Finland is celebrating its 100th year of independence this year - and there’s never been a better time to visit its capital, discovers Hannah Flint…
Tell anyone you’re going to Helsinki for a sunny weekend, and you’ll likely encounter a few raised eyebrows. Because, unlike its Scandinavian counterparts - Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo – the Finnish capital has remained somewhat overlooked. Until now.
This year alone, both the National Geographic and Lonely Planet listed Finland among its top destinations of 2017. Then there’s the fact that the country is currently celebrating its 100th year of independence (from Russia on 6 December 2017), while Sports Illustrated chose Lapland as the backdrop for its annual Swimwear issue – reindeers and all.
Plus, it’s still in the world’s top five happiest places to live and - as the Finns will proudly tell you - the best place to be a mother. It’s time to pack your bags…
When to go
Summer is undoubtedly the city’s primetime. Helsinki blooms and its residents come out in full appreciation of the warmer climes, flocking to the city’s parks and terrace bars for beers with friends.
It’s also when the city hosts Flow Festival; an exceptionally cool offering of European, UK and US music – without a tent of welly in sight (more on which later…).
Don’t dismiss a winter trip though: the air is thick with the smell of glog and the city’s love of saunas comes right into its own.
What to do
Head to a festival
Earlier this month, Lana del Rey, Frank Ocean, The xx and Goldfrapp were among the big names to perform at Helsinki’s annual festival, Flow, an incredible celebration of international and home grown music.
Come Flow, which is set in a disused (and very picturesque) power station, and the Finns are ready to celebrate. You’ll be invited to after parties, karaoke sessions once the music stops, or just to watch a band with their friends. If not, there’s an onsite cinema, yoga sessions and, for dinner, 36 stalls from Helsinki’s best restaurants (goodbye greasy burgers; hello ceviche, crab salads and kimchi).
It couldn’t be more civilised – and we mean that in the best possible way. It’s the sort of festival you’ll urge your friends to go to once you’re home, and treasure for a long time afterwards.
Shop like a local
Hit the Design District as priority (Helsinki was World Design Capital in 2012). Tre and Marimekko (Mikonkatu 6 and 1) are obvious, but unmissable, starting points, as is Lokal (Annankatu 9) – where you can grab a coffee while you shop. Head to the Design Museum (Korkeavuorenkatu 23) to go deeper into the city’s design story before heading along and around Uudenmaankatu street for vintage clothes, antiques, furniture and local designers (we loved Ivana Helsinki, Uudenmaankatu 15).
Hit a market for lunch
Pop into Hietalahti Market Hall (Lönnrotinkatu 34) for Portuguese, Japanese or Italian food, and finish off with a cinnamon bun and coffee. Alternatively, head to The Market Square just by the waterfront for properly Finnish fare: we’re talking fish, reindeer meatballs, fried potatoes and cloudberry pastries for pudding. Delicious.
Take a dip in the Baltic
Make like the Finns and head straight from the sauna and into the Baltic Sea at the ecological Kulttuurisauna (Hakaniemenranta 17). Guaranteed zen while you sweat, a little less as you plunge (we dare you!). Alternatively, right in the heart of the city, Allas Sea Pool (Katajanokanlaituri 2a) offers serious swimming views and a sauna. Dry off and head for coffee on the Market Square afterwards.
Join the Finns for beers in the sun
When the sun comes out, stroll to Sinebrychoff Park for a beer with locals (you can literally hear corks popping and cans being opened as soon as the temperature rises). Alternatively, spend an afternoon relaxing in the sun at Kaivopuisto park, a short walk away.
If you’ve got more time, go to the Nuuksio National Park, a 20-minute drive out of the city which offers a whole host of outdoor activities. Mushroom picking, anyone?
Make your way to Kallio - a lively district north of the city centre where you’ll find even more vintage boutiques and coffee shops (check out Kahvila Savy, Aleksis Kiven katu 12). After a relaxed mosey around (this is Helsinki after all – the pace is slowed right down), stop for lunch at Doner Harju - widely thought of as the best kebab in the city (vegetarians fear not: there are meat-free options too. Fleminginkatu 23).
From there, head around the corner to Molotov, a living room-style bar with a sunny terrace for a digestive drink (Vaasankatu 29). Book a tour at Stadin Panimo microbrewery (Kaasutehtaankatu 1) to discover local craft beers before making your way home.
Discover Helsinki’s growing food scene
Unmissable addresses include Shelter (Kanavaranta 7) for dinner (seasonal ingredients in a dimly-lit, romantic setting), Levant (Bulevardi 15) for exceptional Middle Eastern food while you hit the Design District and EGG (Kanavaranta 7D) for a quick and cheap power breakfast.
But save your appetite for Juuri - one of the city’s favourite restaurants serving new Nordic cuisine (Korkeavuorenkatu 27). This is genuine, homegrown Finnish food, served on small plates (‘sapas’ – the Finns’ version of tapas). Trust us, it’ll be the best meal of your trip.
Go to church
Visit the imposing Helsinki Cathedral and then on to the redbrick Orthodox Uspensky Cathedral. When you’ve taken in the views, head to the nearby canal side bar Holiday (Kanavaranta 7) and ask a local to point you to a karaoke bar for the night ahead.
From the harbour, take a quick boat (around €7) to Suomenlinna - a UNESCO World Heritage site and inhabited sea fortress over six islands. Find a quiet beach to relax on before eating lunch (rye bread sandwiches and salmon soup are typical) in one of the island’s cafes.
Where to stay
Hotel F6 (Fabianinkatu 6) is ideally located just moments away from the Market Square and a 10 minute walk from Helsinki Central Station. Come for the typical Finnish breakfast alone (think savoury porridge, rye bread, yoghurt and trout) and the hotel dog, Runar, who the bar is named after. Rooms approx. $200 a night in September (hotelf6.fi)
Alternatively, Hotel Finn (£127 in September) offers sleek rooms in an excellent location just moments away from the luxe shops in the centre of Finland (hotellifinn.fi).