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Some thoughts from a United frequent flyer.

United Mileage Plus Card

United Mileage Plus Card

This year has been especially busy for me, both personally and professionally, so I haven’t had time to write at all. As of today, June 30, I have flown more than 100,000 miles on United – and some more on other airlines, but not much.

While I was away earlier this month, United announced more changes to its popular Mileage Plus frequent flyer program. I have been a member since the 80s when the program first launched. I was a child back then, but was still excited at the idea of becoming a member of an airline I loved. I accrued every single mile that I had flown, and a few years ago, I hit the 1 million mark on United, and now am at just over 1.7 million lifetime United miles. I’ve been a 1K (100,000 mile) flyer for quite a few years in a row. You can say as both a leisure and business traveler, I have stayed loyal to United.

United was known for its service in the early days of “The Friendly Skies”. I remembered the smiles of flight attendants as I boarded planes, and just getting wonderful service. So even as other airlines had upped their service, had more comfortable seats, personal entertainment systems, lie-flat seats, or even newer planes – I stayed with United. One of those reasons was the frequent flyer program.

In recent years, especially after the United-Continental merger, things have begun to change. One change that affected elite flyers is the change in boarding process. All elites, with exception to Global Services, are now “lumped” into Group 1. I am finding myself in a long line of folks trying to board these days, especially on full flights. The “Premier 1K” that is on my boarding pass no longer means anything at the airport.

Over the past few years, Mileage Plus has implemented several significant changes that has affected the program, as follows:

Of course, the last draw came just earlier this month, when United announced that it will significantly reduce the number of miles you will earn when traveling on United. A 1K like me will get 11 miles per dollar spent, minus taxes – all of the elite bonuses will now go away. So a $650 ticket (minus taxes) spent for a 5,408 mile trip to Boston (obviously a pretty high fare) used to earn me 10,816 miles, now it will earn me 7,150. That is a 33.89% reduction. Supposed you paid only $300 for that same ticket, it will now earn me just 3,300 miles, which is a 69.49% reduction in miles. Don’t forget, this is the best-case scenario as I am a 1K.

This article by The Points Guy summed it all up pretty well – you’re definitely hosed. Oh yes, they did announce “new and exciting ways” to redeem your miles for free bags and Economy Plus seating (really?)… oh wait, that was a lame marketing spin. I really wouldn’t want to be in their Marketing/PR department right now.

So what does being a 1K really give you these days on United?

  • 6 Global Upgrades – but you will need to buy at a higher fare for a chance at getting the upgrades. These days the chances are pretty low.
  • No Fees for Changing Mileage Tickets – this is still a good one.
  • More Award Availability – yes, another good one.
  • Free Bags – seriously, many frequent flyers still do carry-on. not a great benefit.
  • Economy Plus Seating – okay this is a good one.

That’s really it. You no longer get better chances at scoring an “unlimited upgrade” – as there is now a complicated set of rules on fare purchased and elite status – without any transparency – so you’re basically screwed. You no longer get priority boarding, because you are now standing in a long line of 1Ks, Premier Platinums and First/Business class passengers. It used to be that Global Services and 1Ks actually boarded before first and business class.  Yes, I am biased because I earned the highest tier possible, minus the mysterious and complicated tier that is Global Services.

So what is really next for United? I really don’t know. When a program keeps changing its rules from year to year, it begins to lose passenger trust that the program will stay “as-is” for the foreseeable future. Because when we all sign-up for a program, that’s the expectation right? You wouldn’t sign up for a program that continues to devalue your benefits year after year, would you?

I did try to have a conversation on Twitter with @united.  However, they can only give me the canned response of “We’ll still have the best award availability & Premier status qualifications won’t change”.  Well, with less miles to redeem for awards, I am sure your availability will open up in the long term – then they will begin to cut availability to maintain a certain percentage as there will be less people redeeming down the road.

