With Finland having just celebrated 100 years of independence in 2017, there has never been a better time to explore the nation’s buzzy capital.
Perched on the edge of the Baltic Sea, the ocean is an integral part of life in Helsinki. The city has a 100-kilometre shoreline and comprises more than 300 islands, connected by an extensive network of ferries. In the warmer months, bring your own picnic lunch or dinner and make the most of the long days of sunlight. On the mainland, Helsinki’s city centre is compact and vibrant, with a good mix of outdoor pursuits and indoor diversions for when the mercury drops – the city is one of the coldest in Europe over winter.
Regardless of the weather, Helsinki steals the show when it comes to contemporary Scandinavian design and dining. From an expansive district uniting the country’s creatives to restaurants and bars serving reindeer carpaccio and cranberry-infused gin, Helsinki is the city that came in from the cold.
See & Explore
Located in Helsinki’s busy Narinkka Square, Kamppi Chapel of Silence offers welcome – and unexpected – respite from the noise of the city that surrounds. With its curved wooden façade and warm interior made from thick oiled alder planks, the ecumenical chapel welcomes everyone, irrespective of religion, philosophy or background. Soft lighting filters in during the day, making it a calming place to contemplate your journey.
Originally established in 1873 by the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design – and housed in a stunning space by architect Gustaf Nyström – today’s Design Museum (designmuseum.fi) showcases a dizzying collection of more than 75,000 objects, 45,000 drawings and 125,000 photographs. With a remit that sees it responsible for research and documentation in its field, the space also holds an impressive archive of Finnish designers. Don’t miss Utopia Now – The Story of Finnish Design (until December 2020).
Saunas are a way of life in Finland and there are more than 3.5 million across the country (servicing a population of under 5.5 million). Overlooking the Gulf of Finland, Löyly (loylyhelsinki.fi) offers traditional sauna experiences in a dramatic modern complex resembling rice terraces but crafted from pine. Inside, three wood-heated saunas are carved from black concrete, Scandinavian birch and blackened steel, set beside a spa where you can cool off between sweat sessions. Or, follow the lead of locals and jump directly into the icy sea.
A good way to tick off Helsinki’s major attractions in a short amount of time is on a private outing with Paulos Tours (paulostours.com). You’ll travel around the capital in a luxury car, taking in sights such as Sibelius Monument, dedicated to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius; spaceship-like Temppeliaukio Church, carved out of the stony ground; and Uspenski Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox church known for its turquoise turrets. You can then hop on a boat and cruise around the city’s waterways, visiting summer cottages, saunas and the beautiful Suomenlinna sea fortress.
A Night on the Town
Evening entertainment ranges from Bar Bäkkäri (npg.fi) for live music and stand-up comedy to the Finnish National Opera House (oopperabaletti.fi), a dramatic all-white building that hosts ballet and opera six days a week. The Finnish National Opera and Ballet will debut The Land of Kalevala here on November 3 as part of the country’s centenary celebrations. For something more contemporary, make a beeline for the Cable Factory (kaapelitehdas.fi), the biggest and most diverse cultural centre in Finland. The space is home to three museums, 12 galleries, multiple theatres and an art school – it’s a popular place for concerts, festivals and fairs, year round.
Helsinki holds its own among the heavy hitters of Scandinavia’s Nordic design belt thanks, in part, to a 2005 initiative that saw the country’s top creatives join forces to promote their mutual talents. The resulting Design District (designdistrict.fi) is a stunning showcase of Finnish finesse, encompassing a network of 25 streets and 220 designers. Among the highlights are Lokal, a concept store that is part homewares haven and part art gallery; the Minna Parikka shoe boutique, stocked with her signature glittered “rabbit’s ear” sneakers; and iconic Marimekko, known for its bold patterns emblazoned on everything from handbags to umbrellas.
Old Market Hall
The waterside Old Market Hall has served customers since 1889, but thanks to a recent makeover it’s as fresh as ever. Stalls here sell everything from cheese and smoked meats to fish, vegetables, cakes and spices. There are a number of cafes and bars throughout so you can pause between delis and sample karjalanpiirakka (rice porridge baked in a thin rye crust) or korvapuusti (cinnamon buns).
