The eclectic capital of Helsinki, with its neat buildings, plentiful greenery and smiley locals, feels distinctly Scandinavian. But did you know that the capital, along with the rest of Finland, was part of the Russian empire until the early 20th century? Finland has been independent for over 100 years, but the grand neoclassical buildings in Helsinki, built in the style of St. Petersburg, are a reminder of this period of Russification. As a coastal city, the views of the open sea add a welcome sense of tranquillity. Speed boats, cruise ships and dinky dinghies share the open water and seagulls hover above the bustling market on the seafront hoping for an quick snack. Helsinki is also home to over 300 islands, many of which can be reached by boat for a day trip away from the hustle and bustle.
Fans of design and architecture will love the huge variety of art galleries and museums, many of which are in walking distance from the Market and Senate Squares. The city also hosts an annual design week every September with talks, displays and exhibitions.
The recently opened Amos Rex Museum is must-visit for both adults and children. The underground exhibition space is only visible through a series of concrete domes that resemble geometric molehills. The opening exhibition by the international digital art collective, teamLab, consists of a series of interactive 3D installations. Highlights include an interactive ecosystem of colourful plants and animals that move about the room as if they were the real thing.
Those interested in more traditional craftsmanship should check out the Iittala & Arabia Design Centre, a series of art galleries and design shops located a little further away from the city centre. The former Arabia porcelain factory is an imposing building from the outside, but inside feels gloriously light and open. Here you can learn about the history of Arabia porcelain and wander through a series of temporary exhibitions including the very pink (and frankly bonkers) “Girl Gang” by visual artist Katja Tukiainen.
Must grab a coffee
If you feel like you need a break from the museums, Helsinki has a dreamy coffee scene and there are some excellent coffee shops. Cafe Regatta serves their favourite brews in a quaint red cottage on the waterfront, while Strindberg Café in the city centre has their own coffee blends and offers an altogether more classy experience.
The Design District in Helsinki stretches across Punavuori, Kaartinkaupunki, Kamppi and Ullanlinna and this is where you’ll find pretty antique shops, beautiful glassware and cosy clothing. Many of the shops double as art galleries and cafés. For example, R/H Market specialises in chic, sustainable clothing for women by women, and during Design Week hosts a print and pattern exhibition. Lokal is an award-winning concept store that sells beautiful Finnish tableware and doubles as an art gallery for up and coming artists.
If you’re looking for the perfect gift or memento, Lapuan Kankurit in the Tori Quarter is a family business that sells beautiful fabrics, soaps and lifestyle knick-knacks.
Perhaps the most famous restaurant in Finland is Löyly, an architectural marvel that sits on the waterfront and doubles as a sauna. The building was designed by Avanto Architects and is sculpted with heat treated pine to help keep the interior nice and cool. There is a terrace on the roof which visitors can access via a set of outdoor steps. The seasonal menu at Löyly is chock full of Finnish classics: creamy salmon soup, reindeer tartar and beef tenderloin with bacon-wrapped green-beans. We recommend having lunch at Löyly as you can spend the afternoon relaxing in one of their delightful saunas (bathing suits required) followed by a refreshing dip in the sea.
For dinner, head to Roster near the Helsinki Skywheel. Spread over two floors, the restaurant has a cool but relaxed vibe and serves a fabulously melty glazed short rib with green beans and red wine sauce. Much like their Scandinavian neighbours, the Finns love their bread. Fan favourites include nutty ryebread and delicious, crusty sourdough (best served with a generous dollop of butter). Bakeries offer a cheaper alternative to lunch at a restaurant. Levain in the Punavuori district serves freshly baked bread throughout the day, while Eromanga by the Kasarmitori square (near to the design district) serves scrumptious ryebreads and cinnamon buns.
If you don’t manage to book a spot at Löyly, there are plenty of other opportunities to take a sauna in Helsinki. Allas Sea Pool is located by the Market Square and offers a choice of three saunas, two warm water pools and one sea water pool, and is open all year round. For a more authentic experience Kaurilan sauna is a genuine wood heated sauna located in a 19th century sauna building.
The recently opened Hotel St. George is set in a historic building near the harbour and is the height of luxury. As you enter the lobby you are greeted with a dramatic Ai Weiwei white dragon sculpture. There is a 24-hour gym, indoor swimming pool and sauna/plunge pool. The hotel serves a hot and cold breakfast buffet and the chef can also rustle up fresh omelettes, quiches and Shakshouka (poached eggs with tomato and chilli). Prices start from €187 per night. Booking.com
Finnair connects passengers to Helsinki from over 100 destinations in Europe, 19 cities in Asia and seven cities in North America. This includes direct flights from London, Manchester and Edinburgh. Top tip: If you’re planning on travelling in business class look out for direct flights from London Heathrow to Helsinki on the larger A350 planes (which then connect on to Asia). Even though the journey is around 2 hours 15 minutes, you’ll get the full long-haul business class experience on a shorter flight – fancy!