Dawn Gibson island hops and design shops her way around the Finnish capital, enthralled by its art nouveau architecture, sensational cuisine and natural charms.
The finest of Europe’s small cities possess an enviable style that gets lost in a bigger metropolis: a core of proud individuality married with community developed over centuries, a shared history, a sense of space and place. Helsinki is an exemplary example, a quintessential melding of glorious architecture, world-beating design, incredibly innovative home-grown cuisine, stellar shopping, saunas and sea, superb green spaces and diverse night life. Yet Helsinki remains largely unexplored by many a cultured traveller. This is to the benefit of those who go, for instead of ploughing through the masses on yet another summer sojourn, visitors to the Finnish capital can relax in a city popular enough to buzz without being so crowded that it heaves. And, of course, there are the legendary white nights – being one of the most northerly European capitals, Helsinki glories in some of the longest summer days on the planet, with up to 19 hours of daylight, which makes it perfect for partying into the wee hours and enjoying the many waterfront venues.
Perched on a peninsula on Finland’s south coast, facing the Baltic Sea, Helsinki has a reputation for being a bit overlooked. While its roots are ancient – people were using the area for fishing and hunting in the Iron Age – the city has through history been at the mercy of regional superpowers due to Finland being wedged between Sweden to the west and Russia to the east. The Swedes colonised the coastline of the region in the late 13th-century. King Gustav I of Sweden established the trading town of Helsingfors (Helsinki) in 1550, and it and the rest of country remained part of the then mighty Kingdom of Sweden until Russia annexed Finland and made it an autonomous part of the Russian Empire in 1809. Emperor Alexander I of Russia moved the Finnish capital from Turku to Helsinki in 1812 to bring it closer to Saint Petersburg, laying the foundations for the modern capital. Though the country did not gain its independence until 1917, Finns have resolutely adhered to their own cultural identity throughout the centuries.
Since then, Helsinki has inarguably come into its own. The city is modest by world standards (there are around 1.4 million people in the Greater Helsinki area) but it constantly punches above its weight. Helsinki has one of the highest urban living standards in the world. It has a plethora of world-class galleries and museums, much more than you would expect for a city of its size, as well as the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in Northern Europe and an understandable pride in its innovative design pedigree. In 2012 Helsinki was named the World Design Capital, and in 2014 it was awarded City of Design status as part of the Creative Cities Network established by UNESCO.
The city’s downtown Design District is as intrinsic a part of Helsinki as its love of coffee; Finland is the world’s top consumer of the coffee bean, per capita. The people are friendly and hospitable, often impeccably fluent in English in addition to the national languages of Finnish and Swedish, with possibly one or two other languages thrown in for good measure. The city centre is small enough that you can have a good sense of your surrounds in a couple of days, and is well set up for walking – though, if you get tired of pounding the shoe leather, it boasts one of the best public transportation systems in the world, including classic trams and a speedy metro. Bicycles are also available to hire for a very affordable €10 per week.
The Cultured Traveller flew to Helsinki on its national flag carrier Finnair, which prides itself on its short-cut routes between Europe and Asia (www.finnair.com). Helsinki Airport is in Vantaa, a 30 – 40-minute trip from the city centre by car. A cab from the airport will cost you around €50, while cheaper options include shared fixed price for less than half that, one-way (www.airporttaxi.fi/en).
Once you’re ready to explore, a perfect place to start is the green heart of the city, Esplanadi. Colloquially known as Espa, this tree-lined continental-style promenade is an obvious socialising and people-watching spot. In the warmer months it comes alive with gourmet ice cream vendors, smartly dressed locals lounging on the grass, buskers and market-style stalls. Designed by Helsinki’s principle architect Carl Ludvig Engel in the early 19th-century, Esplanadi contains one of the city’s most historic restaurants, Kappeli, built in 1867, and Espa Stage which hosts around 200 artists and groups from May through August. The promenade is surrounded by high-end international and Finnish stores, such as Louis Vuitton, world-renowned Finnish glass and tableware company Iittala and prominent textile house Finlayson, as well as upmarket cafés, restaurants and five-star Hotel Kämp.
Wander to the coastal end of Esplanadi and you’ll find yourself at Market Square, a year-round outdoor market on South Harbour which sells a wonderful array of hand-crafted items. In contrast to the mass-produced rubbish that has become ubiquitous to many markets, Market Square is still somewhere you can talk to the craftsmen and women who have fashioned your keepsake, be it an exquisite piece of silver jewellery, hand-knitted winter woollies or Christmas tree decorations. Here you can haggle over genuine reindeer furs and sample no nonsense, strong Finnish coffee.
Continue along the harbour and you will soon reach Helsinki’s 40-metre SkyWheel, which offers panoramic views over the city, sea and the surrounding islands (www.skywheel.fi/en). A novel way to ride this Ferris wheel is to book the SkySauna – the only one of its kind in the world. Being game to try anything once, The Cultured Traveller gave it a whirl: the idea is to stay in the heated wood-lined carriage for several rotations, before relaxing in a massaging hot tub in your own private lounge on terra firma (www.skysauna.fi/en). Next door is Allas Sea Pool, featuring a seawater pool and a warm water pool as well as saunas (www.allasseapool.fi/en). Heading away from the water for a moment, another of the city’s popular attractions is Linnanmäki amusement park. Located 20 minutes north of the centre, the park features a great selection of rides for thrill-seekers, including seven roller-coasters, three tower rides, and a classic river rapids ride. Don’t miss riding the original 1951 wooden rollercoaster, one of the first permanent rides to be built in the park (www.linnanmaki.fi/en).
Returning to South Harbour, take a ride of a different kind on a ferry or pleasure cruise to one of Helsinki’s numerous islands – the long coastline has more than 300, many of which are accessible for recreational use. As well as the UNESCO world heritage site and former fortress of Suomenlinna, there are plenty of smaller islands that feature sea-view restaurants and saunas. The Cultured Traveller’s evening ferry ride to Lonna Island was an idyllic experience, and we dined al fresco on local seafood and in-season vegetables under a magical blue and pink sky. Though we were content just to sit and enjoy the serenity after our meal, there were deluxe sauna facilities mere metres away, if we were so inclined (www.lonna.fi/en).
To further explore the serene waters around Helsinki, the 1½-hour sightseeing cruise operated by CityTour is highly recommended. The spacious, modern boat complete with restaurant and bar journeys around Suomenlinna and along the picturesque harbour front, past formidable looking icebreakers, traditional sailing ships and international cruise liners. A combined boat and bus hop-on hop-off ticket costs €35 for a day (www.citytour.fi).