Legendary Finnish ceramics company Arabia (arabia.fi) has been manufacturing products since 1873. The district it calls home is named after the brand, and comprises an upmarket design mall, with several intriguing shops, as well as the Arabia Museo, telling the brand’s history.
Eat & Drink
Karl Fazer Café
Begin your day on the right note at the historic Karl Fazer Café (fazer.fi). Founded in 1891, the café’s striking art-deco façade gives way to a cavernous dining room where you can fortify yourself with freshly baked breads, pastries and chocolates.
Johan & Nyström
Another popular early morning haunt is Johan & Nyström (johanochnystrom.fi), where the baristas take their coffee very seriously. The café’s various stations highlight different brewing methods, from aeropress to siphon and pour over, using sustainably sourced beans. Pair your coffee with a ham-and-pickle sandwich or bircher muesli with coconut and pineapple.
Three of Helsinki’s most experienced and passionate restaurateurs are behind Vinkkeli (ravintolavinkkeli.fi). All dark wood and starched linen, the space is dedicated to seasonal, local fare, which might mean an entrée of marinated Baltic herring with tartar sauce, followed by a main of poached perch with egg and spinach. The wine list is excellent, with rare and boutique bottles providing the perfect accompaniment.
The menu at the intimate Kuurna (kuurna.fi), with space for just 20 diners, changes every other week. Regardless of when you visit, you’re guaranteed modern Finnish food that celebrates local ingredients. The menu lists just three entrees, mains and desserts: think, roasted eggplant with hazelnut and emmer wheat tabouleh, or cold smoked pike atop malt bread with an egg yolk crème. It’s steps from Helsinki’s waterfront where the beautiful 1868 Uspenski Cathedral shines brightly at night.
Trillby & Chadwick Detective Agency
If you don’t find Trillby & Chadwick Detective Agency (trillbychadwick.fi) right away, you’re not alone. The speakeasy has no sign, just big doors on Katariinankatu Street that open to a telephone booth. Place a call and bartenders will let you in to the dimly lit space, where you can sink into velvet sofas and listen to jazz. The drinks menu is not for the faint hearted, with each cocktail garnering a full-page description detailing its history and prominent flavours – try the gimlet made using Old English gin.
If you’re planning on spending a lot of your time in the Design District, drop your bags off at Hotel Indigo (helsinki-boulevard.hotelindigo.com), a playful introduction to the precinct. The boutique hotel’s lobby showcases creations by local designers, while the rooms are decorated with whimsical art and artefacts complemented by spa-style bathrooms.
GLO Hotel Art
Also in the Design District is GLO Hotel Art (glohotels.fi), occupying a century-old castle. Despite the historic building, GLO’s rooms are the epitome of contemporary Scandi design – high-gloss polished floorboards, beds that appear to float above the ground, luxe faux fur throws and leather bedheads. Don’t miss out on a meal in GLO Art Kitchen, where Nordic-inspired fare is served up in the castle’s atmospheric cellar.
Equally quirky is Klaus K (klauskhotel.com), where rooms come categorised by emotion: depending on how you feel, you can choose between Passion, Desire, Envy or Mystical, with the concept inspired by a 19th century work of epic poetry by Elias Lönnrot. There are also a series of Sky studios and suites – the latter include flourishes like egg-shaped beds, bespoke lighting and private balconies – and “special rooms”, such as the Movie Room with private cinema, or the eye-popping Art Suite, covered in larger-than-life cartoons by local artist Katja Tukiainen.
Sister to GLO, but a lot heavier on the glitz, is Hotel Kamp (hotelkamp.com), a landmark in the Finnish capital since 1887. Set on the north side of Esplanadi Park, a green strip bordering an avenue of upscale boutiques, the property is all marble floors, gilded mirrors and silk throws, interspersed with Finnish contemporary graphic art. In keeping with tradition, there are three saunas and a fabulous bar that spills out onto the pavement terrace in summer.