If Helsinki has so far escaped the short-break spotlight, this is its moment to shine. Shaped by the Baltic, swinging between extremes of dark winters and midsummer sun, and defined by its east-meets-west geography – the Finnish capital is a one-off.
Its amiable residents are remarkably in tune with nature, pouncing on summer with a biological urgency when the snow melts, foraging in forests on the city’s fringes and hanging out with friends in steamy saunas. You can’t always see the sea here, but you sense it in the briny air, the pure light and the gulls wheeling overhead.
Just as architecture makes Manhattan, people make Helsinki. This pocket-sized city will soon hook you with its unhurried attitude, lively food and design scenes and self-deprecating sense of humour. Get the inside scoop with this two-day itinerary.
Jumpstart the day Helsinki-style with coffee at central Café Succès (facebook.com/cafesucces), which has been brewing and baking since 1957. Their korvapuusti (cinnamon buns or, literally, ‘ear cuffs’ because of the way the dough is pinched into shape) are legendary. From here, make your way over to Helsinki’s centerpiece Senaatintori, the lavishly neoclassical square by eminent 19th-century architect Carl Ludvig Engel. Topping it like a pearl-white wedding cake is the Greek cruciform Helsinki Cathedral, lifted imposingly above the square. Engel’s hallmark also graces the Corinthian-columned Presidential Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki (helsinki.fi/en) and the National Library (kansalliskirjasto.fi/en), worth a peek for its exquisitely frescoed, marble-pillared hall inspired by Roman temples.
A quick amble east brings you to the cathedral’s architectural antithesis, the redbrick, baubly domed Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. Or edge west to the stark granite Central Railway Station, where the torchbearers wear the typical deadpan expression of Finnish men, smirking locals will tell you.
Nearby on Simonkatu, meditative silence reigns in the Kamppi Chapel, a strikingly contemporary swirl of spruce on the cityscape.
Cap off the morning at homewares store Artek, an ode to Finnish design showcasing work by pioneers like Alvar Aalto and Eero Aarnio (don't miss the playful ‘Pony Chair’). Aalto put Finland on the global design map, seeking recognition for his beloved homeland in sleek, curvaceous, nature-inspired works that transcended the line between functionalism and beauty.
Continue in the same vein by taking the tram to artsy Kallio. Once a tatty, down-and-out neighbourhood for industrial workers, the area has reinvented itself as Helsinki’s creative hub and now brims with modish cafes, boho bars, hole-in-the-wall galleries and vintage boutiques. At its centre is Karhupuisto, a little park named after its bear statue. Go for a late brunch at poster-plastered Galleria Keidas (galleriakeidas.fi), where Moroccan- and Lebanese-style mezze go nicely with sparkling wine and mint tea.
Now it’s time for a nose around Hakaniemen Kauppahalli, a gorgeous old-school market hall. Downstairs is dedicated to produce – fish, berries, the famous squeaky leipäjuusto (bread cheese) and karjalanpiirakka (savoury rice-filled pastries). Upstairs you’ll find everything from bold Marimekko poppy prints to hand-knitted hats and Moomin collectables, as well as a cafe where musicians occasionally perform for tips.
Back in the centre, the evening begins with a dash of mixology magic at slick A21 Decades – try one-of-a-kind Finnish cocktails inspired by wild forest berries, smoke saunas and birch trees. A welcome newbie to the city’s increasingly exciting food scene, The Cock (thecock.fi) is a slice of the Upper East Side in central Helsinki, with an easygoing vibe, bistro seating, jazzy music and street art splashed across brick walls. Head down to the basement, where chipper waiters bring exquisitely simple dishes to the table – oysters, steaks and a ‘ping-pong table’ of mini desserts.
While Helsinki won’t steal the European party crown any time soon, there is a handful of cool nightspots. Ring to be buzzed into Liberty or Death (facebook.com), as close to a speakeasy as it gets, with its dark, moody interior and succinct list of killer cocktails. Or if you’re in the mood to hear Finns croon some melancholic ballads, join a karaoke-loving crowd at the titchy Restroom (karaokebar.net/restroom), housed in a former public toilet.
A stylish pick for sleeping is Klaus K, a bastion of Helsinki’s Design District, with themes from the national epic Kalevala (look for the egg of creation) cleverly interwoven into its ultra-modern rooms. Breakfast is a generous spread of organic fruits, granola, smoked fish, homemade breads and cakes.
No Helsinki visit is complete without a visit to the mighty fortress of Suomenlinna, a Unesco World Heritage site straddling a cluster of islands at the entrance to the city’s harbour. It’s a short ferry ride from the Market Square, where stalls tempt with strawberries in summer, smoked herring in autumn and hot drinks in winter. Dating back to 1748 when Helsinki was part of the Kingdom of Sweden, the fortress is just as compelling when blanketed with fog in winter as on a crisp summer’s day when the Baltic shimmers. For the history in a nutshell, follow the blue trail along the fortifications, taking in the former Russian Orthodox garrison church (now Lutheran) which doubles as a lighthouse, the naval docks, old bunkers and shadowy tunnels.
Stop for a bite to eat or drinks at Suomenlinnan Panimo, housed in the Russian-era Jetty Barracks' vaults by the quay. It brews some excellent beers including a hefty porter.
You can’t see it all in a weekend, so choose your cultural fix wisely. If history is your bag, then the National Museum is unmissable, a whimsical granite confection whose collection wings you from prehistoric times to the present day. The legends of Kalevala are represented in a fresco across the entrance, while upper floors display flamboyant national costumes and Viking-era Sami artefacts. Just across the way sits the curvaceous, metallic Kiasma, bearing the imprint of American architect Steven Holl, which attracts contemporary art enthusiasts to its rotating exhibitions and skateboarders to its terrace. There’s more art on show at the Ateneum, a roll-call of Finnish art from the 1700s to the 1950s.
The design-minded might prefer to spend an hour mooching around the Design Museum, which skips from iconic Marimekko textiles to Eero Aarnio’s Ball Chair.
Contemporary art gallery Kiasma, designed by US architect Steven Holl © Kerry Christiani / Lonely Planet
Museum weary feet? Ease them in true Helsinki fashion with a sauna. Top billing goes to Uunisaari (uunisaari.com) on its own speck of an island, where you can sweat it out with the locals (naked, naturally). Cool off in the outdoor Jacuzzi or – if you’re brave – with a skin-tingling dip in the sea. Design-minded alternatives include the Zen-style, seafront Kulttuurisauna (kulttuurisauna.fi), heated ecologically by wooden pellets, and the brand-new Löyly (loylyhelsinki.fi/en) at the southern tip of the Helsinki peninsula.
Rooted in traditional recipes, Juuri focused on small producers and seasonal ingredients long before they became buzzwords. It’s an enticingly intimate bistro for an imaginative, herb-loaded Finnish take on tapas – or ‘sapas’ (around €5 a pop). Sourdough bread mops up appetite-piquing dishes such as whitefish with elderflower and horseradish, and cured beef with black salsify. Time to sleep? Break the budget for a night at Lilla Roberts, a luxe Art Deco themed boutique hotel lodged in a former power plant built in 1908.
Make it happen
Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport sits 18km north of the city. The Finnair City Bus leaves Terminal 2 every 15 minutes and costs €6.30 one-way. The city has an efficient public transport system – the most appealing way to get around is by tram (2, 3 and 6 are the most useful lines).