Perched by the sea on the edge of the Baltic, Helsinki is a cosmopolitan city of modernity and cutting-edge style. Famous for it's saunas, Helsinki’s high-tech achievements blend with a pristine natural environment and the picturesque city curves around bays filled with busy boats in hunt of herring. While not exactly an ancient fortress, walking around town you’ll still uncover layers of history nestled against the modern architecture that gives an obvious indication of Helsinki’s future. Visits are recommended during Helsinki’s buzzing endless summer days, but for the daring there’s still plenty to do here on a long winter night.
Helsinki is so quiet in winter it almost stands still but come spring and summer, the city centre is densely packed and brimming with sights easily explored on foot. Take in the marble-clad Finlandia Hall, newly built Helsinki Music Center, and the Eliel Saarinen-designed train station. A church carved from rock with a stunning copper dome, and Suomenlinna, once the greatest sea fortress in the Baltic are other Helsinki attractions not to miss. Continue your stroll along Mannerheimintie, often compared to a small scale of New York's Broadway, then onto the Esplanade, a well-preserved 19th century street along the bay. Here’s the place to warm up on some local fare and observe the hurrying Helsinki harbourside at a much slower pace.
Though Finish food may have a reputation for meat and potatoes, Helsinki is home to many cosmopolitan restaurants where you can splurge on some of the freshest and best seafood anywhere in the world. For a local delicacy try Vorschmack, an unusually tasty mix of herring and minced lamb, served with chopped pickles and sour cream. Old Market Hall is a great place to sample Finnish gourmet food such as the infamous dried reindeer. While you’re there try to find the stall selling beaver sausage. Yes beaver! If you’ve had enough meat, Central Helsinki is home to a United Nations of international cuisine. Perhaps not surprisingly, Russia is well represented in Helsinki's food scene. In fact during the communist days of the Soviet Union, many believed the best Russian restaurants in the world were across the border in Helsinki.
Where to Stay
Helsinki is famous for its luxury accommodation and design hotels are all the rage at the moment (see the Egyptian cotton sheets at Klaus K Hotel). It’s not only the top end options either as catwalk like room fit outs coupled with top quality restaurants and bars are the norm at most mid to high-end options. Though most luxury hotels in Helsinki do charge a premium, at many of them you can find smaller rooms at cheaper prices. Interestingly, since many places cater to business travelers, rates can fall by as much as 50% on weekends, making Helsinki perfect for an affordable weekend getaway.
Fans of Nordic design will find plenty to lust after when shopping in Helsinki. Helsinki's main shopping street Aleksanterinkatu (Aleksi), runs from Senate Square to Mannerheimintie and is where you can lose a few hours at the largest department store in Scandinavia, Stockmann. Kamppi is equally popular and is where you’ll find the shopping centres Kamppi and Forum and the department store Sokos. For something more bespoke, head to the area known as the Design District. Located in the pretty streets of Punavuori and Southernmost blocks of Helsinki, here you’ll find more than 100 specialty stores showcasing the best in Finnish fashion and design.
Helsinki Like a Local
The age-old cliché is that saunas are to Finns what pubs are to Brits. That makes a visit to the 1920s built Yrjönkatu swimming hall essential! It’s here where the president and other Finnish dignitaries swim, but only on certain days (open to women on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday to men). The appeal though isn’t just the saunas and pools but also the stunning architecture and unique atmosphere. And don’t be intimidated by the naked bodies – it’s fine to put your swimmers on.