I am really hoping that another airline can step up and be different.  I had hoped that airline would be American, but they don’t offer many routes to Asia, so that makes things a bit difficult for me.  I am going to look at other airlines’ programs within Star Alliance and figure things out before December 31.

European Christmas Markets: Geneva

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This was the last stop for my trip, and it’s really to see a good friend of mine on my way home. Geneva to me is just a little (rich) town that’s basically stayed the same from the first time I went almost 20 years ago. The only thing I noticed is that Cornavin train station is finally getting a facelift – and those floors were slippery! The Chinese restaurant I dined at almost 20 years ago is still there. So are the many hotels, and all of the neon signage above buildings along Lake Geneva.

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It was Sunday and everything was closed. Well, I would say 99% of the shops and restaurants. Since I’ve been to the city many times, I’ve been to all of the touristy spots. I still walked around town quite a bit, from my hotel by Cornavin all the way into Old Town Geneva, and finally decided that I was going to take advantage of the free “Geneva Transport Card” that’s offered to all visitors – because public transport is just outrageously expensive. I decided to take line 12 all the way to Moillesulaz, on the Swiss-French border. It’s just one of the silly things I do whenever I have the opportunity. The tram only took 16 minutes from city center and I was at the end of the line at Moillesulaz. A big since that said “FRANCE” with a big arrow pointed at France, and people just walked over. After a little hesitation I did the same. There were more cafes and restaurants open, but nothing interesting. So I came back to Switzerland.

This is exactly when my friend pinged me and we ended up meeting by the lakeside and caught up.

It was sunset time so we took some great photos. It was just a beautiful day and you could see Mont-Blanc so why not?

As for Christmas markets, there’s not really much to speak of except a few stalls right by Cornavin train station. Even the lights were not that exactly exciting. But Geneva still has its lakeside charm that continues to be unique.

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European Christmas Markets: Vienna

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I have to apologize in advance for the number of photos in this post. I remember when I visited Vienna for the first time in the summer of 2001, I was so fascinated with the city’s architecture that I took about 400 photos a day with my digital camera (2MP!). This time around, I made good use of my DSLR camera with a nice wide angle lens trying to capture the beauty of this city in wintertime.

A visit to Vienna should probably start on the Ringstraße, which is a circular ring surrounding the Innere Stadt (old town). Many of Vienna’s most important buildings are all along the Ringstraße, including the famous opera house, Parliament building, city hall and more. City hall also hosts the largest Christmas market in the city center, the other is at Schönbrunn Palace, which is only a short subway ride from city center.

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Because the weather was freezing cold – and it snowed a few times with heavy winds – I had to make a stop at Cafe Landtmann to get myself something to drink and experience the Viennese coffee culture. It is said that Landtmann started the coffee culture back when it opened in 1873.

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Finally I arrived at city hall (which is really diagonally across the street from the cafe). Because it was still early, there weren’t too many people, so I had a chance to walk around a bit. There are many stands along with children’s play areas. My plan was to come back in the evening to take some photos when the lights are illuminated.

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So I took the subway out to Schönbrunn Palace, and the market there was just packed with locals and visitors alike. There was a giant Christmas tree just in front of the palace; Christmas flair was in the air. When sunset came around 4:30 in the afternoon, the lights of the palace was lit and the markets were in full swing. I actually headed to the back of the palace to get away from the crowds, and take a few more photos of the gardens in the dark with my tripod. It was still very windy and cold… but nevertheless I was happy with the results.

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I returned to city hall to find LOTS of people everywhere. People braved the cold weather (or it’s really just me as I am from California) to come and enjoy a fun night out. It was Friday night and you can’t go wrong with some Glühwein (hot wine) or Punsch (punch) – you just can’t.

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The next day was just spent wandering the city, starting with the Saturday flea market at Naschmarkt, the largest market in the city. It was still a very windy day (it wasn’t til later in the evening that I was told that Vienna in general is very windy due to the fact it’s flatland). People were selling all kinds of stuff, but mostly clothes and porcelainware.

