WHAT TO DO
Entwined with the Baltic's bays, inlets and islands - Helsinki's boulevards and backstreets overflow with magnificent architecture, intriguing drinking and dining venues and groundbreaking design. It is the capital of Finland and the country's cultural and creative hub. Helsinki sits at the tip of a peninsula in the Gulf of Finland. It was established as a trading town by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550 as the town of Helsingfors. Emperor Alexander I of Russia moved the Finnish capital from Turku to Helsinki in 1812 to reduce Swedish influence in Finland and to bring the capital closer to Saint Petersburg. With its stylish design, contemporary architecture, Finnish flavors and natural environment, Helsinki is sure to please.
Begin your odyssey at Senaatintori, Helsinki's majestic central square. Surrounded by early 19th century buildings, it was modeled after Saint Petersburg's main square. Carl Ludvig Engel's stately Tuomiokirkko (Helsinki Cathedral), finished in 1852, is the square's most prominent feature and the steps are a favorite meeting place. This chalk white, neoclassical Lutheran cathedral is one of Engel's finest creations. Zinc statues of the 12 Apostles guard the city from the roof of the church. The spartan, almost mausoleum like interior has little ornamentation under the lofty dome apart from an altar painting and three stern statues of Reformation heroes Martin Luther, Phillipp Melanchthon and Mikael Agricola. From there, walk down cobbled Sofiankatu street until you reach Kauppatori (Market Square). The heart of central Helsinki is this harborside market square, where cruises and ferries depart for the nearby islands. It's quite touristy these days, with reindeer souvenir stands having replaced most market stalls, but there are still some berries and flowers for sale, and cheap food options. Next, purchase a round trip fare from the ticket office and take the short ferry ride out to Suomenlinna - the 'fortress of Finland'. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally built by the Swedes, as Sveaborg, in the mid 18th century. Visually striking and historically evocative, it offers several museums, bunkers and fortress walls, and Finland's only remaining World War 2 submarine. At Suomenlinna's main dock, the pink Rantakasarmi (Jetty Barracks) building is one of the best preserved of the Russian era. It holds a small exhibition and the helpful, multilingual tourist office. Nearby, you'll find Suomenlinna's distinctive church. Built by the Russians in 1854, it served as a Russian Orthodox place of worship until the 1920s, when it became Lutheran. It doubles as a lighthouse - the beacon was originally gaslight, but is now electric and still in use. From the main dock, a blue signposted walking path connects the key attractions. By the bridge that links Iso Mustasaari and the main island, Susisaari, is Suomenlinna Museo, a two level museum covering the history of the fortress. The most atmospheric part of Suomenlinna, Kustaanmiekka, is at the end of the blue trail. Exploring the old bunkers, crumbling fortress walls and cannons will give you an insight into this fortress, and there are plenty of grassy picnic spots. Monumental King’s Gate was built in 1754 as a two story fortress wall, which had a double drawbridge and a stairway added. Several other museums dot the islands, including the absorbing Ehrensvard Museo, once the home of Augustin Ehrensvard, who designed the fortress. Along the shore from here is the Vesikko - a submarine that saw action against the Russians during the Second World War. Note: if you happen to get hungry or thirsty, stop in at Suomenlinnan Panimo, located near the main dock. This brewery brews a bunch of ciders and beers, including a hefty porter, and offers good food as well - go with the venison sausages with house mustard.
