Why Helsinki should be your next city trip

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

The capital of Finland, Helsinki, just like the capital of its southern neighbour, Tallinn, might be missing at the top of your bucket list when it comes to must-visit European capitals. However, the modern and hip Nordic city is the ideal place for an off-the-beaten-path getaway full of pleasant surprises and great discoveries. Get inspired and explore the capital of the happiest people in the world!

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A few very cool places to absolutely check out

Oodi, a unique space

The modern wood and glass building designed by the Finnish firm ALA Architects is one of the coolest places to hang out in Helsinki! Built for the 100-year anniversary of Finland, this central library stands for the country’s core values: freedom of speech, education, equality and openness. This house of books is also a cultural hotspot to meet, eat, drink, play board games, watch movies, make use of the 3D printing technology with state-of-the art computers, play video games, explore virtual reality, or simply read one of the books in one of the 20 languages proposed in this comfortable and homey innovative library. Don’t forget to take in the view from the balcony on the top floor of Oodi.

Shopping

Located in the 1900 Lundqvist department store building, one of the oldest commercial buildings in Finland, Glasshouse Helsinki is a concept store promoting sustainable fashion and design. If the objective of the store is to focus on combining material innovations, science, art, design and business towards sustainable products, the end-result is more a showcase of trendy objects while the Lokal Helsinki sells handmade Finnish designer products, preferably following a sustainable sourcing and manufacturing process.

Stroll Kallio (Helsinki coolest hood)

Get lost in the streets of Kallio where artists, bohemians, free souls and students (and even Lenin during his time in town!) have settled over the years. The gentrified area is ever-changing and the place to be. To explore it in-depth, your best bet is to go with a local guide to show you around.

Löyly, sauna & stylish restaurant on the Baltic Sea

An original concept, and a modern twist to an old Finnish tradition, check it out in our dining section.

Helsinki’s museums: our top picks!

A little bit of background info please!

To learn about how Finland was shaped into the country it is today, a visit to the National Museum of Finland is a must.

Its Art Nouveau building is considered a jewel and its 53-meter-high tower has become one of Finland’s landmarks. Inside, Finns are proud to discover the history of their fairly recent country (for a quick historical recap, click here) from prehistory to the Swedish and Russian occupation to today’s Finland. Passing the entrance hall with its original stone floor of 250-to-500-million-year-old sea fossils, the Kalevala, or the National epic of Finland welcomes us. Composed in the 19th century to forge national unity, the frescoes by the painter Gallen-Kallela depict the creation myth – Ilmarinen ploughing the field of vipers to marry Pohjola – and industry and trade as an introduction to the museum.

Amos Rex

The Amos Rex building was initially built for the 1940 Olympic Games that were cancelled because of World War II. If its architecture is innovative, so are the exhibitions hosted in the landmark building that focus on modern technology.

HAM

The main point for visiting HAM (Helsinki Art Museum) is to marvel at the party frescos designed by female Finnish artist Tove Janssen (1914-2001) in 1947 for the Kaupunginkellari restaurant in the city hall of Helsinki. A novelist, illustrator and painter, Janssen is one of the most acclaimed Finnish creators who also invented the Moomins, a family of hippopotamus-like fairy tale characters.

Ateneum

Finland’s national gallery is housed in an attractive Neo-Renaissance style building that opened its doors in 1888, housing two art schools where, until the 1980’s, Finland’s most successful artists and designers studied.

Van Gogh’s Street in Auvers-sur-Oise (1890), Paul Cézanne’s The Road Bridge at L’Estaque (1882), Munch’s Bathing Men (1907-1908) are showcased along the rather sad Finnish Eero Järnefelt’s Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood) (1893) and Hugo Simberg’s Wounded Angel (1903), marking the golden age of Finnish art and the look for a national identity. The Kalevala is also a source of inspiration, namely for the Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Aino Myth Triptych (1891). Nature takes another large stand in Finnish art and Eero Järnefelt’s Landscape from Koli (1928) with the Autumn colours contrasting with the colour of the Pielisjärvi Lake looks like a snapshot of today’s Koli National Park where people flock to take in the iconic lake views. Under 19th-century Parisian influences, the Finnish palette brightens up in the post-impressionist Septem group or darkens for the artists of the Marraskuu movement, before the 20th-century modernism where the art scene in the country seating between East and West questioned the political system. As such, The Attack by Edvard Isto painted in 1889 depicts the two-headed Russian eagle trying to take the book of law from the maiden of Finland… The excellent art collection makes a visit to the Ateneum well worth it.