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I then kept walking north toward Neubau, a more trendy district with design shops and more. It also includes the Mariahilfer Straße, which is a major shopping street in Vienna. There were also other smaller Christmas markets along the side streets, and they too were full of people. Very cool stuff. I definitely want to spend more time in this part of the city next time.

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Oh yes, I had to mention that I also visited the Kunst Haus Wien (or Hundertwasserhaus). I really just went to take photos of the outside as I’ve visited the building last time I was in Vienna. Just had to take some photos with my wide angle lens. Sounds silly I know, but it’s a must.

Well, it’s time to say Auf Wiedersehen. Off to the airport in about ten minutes to the final destination on this trip: Geneva.

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European Christmas Markets: Salzburg

I arrived in Salzburg wanting to experience the city during Christmastime, including its 40 year-old Christmas Market, mostly held in the Old Town area. The difference between this one and the one in Strasbourg is that the patrons are mostly tourists, which also means there are more people in Salzburg than in Strasbourg.

So the market itself may feel more touristy, the Christmas feeling is very much in the air with outdoor concerts and other events around town. Of course there are the illumination and seasonal decorations around town.

While in town I also got to experience Krampusnacht, where Saint Nicholas and his evil counterpart Krampus roams around town to reward good children with candy (Krampus is supposed to take kids away but of course they won’t do that). It’s apparently a Habsburg tradition that was passed down.

The best thing about the city though is the view of the Old Town and the Salzach River that runs through it, especially at sunset. Just that is worth the trip. Enjoy the photos!

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European Christmas Markets: Strasbourg

Strasbourg started its first Christmas markets in 1570 in front of its Cathedral, and is home to one of the largest Christmas markets in Europe with nearly 300 stalls all over town. I remember reading an article about the Strasbourg Christmas markets (called “Christkindelsmärik” also “Marché de Noël” in French) I had the silly idea of doing a grand tour of the “best of” in Europe, with Strasbourg as the official first stop as it is self-named the “Capital of Christmas”.

Getting here was an interesting challenge. There are high-speed trains from Paris to Strasbourg, making the trip under three hours. In addition Strasbourg also has an airport, so flying there is also a possibility – but flights are not as frequent. Luckily I was able to buy a plane ticket that took me to Strasbourg, making the cost minimal – and with a stopover in Brussels (if you haven’t read the previous post that is).

My first impression was that the city center is very small; you could walk all over city center without the need for public transportation. Many pedestrian zones around city center also make walking very easy. For Christmas, there main markets are around Place Kléber, Place Broglie and then the Cathedral. There is also a huge fir tree at Place Kléber that draws crowds. Many of the city streets and buildings are also illuminated during Christmastime, bringing Christmas magic to its visitors.

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European Christmas Markets: Transit in Belgium

Visiting Christmas markets has been on my travel checklist for a while, but I never had the time to make that a reality. A month ago I saw a great fare too good to pass up, and I bought the ticket without much thinking. I needed a real break – alone – and this was going to be it.

My main destination was going to be Strasbourg, France – where the largest Christmas market in Europe started since 1570. I then added Salzburg and Vienna to the equation and my general itinerary was complete.

In getting to Strasbourg, the airline gave me a bizarre routing which required me to stay in Brussels for 21 hours. Since I had a friend in the city, I was very happy to take the option (and it was a cheaper way to get to Strasbourg for that matter). I was told that there’s also a Christmas market in Brussels, so it would be a nice addition to my trip.

After arriving, my friend said that it would be better if we visited Ghent, which is the third-largest city in Belgium. So here are some photos from Ghent. Since it’s in Flanders, Dutch influences are the norm in the architecture.

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After a nice dinner in Ghent, we were back in Brussels, but this time to check out the Christmas decorations at the Grand Palace and walk the local Christmas market. Unfortunately for me the markets were already closed by the time we got there – but we were still able to find a stand which offered the hot wine called Glühwein as a part of the Belgian holiday celebration.

