Nestled at the crossroads of Scandinavia and Russia, Helsinki stands as a remarkably unique gem within the Nordic region. While its siblings Oslo and Stockholm boast their own charm, the sea-facing city of Helsinki exudes a distinct character that effortlessly marries tradition with innovation.
With a population that holds the world record for the most saunas, it’s clear that the Finns have perfected the art of relaxation. But beneath this calm exterior lies a dynamic city brimming with captivating design, culinary delights, and an enchanting blend of architectural marvels.
As you step into the Finnish capital, prepare for a whirlwind 24-hour adventure that will unveil Helsinki’s unparalleled allure.
Must Eat: Finnish Culinary Delights
Embark on a delectable journey by savouring a hearty breakfast of Karjalanpiirakka (Karelian pasty) and a steaming cup of rich Finnish coffee.
Lunch at Ravintola Sea Horse promises a rendezvous with tradition; indulge in their famous herring dishes and other authentic Finnish flavors.
End your culinary escapade with a dinner at the trendsetting Michelin-starred Olo restaurant, where innovative Nordic cuisine takes centre stage in a minimalist setting.
Get there in early October for the Herring Festival where Baltic fishermen sell their herring. It’s been going since 1743 and takes place in the Market Square and you get to taste herring with the sounds of accordion music playing with your ears.
Must Do: Sauna Serenity
Embrace the Finnish way of life with a must-do visit to the Löyly Sauna.
Nestled by the serene waterfront, it is something of a local institution. First bask in the serene warmth, then gaze out at the Baltic Sea long enough to gather the courage to dive into it! The hot/cold therapy lies at the heart of Finnish wellness and will leave you refreshed for all your ongoing adventures.
The Sauna also offers treatments like the age-old ritual of a gentle birch twig massage, as well as serving drinks straight to the decks, and a beautiful waterfront restaurant to re-fuel after a long morning’s relaxation.
Must Hunt Down: Design District Treasures
Wander through Helsinki’s vibrant Design District, a creative haven offering a treasure trove of boutiques, galleries, and studios.
We started off at the Design Museum, the spiritual center of the area where you can learn about all the things you didn’t realise Finnish design has contributed to the world – including the mobile game Angry Birds, and the classic design of tailor’s scissors. After absorbing yourself in the theory, hit the shops for design in practice.
The Costo x Pure Waste Concept Store’s ecologically sustainable clothing and accessories are stylish and forward-thinking, while the two-story Artek lets you unearth unique Finnish design pieces, from sleek furniture to quirky textiles.
You can even get a customised Alvar Aalto’s Stool 60. Finally, don’t miss the iconic Marimekko store, a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns.
Must Explore: Captivating Districts
Helsinki is full of diverse neighbourhoods that reward those exploring on foot.
Alongside Brussels, Paris and Vienna, Helsinki is home to an important record of the Art Nouveau architectural movement. You can embrace this history in the charming harbourside area of Katajanokka, home to stunning Jugendstil buildings that capture the spirit of the early 1900s. For real architecture fans, why not check out a dedicated tour?
Next, take a walk or hop on a tram up to Kallio to fast forward into the here and now. This densely packed, hilly hipster hub is full of vintage shops and local bars where the city’s young and free come to let go. Best saved for a weekend if you’re in the mood for a big one, but great throughout the week for cafes, shops and – if it’s Summer – the beautiful elevated parks.
Round off your exploration in the sleek and modern Kamppi district. This downtown hub is full of Finland’s best museums and public buildings, including the Museum of Finland, as well the Parliament building and the stunning, utopian Helsinki Library. A walk round its multiple floors re-imagines what a library can be in a digital age, with gaming rooms, music studios, cafes and even 3D printing stations alongside the more traditional workspaces and books.
Must Admire: Marvellous Modernism
Gawk at the awe-inspiring Temppeliaukio Church, carved directly into solid rock, creating an ethereal space that blends nature and design.
Continue your architectural journey at the captivating Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, an avant-garde masterpiece nestled in the heart of the city, and the striking Kamppi Chapel, a dome-like womb that is a unique space of reflection amidst the bustle of life elsewhere.
Must Unwind: Tranquil Escapes
Ok – let’s be real. If we’re talking about Helsinki, nature is where it’s at. Luckily, in Helsinki, it’s easy to escape the urban bustle and feel at one with the earth and all its elements. Esplanade Park is perfect for a sere stroll in the city centre. Alternatively, find solace in the Nuuksio National Park, a short train ride away. Immerse yourself in the Finnish wilderness, surrounded by pristine lakes and dense forests.
We visited the Helsinki Biennale on Vallisaari Island. Accessible by ferry, the Biennale brings artworks from Finnish and global artists/collectives together on a walking tour through nature. Although not returning to Finland until Summer 2025, the Biennale has plans to expand and diversify even further – so perhaps put a pin in your Google cal for then!
Must Capture: Iconic Landmarks
Of course sometimes you just want to take in a destination just how you imagined it – postcard perfect. The image you’re seeking is the iconic Helsinki Cathedral, an elegant white masterpiece overlooking Senate Square, best viewed from a boat on the water. Back on land stroll along the picturesque Market Square, for souvenir snapshots of its vibrant market stalls, with authentic fishermen selling Nordic delicacies like fresh herring bites, alongside stands full of souvenirs, sweets and all manner of treats. Just watch out for the sharp eyed seagulls also on the look out for lunch!
Must Remember: Midnight Sun Magic
If your visit falls during the summer months, relish in the enchanting phenomenon of the midnight sun. Experience the city bathed in surreal, perpetual daylight, casting a golden glow over the enchanting landscapes.
Stay: St George, Helsinki
Fly: Helsinki is easy to access by air. Skyscanner has deals:
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