Head inland to get a feel for Helsinki’s urban culture, as well as its international reputation for ground-breaking design. A couple of tips: Firstly, one of the best ways to appreciate the gorgeous streetscapes is to take a guided walking tour – Helsinki Marketing organises a diverse range, from a free walk around the main sights, to a Design Walk, a Finnish Food Walk and tailor-made itineraries. You may think this isn’t necessary in such an easily navigable city, but (echoing Finnish design) there is much detail to be seen that is not immediately obvious. Exquisite art nouveau streetscapes, houses that look like castles, animal sculptures imbedded in buildings, hidden courtyards and a wooden door intricately carved with the face of a wind god are just some of the treasures that you’ll see on a guided tour. Helsinki Marketing’s website is a superb resource for planning your visit to the Finnish capital www.myhelsinki.fi/en. Secondly, buy a Helsinki Card for free entry to most of the city’s galleries and museums (each of which typically charges €10), free sightseeing tours, free public transport and discounts to restaurants, shops and attractions (www.helsinkicard.com).
If Esplanadi is Helsinki’s heart, then the Design District is almost certainly its soul. Finnish design is increasingly being recognised worldwide for its sweet combination of beauty, functionality and sustainability. The Design District incorporates this in both ‘a neighbourhood and a state of mind’, encompassing twenty-five inner-city streets and two hundred creative businesses, from cutting-edge boutiques, pop-ups, artists’ studios, vintage shops and pocket galleries, to restaurants serving organic fare and achingly hip boutique hotels. At a time when many big cities are lamenting the demise of funky independent retailers due to the seemingly unstoppable march of international chains, Helsinki is doing the complete opposite. Iconic Finnish brands (such as modernist furniture pioneer Artek and fashion house Marimekko) rub shoulders with start-ups and the next big things. Head for Artisaani, LOKAL and Softrend for home décor and textiles; the Pure Waste Concept Store and Vietto for ecologically-sound clothing, and Galleria Mafka & Alakoski for contemporary local glass wear (www.designdistrict.fi). The district (which encompasses four neighbourhoods) also embraces the Design Museum and the Museum of Finnish Architecture. In addition, Helsinki Design Week is held every September. The largest festival of its kind in the Nordics, this year’s highlights include a market, live DJs, exhibitions and workshops (www.helsinkidesignweek.com).
After browsing the Design District, it’s time to appreciate the aesthetics of Helsinki’s architecture. Even to the untutored eye, is not hard to see why it is so celebrated. Telling the story of the city, the mix of numerous styles somehow work as a harmonious whole, Senate Square being the star turn of Engel’s grand city plan. Presided over by suitably impressive Helsinki Cathedral, the square was finished in 1852 as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, and is flanked by the Government Palace and Helsinki University’s main building. Nearby is the Tori Quarter (Torikorttelit), where neoclassical buildings have been revitalised with modern day amenities and food and beverage venues. The Art Nouveau movement added a new dimension to Helsinki at the start of the 20th-century. Finnish architects added their own spin to the trend by drawing upon influences from nature and Kalevala, an epic 19th-century poetic work considered part of Finland’s national identity. The influence of Art Nouveau came at a pivotal time when the city was being developed and modernised, resulting in picturesque streets of houses that look to have come straight out of a fairytale, complete with turrets, cupolas and gargoyles, especially in Katajanokka and Ullanlinna. Wandering these streets is a photographer’s delight as each building is endearingly unique. Helsinki Central Station is a prominent example of the style; the master work of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, the 1919 building is considered one of the most beautiful railway stations in the world. Next door is what looks like a castle with an eye-catching red roof – it’s actually the Finnish National Theatre, a 1902 art nouveau landmark.
Functionalism and modernism have also stamped their influence on Helsinki. One of Finland’s best-known architects and designers, Alvar Aalto, considered to be the father of Finnish Modernism, was the mind behind Finlandia Hall on Töölönlahti Bay. The sleek white concert hall, with its cathedral-like roof and nature-inspired interiors, was completed in 1971. Also worth visiting is Temppeliaukio Rock Church in Töölö. As the name implies, it is hewn out of solid rock and is crowned with a copper-lined dome. Built in 1969, it is often used for concerts due to its superb acoustics.
The city’s dynamic foodie scene is another attraction for cultured travellers. In line with Helsinki’s design culture, most food-driven venues are typically individual and managed by passionate Finns who deftly combine international trends with home-grown flavours and methods. World-class haute cuisine is available in abundance, but it is largely presented without pretentiousness. The focus on sustainability is key: using local, organic and in-season produce is not a fad here. Seafood is naturally a big focus. And chefs make liberal use of nutrient-rich, flavoursome wild berries, such as lingonberries, cloudberries and sea buckthorn, which are also used to garnish cocktails and spirit-based drinks.
Helsinki provides a constant stream of surprises and delights and enamours at every opportunity. Each nook and cranny of the city is truly worthy of investigation, which cannot be said about many of Europe’s capitals. Cobbled streets yield design stores, fabulous galleries and marvellous architecture. Dining experiences touch and enthral every taste bud. And the waters which surround the city provide a serene and embracing backdrop. If you visit one Nordic city in your lifetime, let it be Helsinki in the summer. You will undoubtedly leave both spoiled and enchanted by its pristine and uncomplicated charms.
Where Sauna is King
Why are the Finns fanatical about getting naked with their friends and family in a heated wooden box? It’s obviously more than the health benefits. The Cultured Traveller explores the importance of saunas to Finnish culture, and where to experience this ancient ritual in 21st century Helsinki.
There are saunas everywhere in Finland: next to lakes, in apartment buildings and office towers, in tiny country cottages and in Parliament, down a mine, on a Ferris wheel, in boats and tents, and even, mind-bogglingly, on bicycles. The president and the prime minister each have an official one. Business deals get made in them, family and friends bond in them, and visitors wonder if they really do have to take off all their clothes first. The short answer is: some you do and some you don’t, but more about that later!
The importance of saunas to Finnish culture cannot be over-estimated. There are about three million in a country of just 5½ million inhabitants. More than there are cars on Finland’s streets. Saunas are to Finns what cups of tea and moaning about the weather are to the English, or apple pie and shiny-eyed patriotism are to the Americans. So, the question has to be asked: why? While saunas are not unique to Finland, they have an ancient history in the country and have long been an integral part of everyday life. The earliest are believed to date back as far as 7000 BC, and the first written reference in Finnish history was in a 12th-century text. So it is undisputed that Finnish people have been willingly sitting in hot wooden boxes for centuries. There are obvious reasons: before hot water was on tap, a sauna was the best place to wash during freezing winters, and it was the most hygienic environment for mothers to give birth. From practical beginnings, saunas have become a place for both relaxation and socialising – having a cold beer or cider afterwards is often part of the ritual, as is roasting sausages.
One of the best things about a Finnish sauna is the diversity. You can go completely old-school with a rustic sauna in the wilderness, pamper yourself at a five-star-resort, or mix in with the locals at a public facility. And public does not necessarily mean basic.
