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A city guide to Helsinki, Finland

With new cultural quarters, no-waste restaurants and a passion for design, Finland’s capital has transformed itself from overlooked city break destination into a Nordic success story.

Photographs By Veera Papinoja & Lola Akinmade Åkerström
Published 23 Nov 2020, 08:00 GMT
Central Library Oodi offers open plan meeting spaces.

Central Library Oodi, a sinuous vision in glass and wood, offers open plan meeting spaces.

Photograph by Veera Papinoja

“At the start, it was hard,” Luka Balać says. “But it was great to see how quickly suppliers were willing to change their practices to work with us. Now, we’re really in the groove.”

So in the groove that it’s a wonder he has a spare minute or two to pop out from the kitchen to talk to me. With a cloth draped over his shoulder and his face shiny with perspiration from the heat of the oven, Luka is keen to explain the methods and the principles underpinning Nolla, one of Helsinki’s trendiest and most ethical eateries. You could look at Nolla as a superb example of cross-European co-operation — the other co-founders, Carlos Henriques and Albert Franch Sunyer are, respectively, Portuguese and Spanish; Balac is Serbian — but there’s far more to this dining hotspot than an exchange-project ethos. Irritated by the amount of food tossed into the bin in their prior roles in other kitchens, in February 2018 the trio decided to launch a ‘zero-waste’ restaurant where even the bread is recycled into toasted caramel ice cream, wine-bottle corks are composted and ‘single-use plastic’ is an obscene phrase.

“We only use seasonal Finnish ingredients,” Balac continues. “If we can’t source any lemons, we don’t cook with them. It’s about a mindset, about making people think before throwing something out. We aren’t perfect, but we do our best. And we’re getting better.” 

You might say the same of the Finnish capital. Helsinki was never unappealing, but if you’d paid a visit 10 years ago, you’d have encountered a flinty Nordic city going about its business without much flamboyance. Its harbour was drably functional rather than fabulous, its food scene pleasant but unimaginative. Fast forward a decade, and it’s almost unrecognisable, its waterfront alive and excited, options for dinner myriad and magical, bright new pieces of architecture lighting up its (still historic) centre.

At the heart of the matter lies the Design District. Created as one of the centrepieces of Helsinki’s year as World Design Capital in 2012, it’s grown to cast its spell across downtown areas such as Kamppi, Kruununhaka and Kaartinkaupunki — glimpsed in 200 fashion stores and jewellery boutiques — and inspired an upsurge in creativity across the city. The wind may still blow cold off the Baltic, but here, at least, Finland has never been hotter.

The futuristic skylights at Amos Rex gallery, which stages temporary art shows.

Photograph by Lola Akinmade Åkerström

See & do


Allas Sea Pool: This literal hotspot has brought Finland’s sauna obsession out of the woods and lodged it in a prime position on the harbour. Visitors can take a dip in three outdoor pools (one of which uses unheated Baltic seawater) after sweating it up in a trio of sauna rooms. The uninitiated and unconvinced will be relieved to hear that, contrary to feverish overseas rumours, swimsuits are obligatory in mixed saunas. 

Design Museum: The Finnish instinct for invention is explored at this institution in Kaartinkaupunki, via exhibits taking in the likes of the Nokia phone boom of the 2000s, video game Angry Birds, Eero Aarnio’s iconic Bubble Chairs and the genius of architect and designer Alvar Aalto. 

Central Library Oodi: Perhaps the most dramatic of the recent architectural additions to the city, Central Library Oodi arrived at the end of 2018, a sinuous vision in glass and wood. Not just a temple to the written word — it holds over 100,000 tomes — there’s an innovative robotic book-delivery system and potted trees between the shelves, as well as a cinema and a busy cafe. 

Kiasma: The library’s cool companion on Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki’s contemporary art museum, revels in works by Finnish visionaries, including Aarne Jamsa, Raimo Kanerva, Torger Enckell and Ismo Kajander, plus wonders by artists from around Europe. 

Amos Rex: Opened in 2018, this stylish gallery stages temporary art shows but is as much an exhibit itself as anything it displays, due to the striking way it’s been moulded into the Lasipalatsi (‘glass palace’), a 1930s office building on the main drag, Mannerheimintie. Don’t forget your camera, to snap the futuristic, bulging concrete domes behind it, housing skylights that illuminate the underground galleries. 

Helsinki cathedral: The Finnish capital has no shortage of photogenic churches, but its Lutheran cathedral is undoubtedly the most beautiful, rising above the centre in a haze of neoclassical columns and onion domes that wouldn’t look out of place in St Petersburg. 

Suomenlinna: This fortress, spread across eight islands three miles out to sea, bears testament to Helsinki’s history of subjugation. Now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Suomnelinna was built by Sweden in 1748, at a time when (what is now) Finland was ruled by Stockholm. It’s since become an emblem of national pride and a popular picnic spot for Helsinkians. Ferries sail regularly from Market Square. 

Skywheel: This harbourfront Ferris wheel comes with a distinctly Finnish twist: one of its gondolas is a sauna. Obviously. 

Polish artist Mariusz Robaskiewicz paints the city.

Photograph by Veera Papinoja

Buy


Lokal: A highlight of the Design District, this gallery-cum-shop focuses on promoting Helsinki designers. The front of the store is used for monthly exhibitions; the rear sells works by the likes of Jatta Lavi, whose ceramic milk cartons are a quirky joy. “We showcase artists who aren’t household names — yet,” says manager Kati Ruohomäki. 