Back in the city center, head to the Museum of Finnish Architecture at Kasarmikatu 24. This interesting museum occupies a neo Rennaissance building dating from 1899. Exhibitions are its key focus, including the fascinating Decades of Finnish Architecture 1900-1970, which runs until the end of 2020 and covers National Romanticism, classicism, functionalism and modernism - laying the groundwork for Finland's definitive 1970s works, as well as shorter retrospectives and thematic exhibitions. Permanent displays include architectural models, drawings and photographs. Be sure to visit the excellent bookshop. Note: you have the option of a combination ticket with Helsinki's Design Museum, which is close by at Korkeavuorenkatu 23. An unmissable stop for Finnish design aficionados, it has a permanent collection that looks at the roots of Finnish design in the nation’s traditions and nature. Changing exhibitions focus on contemporary design - everything from clothing to household furniture. Note: in summer, 30 minute tours in English take place at 2p on Saturday and are included in admission. Next, make your way to Helsingin Kaupunginmuseo (Helsinki City Museum) at Aleksanterinkatu 16. This museum complex spreads over five buildings from different eras, including Sederholmin Talo, Helsinki’s oldest central building (dating from 1757 and built by a wealthy merchant). The must see of the bunch is the main museum - its collection of 450000 historical artifacts and more than one million photographs is backed up by entertaining information piecing together Helsinki’s transition from Swedish to Russian hands and on into independence. Note: the museum is open every day at 11a. Take a brief museum break at the nearby Esplanadin Puisto. Locally known as 'Espa', this elongated shaped esplanade stretches for four blocks between the squares Erottaja to the west and the Kauppatori to the east. Designed by architect CL Engel (Helsinki Cathedral) and opened in 1818, it's one of the city's most loved green spaces and fills with picnickers on sunny days. Elegant shops, cafes and restaurants line the streets Pohjoisesplanadi (North Esplanadi) and Etelaesplanadi (South Esplanadi). In the center of the park is a statue of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Finland's national poet and composer of the national anthem, which was unveiled in 1885. Not far away is Havis Amanda - this bronze statue is the symbol of the city. Sculpted by Ville Vallgren in 1906 in Paris, and installed here in 1908, the nude female form's position on a pedestal, above splashing marine creature fountains, initially attracted controversy, but is now widely admired. From there, it is a short walk to the impressive Uspenskin Katedraali (Uspenski Cathedral). Located at Kanavakatu 1, this eye catching red brick cathedral towers above Katajanokka island. Built as a Russian Orthodox church in 1868, it features classic golden onion domes and now serves the Finnish Orthodox congregation. The high, square interior has a lavish iconostasis with the Evangelists flanking panels depicting the Last Supper and the Ascension. Note: Orthodox services held at 6p on Saturday and 10a on Sunday are worth attending for the fabulous chorals and candlelit atmosphere.
Rautatientori (Railway Square) flanks the eastern side of Helsinki's glorious National Romantic art nouveau train station. Designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, this railway station is one of the world's most beautiful - with a granite facade, clock tower, copper roofing and twin pairs of statues holding spherical lamps that are illuminated when darkness falls. Officially known as Helsingin Paarautatieasema (Helsinki Central Station), it opened in 1919. Across the street at Kaivokatu 2 is the Ateneum National Gallery. Occupying a palatial 1887 neo Rennaissance building, Finland’s premier art gallery offers a crash course in the nation’s art. It houses Finnish paintings and sculptures from the ‘golden age’ of the late 19th century through to the 1950s, including works by Albert Edelfelt, Hugo Simberg, Helene Schjerfbeck and Pekka Halonen. Pride of place goes to the prolific Akseli Gallen Kallela’s triptych from the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, depicting Vainamoinen’s pursuit of the maiden Aino. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday. Another splendid art museum is Amos Rex. Set beneath the iconic 1936 Lasipalatsi building at Mannerheimintie 22, this gallery opened in 2018. Sweeping staircases take you below ground to the exhibition halls where often experimental works bring the traditional, the new and the future together in an intriguing space. Skylights in the polka dot ceiling jut out above ground in the square behind and give spectators an opportunity to glimpse exhibitions from the outside in - pretty far out. Note: the museum is open from 11a-6p and is closed on Tuesday. Just up the road at Mannerheiminaukio 2 is the equally impressive Museum of Contemporary Art - Kiasma. One in a series of elegant, contemporary buildings in this part of town - curvaceous, metallic Kiasma (designed by Steven Holl and finished in 1998), is a symbol of the city’s modernization. It exhibits an eclectic collection of Finnish and international contemporary art, including digital art, and has a hugely popular glass sided cafe and terrace. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday. Further up the street at Mannerheimintie 34 is the Kansallismuseo (National Museum of Finland). Built in National Romantic art nouveau style and opened in 1916, Finland’s premier historical museum looks a bit like a Gothic church with its heavy stonework and tall, square tower. Its highlights include the exceptional prehistoric exhibition and the Realm, covering the 13th to the 19th century. From the 1st floor balcony, look up to see the superb frescoes on the ceiling arches, depicting scenes from the (previously mentioned) national epic Kalevala. Note: the museum is open from 11a-6p and is closed on Monday.