Löyly is one of the new-style, modern public saunas springing up in Helsinki. Wearing swimwear at Löyly is obligatory. Built in a prime position on the city’s waterfront, the architecturally stunning EUR6.5 million complex features public and private saunas, multiple levels of outdoor terraces, a rooftop deck and a restaurant, all beautifully designed to make the most of the breathtaking, sweeping views across the bay. To give visitors a holistic experience, there are three different types of sauna, heated with wood sourced from responsibly managed forests: a continuously heated sauna, one that is heated once a day (but stays warm), and a traditional smoke sauna, the latter being a rarity in an urban setting. Between the saunas there is a spa area plus a relaxation room with a fireplace at its centre. And you can step down into the sea for a swim if the mood takes you. Löyly is open all year round, so if you visit in winter and are feeling brave, you can try the ‘avanto’ – a hole made in the ice for winter swimming, a popular custom in Finland. After having your fill of the saunas, relax in the restaurant with a glass of wine, a coffee or a bite to eat – the organic-themed menu offers local cuisine such as elk meatballs and salmon soup alongside international fare like grilled beef and root vegetable falafels (www.loylyhelsinki.fi).
For a novel experience, try the world’s first sauna in the sky on Helsinki’s SkyWheel. Up to five guests can sweat it out in the unique SkySauna cabin while enjoying breath-taking views of the city, sea and surrounding islands from up to 40 metres in the air. Swimwear is obligatory when using SkySauna. Meanwhile, on terra firma, up to ten people can relax in a huge private hot tub or spread out on the adjoining terrace while they wait for their turn in the sauna in the sky (https://skysauna.fi/en/).
Something of a legend in the Finnish capital, Kotiharjun Sauna has been open since 1928 and is the last traditionally wood-heated public sauna in Helsinki. Being naked is de rigueur here and men and women use separate saunas. Should you wish, hardy washing ladies are available to hand scrub the living daylights out of you. Massage, cupping, manicures and pedicures are also available by prior arrangement. Bring your own drinks and there’s a fridge to chill your beers. You’ll be in the company of friendly, long-time local regulars and other foreigners, and after your sauna you can sit on the street in your towel and enjoy the fresh air. Visit early for a peaceful experience and avoid Fridays and especially Saturdays (www.kotiharjunsauna.fi).
Lastly and for a very different ambience, try Sauna Hermanni in the Helsinki district of the same name. Established in the early 1950s, the facility has been redecorated in keeping with its vintage, and hosts regular discos and parties, as well as barbeques in the summer. Being naked is the norm here (www.saunahermanni.fi). So, once you have decided where to visit, what should you expect? There’s the naked aspect to deal with, of course. The very helpful Official Travel Guide of Finland notes that Finns go nude to the sauna even with strangers, but they understand foreigners have ‘certain inhibitions’ and will be okay with you wearing a swimsuit or a towel (www.visitfinland.com/article/10-sauna-tips-for-beginners). However, in some public saunas, swimsuits may be banned for health and hygiene reasons, so it’s good to research the facility before you go. And while saunas in some countries are a front for spicier businesses, in Finland, it’s a strictly non-sexual environment.
To prepare, have a shower and take a small towel with you to sit on. Typically, the room will be heated to between 70°C and 100°C. A wood-heated sauna usually has a basket of rocks on top of the stove, upon which you throw water to increase the heat and humidity. You may be given a vihta, a bundle of birch twigs to dip in water and softly whip yourself with in order to stimulate circulation and open the pores. Don’t stay inside as if in an endurance contest – follow the lead of the Finns by having several sessions in the hot room, interspaced by periods of cooling down or dips in the sea, before a final shower. Make sure you drink enough water to re-hydrate, and, above all, relax and enjoy.
Wherever you sauna in Helsinki, the experience will undoubtedly be a boost to both your physical and mental health. A sauna stimulates circulation in a similar way as low to moderate exercise. Short-term health benefits may include reduced muscular soreness, ease of arthritic pain, reduction of asthmatic symptoms, improved heart health and reduced stress levels. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Eastern Finland established a positive direct link between sauna visits and memory diseases after following more than 2,300 middle-aged Finnish men for more than twenty years, proving that regular sauna use can help lower the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as well as dying of heart ailments.
Add a beer or two after using a sauna and it is not hard to see why this healthy, quintessentially Finnish custom has endured through the centuries, is still going strong in the present day and is becoming increasingly popular around the world.
By Dawn Gibson
When visiting a city which is well-known for its style, why not stay in designer surroundings? Priding itself for being Finland’s first design hotel, Klaus K is stylish, individual and extremely well-located. Whether you rest your head in a room created in collaboration with a leading Finnish artist, or curl into the comfort of an egg-shaped bed in a Sky Suite, your stay experience at Klaus K will undoubtedly be memorable.
Klaus K is suitably situated on the fringe of Helsinki’s Design District, a trendy inner-city neighbourhood brimming with intriguing shops, galleries and restaurants. It’s very central: a short walk from the harbour and the main attractions. Part of the Kämp Collection which includes 10 luxury hotels in Helsinki, it is also a member of Design Hotels and a partner of Starwood’s preferred guest programme.
The 171-room hotel incorporates two buildings, built in 1882 and 1912 by renowned Finnish architects Frans Sjöström and Lars Sonck respectively. Almost all the property’s furnishings, carpets and artworks were tailormade especially for Klaus K and were inspired by the Kalevala, a dramatic 19th-century work of epic poetry by Elias Lönnrot based on folklore and mythology, which is considered an integral part of Finland’s cultural identity. How the world and universe were created from seven eggs, according to the Kalevala, is woven into everything from the bespoke carpets to the white curved reception desk.
Some of Klaus K’s rooms are individually infused with art in a special way, making staying in one of them a unique experience. The suite fashioned by beloved visual artist Katja Tukiainen – known for her joyful use of colour, especially pink and magenta, and the expressive style of the sympathetic figures she paints – has a giant doll staring down from its wall. Meanwhile, Pro Finlandia medal-winning designer Harri Koskinen has created a minimalist ode to the forest in his quiet and calming Urban Nature room.
Of all Klaus K’s accommodation options, its premium top floor rooms, suites and lofts are the most desirable in the building, and guests staying in these have access to the hotel’s exclusive seventh floor Sky Terrace, which boasts spectacular Mary Poppins-esque views across Helsinki’s roof-tops. The Cultured Traveller stayed in a Sky Balcony room which was sleek, modern and (as the name suggests) boasted its own private balcony. A sumptuous king-size Unikulma bed sat atop an elevated deck, separating the sleeping area from a corner sofa and desk a few steps down.
Onsite eating options include Tuscan-themed restaurant Toscanini and chic Klaus K Bar & Lounge, the latter having a small sidewalk perfect for al fresco dining and people watching.
