A Few Days In

Is the Happiest Place on Earth Also the Coolest?

by Amelia Mularz
Loyly Sauna is the picture of cozy. Photo by Pekka Keränen / courtesy of Helsinki Marketing.

Finland’s capital is big on form. That’s why we’ve rounded up where to stay, eat, and wander in the city that could unseat Stockholm or Copenhagen as the world’s design darling.

HELSINKI, Finland – If you were to judge a destination by the flight there — which we realize is the travel equivalent of judging a book by its cover, but bear with me — you would know to expect a dose of design euphoria in Helsinki based simply on your Finnair flight. Certain aircrafts in the fleet are wrapped, literally, in iconic patterns by Marimekko, the now-ubiquitous Finnish lifestyle brand that hit postwar Europe with a joyful jolt of color and abstract prints. On board, passengers get cozy with Marimekko blankets and are served a Nordic meal with the brand's tableware. Business-class travelers pull sleeping masks from collectible Marimekko amenity bags and sip Champagne from glassware by Iittala, another Finnish heritage brand. This is all before actually stepping foot in Finland.

Upon touchdown in Helsinki, the aesthetic pleasures keep coming. This is, after all, a designated UNESCO City of Design, as well as one of the first cities to appoint a Chief Design Officer (Los Angeles just got one last year). It's also worth noting that Finland has been named the Happiest Country in the World for two years in a row, according to the World Happiness Report.

Which had me wondering: Is a devotion to design the reason for all that happiness?

See for yourself with this aesthete’s guide to Helsinki.

Th lobby at Hotel St. George. Photo by Mikko Ryhanen. All hotel photos courtesy of Hotel St. George.
"Tianwu," by Ai Weiwei.
The Klaus Haapaniemi mural in the Wintergarden at Hotel St. George.

Where to Stay

Hotel St. George, which opened in early 2018 (the same year the country nabbed its first happiness title. Coincidence?), has plenty of glee-inducing features, starting with Tianwu, the oversized, kite-like Ai Weiwei sculpture hanging in the entryway. Wander into Wintergarden, the hotel's indoor courtyard with a glass roof and bar, and you'll spot a nearly 20-foot-tall brass bird soaring overhead: a sculpture by Finnish artist Pekka Jylhä. The space is also home to a massive woodland mural by Klaus Haapaniemi printed on silk and wrapping around the walls. If you don't even make it beyond the hotel's first floor, you won't be starved for culture.

The Poetry Suite. Photo by Mikko Ryhanen.
Atelier Room. Photo by Mikko Ryhanen.
St. George Suite Living room. Photo by Mureena.

The rooms are individually decorated and filled with such noteworthy pieces as the Sibast No 7 chair, designed by Dane Helge Sibast in 1953, as well as abstract modernist art by Finnish painters. Rooms are stocked with a curated collection of books, a nod to the building's past as the Finnish Literature Society's headquarters. This should give you plenty to look at if you decide to practice kalsarikannit, the Finnish version of hygge, or coziness, that's achieved by staying home and drinking alcohol in your underwear. Yes, seriously. Kalsarikannit is a thing.

For context, there are only 5.4 million Finns but 3.3 million saunas in the country.
The bridge to Uunisaari Island.
The dining room at Ultima. Restaurant photos courtesy of Ultima.
The hydropnic wall at Ultima.

Where to Eat

Should you slip back into pants and venture outside — highly recommended — you’ll find that seasonal and local are the norm at restaurants around here. Make an adventure of lunch by journeying to an island restaurant for Nordic bites, such as roasted whitefish or river prawn on archipelago toast. A note to the carb-averse, if anyone is anymore: Now is not the time for this. Eat the bread! You'll find exceptionally full-bodied loaves in Finland. The local rye was even voted the country's national food in 2017.

Helsinki is surrounded by 330 islands, and while summer is prime time for island hopping (the capital has ferries that leave right from Market Square), a few parts of the archipelago are accessible in fall and winter. Uunisaari Island, reachable by pedestrian bridge from mid-November to April, has a restaurant in a historic brick building that was renovated with help from the National Board of Antiquities in 1999. The island is also home to two saunas (more on that in a minute) and a hot tub, which are open weekday mornings and Sunday afternoons. A steamy pre-meal session is an ideal way to warm up from your walk over.