Helsinki has a number of glorious churches, some I have already discussed. I would like to share a few more of my favorites. Temppeliaukion Kirkko (Church of the Rock) is located at Lutherinkatu 3. Shaped into solid stone, this church, designed by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in 1969, feels close to a Finnish ideal of spirituality in nature. Its 80 foot diameter roof is covered in copper and the acoustics inside the church are exceptional. Found at Lonnrotinkatu 6 is the Vanha Kirkko (Old Church). Designed by CL Engel in 1826, this white wood beauty is the city's most venerable church. Next to the church is a memorial to Elias Lonnrot, compiler of the Kalevala epic - one of the most significant works of Finnish literature. Helsinki’s largest church, with seating for 2600 worshippers, is the soaring neo Gothic Johanneksenkirkko (St John’s Lutheran Church). Located at Korkeavuorenkatu 12 and designed by Swedish architect Adolf Melander, it's topped by 240 foot high twin spires. Construction of the church began in 1888 and it was consecrated in 1891. Finish up the Finnish capital with a city tour. I enjoyed visiting the Helsinki Distillery Company, which is located north of the city center in Kallio at Tyopajankatu 2a. It produces unique spirits using Finnish ingredients, including single malt and rye whiskies, akvaviitti, apple jack, sea buckthorn brandy and lingonberry liqueur. Tours lasting 30 minutes take you behind the scenes - upstairs its raw concrete bar is a great place to sample its merchandise. Note: the distillery is open at 4p and is closed on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Conclude your visit to Helsinki with a relaxing 90 minute boat cruise. Boats depart from Kauppatori (Market Square) and take in the beautiful islands that make up the Helsinki archipelago. Cruise past top city attractions like Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress and hear about Helsinki’s 16th century history from the onboard commentary.
WHERE TO EAT
Helsinki has plenty of great places to eat and enjoy a drink. Start your day at Kaffa Roastery, located at Pursimiehenkatu 29a. They say Finns drink the most coffee in the world - this is the place to do so. Processing up to 9000 pounds of beans every week, this vast coffee roastery supplies cafes throughout Helsinki, Finland and beyond. You can watch the roasting in progress through the glass viewing windows while sipping AeroPress, Siphon or V60 brews in its polished concrete surrounds. Note: the roastery is closed on Sunday. Nearby at Pohjoisesplanadi 33 is Kuuma. With white tiles, turquoise flooring, birch and willow light fittings and hanging pot plants, this aptly named place (kuuma means 'hot' in Finnish) is a Design District hot spot for superfood juices, loose leaf teas, Amsterdam roasted White Label Coffee and delicious all day breakfast. Yummy juice combinations include goji berry and kiwi fruit, blueberry and pear, and carrot and ginger. Another standout is La Torrefazione, found at Aleksanterinkatu 50. This joint sources beans and creates roasting profiles for beans that are roasted in Helsinki, and prepares them using filter and drip brewing methods. The superb coffee - and accompanying pastries such as a korvapuusti (cinnamon roll) - make it a favorite with locals, so there's often a wait for a seat at peak times. Note: take your goodness to go and enjoy in the not far off Esplanadin Puisto.
Helsinki hosts a number of splendid cafes and the following spots rise above the rest. Cafe Regatta is located north of the city center in Toolo at Merikannontie 8. Set in a marvelous waterside location, this historic red wooden cottage, scarcely bigger than a sauna, brings a part of the Finnish countryside to the middle of Helsinki. Here, you can rent a canoe, buy sausages and grill them over an open fire, or just kick back and relax with a drink and one of their famous cinnamon buns. Back in town at Kluuvikatu 3 is Karl Fazer Cafe. Founded in 1891 and fronted by a striking art deco facade, this cavernous cafe is the flagship for Fazer's chocolate empire. It's ideal for enjoying dazzling confectionery, fresh bread, salmon sandwiches, or devouring spectacular cakes. Around the corner on the Espa at Etelaesplanadi 1 is Cafe Kappeli. Dating from 1867, this grand cafe opens to an outdoor terrace seating 350 people and has regular jazz, blues and folk music in the nearby bandstand from May to August. Locals and visitors alike flock here on a sunny day. Note: now used for private functions, its cellar was a speakeasy during Finland's prohibition era (1919-1932), and still has paintings on its walls that were given in lieu of payment from artists at the time. Close by at Yrjonkatu 30 is Kitch. With big picture windows, this laid back space is great for watching the world go by. Furnished with recycled materials, it offers generous portions (such as roasted beetroot with goats' cheese), original salads (including a fantastic crab Caesar salad) and juicy burgers (chicken and avocado; barbecue with apple and fennel slaw). Lastly, there is Cafe Ursula, found at Ehrenstromintie 3. Offering majestic views over the Helsinki archipelago, this upmarket cafe has awesome outside summer seating. In winter you can sit in the modern interior and watch the ice on the sea. Along with daily specials, dishes range from elaborate open sandwiches to portobello burgers with goat's cheese and sweet potato fries to Russian style flank steaks and grilled Baltic herring.