Staffed by friendly and welcoming people who are attentive without being OTT, Klaus K is the perfect base from which to explore Helsinki and return to for a peaceful night’s sleep in the sky.
By Adrian Gibson
Situated in the middle of a peninsula, adjacent to the port, to the east of the city centre, independently-owned Hotel Katajanokka is just a few minutes-walk from the SkyWheel and Allas Sea Pool, as well as the historic Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, with its thirteen gleaming onion spires, set on a rock overlooking the city.
The area around Hotel Katajanokka is largely residential, and consists of enchanting Jugenstil apartment buildings built in the Art Nouveau style in the early 1900s. It’s worth spending some time admiring these beautiful homes, with their balconies and fairytale-like turrets, complete with hand-carved doors decorated with animal and plant motifs.
Refreshingly authentic, Hotel Katajanokka was originally a county prison and pre-trial detention centre and dates back to the 19th-century. The oldest part of the property was built in 1837, making it one of Finland’s oldest buildings and a fascinating place to stay, particularly if combined with a second hotel on the opposite side of Helsinki for a two-centre break, in the Design District for instance.
Decommissioned in 2002, much of the building is protected by Finland’s National Board of Antiquities and remains, pretty much as it was when in use, as a reminder of its long and colourful past. The hotel’s Gothic brick exterior may appear a little sinister and unnerving on first sight, but once inside the reception is bright and welcoming and staff greet guests warmly.
Whilst the internal layout, open central corridor and landings are instantly obvious as classic prison characteristics, all have been tastefully updated with eye-catching carpets and inviting velvet-covered couches.
The Cultured Traveller stayed in an entry-level Classic Queen room, which was previously two separate prison cells knocked through. Despite its small size, thanks to the lofty vaulted ceilings, some good design and a clever use of space I didn’t feel incarcerated at all, although the unusual curtain arrangement did take some getting used to! Furnished in a contemporary style using a palette of whites, warm greys and oak, offset by a bold patterned carpet, the room was accessorised with some cute prison-themed nods to the building’s past and the wet room functioned well.
The room category to book at Hotel Katajanokka is an octagonal-shaped Junior Suite, since these are open-planned with a separate seating area and come complete with a private en-suite sauna.
All rooms include free hi-speed wi-fi, 24-hour access to a pretty good onsite gym and complimentary use of the hotel’s sauna on weekend mornings.
A buffet breakfast is served daily in the prison’s old mess hall in the basement of the building, where you can also see one of the old isolation cells in which prisoners were held in solitary confinement. Outside, the prison grounds are pleasantly landscaped complete with a relaxation terrace, and the property’s beautifully restored chapel – used for more than 170 years – is available for weddings.
Whilst the jail concept is inescapable it’s part of the hotel’s quirky charm, which recently landed Katajanokka Finland’s Leading Boutique Hotel Award, and makes for an unusual but comfy place to spend a few nights.
By Nicholas Chrisostomou
It’s not hard to see why independently-owned F6 is widely regarded as the best boutique hotel in Helsinki city centre, particularly amongst well-to-do locals who are always a pretty good barometer.
Housed within a converted government ministry building with a contemporary block added-on at the back, first let’s talk about the hotel’s location which is almost certainly the most convenient in all of Helsinki. F6 is literally a one-minute walk from the city’s beautiful, central urban park, Esplanadi, with its green spaces, cafés and shaded spots to sit. All along Esplanadi, on both sides of the park, you will find Finnish design shops and countless places to eat and drink. At one end of Esplanadi are South Harbour, Market Square, the SkyWheel and ferries to the islands. Just off Esplanadi is Senate Square. And at the other end of Esplanadi, Erottaja Square puts you in the heart of the Design District, which is pretty much where it’s all happening style-wise in Helsinki at the moment. The museum of modern art and beautiful Eliel Saarinen-designed main train station are just 5-minutes further away on foot. A taxi from the airport to F6 takes roughly 20-minutes. So, quite honestly, you couldn’t stay in a more perfect location when visiting Helsinki.
Next, let’s talk about the refreshingly relaxed informality of the hotel. There’s no pretentiousness, stuffiness or other nonsense at F6. The spacious and tastefully-furnished reception is warm and welcoming. The friendly people on the front desk happily help with your bags, check you in, tell you how to get around and will even fetch you a coffee when the restaurant is closed. The same helpful people answer the phones when you call from your room. And, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll be introduced to Runar, the hotel’s French Bulldog mascot, who has an uber cool (and rather good) cocktail bar named after him, located directly opposite reception.
In keeping with its no-nonsense and unpretentious approach, F6’s 66 rooms are available in three categories: standard, superior and deluxe. Even the smallest (standard) rooms are generously proportioned. My deluxe room akin to a suite had heaps of space to move around, and was complete with a huge sofa, comfy armchair, great desk, two large TV screens, Nespresso machine, a plush king-size Unikulma bed, and a slick, well-proportioned shower room with an over-sized walk-in rain-shower. Rooms are laid with elegant dark wood flooring. And, best of all, the air-con is quiet and the curtains truly black-out, the latter being of the utmost importance in a country where the summer nights are so short. There are no baths at F6, so if you somehow have time to soak when you’re on a city-break you need to stay elsewhere!
A generous, hearty, home-style buffet breakfast is served in a dedicated dining room adjacent to the bar. Guests can also breakfast al fresco, weather permitting (of course) which was glorious when The Cultured Traveller was in town.
The gym in the basement (open 24hrs) had everything I needed to have a decent workout, including bottled water. Bicycles are available to borrow free. Vespas can be hired. In-room dining is not available, but the hotel works with Wolt food delivery company (which was founded in Helsinki) so you can have a meal delivered straight to your room (https://wolt.com/en).
My only complaint about F6 (if I had to moan about something!) would be the lack of plentiful wardrobe space – I could only hang a dozen garments. But most people don’t travel with as much luggage, and F6’s mega-friendly staff more than made-up for any little niggles I had, so I would definitely visit F6 again.
HOTEL ST. GEORGE
By Adrian Gibson
Housed within the city’s former Literature Society and printing house for the first Finnish national newspaper, Hotel St. George is situated at 13 Yrjönkatu on the edge of picturesque Old Church Park, right in the centre of Helsinki’s Design District. Just around the corner is premium Art Deco department store Hartmanns, with the city’s main shopping district just seconds away. Helsinki’s Design Museum is within a few minutes’ walk of the hotel, and is well worth a visit to see how Finnish design has influenced the world in some surprising ways.