Where to eat: top picks

Most Finns lived off their fields, lakes and forests up to the 20th century. Everyday meal included bread, salted fish, buttermilk, porridge, gruel and soup. Butter and meat were rare treats. Up until the early 19th century, more than half of the population mixed bread with pine bark or straw (quite harmful to the intestines) to feed themselves. Today the Helsinki food scene has exponentially developed around trendy, yummy and sustainable concepts. Here are our top picks!

Hakaniemen market hall for a fishy lunch

The old market hall at the market square is quite touristy. For a more authentic experience, head to the 1914 Hakaniemen market hall.

The Kalaliike Marja Nätti fishmonger counter sells excellent fish that can be savoured onsite. Smoked salmon, gravlax, vendace, rainbow trout roes, herring served in many ways and vendace roes, the yellow gold of Finland… Served with slices of rye-based island bread or delicious homemade blinis, it is an ideal lunch spot! Just bear in mind that all market halls are closed on Sundays.

Art Cafe Taideterassi for a coffee & delicious cake

Overlooking the Töölö Bay with the Opera House and the Finlandia Hall on the opposite bank, two beautiful late 19th-century wooden villas seem to be coming from another time. One of them hosts the Art Cafe Taideterassi, a lovely coffee shop with delicious cakes and bites for lunch. From the terrasse, the view is simply amazing.

Nolla, zero food waste restaurant

At Nolla, the seasonal menu focuses as much as possible on locally-sourced ingredients from small producers to support not only sourcing sustainability, but also social and economic sustainability. In a virtuous circle, the zero-food-waste restaurant composts the leftovers and sends them back to the producers as fertilizer.

Not stopping only at the food sourcing, the cutlery is second-hand and the dishes from the 1980’s take a stylish twist presenting carefully plated dishes. The upcycled wooden tables are lit by lamps made of recycled materials while walls and tiles were conserved from the previous restaurant to reduce the environmental footprint.

It is in this sustainable yet stylish décor that the chef takes his guests through a special three-course gastronomic journey with a bold wine pairing. With a constantly evolving menu, expect to be pleasantly surprised. In the early fall, the vitamin-C-packed starter with ricotta, tomatoes, locally grown lingonberries and raspberries and red escabeche is paired with a 2019 white slightly sweet Vouvray wine balancing the acidity of the dish. The original Maurer Furming wine from Serbia with orange skin maceration accompanies the excellent fish cooked with orange zests (from the waste of local supermarket juicing machines). The uncommon bay leaf ice cream served with brown butter shortbread and blueberries is savoured with a 2016 Disznoko Tokaji to conclude a feel-good meal.

Löyly, sauna & stylish restaurant on the Baltic Sea

Löyly gives a very modern twist to the Finnish tradition of going to the sauna before enjoying dinner with your guests. An integrant part of the real estate development project of the former harbour (and today’s prime real estate), the modern-looking sauna and restaurant on the waterfront has become a hot spot for young Finns. Enjoying the warmth of three different saunas and cooling down in the Baltic Sea is simply perfect to work an appetite and relax before dinner in this hipster spot.

Helsinki Distilling Company

Strolling the former working-class area that gentrified into the laid-back and bohemian Kallio neighbourhood of Helsinki, we are heading to the earlier meat packing district (1930’s – 1990’s). The local power plant has been turned into a distillery in 2014. The Helsinki Distilling Company still contributes to the local energy needs as the ethanol that is separated from the heart and tails during the distillation process of the various spirits concocted onsite is sold to synthetize biogas. The mashing tanks, fermentation tanks and distillation towers made of copper are used to make gin, whiskey and vodka.

The dry gin is distilled with 9 botanicals that I am trying to recognize during the blind test of the spirit tasting. If I know all these smells, I have the hardest time identifying Angelica and Orris roots while the citrus peels, rose petals, fennel and coriander seeds and lingonberries come rather easily.

