rock Church, blasted out of stone and capped by a copper and glass dome, is filled with music and awe-struck visitors.
Faced with plentiful sights and only a day, you have just one mandatory stop: the harborside Café Kappeli, a 19th-century oasis of coffee, pastry, and relaxation. Savor a cup here before boarding time. After you set sail for Stockholm, settle down to another smörgåsbord dinner. Budget travel rarely feels this good.