Set in an imposing edifice built in the 1840s but which wasn’t fully completed till 1890 by native architect Onni Tarjanne, who is known for his work on the Finnish National Theatre, Hotel St. George opened just a few months ago in May 2018 after a two-year renovation. Spanning seven floors, the historic building has been sensitively restored complete with thoughtfully curated furniture and art, most of which was handpicked by Mirkku Kullberg, the hotel’s creative force, ex-CEO of Artek and head of the home department at Vitra. The fantastic result of Kullberg’s labours is a fusion of art, Nordic style and hospitality luxury, although what has been achieved at Hotel St. George is in many ways beyond luxury.
As one enters the hotel’s marble-floored, light and airy lobby, you’re greeted by a huge white silk and bamboo dragon named Tianwu, courtesy of leading contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. This sets the sophisticated tone for the entire property. In the Wintergarden Bar, located in the hotel’s inner courtyard, a 6-metre silver phoenix sculpture by Pukka Jyhä hangs under a glass roof just above the heads of guests, while the walls are lined with a stunning, whimsical wallpaper by Klaus Haapaniemi depicting a fantasy garden. The tasteful art-led aesthetic continues throughout wine and poetry rooms, plus countless nooks and cranny’s, as well as the hotel’s 148 rooms and 5 suites.
The Cultured Traveller stayed in a cool Serenity Studio of around 30m2, which was decorated in a neutral palette of nude and powder blue and furnished with classic Nordic pieces. Hung with Finnish abstract art and accessorised with glass and earthenware, the overall effect was a light and serene environment which it was easy to relax in yet hard to leave.
The best room in the house is undoubtedly the third-floor St George Suite, which boasts a large open-plan lounge and dining room, and whose windows open out onto Old Church Park. Here, warm chocolate drapes hang alongside modernist Hjort af Örnäs armchairs and the floors are draped with soft, hand-woven Georgian vintage carpets.
Offering a mix of Finnish and Turkish culture as well as a high-quality breakfast, the hotel’s house restaurant Andrea, headed by talented duo Mehmet Gürs and Antto Melasniemi, is the perfect place to dine anytime of the day or night.
Being such an artistic property, surrounded by art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, bars and cafés, makes staying at Hotel St. George an exercise in luxurious living in the cosmopolitan heart of Helsinki.
Radisson Blu Seaside Hotel
By Dawn Gibson
Situated in a prime waterfront location which affords guests sweeping vistas of Helsinki’s West Harbour and icebreaker shipyard, the Radisson Blu does seaside with a difference. Think glorious views of glittering blue water as cruise ships dock and ferries head off to Russia and Estonia, and fit Finns cycle past as you stroll along the expansive harbourside, all a short distance from the city’s popular Hietaniemi Beach.
The Radisson Blu Seaside is in Ruoholahti, which is located along the western seafront of the city and is a 15-20-minute walk or 10-minute tram ride from the centre. The area was created in the early 20th-century by connecting several small islands to service the nearby port, and was reinvented in the 1990s as a distinctive residential, office and business district where cool shops now sit side-by-side with commercial premises.
The hotel showcases its local heritage via Nordic design with a maritime flavour: sailing ship-style ropes are suspended from the ceiling in the lobby, while the 349 guest rooms and suites feature sleek minimalist furniture and cutesy touches such as striped bed linen and a quirky port-hole-style window in some bathrooms. Meanwhile, the previously industrial function of the hotel’s main wing as a dairy plant is re-told via red brick-walled corridors and industrial-style concrete floors, all in keeping with Radisson Blu’s slick, trademark smartness.
A wide variety of rooms is on offer, from a 15m2 entry-level to a 70m2 Seaside Suite, the latter boasting two large terraces and a private rooftop spa with sauna and hot tub. Meanwhile, business category rooms have their beds on a second tier facing the view. Some rooms have walk-in showers, some have bath tubs, and some have their own private saunas.
The Cultured Traveller stayed in a two-level “Business Class Room” on the seventh floor, which was more like a sophisticated bijou studio in New York or London rather than a hotel room. Floor-to-ceiling windows fill one wall, affording guests stunning views onto the harbour, which can be enjoyed from the comfort of the luxurious king-size bed or from a private balcony. Connected via a metal spiral staircase, the room’s lower level is home to a lounge area, desk nook and bathroom with rain-shower.
Hotel facilities include a large and well-equipped gym; in-house Katto Sauna & Lounge located on the top two floors; a no cost “Grab & Run” takeaway breakfast option for guests on the go, and Bistro Gimis which prides itself on serving fresh seafood and other locally sourced ingredients from small producers.
The Radisson Blu Seaside ticks all the right boxes for a perfect city stay, complete with friendly, polite and efficient service, beautifully appointed rooms and a substantial buffet breakfast. Whatever room you opt for, at this hotel a sea view really is a must!
When in Helsinki a sauna experience is essential to truly embrace Finnish culture, and Löyly does it with charisma and style. Situated on the edge of the Baltic Sea about 10 minutes’ drive from downtown, the building itself is a work of art: a free-form ‘cloak’ of heat-treated pine by Ville Hara and Anu Puustinen from Avanto architects provides privacy and reduces energy use, while making the most of the sea views. There are three types of wood sauna including a traditional smoke version, as well as a rooftop terrace and an outdoor deck from where you can swim in the sea (you can do a traditional ice plunge in winter if you’re stout of heart!). A spacious restaurant and bar, with an expansive outdoor terrace, serves organic cuisine and sustainably caught fish. The delicious, chunky salmon soup is a must. Co-founded by Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen (who you can see in Spike Lee’s latest film BlacKkKlansman), Löyly is both a tranquil place of well-being and a hang-out for Helsinki’s beautiful people.
THE HELSINKI DISTILLING COMPANY
With some of the world’s most pristine water as a base ingredient and a commitment to a painstaking, hands-on production process, it is little wonder that The Helsinki Distilling Company is garnering quite an international reputation. The first distillery to open in the city for over a century, the company is capitalising on the world-wide thirst for premium artisanal gin, whisky and other premium spirits. Its multi-award-winning Helsinki Dry Gin blends pure Finnish water with nine hand-picked botanicals including Arctic lingonberries, while its very popular Helsinki Long Drink combines the same gin with pink grapefruit. The brainchild of friends Mikko Mykkänen, Kai Kilpinen and Séamus Holohan, the distillery is based in the industrial-chic surrounds of a former power plant in Teurastamo. Visitors can tour the steam punk-style production rooms downstairs before enjoying a tasting session upstairs at Tislaamo, its distillery bar.
SUOMENLINNA SEA FORTRESS
A historic island fortress doesn’t sound like a must-see destination, except for war buffs! However, there are good reasons why Suomenlinna is both a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Finland. A 15-20-minute ferry ride from Market Square, the island is an idyllic destination for a day trip and a fascinating window into the country’s past. Construction began in 1748 when Finland was part of Sweden, and the fortress was used in the defence of three realms – Sweden, Russia and Finland – as well as serving as an anti-aircraft base during the WWII. Helsinki would not be what it is today without its trusty sea fortress. The most interesting way to learn more is to take a guided walking tour. Be sure not to miss the panoramic views from the guns! A plethora of museums, cafés, restaurants and craft shops fill the island, providing plenty to do for at least an afternoon!