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In a few hours, I’m off to Strasbourg!

10 Days in Europe: Eating and Shopping Around Milan

After two days in London came the main event: the Salone del Mobile (Milan Furniture Fair) in Milan. This is something that I’ve been doing nearly every April for the last 7 years. For one week, over 300,000 people descend upon the city of Milan for one thing: design. These people include designers, architects, buyers, sellers and students. The whole city turns into one big exhibition of design in all aspects; it’s impossible to see everything, but I still try.

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I got here a day before the press preview just to give myself a little break and get settled. It also happened to be the day of the Milan Marathon, so the area around the Duomo was closed to traffic.

Upon checking in to the hotel, one of the first things I did was to buy some gelato at GROM, which was just down the street. So the eating begins…

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Then it’s the Gucci Cafe nearby at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Didn’t really know what to order, but didn’t just want order something plain like an espresso, so I asked about this thing called the “espresso shakerato” and they said it was good. So I ordered it, and it turned out to be cold coffee drink in a champagne glass. And it was YUM. The two pieces of Gucci chocolate was also a nice touch, along with the people watching of course.

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Of course, you can’t say you’ve been to Milan if you didn’t shop (or window shop), so I headed for 10 Corso Como, one of the coolest shops in town. It’s a “curated” shop of fashion, music, books and food all located inside rooms inside a courtyard. Oh yes, there’s even a hotel called 3 Rooms – because it really has only 3 rooms/suites.

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In addition to the main shop on Corso Como, there is also an outlet not too far away by Garibaldi Station, located at the end of a bizarre street. If you look hard enough you may find some bargains, sometime at 40% off retail. For me, the outlets around Milan are much better. That’s coming in the next post.

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After all of the walking, it was finally time for dinner. I had made reservations at a restaurant called Erba Brusca, which is headed by chef Alice Delcourt, who was born in France to a British mother and a French father, but has been in Italy for some time. The restaurant is actually located at the southern edge of the city, but you can still get to it via the metro (MM2 Abbiategrasso), and then with a 15-20 minute walk to the Naviglio Pavese, and you’ll see the restaurant.

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The food. What can I say about the food? It was delicious. Alice came out to explain the Italian menu in English – nearly item by item. We had come across a vegetable called “agretti” and had absolutely no clue what it was, so she brought some out for some sampling :) They actually do grow their own herbs and some vegetables right behind the restaurant.

Okay, enough of the talking, so here are some photos of the wonderful food.

Agretti Saltati
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Pizzoccheri
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Risotto con Foie Gras
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Pollo di Moncucco
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Tarte Tatin
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The walk back to the train station was a great way to get some after-dinner exercise before bed, ready for tomorrow’s trek to the outlet.

Here’s the Piazza del Duomo at night, along with the near-empty interior of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

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10 Days in Europe: London Weekend

It’s April yet again, and I was off to the Salone del Mobile in Milan (aka Milan Furniture Fair). Instead of diving myself directly into the craziness of the furniture show in Milan with 300,000 attendees, I decided to start off with a weekend in London to see some friends and just hang out.

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As we all know, London is not a cheap town. In looking up reasonable accommodations, I wasn’t able to find a reasonable hotel these days for around £100 (US$150) a night like I did before the London Olympics. So I ventured out to sites like Airbnb and Housetrip and found a studio apartment in Marylebone for $165/night (plus cleaning fees). The Marylebone area is a quiet residential area just a few blocks north of busy Oxford Street with its own High Street full of nice shops and restaurants and cafes. Personally I think it’s a nice London hideaway. The Monocle store nearby (and the recently opened cafe) is a nice touch too.

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So the studio was not a big one. It’s got a good sized bed on a platform, a small kitchen with a dining table, and a bathroom with a shower. The basement location is not ideal, but it works. The studio owner even provided a welcome bottle of wine, which was a nice touch.