Lovia: A chic boutique that challenges head-on the accusation that the fashion world doesn’t do enough to reduce its environmental footprint. Its bags are made using excess material from the food industry, such as elk leather and salmon scales, and each one sold sports a ‘Transparency DNA’ label, which explains where every component was sourced. 

Metsä/Skogen: You couldn’t dream of a more devotedly Finnish shop than this calm gem on Mannerheimintie. Here, you can buy wild-herb tea and recycled-textile clothes in a store gently fragrant with pine, and to a forest soundtrack of rustling leaves and twittering birds. 

Chaga mushroom cappuccinos at the Metsä/Skogen concept store on Mannerheimintie.

Photograph by Veera Papinoja

Eat


Yes Yes Yes: Helsinki feels an utterly appropriate place to bump into this sort of culinary metamorphosis: a former McDonald’s reimagined as a gourmet lunch spot (you can still see the old red tiles on the walls). The menu keeps matters vegetarian and vegan, with the likes of a roasted sweet potato with beetroot aioli, and a beetroot risotto with gorgonzola on offer. 

Jord: Linda and Filip Stenman-Langhoff used to run the Michelin-starred Restaurant Ask at this discreet premises in Kruununhaka, but decided to recalibrate in late 2019, reopening as an oasis of Nordic comfort food such as venison with parsnip and spruce shoots.

Nolla: At this ‘waste-free’ restaurant, cling-film and tinfoil are banned and frying fats are reconstituted as soap. Equal rigour has clearly been applied to what’s served up to patrons. Four- and six-course tasting menus feature the likes of whitefish with pea cream, and pike with apple-and-rose-flavoured quince jelly. 

Vegetarian dishes at YEs Yes Yes, a vegetarian and vegan gourmet lunch spot set in a former McDonald's.

Photograph by Veera Papinoja

After hours


Badger & Co: You could easily overlook this neighbourhood watering hole, which sits quietly in a corner building in Kaartinkaupunki. But step inside, and you’re greeted by stripped-back brickwork and coffee-table art tomes stacked on windowsills. Closed on Mondays, it stays open during the rest of the week until as late as 2am, with a 4-6pm happy ‘hour’. 

Om’pu: Kallio has been Helsinki’s ugly duckling neighbourhood for much of the last decade, blossoming from dingy district to bohemian swan in recent years. It displays its hipster ambience in a number of bars, including Om’pu, an unpretentious pub where residents chatter through the evening amid the ring-ring of fruit machines and the sipping of punchy beers. 

Bronda: Part restaurant, part sleek nightspot, Bronda enjoys a fine location, gazing onto the green corridor that is the Esplanadi promenade. Choose a bottle from the enormous glass tower of a wine rack, which climbs to the very ceiling. 

A bartender making a cocktail at Bronda.

Photograph by Veera Papinoja & Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Sleep


Klaus K: Slotted into an art nouveau building, this centrally located design hotel nods to the Kalevala, Finland’s national poem with murals of fair maidens with fiery hair and bearded gods holding aloft majestic birds of prey. The long roof terrace is a plum spot for a tipple. From €124 (£113).

Marski bu Scandic: A sizeable four-star on Mannerheimintie, but one with a pleasing element of soul. The ground floor is largely given over to an open-plan bar and restaurant area where evenings are whiled away to the sound of chatter and clinking glasses. From €138 (£125). 

Hotel Kämp: Arguably Finland’s foremost five-star, Hotel Kämp has exuded a refined grandeur since 1887. The retreat of choice for rock stars and royalty, it’s known for its decadent afternoon teas as much as its accommodation. From €243 (£221). 

Havis Amanda fountain in Market Square.

Photograph by Veera Papinoja

Like a local


Early Bird: Need to recover from the night before? This brunch spot is the place to bring yourself back to life and here, the voices are local and the portions large. Vegan options are available, and ‘early’ is more the name than the reality — breakfast is served all day. 

Hietaranta beach: The Baltic isn’t famed for its sunbathing beaches, but the Finnish capital has more than its fair share. The most popular is Hietaranta Beach, a broad crescent of sand on the west side of the centre, in Töölö. On a summer’s day, it could almost pass for the Côte d’Azur. 

Teurastamo: Two miles north of the centre, in the once-industrial district of Vilhonvuori, this open-air collection of bars, eateries and artisan stalls opened in 2012 on the site of a former slaughterhouse. Concerts are also held in the striking complex, which is packed with original architectural features. 

Early Bird is a cafe loved by locals for its all-day breakfast.

Photograph by Veera Papinoja

Essentials

Getting there & around
Finnair flies direct to Helsinki from Edinburgh, Heathrow, Dublin and Manchester; British Airways from Heathrow; and Norwegian from Gatwick.
Average flight time: 2h 50m.
Helsinki Airport is on the Ring Rail Line, which whisks passengers to the central train station in around 30 minutes (take the ‘P’ train going south east for the fastest route). Fares start at €5.50 (£5). One-day passes covering all local trams, trains and buses in the central zones A and B cost from €8 (£7.25) for two days and €16 (£14.50) for three days. The centre is compact enough to explore on foot or via hired City Bikes (hsl.fi).

When to go
Helsinki endures long winters (November to March) where the northerly latitude means mid-afternoon dusks and single-digit temperatures, although the city has a cosy charm in these months. The flipside is a summer (May to September) with highs in the low 20Cs complemented by up to 19 hours of daylight.

More information
myhelsinki.fi
visitfinland.com

How to do it
Regent Holidays offers three-night breaks from £545 per person, including flights, B&B accommodation at Original Sokos Hotel Helsinki and private airport transfers. Finnair flies direct to Helsinki from Heathrow from £96 return. 

Published in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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