An art gallery is a wonderful place to begin to understand a country’s culture and how it sees itself. Ateneum fulfils this role splendidly, showcasing Finland’s oldest and largest art collection. Housed in a palatial late 19th-century building fronting on to Rautatientori Square, near Helsinki’s equally grand main railway station, Ateneum tells the story of Finnish art from the 1800s through to the 20th-century, juxtaposing Finnish and international masterpieces with the likes of Le Corbusier, Eero Järnefelt, Edvard Munch and Ilya Repin. Part of the Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum also boasts an international collection of more than 650 works from luminaries such as Paul Cézanne, Marc Chagall, Paul Gauguin, Francisco de Goya, Amedeo Modigliani and Auguste Rodin. Interestingly, Ateneum was the first museum in the world to own a Vincent van Gogh, and the artist’s Street in Auvers-sur-Oise, completed in 1890 and one of his last works, continues to take pride of place.
OLD MARKET HALL
Fancy sampling reindeer salami? How about cold smoked reindeer or perhaps some air-dried reindeer chips? For every variation of Nordic venison you can imagine, the Old Market Hall next to the Helsinki harbour-front and Market Square is the place you need to visit. The novelty of reindeer aside, the hall is brimming with artisan cheeses and breads, organic meats, giant slabs of salmon and specialty Finnish products such as sea buckthorn tea. There are several cafés serving excellent local coffee and nibbles – try the Scandinavia Café for ‘munkkipossu’ doughnuts (substantial no-hole doughnuts with a very sweet apple filling), Soppakeittiö for a selection of moreish soups, or the oyster bar for seafood and champagne. Built in 1888 and opened the following year, the hall is the ideal spot to spend time browsing Helsinki’s fresh produce.
Located in the heart of the city’s Design District at 23 Korkeavuorenkatu, Helsinki’s Designmuseo has been housed for the past forty years in a beautiful Victorian building, designed in 1894 by architect Gustaf Nyström. Here, this internationally recognised museum which specialises in Finnish design, researches, collects, stores and documents items of national importance, and displays its collections both in Finland and in touring exhibitions overseas. This is a fantastic place to spend a calm hour or two, wondering amongst the museum’s permanent collection to see just how much Finnish design has influenced the way we live today. The museum shop is also a great one-stop-shop to see a number of classic, affordable Finnish-designed items in one compact and well laid-out space, including work by young designers.
Open 12-hours every day except Sundays, for late breakfast, lunch, dinner and everything in between, The Cock is one of those places that when a friend suggests meeting there for lunch, everyone unanimously agrees. Because everyone loves The Cock – it’s as simple as that. It’s hip and trendy without being in any way painfully fashionable, and its central location – on the edge of the Design District yet a stone’s throw from Esplanadi – make it the perfect place for a relaxed and informal gathering. You can drop in alone and have a drink or a light bite, or hook up with your mates and go all out with oysters, steak tartare and bubbles. The simplicity of the food menu extends to the drinks, which capitalise on seasonal flavours and local ingredients in a range of cocktails which are fresh and thirst-quenching. “The Cock Lunch Break” is great value for money at just EUR13 Monday through Friday from 11.00 ‘til 14.30 to eat in or take-away, and includes a daily changing menu of fresh salads, made-from-scratch soups and stews, freshly baked bread and organic coffee. Yum yum – we love The Cock!
Nestled inside the Tori Quarters next to Helsinki Cathedral, and owned, managed and operated by charming young husband and wife team Romany and Juho Ekegren, Chapter is a relatively new addition to Helsinki’s restaurant scene having opened in stages last year. Yet despite its relative youth, Chapter is already making big gastronomic waves in the city and winning awards, not least for the couple’s straightforward approach to running a restaurant, Juho’s superb cooking and Romany’s warm and efficient front-of-house skills. The cocktail bar component of Chapter debuted first last June, serving drinks and fine-tuned bar food with an emphasis on Nordic staples like arctic char and pike perch, married with ingredients like enoki, shiitake and yuzu providing a fresh touch. The intimate, full-service fine dining restaurant, located in the older part of the building (which was constructed in 1775) and offering diners views of towering Helsinki Cathedral, opened its doors less than a year ago in October 2017. On the evening that The Cultured Traveller visited Chapter, Romany was dressed in exactly the same attire as her staff and equally sharing responsibility with the rest of her team for attending to diners. Saying everything about the way Chapter is run, this obvious lack of airs and graces gives the place a thoroughly unpretentious and relaxed feel, which puts guests at ease whether dining on a six-course tasting menu in the restaurant, or having lunch in the glass-fronted cocktail bar to the front of the venue. Already an accomplished chef at the age of 25, with stints in Michelin-starred establishments as well as restaurants in London and Barcelona under his belt, Juho showcases his eclectic and somewhat experimental cooking style by wrapping local Finnish and seasonal produce in a variety of global flavours. The result is fine, flavourful and artistically presented dishes which don’t leave you hungry, and tasting menus which delight every time a new plate lands on the table. This fresh, modern take on fine dining is a breath of fresh air, as is Romany and Juho’s commitment to sustainability and running their restaurant conscientiously, making Chapter a must for any foodie visiting Helsinki.
A Helsinki institution utterly deserving of all the praise that’s regularly lavished upon it, Savoy first opened its glamorous doors to the public on 3rd June 1937 and has been a Finnish restaurant legend ever since.
After prohibition ended in Finland in 1932, people were re-invigorated to enjoy life and have fun once again. Around the same time, the country’s largest industrial company decided to build a swanky new office building for its workers at 14 Eteläesplanadi, in Helsinki’s city centre. The 7th and 8th floors were reserved for restaurant and conference purposes and are still occupied by Savoy today, more than eighty years later. Since then, Savoy has seen marriage proposals, breakups and huge celebrations – companies being started, wartime scheming, celebrities dining and pop stars brunching. Basically, it has all happened at Savoy, at one time or another.
The museum-like restaurant’s beautiful minimal style is the hallmark of Finnish master architect and designer Alvar Aalto and the then newly-founded Artek. Aalto’s hallmark is evident throughout Savoy – from the reception to the warm, oblong main dining room and beyond. Every inch of the place has been lovingly preserved in complete splendour, and a big part of the joy of dining at Savoy is the gorgeous environment in which you’re seated while you eat. The venue is truly an utter delight, and the delicious, classic fare perfectly complements the surroundings in which it is served.
