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.
Finland is famed for its streamlined, functional, stylish design. In the 20th century, pioneers such as Alvar and Aino Aalto cemented its reputation, and the capital remains the country's creative hub. Helsinki's design scene is one of the most electrifying in the world today, and a major influence across the globe. Boutiques, workshops and galleries filled with glassware, lighting, textiles and innovative homewares proliferate in the Design District just south of the centre in Punavuori, which is home to Helsinki's superb Design Museum, and throughout the city, from its thoroughfares to repurposed industrial spaces.
Taking its cues from the design scene, architecture in Helsinki is flourishing. Contemporary highlights include the Kiasma museum of contemporary art (1998) and concert hall Musiikkitalo (2011). Modernism is exemplified by Alvar Aalto's Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (1969) and Finlandia Talo concert hall (1971), along with Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen's astonishing rock-carved church, the Temppeliaukio (1969). Finland's art-nouveau movement, National Romanticism, has left a glorious legacy of buildings from the era such as Helsinki's beautiful train station (1919). Functionalism, wooden architecture (including 1920s classicism and 2012's Kamppi chapel) and Byzantine-Russian, neo-Renaissance and neoclassical styles are all woven into the city's fabric.
Locally sourced, seasonal, sustainably farmed and foraged ingredients might be red-hot worldwide trends today, but in Finland they have long been a way of life. Wildlife such as reindeer, elk, bear and snow grouse, along with shoals of fish such as salmon and freshwater arctic char, find their way onto plates here, together with forest mushrooms, bushels of berries, including lingonberries and prized cloudberries, herbs and specialities such as tar. Finnish flavours can be found all over Helsinki, from a historic kauppahalli (covered market) to venerable restaurants, creative bistros and Michelin-starred gastronomy labs, in addition to international cuisines.
While it's a culture-packed urban centre, Helsinki is surrounded by sublime natural environment that's easily reached from every part of the city. Opportunities to get active abound here, from boating to its archipelago's islands, strolling along its beaches and through its extensive parks and gardens, and hiking in its surrounding forests. When snow blankets the city in winter and the seas freeze, snowshoeing, cross-country and downhill skiing, ice skating and ice fishing on the many bays are all invigorating ways to keep warm while staying in touch with nature.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Helsinki.
Suomenlinna, the ‘fortress of Finland’, straddles a cluster of car-free islands connected by bridges. 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 at least a day's diversions: several museums, bunkers and fortress walls, and Finland's only remaining WWII submarine. Cafes and picnic spots are plentiful. Ferries (www.hsl.fi; day ticket €5, 15 minutes, four hourly, fewer in winter) depart from the passenger quay at Kauppatori.
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). They're linked by a contemporary structure, along with four other museums at separate locations. The must-see of the bunch is the main museum. Its collection of 450,000 historical artefacts 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.
Occupying a palatial 1887 neo-Renaissance 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, Pekka Halonen and the von Wright brothers. Pride of place goes to the prolific Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s triptych from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, depicting Väinämöinen’s pursuit of the maiden Aino.
An unmissable stop for Finnish design aficionados, Helsinki's Design Museum 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. From June to August, 30-minute tours in English take place at 2pm on Saturday and are included in admission. Combination tickets with the nearby Museum of Finnish Architecture are a great-value way to see the two museums.
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. It was given a major renovation in 2019, and its highlights include the exceptional prehistory exhibition and the Realm, covering the 13th to the 19th century. You'll also find a fantastic hands-on area for kids, Workshop Vintti.
Hewn into solid stone, the Temppeliaukion church, designed by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in 1969, feels close to a Finnish ideal of spirituality in nature – you could be in a rocky glade were it not for the stunning 24m-diameter roof covered in 22km of copper stripping. The acoustics are exceptional; regular concerts take place here. Opening times vary, depending on events and seasons, so check online before visiting. There are fewer tour groups to navigate around midweek.
Finland's architecture 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. There's a library and an excellent bookshop. The combination ticket with Helsinki's Design Museum is fantastic value.
Situated 5.5km northwest of the city centre, this excellent island-set museum has a collection of 87 historic wooden buildings transferred here from around Finland. There's everything from haylofts to a mansion, parsonage and church, as well as the beautiful giant rowboats used to transport churchgoing communities. Prices and hours refer to entering the museum's buildings, where guides in traditional costume demonstrate folk dancing and crafts. Otherwise you're free to roam the picturesque wooded island, where there are several cafes.
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 modernisation. It exhibits an eclectic collection of Finnish and international contemporary art, including digital art, and has excellent facilities for kids. It includes a theatre and a hugely popular glass-sided cafe and terrace, yet the most successful thing about it is that it’s been embraced by the people of Helsinki.