One of my favorite spots in town is the very cool Vanha Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall), located along the harbor at Etelaranta 1. This is Helsinki's iconic market hall. Built in 1888, it’s still a traditional Finnish market - with wooden stalls selling local flavors such as licorice, Finnish cheeses, smoked salmon and herring, berries, forest mushrooms and herbs. Its centerpiece is its superb cafe, Story. This sparkling cafe sources its produce from the surrounding stalls. Breakfast (oven baked barley porridge, eggs Benedict) gives way to snacks (cinnamon buns, cakes) and hearty mains such as creamy salmon and fennel soup, aubergine ragout with couscous, and shrimp laden skagen (open faced sandwiches). Its outdoor terrace overlooks the water, and the drinks list includes Aland brewed Stallhagen beers and cocktails with local herbs and berries. As for the market hall itself, there are many stalls and I would like to share a few of my favorites. Robert's Coffee offers freshly squeezed juices, cinnamon buns and gourmet coffee. Konditoria Matti ja Mari specializes in yeast free, handmade rye bread. Juustokauppa Tuula Paalanen is a cheese specialist. For delicious chocolate treats, seek out Kultasuklaa. If you have a deep affection for soup, as I do, be sure to visit both Soppakeittio and Kalakauppa E Eriksson. The bouillabaisse and the salmon soup are out of this world. Note: the market hall is open every day at 8a. Helsinki has 2 additional market halls that are definitely worth checking out. The first is Hietalahden Kauppahalli, found at Lonnrotinkatu 34. Dating from 1903 and beautifully restored, this red brick indoor market at Hietalahti has charming wooden food stalls and eateries, including enticing cafes with upstairs seating at each end. A flea market sets up here in the summer months. Note: the market hall is open from 8a-8p and is closed on Sunday. The second is located north of the city center in Kallio at Hameentie 1. Hakaniemen Kauppahalli is a traditional Finnish food market hall and sits right by the Hakaniemi metro station. With over 50 stalls, there's a great range of produce and a cafe, with textile outlets upstairs. An outdoor market sets up on the square in summer. Do not miss the cheese shop Lentava Lehma (Flying Cow). Note: the market hall is open from 8a-8p and is closed on Sunday.
For dinner, head to Gron at Albertinkatu 36. Seasonal, often foraged ingredients are used in this exceptional bistro's plant, fish or meat starters and mains, and wild, plant or dairy desserts. Stunning plates might include pike perch with charred leek parsley emulsion, nasturtium flowers, hazelnuts and burbot roe, followed by beef with sorrel and burnt butter bearnaise, and rose oil seasoned strawberries with strawberry granita, caramelized strawberry milk and rose petals. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday, and reservations are essential. Another super popular spot is Demo, located at Uudenmaankatu 9. Book ahead to get a table at this chic Michelin starred spot, where young chefs wow with modern Finnish cuisine. Artfully presented, daily changing combinations are innovative (blackcurrant and licorice leaf marinated Aland lamb, spruce smoked pumpkin with chanterelles, king crab with nettle pesto and vendace roe) and the slick contemporary decor appropriate. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. Found at Ratakatu 9 is Restaurant Eevert. This fabulous eatery sits perfectly within Helsinki's Design District. The decor is attractive with pieces by famous Finnish designers such as Alvar Aalto and other luminaries, while the meals are artful interpretations of Finnish specialties, especially from Lapland (Finland’s northernmost region), such as reindeer and Arctic char. The service is warm and impeccable - the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. Located high above Esplanadin Puisto at Etelaesplanadi 14 is the celebrated Savoy. Designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto in 1937, this is one of Helsinki's grandest dining rooms, with birch walls and ceilings and some of the city’s finest views. The food is a modern Nordic tour de force, with the forage ethos strewing flowers and berries across plates that display the finest Finnish game, fish and meat. Do try the house favorite, Vorschmack (meat stew flavored with anchovies and onions) with truffle potato puree, beetroot, pickles and sour cream. Note: reservations are recommended and the restaurant is closed on Sunday.
