Helsinki is one of the coldest cities in the world which shouldn’t be too surprising to any readers. It is just a few parallels shy of the Arctic Circle after all. That doesn’t stop the people from radiating warmth in the most unexpected and quirky ways. What does that mean? All you have to do is look at a map in the city’s streets and you’re sure to find a local offering to help direct you to where you’re heading. (Trust me, I got lost often and this always happened!)
There are a few cities that melt my heart and make me go starry-eyed, and Helsinki is one of them. I hadn’t planned on visiting, but sometimes the unplanned can be fated. It was 2013 and I was headed to Croatia (I know, they’re not exactly neighbours). So how did I end up in Helsinki? I booked myself a Finnair flight and chose the longest layovers so I can sample the Finnish capital.
When in Helsinki, eat as the Stadilainen do.
The Baltic Sea yields some incredible salmon, and the most melt-in-your-mouth fillet used to be at the sadly now-defunct Fanny. I haven’t forgotten about this place since the moment I sampled the goods and was sad to hear of its closing. However! Good news for everyone: the owner of Fanny has opened up a new restaurant called Southpark Restaurant (address: Bulevardi 40) in the same location as Fanny, right at the corner of Sinebrychoff Park in the city’s Punavuori neighbourhood. The format is similar, offering brunch, a lunch buffet, and dinner, with a slew of healthy options that will have your mouth watering. The location and modern décor of the restaurant go well in the area, known as Helsinki’s design district. Top it off with a peaceful stroll in the park for the ultimate afternoon.
Finland is famous for their reindeer, and the game meat can be found pretty much everywhere! From the corner pub to the finest Finnish ravintola (that’s restaurant in Finnish as I quickly learned), reindeer comes in all shapes and sizes. Hamburgers, stew, grilled, or in sausage form, you name it, they make it. The most renowned of all is Lappi (address: Annankatu 22), located in the central Kamppi neighbourhood of Helsinki, offering all kinds of Finnish classics including all incarnations of reindeer in a traditionally rustic woodsy cabin décor.
A trip to Helsinki isn’t complete without sampling the ultimate in Finnish sweets: the bun. The traditional Finnish bun is big, fluffy, and spiced with cardamom. Then things get all wild and crazy: it’s all about the slapped ears and buttery eyes! The colourful names basically describe what the fluffy sweet buns look like. The slapped ears (or korvapuusti) are sweet rolls resembling tiny croissants, whereas the buttery eyes (or voisilmäpulla) looks like a donut with sugar and melted butter in the centre. You really can’t go wrong with either, and when you wash it down with a cup of coffee from one of Helsinki’s trendy cafes and you just wrapped up the perfect foodie day. Stop by Café Esplanad (address: Pohjoisesplanadi 37) or Café Regatta (address: Merikannontie 8) to satisfy your sweet tooth.
For such a Northern city, Helsinki has ample green space to enjoy the warmer months al fresco. Esplanade Park in Kamppi offers a spot to slow down from the city buzz and plays host to events, while Kaivopuisto in the upscale Ullanlinna neighbourhood, bordered by the Baltic’s tiny islands, offers amazing views of the harbour. Further north in the Töölö neighbourhood is Sibelius Park with a monument dedicated to the Finnish composer Sibelius and a pretty impressive sight on its own were it not surrounded by beautiful pine trees and bordering on the water.
A day at the spa takes on new meaning in Helsinki. This is the definitive must do in Finland. While the best saunas are outside Helsinki, the city holds a few gems for those who don’t want to make the trek. Kick it old school at Kotiharjun Sauna (address: Harjutorinkatu 1), the city’s last remaining wood-heated public sauna, or enjoy views of the Baltic from the modern Löyly Design Sauna in Kaivopuisto.
Travel tip: Check the opening times before you go, because a lot of the saunas open in the afternoon. If you’re in Helsinki for a short break (like I was), this is some info to know beforehand so you can work around it.
The city used to be a fortified against the threat of Russian insurgence for a long time. Those days are fortunately behind Finland, but what remains is something to be experienced. Suomenlinna is a UNESCO World Heritage site located off the Baltic shores of Helsinki, accessible by ferry. It’s essentially like a tiny oasis away from the hubbub of the city, where you can spend a day walking the fortifications and getting to know the coloured history of Finland, under Swedish and Russian rules, then finally under independence. The number of quaint eateries and watering holes will keep you peacefully occupied for as long as you’d like.
Whether you’re religious or not, Helsinki’s churches are a sight to behold. The churches run from traditional, with the ornate Finnish orthodox Uspenski cathedral and snow white Helsinki cathedral, to the starkly modern, with the church in the rocks Temppeliaukion and the Kamppi chapel of silence, basically displaying the breadth of the famed Finnish design.
Hotels in central Helsinki are fairly Scandinavian in price (read: not cheap) but won’t set you back as far as you might expect. Staying in Kamppi will have you situated well to explore the city’s neighbourhoods and attractions.
The Glo Art Hotel (address: Lönnrotinkatu 29) is big hotel that still manages to feel cozy, with a cavernous Art Nouveau lobby that used to be the main floor of a castle a century ago. However things change once you head to your room. Organized in groups of varying size and style, there is a room for every kind of stay. The rooms are Scandi-chic and tiny details welcome you upon entry. Its location on one of the quieter streets in Kamppi is perfect for a good night’s sleep but it’s still a short stroll away from shops and restaurants.
Meanwhile on the lively pedestrian portion of Kalevankatu street, Hotel Finn (address: Kalevankatu 9) is the fun and funky kid on the block, touting the “not a five star hotel” tagline. The rooms run cozier (i.e. smaller) than most hotel rooms and are individually designed by local artists to provide a unique stay no matter the size. Located just around the corner from Lappi and a ton of shops and eateries, Hotel Finn is a really good place to stay for people who like to get out there and explore their surroundings until the wee hours of the night.
No matter your expectations of Helsinki, the city’s eclectic heart is sure to appeal. But don’t take it from me! Go check out the Daughter of the Baltic with your own eyes!