It takes little more than a stroll over the cobblestones of Kauppatori square for a visitor to Helsinki to understand the culture clash that makes the Finnish capital so intriguing.
Immediately ahead, on the fluttering waters of the Gulf of Finland, at least one colossal ship will be moored — one of the giant ferries that chug in and out of this busy port every day, hauling passengers across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, Stockholm and St Petersburg.
And yet, off to the right, your eye is drawn to the elegant stretch of the Esplanadi, a leafy promenade that echoes the Champs Elysées as it forges a westward path away from the harbour — chic restaurants, al fresco cafes and gilded hotels dotted on each side.
Here is Helsinki in a microcosm: a working metropolis where maritime life still dominates the waterfront, but where relaxation is an art form.
Maybe it’s this combination that has long caused the city to be coveted. For the capital of Finland has, officially, been Finnish for less than a century. It was founded as a trading post by Sweden (then the major power of the Nordic world) in 1550, hit its stride in 1808 when Russia conquered the region and greatly expanded its new possession, and donned the robes of independence in 1917 when the October Revolution saw its chains fall away.
This tug-of-war history is equally visible in Kauppatori square, where a statue dedicated to Tsar Alexander I still surveys the former Russian realm and ferries depart for the huge offshore island fortress of Suomenlinna, built by Sweden to protect its outpost in 1748.
And yet there is more to Helsinki than its past. Culture abounds in the museums posted in and around the central Rautatientori square, lively bars are strewn across the Kamppi and Kallio districts, and 21st century cool swaggers amid the arty boutiques of Punavuori. Helsinki has been designated the World Design Capital for 2012, and this latter quarter will be the heartland of this celebration, its forward-thinking aesthetic enshrined in the Design Forum, where the works of over 200 young Finnish creatives go on display.
And all of this is easily accessible. Helsinki is a compact place, easy to explore on foot — at any time of year. High summer brings near-endless daylight and a joyful ambience, yet the darkness of winter merely adds dramatic atmosphere to the understated charm of the city.
See & do
■ The Tuomiokirkko: This vision in white is undoubtedly Helsinki’s most striking structure, a 19th-century cathedral that shines on Senaatintori square. Outwardly ornate, topped by green domes and gold crucifixes, its doors shelter an interior of pale simplicity and quiet piety. www.helsinginseurakunnat.fi
■ Ateneum Museum: Perched on Rautatientori square, the Ateneum is Finland’s National Gallery, showcasing keynote slabs of domestic art by painters such as Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Albert Edelfelt and Helene Schjerfbeck, alongside a smattering of works by the likes of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cézanne. www.ateneum.fi
■ Suomenlinna fortress: Stretched out across an archipelago of six islets a mile into the bay, the Suomenlinna fortress still exudes military might, all thick walls and cannons bristling in defiance — so much so that its strength is recognised by Unesco World Heritage status. Note the Kirkkopuisto church, which also operates as a lighthouse. www.suomenlinna.fi
■ A walk in the park: Back on the mainland, Kaivopuisto, Helsinki’s main park, is not vast — but it occupies a prime spot at the city’s southernmost ebb. Laid out in the 1830s to cater for the weekend ambling habits of Russian aristocrats, it retains a certain nobility two centuries on.
■ Kiasma: The Museum Of Contemporary Art, displays an ever changing array of multi-media exhibitions in a building of concrete and glass, with thought-provoking installations, angular sculptures and a heady devotion to the cutting edge. www.kiasma.fi
■ The Kansallismuseo: Huddled within a curious faux-Gothic castle, the Kansallismuseo — the National Museum of Finland – tells the country’s often turbulent back story from the Stone Age to the present day via exhibits on Sámi culture and folk traditions, a Tsarist throne room and a splendidly weird cluster of antique dolls’ houses. www.kansallismuseo.fi
■ The Seurasaari Open-Air Museum: A breezy contrast to the city, Seurasaari is another island offshoot, tucked away three miles north-west of the centre (reached via the 24 bus: www.hsl.fi). The Open-Air Museum eulogises the Finland of yore via a clutch of clapboard churches, wooden farm buildings and rustic beauty. www.nba.fi/en/museums
■ Linnanmaki: No Nordic city
would consider itself complete without a happily gaudy theme park. At Linnanmaki, 40 rides compete to whirl you into nausea — including Vuoristorata, a wooden rollercoaster bolted together as a temporary attraction in 1951 and still clattering along its hallowed track 60 years later. www.linnanmaki.fi
■ By design: Very much the centrepoint of the fashionable swirl of Punavuori, the Design Forum Shop sells everything from hip clothing and outlandish shoes to funky glassware and multi-coloured crockery. www.designforumshop.fi
■ Style city: Punavuori’s main retail options are pinned to the parallel streets of Uudenmaankatu and Iso Roobertinkatu. Small galleries and independent traders make a stand here — Nou Nou Design does further far-out kitchenware. www.nounoudesign.fi
■ Finnish favourite: The long boulevard of Aleksanterinkatu ranks as Helsinki’s main shopping drag. And Stockmann, dating back to 1930, is a department store in the classic sense — seven floors of everything you could imagine. www.stockmann.com
■ Fresh and fruity: Kauppatori is the keeper of the city’s soul in the market that holds court here every day (except on Sundays in winter) between 7am and 4pm, offering everything from fruits and seafood to meatballs and coffee.