Savoy’s food is reassuringly expensive yet creative semi-fine dining, without being over pretentious. You won’t leave Savoy hungry, that’s for sure. Expect ample portions of indulgent, well-prepared old-style cuisine, without the stuffiness of a Michelin-starred restaurant, served with warmth and style. High-end comfort food is a good description, for at the Savoy ordering one dish à la carte or going for a five-course tasting menu are equally acceptable behaviour.
On a clear sunny day, Savoy’s covered and enclosed glazed outdoor terrace, overlooking Helsinki’s rooftops and Esplanadi Park below, is a strong contender for the city’s best dining spot, the spectacular wide vista being pretty hard to beat.
Two minutes-walk from bustling Market Square, cross a short bridge and you’ll find yourself on Katajanokka island, and right in front of you is Holiday – almost certainly the sunniest and most chipper bar/resto in Helsinki, staffed by an efficient, happy-go-lucky team who make it their job to ensure that you’re well fed and watered and have a jolly nice time. The perfect place for lunch, dinner or late-night cocktails (when the music cranks up a notch and the disco balls come out), this buzzing hipster hangout right on the waterfront is the brainchild of Richard McCormick and Ville Relander who know a thing or two about how to run a successful restaurant. The detailing throughout Holiday is top notch. The fare is simple, unpretentious and very well-executed. The service cannot be faulted. Cocktails are excellent. And Holiday’s moreish soft serve ice-cream is quite possibly the best in the city. Everything is served to a backdrop of toe-tapping disco tunes and happy vibes. The atmosphere at Holiday is casual, relaxed, fun and chilled, day and night, and there are even deck chairs if you fancy taking off your shoes and bathing in the summer sun. Anything is possible at Holiday and quite often everything happens! The place for a fun and long boozy lunch with some good people watching, be sure to take a selfie in the oversized wicker chair!
A contemporary Nordic fine-dining restaurant, situated in a house and courtyard that dates back to 1817, located in the heart of Helsinki in the city’s South Harbour, Olo has held a Michelin star since 2011 for skilfully taking diners on an inspired gastronomic tour of Finland and the countries which surround it, via hyper-creative tasting menus akin to journeys in food. A veritable temple to molecular gastronomy that mixes ancient tradition with futuristic culinary techniques, this very popular restaurant is a Helsinki staple and was co-founded by talented Finnish chef Pekka Terävä in 2006. Natural and clean flavours of land and sea reign in Olo’s kitchen and nine and six-course tasting menus follow the yearly cycle of Nordic nature, flaunting the edible riches of the region via skilfully rendered, thoroughly modern dishes that allow the natural ingredients to shine. Meanwhile, Olo’s sommelier keeps pace with the restaurant’s constantly changing seasonal menus with the aid of a huge cellar, stocked with fine wines from small producers around the world. Eating at Olo is a gastronomic tour de force featuring a range of staggering epicurean twists and turns which keep the tongue tantalised and the taste buds satiated. Save Olo for your last night in Helsinki or a very special occasion.
Showcasing the finest Finnish ingredients in dishes that are almost too exquisite to stick a fork into is the philosophy behind ORA. Situated in Huvilakatu, the tiny restaurant seats just 23 diners at a time. The décor is unassuming – a cream and brown palette that highlights the simple beauty of Finnish design in everything from the handmade wooden furniture to the locally produced glassware. Diners face the open kitchen, as owner and chef Sasu Laukkonen bustles about chatting to customers in between supervising his small team. Letting the quality of the food take centre stage is paying off – Ora has only been open since August 2017 but has already received a Michelin star. The restaurant occupies the same space as Laukkonen’s last Michelin-starred venture, Chef & Sommelier, but in ORA he is aiming for a slightly different approach, based on locally sourced organic and wild produce. The six-course set menu changes to match the seasons and is paired with organic wines. On the evening The Cultured Traveller visited, stand-outs included organic pork loin with sunflower and cider sauce, and a sinfully creamy dessert topped with redcurrants and meadow flowers. Be sure to make a reservation.
With an intimate, down-to-earth ambience despite its Michelin star rating, Grön is the kind of place that you might walk past a couple of times before you realise you’ve found it, especially as it fronts a non-descript section of Albertinkatu in downtown Helsinki. It’s well worth the effort to find, though. Toni Kostian and Lauri Kähkönen develop highly creative plant-based menus from organic and wild regional produce, which are paired with delicious, naturally produced wines. Plant-based doesn’t mean vegetarian, however. Meat and fish are included in the four-course Grön Menu but share equal billing with fresh seasonal vegetables. There is a vegan version of the set menu and a small selection of à la carte dishes. The Cultured Traveller couldn’t get enough of the home-baked sourdough bread with cold smoked fish roe, sour cream, onion flowers and chives.
WINTERGARDEN, HOTEL ST. GEORGE
An inventive cocktail bar at a luxury hotel is always a good find, and the Wintergarden mixes them with the best. Drawing inspiration from the classical conservatories of the 18th and 20th-century nobility, which were known for their lush greenery and art collections, this gorgeous, luxe living room-styled venue is laden with inviting, low-slung designer couches arranged to both encourage conversation and provide a sense of intimacy in the expansive space. A huge, stunning brass bird sculpture hangs above, throwing playful patterns of light on the sprawling space below where guests enjoy hand-crafted cocktails or can choose from a huge beverage selection. The fresh zing of “Taigan Tincture” is a refreshing pick-me-up, combining Tenu gin with carrot juice, lemon, raspberry agave syrup, cardamom bitters and meadowsweet sparkling wine. Meanwhile, “Breaking News!” cocktail is a nod to the hotel’s past as a printing house for the first Finnish newspaper, and contains a delightfully imaginative mix of flavours including H by Hine VSOP cognac with Choya Yuzu liqueur, activated charcoal, black pepper, honey, lime and pink grapefruit.
MATTOLAITURI CHAMPAGNE BAR
This upscale yet casual seasonal champagne and wine bar is run by friendly and well-connected Annina, who can almost always be found in the venue looking after guests. Purpose-designed Mattolaituri is perfectly positioned to make the most of the stunning panoramic water views all around its unique location, and is THE place to come on a sunny day when the skies are clear and you have time to sit, relax, sip and contemplate just how wonderful life can be. A DJ provides funky background beats which are just the right tempo and volume. A wide selection of wines and cocktails is reasonably priced. The staff are chirpy and friendly. Water bowls and treats are even provided for dogs. Located at the southern tip of Kaivopuisto Park, The Cultured Traveller team spent a gorgeous Sunday afternoon here sipping a very palatable rose, watching the boats sail by and drinking in the beautiful views, before making the easy 20-25-minute level walk along the coastal path to Löyly for a relaxing sauna. Mattolaituri is a must if you visit Helsinki in the summer.