The excellent lingonberry gin liquor in which 26% real lingonberries are infused for six months allows the berries to express themselves more than the sugar.

The tasting culminates with the four-year-old batch number 20 of whiskey. The ultimate goal of the Helsinki Distilling Company to craft an excellent American-type whiskey with pure rye and barley malts. The caramel and vanilla after-flavours of batch 20 are quite promising, and we wonder what the 8-to-12-year-old batches will be like.

Pursuing the experience in the lively bar, the barman mixes original cocktails to highlight the homemade spirits. The ideal place to conclude the day.

Island hopping to Suomenlinna, the Castle of Finland

Over 300 islands are spread out around Helsinki! Hop on a boat and visit at least Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 1703, Saint Petersburg is founded: Russia had reached the Baltic Sea and Sweden that controlled the region of Finland lost all of its important Finnish sea fortresses to the Russian Empire. A serious defence was needed to protect the new eastern border with Russia. France, allied to Sweden against Russia, financed the construction of the depot, bastion fortress and naval base that took 40 years to build, never being fully completed. By the end of the 18th century, this city within the city was more populated than Helsinki itself (6,000 people inhabited Suomenlinna and only 2,000 lived in Helsinki). Despite its 8-kilometer-long fortifications walls, during the war of Finland in 1808, what was thought to be one of Europe’s strongest fortresses, surrendered to the Russians after only a short siege.

Today, the islands are a peaceful heaven between ruins of the bastions and nature where Helsinkians like strolling on weekends after a short crossing of the bay by boat.

Where to stay

The original Eliel Saarinen’s 1909 Art Nouveau building used to house the head office of the Finland’s railway company VR. The cultural heritage office building has been completely renovated in co-operation with the Finnish heritage agency, and turned into the stylish Scandic Grand Central Hotel. The location is ideal to explore Helsinki in style!

Quick recap of the history of Finland

Finland’s written history started in the 12th century when Christianity was brought by Bishop Henry. Still far from being a country, the hardly-populated territory was a part of Sweden. By 1492, in today’s Finland, there were only six cities inhabited by a few hundred at most, but for the largest city Turku, counting a few thousand souls. Helsinki was only founded in 1550 by Gustav Vasa.

In 1808 and 1809, Sweden and Russia were at war and the treaty of Hamina annexed Finland to Russia. In 1812, Helsinki was made the capital of the grand duchy of Finland and the German architect Carl Ludwig Engel was hired to turn it into a small Saint Petersburg even though it hardly developed being still mostly covered in forests and swamps.

By the end of the 19th century, the Finnish national culture started thriving despite the ruthless efforts of its Russian governors to make Finland part of the Russian Empire. In the meantime, the Russian Empire lost the Russo-Japanese war and revolutionary ideas weakened the tsar. Finland became a potential threat of terrorism and insurrection.

It is only in 1917 that Finland became independent. The young country started writing its history in the 1918 bloody civil war opposing the communists to the far-right Lapua movement in which almost 40,000 people got killed.

With its geographical position, Finland has had to act carefully, next to the mighty Soviet Union and today’s hegemonic Russia that has also been a very profitable trading partner for the young nation. In the wake of World War II, the Soviet Union tried to invade Finland in late 1939. The Winter War lasted for only three months but was shortly followed by the Continuation War (1941-1944) when the Finns joined forces with the Nazis against the Soviets. Eventually siding with the Western Allies, Finland had to expel the Nazis from its territory at the end of World War II (the 1944/1945 Lapland War) with an ambivalent status that would deny the country most reconstruction help.

Despite it all, Finland has remained a democracy with freedom of speech and western influences unhindered, even leading the way as the first country in the world adopting the full universal suffrage in 1906. Its welfare state that developed in the 1960s is an indisputable source of pride for the Finns, the happiest citizens on the planet living in a pretty progressive country.

Travel tips:

  • Reach out to My Helsinki for more ideas, the latest information about exhibitions, festivals, opening hours and what else to do in town.
  • October is a fantastic time to explore Helsinki if you are interested in seeing the fall foliage as Helsinki’s many trees will turn the whole city in an orange hue.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

For more in Finland, click on the following pins:

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