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Since I’ve been to London several times, the day was spent roaming around town buying tea from Fortnum & Mason, and visiting Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge. It wasn’t until evening that I met up with my friend Mel in Soho and went to a pretty cool bar that served drinks in a teapot before walking all the way back to Marylebone.

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The next day was yet another relaxing one, without much in mind. In the morning I visited the renovated Kings Cross station, complete with the famous Platform 9 3/4 of Harry Potter fame. The was a long line of people waiting to take photos with the luggage cart, and complete with a fully stocked store next door where you can purchase the photo and much more.

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The afternoon was used to take in a show – The Book of Mormon. This was a popular show on Broadway, co-written by the creators of South Park and Avenue Q. Amazingly entertaining with lots of laughs. For me, it was way overdue. Believe it or not, it was actually cheaper to watch it in London than in New York.

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Then it was more window shopping back in Marylebone at The Conran Shop. Love this place. You can find some of the finest designs here, including my favorite Fritz Hansen pieces.

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Finally, it’s time for dinner. This time crossing the River Thames down to Brixton Village for dinner at the Brixton Village Grill’d, which serves Spanish cuisine. This place had one of the spiciest sauces for everything. I was so stuffed walking out of the restaurant.

Well, that’s it for London!

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Mini-weekend in Europe: 48 Hours in Helsinki, Day 2

Day 2: Marimekko, Ruokala Lokki and the Aalto Cafe

A few quick days really goes by fast, I was already on the last day of my mini-weekend getaway. This morning, I was off to the Helsinki suburb of Herttoniemi to visit the corporate headquarters for Marimekko, a well-known Finnish design company known for its patterned (often colorful) fabrics and housewares. I visited the showrooms which showcased some of the latest as well as upcoming collections, but most importantly the factory. Since the month of July is the time for vacations in Finland, the factory was not in operation, so I got to see a very different side to the operation. As photos were not allowed inside, I’ll post some official photos as provided by Marimekko when the post goes up on DesignsWeLove.

Marimekko store Herttoniemi

After the tour, it was shopping time. The headquarters had its own store as well as an outlet store which opened at 10am. Most people come all the way out here really for the outlet, as many of the items have been heavily discounted. The photos posted here are from the non-outlet portion of the store, as (again) photos were not allowed in the outlet.

Marimekko store Herttoniemi

In trying to fulfill the shopping lists of friends, I ended up in two other stores in Kamppi as well as the flagship store on the Esplanadi before finally heading for lunch. My lunch plan was to visit a restaurant called Kahvila Suomi, which is the setting for the 2006 Japanese film Ruokala Lokki, or Kamome (seagull) Diner. This film definitely had its own following in Japan, as many of the restaurant’s patrons were Japanese. I even overheard one of the Japanese tourists said, “Wow, this is just like Japan (with all of the Japanese people)!)

Kahvila Suomi Restaurant - Ruokala Lokki

Kahvila Suomi Restaurant - Ruokala Lokki

The food was not too bad. For 9 Euros I got a salad, a drink and a main dish – fried fish in my case – and with a side of French fries. On top of that, for 1,80 Euro I purchased the cinnamon bun that was featured in the film. I ate well, but deep inside I was expecting something special, but didn’t get that. It was just a nice way to spend some time indoors on a rainy day.

Kahvila Suomi Restaurant - Ruokala Lokki

Interestingly enough, the skies began to clear up as I walked out of the restaurant. I just walked and walked as I normally would do in a city these days; I don’t necessarily have to have a destination – ’cause with that you may experience a different side of the city. Well, I wandered a bit and I was inside the Academic Bookstore and ran into the Aalto Cafe, named after the famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who also designed the interior of the cafe. I ordered the mango ice cream with lingonberries and caramel on top – and with whipped cream. I coupled it with a nice hot cup of cappuccino to balance things out.

Cafe Aalto

Cafe Aalto

It seems my day was basically shopping and eating, right? Well, there’s one more. Dinner.

