Twenty reasons to visit Helsinki

UTE JUNKER
Last updated 05:00 07/01/2014
Helsinki Central Station
Katsutoshi Seki via Wikimedia Commons

HELSINKI CENTRAL STATION: You don't have to know anything about architecture to appreciate this building.

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A pool where swimming naked is the norm and 19 other reasons to visit the Finnish capital.

1 BOULEVARDS MADE FOR STROLLING

The creative minds had obviously been sent out for sandwiches when Helsinki's head honchos were looking to name the twin boulevards that run down to the harbour. In Finnish, Pohjoisesplanadi and Etelaesplanadi simply mean "North Esplanade" and "South Esplanade" - somewhat pedestrian names for these elegant thoroughfares.

Lined with beautiful neo-classical buildings containing upmarket stores, and separated by a pretty park where you'll often find music performances and impromptu picnics, a stroll along Esplanadi - either during the day or at night - is a Helsinki ritual.

See visithelsinki.fi.

2 DINNER AT LUOMO

The Finns have never had a great gastronomic reputation, their idea of culinary innovation being limited to preparing herring a dozen different ways. That's what happens when you live so far north that fresh ingredients are available for only a couple of months every year.

In recent years, however, that's changed. Helsinki now qualifies as a serious dining destination, with a number of artisanal producers supplying a clutch of Michelin-starred restaurants. One of the best places to dine is Luomo, which scored a Michelin star just one year after it opened. Luomo's seven-course degustation remains one of the great bargains in town.

If you savour dishes that showcase super-fresh ingredients - such as the green and white asparagus set off with parmesan dust and a super-light parmesan mousse - you'll love Luomo.

See luomo.fi.

3 NAKED SWIMMING

Naked swimming is a Finnish tradition. Yrjonkatu swimming pool, an indoor facility in the city centre, features arched terraces and private dressing rooms separated by blue-and-white curtains.

It makes the sight of naked Finns doing laps even more incongruous with the pool open to men and women on separate days. If you're feeling shy you can wear a swimsuit (allowed only since 2001), but you'll be in the minority.

See hel.fi.

4 DESIGN HISTORY 101

Helsinki was named World Design Capital 2012, partly in recognition of the number of legendary designers it has produced, from Tapio Wirkkala, Alvar and Aino Aalto to Timo Sarpaneva and Kaj Franck.

Many of the Finnish greats worked across a range of fields, from glassware and crockery to furniture and even architecture. Some of their most famous creations can be found at the Design Forum, which serves as a one-stop shop store for Finnish design classics. But a warning - your credit card is likely to take a hammering.

See designforum.fi.

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5 AND THE BEST OF THE NEW BREED

The Finnish love affair with design continues, as you'll discover in the Design District, where 200 of the city's best young artists, designers and creative agencies are based.

The area showcases the breadth of Finnish talent, from internationally renowned labels such as Marimekko (famous for bright prints) and Ivana Helsinki (quirky cotton dresses), to up-and-coming designers such as Anu Penttinen, whose stunning glassware is characterised by bold patterns and beautiful colours.

Go for a wander to make random discoveries, or ask Helsinki Expert to tailor a walking tour to suit your specific interests.

See helsinkiexpert.com.

6 CHOWING DOWN ON REINDEER

Don't tell Santa, but reindeer remains a significant source of protein for the people of Lapland. If you're not heading that far north, you can give reindeer kebabs a try at the Kauppatori food market, an atmospheric hall with carved mahogany interiors where stallholders also offer local cheeses and pastries for sale.

Alternatively, Saaga restaurant serves a full range of Lappish delicacies, including snow grouse, cloudberries and bear.

See asrestaurants.com; visithelsinki.fi.

7 THE CHURCH THAT ROCKS

OK, we've allowed ourselves some poetic licence, but not much. The Temppeliaukion Kirkko is not so much made of rock, as carved into a massive block of granite, which was hollowed out to create this space. You have the sensation of being in an underground retreat, with circular walls made of serrated stone, a ceiling of copper wire and light flooding in through 180 slabs of glass in the roof.

Check local listings to see if any concerts are being held here while you're in town; alternatively, drop in late on a summer evening. Sitting back and watching the changing colour of the sky is a spiritual experience in itself.

See helsinginkirkot.fi.

8 ISLAND LIFE

Nature plays a vital role in Finnish culture and in the summer months, Helsinki-ites head for the harbour. Many have simple summer shacks on one of the nearby islands; others make do with a day trip.

With 300 plus islands in the archipelago, things never get too crowded. Pihlajasaari, a 15-minute ferry ride away from the heart of town, has everything you need for a relaxing day out: a couple of beaches, some verdant forest, and colourful wildflowers that blossom in spring.