In a country where people drink more coffee per head than any other in the world, unsurprisingly, finding a great brew is thankfully not difficult. However, Café KUUMA stands out from the crowd for its warm friendly service as well as seriously good lattés and espressos by White Label Roastery. Located in the Design District locale of Punavuori, KUUMA is tiny and trendy so you may have to wait for a table. But, once you’re seated, you can choose from a simple but well-executed menu of hipster food staples including avocado toast and organic scrambled eggs to accompany your caffeine fix. KUUMA’s popular all-day breakfast is very good.
Ascend to the 14th floor of the Solo Sokos Hotel Torni and you will be rewarded with panoramic 360-degree views over the city centre and out to the Baltic Sea, to drink in along with a cocktail or two. There are two outside terraces – one on each side of the inside bar – both of which are a little small, so you might need to wait for a table, especially if the weather is fine. But on a sunny day there is no place better than this sky-high venue to kick-start an evening out on the town. Drinks are reasonably priced and a wide selection of beverages is on offer, including some very good local gins. But for a stylish reminder of your visit to Helsinki, order Ateljee’s signature cocktail, which comes in a curvy, iconic Iittala Aalto glass vase – an international symbol of Finnish design, since it was created in the 1930s by Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino. The cocktail may be EUR60, but you can take the gorgeous vase home with you as a momento.
TRILLBY & CHADWICK
Step back in time to 1920s Finland, when prohibition was alive and well, by seeking out this artfully executed speakeasy. Themed as a local branch of a London detective agency gone a little shady, finding it is your first mission – it’s hidden behind an unmarked wooden door on Katariinankatu Street, off Market Square. You gain admission by calling on a vintage telephone in a tiny lobby. Once inside, you will find yourself in a dimly lit, period set mix of a library and a living room, much like a theatre set. To a backdrop of 1920s tunes, peruse a thoughtful cocktail menu complete with back stories for each drink. Cocktails are well crafted and tasty. Photography inside the venue is forbidden, and after you finish your drink you will exit the premises via a back door.
For a drink to make your taste buds sit up and take notice, Tislaamo is a must. The onsite distillery bar of The Helsinki Distilling Company, Tislaamo’s menu includes an innovative mix of new and classic cocktails, as well as premium gin and tonics, many featuring the company’s high-end artisan spirits produced in the distillery downstairs. Try a “Pink Floyd”, a combination of Helsingfors Akvavit, strawberry Aperol, white pepper, grapefruit soda, cucumber and lingonberry. Or a “Mango Daisy”, made using the company’s multi-award-winning Helsinki Dry gin, married with mango sorbet, fresh lime and chilli flakes. Light bites and more substantial fare are also available – the latter made using fresh Finnish seafood and other high-quality local ingredients. The juniper and citrus-cured fish dish is an obvious choice to accompany a Helsinki Dry G&T. Housed in a former power station in Teurastamo – the culinary heart of Helsinki – Tislaamo is as hip as it gets, and well worth making a special journey for.
What began as a glassworks in a village in southern Finland in 1881 has become an international byword for beautiful, timeless design. Iittala is still most famous for its gorgeous glassware, but has since expanded considerably into all kinds of beautiful objects for the home, including tableware and cookware. Most recognisable are the sensuous curves of the Aalto Vase, designed in the 1930s by leading Finnish designer and architect Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino, and the individually mouth-blown birds by Oiva Toikka, which have become collector’s items since launching in 1972. There are numerous Iittala stores in Helsinki, including a large showroom at 23 Pohjoisesplanadi (set back from Esplanadi), a store in Kamppi Center and plenty to browse and purchase at the very cool Iittala & Arabia Design Centre, which is well worth a visit anyway.
A concept store in the Design District that launched in 2012, LOKAL is a fabulous place to pick up some unique hand-crafted pieces by Finnish artists, designers and craftspeople. Run by photographer Katja Hagelstam, the store has frequently-changing themed exhibitions. The summer exhibition, for example, was based on the themes of friendship, the colour blue and the modulating form of the square. While the latest exhibition, Bloom, is a group show celebrating the work of Finnish artists and designers under 30. LOKAL recently launched an exclusive signature collection, consisting of enduring, locally-crafted small-scale production pieces.
James Finlayson, a Scottish engineer, established Finlayson in 1820 by opening a cotton mill in Tampere in southern Finland. Yet, despite a history spanning almost two centuries, whilst the renowned Finnish textiles house is undoubtedly one of nation’s most enduring manufacturers, it is far from old fashioned. On the contrary, as is the case with many Finnish companies, it is a champion of the environment, with a staunch commitment to using ecologically-friendly materials. Among its many initiatives, a bed sheets recycling programme has seen Finlayson recognised as one of the country’s most sustainable brands. Shop at Finlayson’s Esplanadi store at 14 Eteläesplanadi (in the same building as iconic Savoy restaurant) for made-to-last sheets, cool blankets and fabrics. For something a little risqué, browse the Tom of Finland collection, a tribute to Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen.
To peruse a veritable treasure trove of gold, silver and diamonds, including vintage pieces fashioned by prominent Finnish designers, head to Holmasto. A short walk from Esplanadi at 50 Aleksanterinkatu, this second-generation family-run store started life as a stationer’s in 1949. It soon morphed into an auction house specialising in coins. Today is remains the oldest and biggest coin shop in Finland. Holmasto also does a lively trade in classic and statement jewellery, as well as quality watches. Look for Lapponia fine jewellery, handmade in Helsinki and inspired by Nordic nature.
STOCKMANN DEPARTMENT STORE
Established in 1862, Stockmann is Scandinavia’s largest department store. The flagship store in Helsinki city centre, at 52 Aleksanterinkatu, occupies a landmark Nordic art deco building completed in 1930, which it is impossible to miss due to its grandeur and imposing presence. Ten floors of retail space offer all the luxury brands one would expect, plus a wide selection of Finnish-designed products. Visit the service point on the eighth floor for a visitor discount voucher which entitles you to 10% off all regularly priced purchases on one day. Be sure to wander through Stockmann Delicatessen in the basement, which is Helsinki’s equivalent to Harrods Food Hall.
MARIMEKKO HEADQUARTERS AND OUTLET STORE
Beloved of fashion trailblazer Jacqueline Kennedy, Marimekko’s eye-catching striped and floral prints have been brightening up clothing, accessories and soft furnishings since 1951. Two designers in particular have left their stamp on this quintessentially Finnish brand: Vuokko Nurmesniemi, who designed the classic red and white striped Jokapoika shirt in 1956, and Maija Isola, who designed the best-selling Unikko (poppy) print in 1964. Now a global business, fabrics are still printed in Marimekko’s textile factory in Herttoniemi, 10-minutes outside the city centre. The same building is home to the company’s headquarters and an outlet store brimming with fabulous, colourful bargains. If you don’t have time to go to Herttoniemi, there are multiple Marimekko boutiques in Helsinki city centre.