With a mostly-flat terrain, Helsinki is a great city for walking and cycling; ideal for discovering the many Art Nouveau, neoclassical, modernist and functionalist architectural delights. Sustainability has also long been a priority and the city aims to be carbon neutral by 2035.
Regularly topping ‘best country to live in’ lists, the Finns have mastered an ideal work-life balance, ensuring time spent in this vibrant Nordic capital invigorates the soul, while ticking all the boxes for a short break adventure.
WHAT TO PACK
The Torni, which means tower in Finnish, made history in 1931 when it opened as the tallest building in Helsinki. Maintaining its cultural landmark status for nearly a centenary, the hotel has recently spent two years refurbishing, reopening in April 2022. Preserving the original features that made the Torni so beloved was key, and the protected stained-glass windows and original staircase have never looked more ravishing. The celebration of art and culture is intrinsic: refreshed bedrooms are full of the joys of hygge with clean, simple lines and a classic Nordic palette, as well as exclusively-commissioned prints from Finnish artist, Ari Pelkonen; in the hallways, composer Petri Alanko takes guests on a journey through a day in the life of the Torni through an original musical piece; and the foyer boasts both Faye Toogood’s glorious Hem Puffy Lounge chair and Gaetano Pesce’s “Big Mama” – each demanding to be sunk into. Eclectic dining options include art-deco cosiness in the domed American Bar; the blarney of Helsinki’s first Irish pub; and rooftop bar, Ateljee – the city’s finest panoramic vantage point, and its only zeppelin landing station. Sampling the chef’s freshly-baked sourdough is a must at breakfast alongside smoked salmon mousse, onion herring or a divine mango and coconut overnight oats.
The Mannerheim Suite, overlooking Esplanadi Park has hosted many of the world’s most powerful personalities and visiting musicians such as Madonna and The Rolling Stones. Roger Moore is fondly remembered for only ever ordering oatmeal, honey and tea (stirred, not shaken) during his multiple stays. Modernity is at the forefront of the spacious spa and there is plenty of character throughout the property. The excellent staff strive to ensure their guests’ experiences at the Hotel Kämp become treasured memories, as attested to by the hordes of returning visitors.
A welcome addition to Helsinki’s burgeoning hotel scene in 2020, family-owned, pet-friendly Hotel U14 is a modern boutique property, with a prime location by the harbour and Market Square. Bedrooms are chic and comfortable, and thoughtfully designed to maximise space. Warm muted palettes are enlivened by splashes of bold colour from bright squishy sofas, jungletastic cushions and limited edition pieces by local artists. The animal renderings and rarely-spotted merman embroidery on fluffy white towels is a fun way to distinguish which towel belongs to which person, just one of many charming touches offered here. The intense zinger of the carrot and ginger morning shot, served at the extensive buffet breakfast, is the perfect way to set up for a day of discovery. And a big hurrah for the “slow start” to the day courtesy of the Saturday and Sunday slow breakfasts, running from 8AM to 2PM, further making U14 an ideal weekending base. Book a Corner room for the watery view and enjoy long luxurious soaks in the bath using “I Love Eco Essentials” heavenly products.
Eat + Drink
Spis is a modest, 18-seater Nordic restaurant. What it lacks in square footage, it more than compensates for in experiential gourmet creativity. Several courses are personally served by talented chef, Pauli Hakala, whose enthusiasm never wanes – regardless of how many times he explains the provenance of each composition to diners. Ingredients are seasonal, and the vegetable-based menu uses only the freshest produce, with at least one fish and meat entrée offered. Relinquish your choices to the maestro, who artfully prepares dishes to tantalise, surprise and delight the taste buds. Wine pairings are equally accomplished, courtesy of sommelier, Marcus. Booking is essential.
Utilising its location on the second floor of the newly renovated Hakaniemi Market Hall, Kirsikka sources its ingredients from the smart stalls below. The spacious room is full of interesting pieces, individually sourced by owner, Ville Relander. His other restaurant, Madonna – also in Helsinki – follows the same template of creating a beautiful and welcoming dining space, where adept, hearty and unpretentious food is served.
Yes Yes Yes
Serving vegetarian food in a fun environment, flavour is paramount at Yes Yes Yes. The menu changes seasonally and sources locally, but expect shareable dips such as whipped tahini, lingonberry, beetroots, chickpea, fennel and pistachio alongside hearty favourites including cashew ricotta, seasonal fruit, grilled sugar snap, melon, radish and chimichurri.