I searched and searched for a place to eat for dinner but couldn’t find anything for an hour. Many of the restaurants are closed for midsummer holidays. My original choice for dinner was Eat&Joy, a place I saw on the NY Times feature for Helsinki. They were closed too, so I ended up at the Central Railway Station for hot dogs. Yep. That’s what I ended up with. The first photo is Eat&Joy, and the second you can figure out.

Helsinki Eat and Joy

Hot Dogs

Of course, you can’t leave Helsinki without having dessert at Kappeli Cafe. So I got myself a Kappeli’s Cake and a cappuccino to finish the evening on a good note. And it’s still bright at 10pm.

Kappeli Exterior

Kappeli Cake

Until next time, Helsinki. I hope it won’t be another ten years til I meet you again.

Mini-weekend in Europe: 48 Hours in Helsinki, Day 1

After a two-and-a-half hour flight from London Heathrow, I arrived in Helsinki just before midnight, in time to see the sunset from the air. After all, it is summer in the Nordic countries. A short 25-minute bus ride later, I arrived at the Helsinki Central Station and walked straight to my hotel, the Hotel Rivoli Jardin. This is a family-run hotel in the heart of Helsinki. The room was very comfortable.

Hotel Rivoli Jardin Helsinki

Day 1: World Design Capital, Museums and Aimless City Walks

The next morning I headed for the Pavilion, which is the center of events for the World Design Capital 2012 Helsinki. The Pavilion, designed at Aalto University’s Wood Program, is a showcase of Finnish sustainable wood architecture.

Pavilion Signage

Pavilion Building

Below is a time lapse video on the construction of the structure.

The Pavilion itself is very open, with a theatre area for talks. A list of daily events is posted outside.

Pavilion Events

Pavilion Interior

Since I woke up late and missed the free hotel breakfast, I ended up ordering some fried herring with a cappuccino to get me started for the day.

Pavilion Lunch

Since the Pavilion was in between the Designmuseo and the Museum of Finnish Architecture, I decided to visit them first. The Finnish design exhibition “Finnish Form” at the Designmuseo was fascinating, showcasing Finnish design history from the 19th century to today. Who knew these Fiskars scissors I use today were of Finnish design?

Helsinki Cathedral

I then took a little detour and walked to the Helsinki Cathedral, then onto the Aleksanterinkatu, which is a main shopping street in the city, and around to the Central Railway Station.

Aleksanterinkatu

Helsinki Central Railway Station

My main destination is actually the Kampin Kapelli, which is also known as the Chapel of Silence, an example of timber architecture built via sustainable construction materials and methods as part of the World Design Capital 2012 program.

Kampin Kapelli Chapel of Silence

Kampin Kapelli Chapel of Silence

Kampin Kapelli Chapel of Silence

I then headed across the busy street to the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. I first visited this museum over ten years ago, but the museum is just as modern today as it was then.

Kiasma Outside

Kiasma Interior

There was a Finnish comic exhibition going on, and this was one of the displays with comic strips below the huge mural.

Kiasma Comic Exhibition

There were also installations throughout the museum. This particular one was for the Occupy Movement.

Kiasma Installations

I thought this one was just a nice photo with the lighting…

Kiasma Installations

Well, there’s more. I figured since it wasn’t raining, I’d go visit the Rock Church (Temppeliaukion kirkko), which is a church built from the granite rock that is on site. The copper top design also brings in natural lighting into the church, which is a wonderful sight when inside the church.

Rock Church Helsinki

Rock Church Helsinki

Rock Church Helsinki

I continued to stay within the center of the city, walking to the back of the Kiasma (check out the building!), then to the newly opened Helsinki Music Center (Musikkittalo), which was unveiled last year at a cost of 189 million Euros. I wanted to check out a performance but unfortunately there was nothing on the calendar. Maybe next time.

Kiasma Back

Musikkitalo

Musikkitalo Interior

Definitely a lot for one day, don’t you think?