My most memorable dining experience was at Olo, which can be found next to Kauppatori at Pohjoisesplanadi 5. At the forefront of new Suomi cuisine, this Michelin starred restaurant occupies a handsome, 19th century harborside mansion. Its sensational seasonal degustation menus incorporate both the forage ethos and molecular gastronomy, and may feature culinary jewels such as Icelandic salmon with wasabi and apple, or Finnish quail with forest mushrooms. Note: Olo is closed on Sunday and Monday, and requires reservations well in advance. Located near the Helsinki Design Museum at Korkeavuorenkatu 27, Juuri is on the forefront of Helsinki’s growing organic, locavore movement. The specialty of the house is sapas - small tapas like dishes with a Finnish twist, such as herring with golden beet and apple and Finncattle beef with black salsify and mustard. Baskeri & Basso Bistro opened in 2015 and quickly became a hit with locals. Found at Tehtaankatu 27 and open only Tuesday to Friday, this neighborhood favorite serves simple bistro food, like codfish with broccolini and sturgeon with spinach and watercress salad, topped with pine nut sauce - all paired with organic and natural wines. The lively atmosphere in this dimly lit restaurant, with its tiny bar and walk in wine closet, is prized as much as the menu. Complete your Helsinki culinary journey with a uniquely Finnish experience. Finns are obsessed with sauna, and visitors would be remiss to not take advantage of this beloved local tradition. Enjoy a relaxing visit to the public sauna Loyly (Hernesaarenranta 4), where you can wander down and take a dip in the frigid Baltic Sea if things get too hot. After a good, long sweat, Finns fuel up with a warm, creamy bowl of Jasper’s salmon soup. Made with cold smoked salmon, this is Finnish comfort food at its best. Note: who’s Jasper? In addition to being one of the guys behind Loyly, he’s also a Finnish actor who plays the sword swinging Halfdan the Black on the History Channel show Vikings.
Finish off your evening in Helsinki with a drink or two. Holiday Bar is located at Kanavaranta 7. Even on the grayest Helsinki day, this colorful waterfront bar transports you to more tropical climates with vibrant rainforest wallpaper and plants, tropical themed cocktails such as frozen margaritas and mojitos (plus two dozen different gins) and a seafood menu that includes soft shell crab. A small market is often set up out front in summer, along with ping pong tables. Note: the bar opens at 5p and is closed on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Next, there is Roskapankki at Helsinginkatu 20. A Kallio classic, this dive bar has some of Helsinki's cheapest beer, a soundtrack of metal and rock, and great ragged character. The action spills onto the pavement terrace in warm weather. Note: this joint is open every day from 9a-2a, a classic dive bar indeed. For a top notch cocktail bar, make your way to Goldfish at Korkeavuorenkatu 21. This cool spot fancies itself after London's luxury hotel library bars. The scene is chill and the drinks are dynamite - I enjoyed the Penicillin (monkey shoulder whisky, honey, ginger and lemon). Note: the bar opens at 4p and is closed on Sunday and Monday. For commanding city views, hit Ateljee Bar at Yrjonkatu 26. An unrivaled panorama of Helsinki unfolds from this tiny 230 foot high perch on the 14th floor of the Sokos Hotel Torni. Take the elevator to the 12th floor, from where a narrow spiral staircase leads to the top. Note: the bar has a capacity of just 40 people. For a taste of Mexico in Finland, seek out Chihuahua Julep, hidden at Erottajankatu 9. This place made headlines in 2018 for making patrons surrender their mobile phones upon entry, first to preserve their ambient lighting, then because it made life better. Agave is the root of almost all cocktails here - quality tequila, mescal, pisco and rum. You will not find gin, vodka or scotch - nada. Note: the bar is open every day at 5p and is a tad hard to find - look for the tiny sign and ring the doorbell to enter. End the night at Liberty or Death, located at Erottajankatu 5. This small vintage furnished speakeasy is my favorite watering hole in town, where the monthly changing cocktail menu includes twisted classics and new trends from around the world. The bartenders are smartly dressed in 1920s era uniforms and are true experts at mixing up delicious drinks. Made from rare spirits and seasonal fruit and herbs, each of its signature and classic cocktails, such as Hemingway's Mustache (tullamore dew, dry sherry, lavender and galliano), comes with its own offbeat story. Note: the bar is open every day at 4p.
WHERE TO STAY
Helsinki offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Hotel Kamp, located at Pohjoisesplanadi 29. Overlooking the Esplanadin Puisto, this elegant hotel dating from 1887 is near Helsinki Cathedral and not far from the Ateneum National Gallery. Sophisticated rooms with marble bathrooms offer flat screen TVs, minibars and free WiFi. Upgraded quarters with antique touches add tubs and separate living rooms. Amenities include a posh restaurant and a bar, along with a spa and sauna.
A second option is Hotel F6, located at Fabianinkatu 6. Built around an octagonal courtyard, this hip boutique hotel is close to Market Square and a short walk from Uspenski Cathedral. Bright, compact rooms have modern color schemes, and come with complimentary WiFi, flat screen TVs and minibars. Upgrades add espresso machines, sitting areas and balconies. Other perks include breakfast and loaner bikes on the house and a cool cocktail bar.
Helsinki is full of innovative design, contemporary architecture, fascinating culture and wonderful flavors. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.