With a lively terrace next to the Helsinki Design Museum, Badger&Co is an eco and pet-friendly, neighbourhood cocktail bar. Expect bar bites such as pita and parmesan potatoes alongside organic wines and delicious cocktail concoctions, many made with Finnish favourite, Kyrö whiskies. Top tip: if you’re a fan of Kyrö, arrive at Helsinki airport early for your departure and stock up – the full range of whiskies can be found for purchase here.
Things To Do
Oodi Library opened in 2018, using budget from the centennial: a gift from the city to the city. The building’s interior and exterior are both worthy of a long look around, and this masterpiece of architecture extends the remit of what a library can be. Learn how to DJ, book time in the recording studio, or play the latest computer games with friends. Oodi has fast become the central hub for the city’s residents and visitors of all ages, and it’s easy to see why.
Aalto House and Studio
Alvar Aalto is known as the godfather of Finnish architecture, and a visit to Aalto House and Studio is to pay homage to his home and architectural office. The house – and nearby studio – that Aalto designed, lived and worked in illuminates how enduring his many creations of deceptively simple beauty and practicality, truly are. Tours take around an hour at each.
Only the Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma, could have pulled off the audacity of Tom of Finland’s recent retrospective. Blushes were spared at the highly-graphic content and an elegance and maturity pervaded. This lovingly put together tribute to one of the city’s finest artists, saw him finally celebrated in mainstream culture. Through 2024, stop by to soak up exhibitions including Feels Like Home which explores the themes of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’, and the work of South African multimedia artist, Dineo Seshee Raisibe Bopape.
Opened in 1969 and one of Helsinki’s must-visit landmarks, this remarkable church was built into a solid rock, meaning, from street level, you look directly over its dome-shaped copper rooftop. The rest of the church, located underground, shows off craggy stone walls. Designed by architect brothers, the Suomalainens, the close proximity it shares with nature alongside the soothing tones of its piano (and wonderful acoustics) make this an inviting space to visit for contemplation.
This excellent and informative museum is home to the best of Finnish and overseas design, showcasing local innovations which have made a worldwide impact. Current exhibitions include Utopia Now – the story of Finnish Design with creations from the 1950s and a solo exhibition by Swedish designer, Jenny Nordberg.
Visit An Archipelago
Boats to Helsinki’s nearby archipelago leave from the city every 20 minutes, and journey through a series of tiny islands before arriving at Vallisaari, host of the Helsinki Biennial. While the next Biennial won’t take place until summer 2025, this is a place of stunning natural beauty and is worth a visit regardless. Boat tickets can also be used to visit the islands of Lonna and Suomenlinna.
Where To Shop
Helsinki has many shopping areas, but our favourite to meander around is the Design District, founded 20 years ago and home to many a unique and bespoke item.
Highlights in the Design District include Vuokko where Mere Eskolin, the niece of legendary fashion and homeware designers, Antti and Vuokko Nurmesniemi, keeps the work of her aunt and uncle alive. At nearby Nest, the homeware stands out too, thanks to the pretty floral displays by Wild Things with whom they share the space.
Eiring cookery shop has an extensive collection of all things culinary-related (we were particularly captivated by the quirky selection of cookie cutters), while just a minutes’ walk away, stop off at chocolatier, Annan Suklaathetas’s eponymous store for divine looking – and tasting – seasonal creations. Anna also hosts workshops, letting the sweet-toothed in on the secrets of her recipes.
Craftsmanship is very much the message in this area, and nowhere more so than at Pihka, a leather workshop making bags and shoes. They too, run workshops – where the price of the item participants choose to make is included in the cost. For more art and design, head to Momono where you’ll find a fabulous selection, while Lokal Gallery provides a wonderful space to see the work of emerging artists in close proximity, and Sinne showcases both international and local art.
If you want to add to your wardrobe, the vintage scene is big in Helsinki and Helsinki Second Hand is a large Aladdin’s cave of a store where rummaging is irresistible. Testament to the Finn’s commitment to sustainability and recycling, Helsinki Airport hosts the world’s first secondhand airport shop or, for conscious yet luxe knitwear, check out online-only, Helsinki-born Almada Label.
Lead image credit: Solo Sokos Hotel Torni, Helsinki
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