See visithelsinki.fi.

9 CAFE CULTURE

The flipside of Helsinki's sunny summers, of course, is long and snowy winters. Naturally the Finns have learned the art of the cosy interior, and few places are more inviting on a bleak day than the city's sophisticated cafes.

The fin de siecle grandeur of Cafe Ekberg on Bulevardi has made it something of a landmark but we love the beautifully restored Aschan at Pohjoisesplanadi 19, with its soaring interiors and magnificent art nouveau decor.

See cafeekberg.com, aschan.fi.

10 ART NOUVEAU

Speaking of which, few cities have such a magnificent collection of art nouveau.

Take almost any street in town and you'll come face to face with ornately decorated buildings such as the Pohjola building at 44 Aleksanderinkatu. Built by Finland's most famous architects for an insurance company, the building seems both rough-hewn - its exterior covered in unpolished stone - and extraordinarily playful, its facade covered with figures ranging from the grotesque to the erotic.

The Katajanokka neighbourhood is also worth a visit, its pastel-painted buildings decorated with towers, bay windows and exquisite detailing.

See visithelsinki.fi.

11 DO-IT-YOURSELF RESTAURANTS

Plenty of cities have restaurant days but for sheer inventiveness, few can match Helsinki's Restaurant Day, which happens four times a year (the next one is in February).

Ordinary Helsinki-ites are encouraged to set up their own pop-up eateries, which range from simple street stalls to surreal events such as afternoon tea served in a lingerie shop.

See restaurantday.org/en.

12 KLAUS K HOTEL

A hip city needs a hip hotel. The Klaus K not only has a great location in the heart of town, it also reflects everything that's best about Helsinki.

From the welcoming staff to the stylish yet masculine rooms, there's lots to love - and the buzzing bar is a great place for a drink.

See klauskhotel.com.

13 KIASMA

Some argue there's something very un-Finnish about the city's attention-seeking, steel-clad museum of contemporary art, KIASMA - but its roster of international exhibitions is outstanding

Highlights for this year include Together, an exhibition in which top Finnish designers have been invited to work together to create any kind of work they want.

See kiasma.fi.

14 HELSINKI CENTRAL STATION

You don't have to know anything about architecture to appreciate this building. From the giant figures on the facade holding globes, to the beautiful interiors, this is the master work of Eliel Saarinen, perhaps Finland's most influential architect.

See visithelsinki.fi.

15 SUMMER RESTAURANTS

In Finland, the midnight sun burns all summer long and the Finns make the most of every second. The best way to while away a summer evening is surrounded by water on one of the summer restaurants that dot the islands of the inner harbour. We love Restaurant NJK, which has fresh seafood and elegant interiors.

See ravintolanjk.fi/en.

16 TAKE THE TRAM TO ARABIA

Urban redevelopment districts don't usually draw in the tourists but the quirkily named Arabia is an exception. This former factory has been turned into waterfront apartments with art incorporated into every aspect.

Pick up a map and follow the walking tour to discover everything from delicate reeds sandblasted into staircase windows (when lit up at night, they look like lace) to mosaics, large-scale installations, and even red bricks engraved with text fragments.

See arabiahelsinki.fi.

17 SUOMENLINNA FORTRESS

One of the largest fortresses in the world, Suomnelinna fortress was built over six islands. While it's still home to the naval academy, these days Suomenlinna's sprawling parklands make it a popular picnic spot, with concerts and other performances also taking place.

See suomenlinna.fi/en.

18 STOCKMANN'S FOOD HALL

The biggest crowds in Helsinki are always found flowing in and out of Stockmann's, the city's main department store.

Stockmann's is larger than Harrod's and its basement food hall offers a wonderfully bewildering array of food, from sushi to marzipan pigs to smoked meats. If you are planning a picnic, this is the place to stock up.

See visithelsinki.fi.

19 GO HOME WITH A GREAT ARCHITECT

The Saarinens - father Eliel and his son Eero - are among Finland's most famous architects and the Hvittrask museum was originally the Saarinen family home, designed by Eliel and his colleagues. With kaleidoscopic influences ranging from Aztec to Moorish, it's a delightful place to visit.

See nba.fi.

20 GLASS ACTS

The best souvenir from Finland is undoubtedly a trinket from Iittala, the glass and homewares company. All of Finland's best designers have created pieces for Iittala - walk into its flagship store on Esplanadi and you'll find it hard to leave without a brightly coloured design tucked into your bag.

See iittala.com.

The writer travelled courtesy of Finnair.

- FFX Aus

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