Like a local
■ Let off steam: Few pastimes are more popular in Finland than the idea of upping body temperature in a steam-filled space. The Arlan Sauna, hidden in north-easterly Kallio, is one of Helsinki’s oldest, and has separate male and female zones. www.arlansauna.net
■ Seek out the sand: Helsinki’s coastal position means it boasts several urban beaches. A summer favourite is Hietaranta, out on a promontory to the west of the centre. Take buses 55A or 55AK from outside the train station on Rautatientori to reach this popular hotspot.
■ Visitor cards: The main tourist information office lurks at the east end of the Esplanadi, at Pohjoisesplanadi 19. Here, you can pick up the Helsinki Card, a visitor pass costing from €35 (£29) for 24 hours; €45 (£37) for 48 hours; €55 (£45) for 72 hours. Buying the card means you’re covered for public transport and most museums — this is relatively expensive; you need to visit at least three institutions to get good value. www.helsinkiexpert.com
Helsinki is hardly the cheapest city when it comes to hotels, and you will struggle to find a room for under €100 (£83) a night, although the general quality of accommodation is reliable.
£ Hotel Helka: City centre bolthole that touts a boutique ethos, with colourful furniture and bright fabrics, while charging three-star prices. For those planning to immerse themselves fully in the Finnish lifestyle, it also comes with its own sauna. www.helka.fi
££ Hotel Torni: A 1928 art deco dame nestled amid the youthful bars of Kamppi — see the sepia photos in reception showing the hotel shortly after its opening. But its calling card is the Ateljee Bar, a tower-top watering hole on the 14th floor. www.sokoshotels.fi
£££ Hotel Kamp: Helsinki’s five-star king occupies a look-at-me slot on the Esplanadi, as it has done since 1887 — Sibelius used to drink here. Refurbished in the late Nineties, it houses three tastebud-tempting restaurants. www.hotelkamp.com
As a capital city, Helsinki comes equipped with restaurants to suit all budgets. And while you could sate your appetite with a €5 (£4) plate of unpretentious grub from the Kauppatori market, you can also give your wallet a thorough going-over in upmarket gems.
£ Fazer: Directly opposite the Hotel Kamp, this coffee salon keeps up the 19th-century X-factor (it opened in 1891) via a range of cakes and pastries, and a house special — Fazer Chocolate Tea — sure to please the sweet of tooth. Ideal for lazy afternoons. www.fazer.fi
££ Bar Kanava: Pitched just off Kauppatori Square, this solid dockside restaurant does hearty meats, such as roast sirloin of Finnish beef with chorizo. www.royalravintolat.com
£££ G.W. Sundmans: Another slice of the past, established in 1817, dishing up prestige and prices to match. The menu relies heavily on seafood, and you can blow the budget on langoustine and monkfish. www.royalravintolat.com
■ While beer prices in Helsinki are as famously high as anywhere on the Nordic landmass, finding a venue that will keep lining up the shots well into the twilight hours is unlikely to be a difficult task.
■ Bar Molotow: The increasingly gentrified district of Kallio has a burgeoning bar scene including Bar Molotow — a grungy possibility with loud music, an outdoor terrace and a knowing insider feel. www.barmolotow.com
■ Corona and Kafe Moskva: Run by film-making brothers Aki and Mika Kaurismaki, these twin options light up Kamppi. A gloomy throwback to the Soviet era with a vodka list, Kafe Moskva is especially alluring. www.andorra.fi
■ Playground: Punavuori comes armed with many louche set-ups. On Iso Roobertinkatu, this underground nightclub does seductive electronic grooves well into the morning after.
Did you know?
Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium — which sits a mile north of the centre in the Toolo district — seemed to have missed its moment in history. It was built to stage the 1940 Olympics — only for the outbreak of the WWII to (unsurprisingly) cause the event’s cancellation. The arena eventually had its time in the sun when it hosted the 1952 Games.
The city’s main airport, Helsinki-Vantaa, hovers 12 miles north of the centre.
Blue1 and British Airways fly here daily from Heathrow, Norwegian flies every day from Gatwick, while Finnair offers daily flights from Manchester and Heathrow.
www.blue1.com www.ba.com www.norwegian.com www.finnair.com
Average flight time: 2h10m.
Helsinki is small enough that you need nothing more than comfy shoes to see it in depth. But you can find details on its transport system via the Helsinki Regional Transport website. Single tickets for buses, trains and trams are a flat €2 (£1.66) when bought in advance at metro stations and tram stops (although the metro mainly serves the suburbs). www.hsl.fi
When to go
Helsinki is at its most exuberant from May to August — but particularly in June, when midsummer brings warm temperatures and the fabulous spectacle of the Midnight Sun. Winter is correspondingly cold and dark, with little daylight in December and January.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.17.
International dialling code: 00 358 9.
Time difference: GMT +2.
World Design Capital Helsinki 2012: www.wdchelsinki2012.fi/en
The Rough Guide to Finland. RRP: £14.99
Lonely Planet: Finland. RRP: £14.99
Bradt Travel Guides: Helsinki. RRP: £7.99
How to do it
A three-night break at the Hotel Torni, including breakfast and direct return flights to Helsinki from Gatwick with Norwegian, costs from around £262 per person (based on two people sharing) through Expedia. www.expedia.co.uk
Published in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)