If you thought Helsinki was little more than the introvert of the Scandinavian family, then think again. It’s true the city has at times been weighed down by a certain inferiority complex — a result perhaps of the centuries old tug-of-war occupations by Swedish and Russian empires — but the Finnish capital has shaken off any self-esteem issues in recent years. In today’s Nordic family, Helsinki is the design-obsessed art graduate who buys organic, locally sourced produce, eats out of rough-and-ready food trucks, drinks artisan coffee by the bucket load, shuns pop music over alternative, edgy scenes, and wears ecologically crafted clothes from emerging Finnish designers.
A small but glorious maritime city of 315 islands, Helsinki has an unmistakable Scandinavian swagger in step with its strong design heritage and age-old cafe culture, but it’s in many ways closer in attitude and looks to Eastern Europe across the Baltic — as seen in its pre-communist Russian-inspired imperial buildings.
In a city dominated by its harbour, many of Helsinki’s key attractions are understandably waterside, from the UNESCO-listed sea fortress Suomenlinna and bustling Market Square to the handsome beaches and woodlands of recreational islands such as Pihlajasaari. But the modern city is defined as much by its young, urban sprawls as it is by its waterfront and nowhere is this more apparent than the emerging district of Kallio.
This former working-class neighbourhood in the city’s east was once a no-go area. But with an influx of artists, students and immigrants fleeing extortionately high rents in the city centre, Kallio has witnessed an explosion of independent boutiques, bohemian bars and hipster cafes, without losing any of its original charm. Once you cross Helsinki’s Pitkäsilta Bridge — a historic dividing line between the city’s rich and poor — liberal-minded and unpretentious Kallio is a place you’ll find old working men’s institutions and dilapidated warehouses alongside vintage stores, cafes and pop-up galleries. Locals here talk of the ‘Kallio spirit’, a certain kind of community, creativity and openness not easily found in other parts of the city, but it’s helping define the Helsinki of today.
Where to eat
Nowhere typifies Helsinki’s culinary revolution better than Teurastamo (the Abattoir), the city’s growing gastronomic hub set in a former Kallio slaughterhouse with food markets, grills and artisan shops spread around its main public courtyard.
There’s even a public grill for the hungry masses, but most leave the barbecuing to the experts over at B-Smokery. When its owners aren’t managing their film production company upstairs, they’re tending to a one-ton apple, maple and oak wood-fed BBQ-smoker, capable of holding up to 200kg of mouth-melting meat.
At the heart of the Abattoir is restaurant and food hall Kellohalli (Clock Hall), established by Helsinki chef and restaurateur Antto Melasniemi, and serving mostly seasonal, organic food. Ex-keyboard player for Finland’s pop goth outfit HIM, Melasniemi is seen as something of a local food visionary with his Helsinki portfolio including restaurants Ateljé Finne, Putte’s Bar & Pizzeria and Kuurna. The latter, in the Kruununhaka neighbourhood, offers casual but perfectly executed Finnish classics with a slightly modern touch.
Another Helsinki food scene to explode in recent years is the weekend brunch, with Kallio offering the best in town. Sandro is feted for its North-African vegan dishes such as ginger tofu tagine, while opposite the Hakaniemi Market Hall, Cafe Talo is a popular hybrid of street bar, cafe, theatre and restaurant.
Meanwhile, a long-standing favourite is Galleria Keidas, the cafe outpost of Helsinki’s Good Pie Bakery, which offers an excellent turn in huevos rancheros — Mexican-style eggs.
Once again, Kallio is the place to mingle with the city’s young urbanites, with its glut of laid-back bars and fashionably scruffy haunts. Graffiti-strewn Siltanen is a magnet for the city’s hipper-than-hip, running as an all-day venue offering brunch, afternoon burgers, evening gigs and after-hours clubbing.
Siltanen forms a golden nightclub triangle in Kallio, with nearby establishments Kaiku and Kuudes Linja — the latter considered one of Helsinki’s top music venues — while Suvilahti is a huge former power plant and gasworks hosting regular concerts and festivals, including the eclectic Flow in August.
Over in Punavuori there’s the curiously named We Got Beef — half American dinner, half ‘70s student cafeteria, its DJs play everything from old soul and ‘90s grunge to nu jazz and electro. Further north towards central, Putte’s Bar & Pizza attracts a similarly diverse crowd.
It’s no secret that Finns love their hard rock — Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickson crowned Helsinki the heavy metal capital of the world — and there are plenty of clubs stuffed with rockers, roadies and wannabe bands. Centrally located Tavastia is a Helsinki institution. On the Rocks, meanwhile, hosts up-and-coming acts and comes into its own in the summer when it opens a huge outdoor terrace along the Railway Square.
The epicentre of Helsinki’s style scene is Punavuori, the ‘Design District’, with nearly 200 independent shops, cafes, bars and galleries packed into a grid of 25 streets. Look out for the round black-and-white Design District window stickers. Whether you’re a scrupulous bargain hunter or cash-flushed fashionista, a wander through the district’s closely-knit streets reaps plenty of rewards, from the antique farmhouse collectibles of Fasaani to the playful patterned homeware — tea towels, bags, cushion covers — of Kauniste, a collective of young Finnish textile designers.
For exclusive jewellery and glass art head to Raw North. This collaborative boutique and showroom features the works of 10 different designers, while housing a backroom workshop where customers can watch artists such as Noora Ojala create pieces by hand.
Over in Kallio you’re more likely to unearth vintage treasures in stores such as Frida Marina and Hoochie Mama Jane — the latter’s owner Irja Nuru was something of a trailblazer when she set up shop in 2009. She says the vintage trend only really took off a couple of years ago when shoppers began to distinguish curated vintage stores from jumble flea markets. Now Finns, it seems, can’t get enough of her impeccably sourced collection of eveningwear from the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Top 10 local tips
02 Head to Kallio’s Bear Park Cafe and quiz the lederhosen-clad owner Mikko Autio on his top Helsinki tips.
03 Visit Sivukirjasto, a pub-cum-library, with 150 beers and book-lined walls.
04 Pick-up ruisreikäleipä (flat Finnish rye bread) at Leipomo KE Avikainen (Frazeninkuja 10), where its 89-year-old matriarch has been baking since 1955.
05 Base yourself at the boutique Scandic Paasi hotel, on the edge of Kallio, minutes from the city centre.
06 Take the 40-minute ferry over to idyllic island Kaunissaari for its beautiful crowd-free beaches.
07 For an inexpensive sightseeing tour take Tram 2, running past several of the city’s top sights. For architecture, take Tram 4.
08 Between the city centre and Kaivopuisto Park lies Observatory Park, offering some of the best city views.
09 Invest in a Helsinki Card on arrival for free museum entry, unlimited public transport and citywide discounts — 48 hours costs €54 (£41).
10 For a true taste of Finland, order salmon soup or meatballs with mashed potatoes and brandy sauce at Ravintola Tori.
Drakama över Helsingfors (Kites Over Helsinki), by author and journalist Kjell Westö. The book was adapted into a film of the same name.
On Screen: For many years during the Cold War, filmmakers used Helsinki as a stand-in for Russian cities, particularly Moscow or St Petersburg, in films such as Gorky Park, Doctor Zhivago and Reds. ‘Gorky Park’ is actually Kaisaniemi Park in central Helsinki.
Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)