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.