Helsinki has an extensive range of restaurants, whether for Finnish classics, modern Suomi cuisine or international dishes. Cafes offer some of the cheapest lunchtime options and there are plenty of self-catering opportunities, including large seven-day supermarkets and, better yet, Helsinki's produce-laden outdoor markets in summer and wonderful market halls year-round.
Need to Know
- Eat.fi (www.eat.fi) Finland-wide site with good Helsinki coverage. Plots restaurants on a map and has reviews in English and Finnish.
- Heleats.com (www.heleats.com) Articles and reviews of Helsinki restaurants in English and Finnish.
- Ravintola.fi (www.ravintola.fi) Finland-wide listings site and app in English and Finnish.
Reservations aren't usually required at lunch, except at popular and/or top-end addresses. Busy weekend brunch spots should be booked ahead where possible. In the evening, reserving ahead is generally a good idea as popular places can book out fast. Phone reservations are straightforward; virtually everyone speaks English.
Service is included in bills, so tipping is not necessary, but it's common to leave a few extra euros for exceptional service.
Breakfast Most hotels offer a free buffet breakfast, which includes bread, cheese, cold cuts, pastries, berries, cereals and lots of coffee, and may run to pickled or smoked fish, sausages and eggs. Weekend brunssi (brunch) has become a big deal.
Lunch Finns tend to eat their biggest meal of the day at lunchtime, so many cafes and restaurants put on a lounas special from Monday to Friday. This usually consists of soup plus salad or hot meal or both, and includes a soft drink, coffee and sometimes dessert. More extensive all-you-can-eat lunch buffets are also common.
Dinner Finns have dinner as early as 5pm, often just a light meal, but eat much later if it’s an organised, ‘going out for dinner’ affair.
Snacks For a sweet snack at any time of day, hit a cafe for a pulla (cardamom-flavoured bun), korvapuusti (cinnamon scroll) or munkki (doughnut).
Finns like a lie-in on the weekend, after the debauches of Friday and Saturday nights, so brunssi (brunch) was sure to catch on. Usually offered as a fixed-price buffet with everything from fruit and pastries to canapes, salads and pasta, it's so popular that you'll often have to book or wait. It's typically served from around 10.30am to 3.30pm, weekends only.
Staples & Specialities
Finnish cuisine has been influenced by both Sweden and Russia and draws on what was traditionally available: fish, game, meat, milk and potatoes, with dark rye used to make bread and porridge, and few spices employed.
Soup A Finnish favourite, common in homes as well as restaurants. Heavy pea, meat or cabbage soups are traditional workers' fare, while creamier fish soups have a more delicate flavour.
Karelian pastry One light snack that you'll regularly see in Helsinki, especially on breakfast buffets, is the rice-filled savoury pastry from Finland's Karelia region, the karjalanpiirakka. These are tasty cold, heated, toasted or with egg butter, and have several variations.
Fish A mainstay of the Finnish diet. Fresh or smoked lohi (salmon), silli (marinated herring), lavaret (siika, a lake whitefish), kuha (pike-perch or zander) and delicious nieriä or rautu (Arctic char) are common, and the tiny lake fish muikku (vendace, or whitefish, a small lake fish) are another treat.
Meat Reindeer has always been a staple food for the Sámi in the northern latitudes. The traditional way to eat it is sautéed with lingonberries; many restaurants also offer it on pizzas or as sausages. It also comes in fillet steaks, which, though expensive, is the tastiest way to try this meat.
Elk is also eaten, mostly in hunting season, and you can even get a bear steak (or more commonly, a potted or preserved meat) in some places, although the latter is very expensive, as only a small number are hunted every year.
Two much-loved favourites that you'll see in many places are grilled liver, served with mashed potatoes and bacon, and meatballs.
New Suomi Cuisine
Riding the wave of new Nordic cuisine is a breed of Finnish chef experimenting with traditional ingredients such as lake fish, berries, wild mushrooms, reindeer and other seasonal produce in decidedly untraditional fashion. A slew of gourmet contemporary Finnish restaurants in Helsinki offer exquisite multicourse tasting menus that make a great contrast to the heavier, sauce-laden typical cuisine.
Helsinki's Market Halls
While food stalls, fresh produce and berries can be found at the kauppatori (market square), the real centre of Finnish market produce is the kauppahalli (covered market), where butchers, bakers, fishmongers and delis sell a brilliant range of traditional food, including smoked fish. Helsinki's three central market halls are perfect for self-catering, picnics and takeaway food, and all have casual on-site eateries.
On a sunny day, there’s no better way to appreciate Helsinki’s sparkling seaside location than by heading out to one of the many island restaurants. Most are served by small boats ferrying to and from quays on the mainland opposite; fares are inexpensive. Most renowned is stylish, art nouveau, spired villa Saaristo on Luoto island, which is famous for society weddings and crayfish parties. There are several others, but quality of food and service tends to vary each summer, so ask around about where's good each year.
Finns love their sweets, although some of them make the unsuspecting visitor feel like the victim of a novelty-shop joke. Salty liquorice, fiery 'Turkish peppers' and tar-flavoured gumdrops may sound like punishments rather than rewards, but are delicious after the first few times. Finnish chocolates, particularly those made by Fazer, are also excellent.
Dining with Locals
Cosy Finland (http://cosyfinland.com) offers the chance to dine with Finns in their residences. It will set you up with a dinner invitation at a multilingual host’s home, where you’ll try local specialities and get to know Finland away from the tourist beat.