Back on the mainland, dig into what Ultima calls "sustainable hedonism" — indulgent dishes made from locally-sourced ingredients, such as cured lamb with mushrooms foraged from the forest and city, and wild lavaret in a jelly of Arctic cloudberries. The restaurant's salads and herbs come from even closer to home: They're grown right on property using Finnish hydroponic farming technology.

Less sci-fi, though equally creative, is Kamome, where chefs fuse Japanese and Finnish cuisine by combining ingredients from the region with washoku, the less-is-more Japanese approach to cooking.

Photo courtesy of Lokal.
Aalto Vases at Iittala. Photo courtesy of Iittala.

Where to Shop

For Finnish form to go, scout souvenirs in Helsinki's Design District, located in the center of town. Anyone still swooning over the home goods on their Finnair flight should make their way to Marimekko's flagship store on Mikonkatu. Iittala also has a location in the Design District where you can peruse glassware, serving sets, and decorative pieces, including its signature Aalto Vase.

For a mix of recognized and up-and-coming Finnish designers, head to Lokal, a concept store and gallery that stocks ceramics, jewelry, textiles, prints, and wooden treasures, like a clutch bag made of woven birch. If you're someone who appreciates "dark forests, crummy motels… and champagne states of drunkenness" (aren’t we all?), you’ll find kindred spirits at Ivana Helsinki, a shop filled with whimsical dresses. And because sustainability is a way of life in town, swing by Pure Waste for men's and women's basics made from recycled fabrics. Serious souvenir shoppers, like the kind willing to wrangle Finnish furniture and get it home, will find a treasure or two at Artek 2nd Cycle, which deals in vintage and second-hand pieces.

Sweat it out in the sky. SkySauna photos by Yiping Feng / courtesy of SkySauna.
Loyly Sauna. Photo by Joel Pallaskorpi / courtesy of Helsinki Marketing.
Loyly Sauna. Photo by Pekka Keränen / courtesy of Helsinki Marketing.
Photo by Yiping Feng and Ling Ouyang / courtesy of Helsinki Marketing.

What to Do

What passes for a post-gym activity in other places has been elevated to an art form in Finland: the sauna. This is the birthplace of the sweaty pastime, and participating is as much about relaxing as it is about exploring Finnish culture. (For some context, there are only 5.4 million Finns but 3.3 million saunas in the country.)

As for where to find your own little box of wood-burning bliss, try Uunisaari, as mentioned above, as well as SkySauna. The world's first sauna cabin on a Ferris wheel, Sky Sauna is certainly touristy, but also so unusual that you'd be forgiven for going with the crowd. 

For a sauna with design cred, hang your robe at Löyly, a public sauna on the sea housed in a wooden building that's meant to turn gray with time, so that eventually the whole structure resembles a rock on the shoreline.

Library photos by Tuomas Uusheimo / courtesy of Helsinki Marketing.

As uncool as it might seem to suggest a library for your itinerary, Helsinki Central Library Oodi is a run, don't walk situation. The space, which just opened in 2018 and landed on Time magazine's 2019 list of the World's 100 Greatest Places, feels less like a book depository and more like an indoor park, with floor-to-ceiling wraparound windows, Finnish spruce timber, and real trees growing between shelves. It's a peek into some future utopia where everyone is invited to tinker with 3D printers, video games (did you know that Angry Birds is a Finnish creation?), recording studios, and fully-equipped maker stations. (By the way, who are we kidding? We think libraries are the coolest.)

Appropriately, the Design Museum has an exhibition that runs through 2020 called Utopia Now – The Story of Finnish Design, which shines a light on Nordic functionalism. Take a spin through the exhibit, then grab a table at the museum’s Taito Café.

As you sip organic wine and bite into expertly crafted, fresh-from-the-oven cinnamon rolls, mull over the influence of form on quality of life. If you haven't already, this might be the moment you realize that yes, good design and happiness absolutely go hand in hand.