With a quarter of its land lying north of the Arctic Circle, Finland is on top of the world geographically. The metaphor also applies in terms of design and architecture. After centuries of rule by Sweden and Russia, the Finnish capital Helsinki is developing a strong sense of style as the country prepares to celebrate 100 years of independence.
Home to 1.4 million residents, Helsinki is a flat, compact city; perfect for walking or cycling. A ride on the number 4 tram will take you past varied examples of Scandinavian architectural history, including neoclassical buildings and some of Alvar Aalto’s best modernist works.
Downtown Helsinki looks out over a series of small islands, where locals dine and swim during the warmer months. In winter, the Baltic Sea freezes over and ice fishermen dot the horizon. This is the time to escape the Arctic breeze blowing through lively Market Square and duck into Old Market Hall for coffee, rye bread and salmon.
From Market Square, stroll through Esplanadi Park, the beating heart of the city in summer. With close to 24 hours of daylight from May until August, locals stay out late enjoying music, picnics and street-food festivals under the welcome return of the Nordic sun.
Midsummer is one of the biggest events of the year. Finns head to cottages to grill sausages, sauna and swim in the crystal-clear lakes.
Back in the city, huge ferries leave for Stockholm and Tallinn, their booming horns resounding through the sprawling parklands of Kaivopuisto From there it’s a short walk to Punavuori: home to lumbersexuals, great coffee, vintage clothing and the start of the city’s Design District. Artek, Iittalla, Arabia and Marimekko will leave you with one hand on your heart and the other on your credit card.
Leave time to visit the Anttinen, an Oiva-designed university library, before continuing to Hakaniemi Market Square, where locals meet for coffee and doughnuts. The surrounding streets branch out into Kallio, once a working-class district, now home to the students and artists who dance in the streets at the vibrant Kallio Block Party.
HELSINKI INSIDER’S GUIDE
SHOPS AND GALLERIES
Design Museum: Don’t know Aalto from Aarnio? Get up to speed with the Golden Age of Finnish design and the newcomers shaking things up. You’ll see why Helsinki was awarded UNESCO City of Design status in 2014.
Lokal: Describing itself as 72% art and 28% coffee, Lokal gallery and shop supports independent Finnish artists and designers. As the sign says ‘everything is for sale unless it speaks’.
Kiasma: The building, the art, the cafe, the gift store – so many reasons to visit Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Free entry after 4pm on the first Friday of the month.
Stockmann: Locals love the seven floors of fashion, designer homewares, books and accessories. Explore the extensive food hall and deli before people-watching from the champagne bar.
EAT AND DRINK
Bronda: Enjoy a cocktail before dining at this beautiful Mediterranean restaurant owned by chefs Matti Wikberg (see Page 124) and Tomi Björck. Recently described by The Guardian as one of the 10 coolest restaurant interiors in the world.
Johan & Nyström: Just around the corner from the Russian Uspenski Cathedral, cross the bridge to the island of Katajanokka for some of the best coffee and sandwiches in the city.
Bar Latva: Sister restaurant Juuri will send down sharing plates of traditional Finnish ingredients with a modern twist while you sip on a cocktail of rye and cardamom or lingonberry and sea buckthorn at Bar Latva.
Hoku: Ryan Shibuya was born and raised in Hawaii and now serves some of the best Japanese-inspired meals in the city to a mix of designers, architects and students in hip Punavuori.
Teurastamo: Even vegetarians will find something to love at The Abbatoir, now home to restaurants, slow-smoked meats, Italian ice cream, urban gardens and summer food festivals.
Orion cinema: The National Audiovisual Institute screens classic films and forgotten gems in this beautiful Art Deco cinema, which opened in 1928. See the website for films in English or with subtitles.
Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall: Sauna culture is part of life in Finland, and this classically designed swimming hall has three types, including traditionally wood-heated. Men and women swim on different days and don’t worry if you forget your swimsuit – they’re optional.
Hakaniemi Kauppahalli: Built in 1914 this two-storey market hall is bustling with vendors selling fresh bread, cheese, fish, meat, and seasonal produce. There are crafts and clothing upstairs and cafes selling Finnish sweets and coffee.