An Insider's Guide to Helsinki, Northern Europe's Next Capital of Cool
Scandinavia's latest hotspot isn't even technically Scandinavian. Enter Helsinki, the Finnish capital brimming with its own brand of Nordic cool. To give us the 411, we tapped Rebecca Thandi Norman, co-founder of the travel and lifestyle website Scandinavia Standard, which is launching in Finland this year. (It's also a Fathom Travel Award winner of the Best Travel Blogs and Websites of 2018.) These are her favorite spots in town.
HELSINKI, Finland — Helsinki is having a moment. In contrast with most polished Scandinavian capitals, Finland’s seaside capital still has the rough edges of a city on the verge of trendiness. It’s a humid, hazy sauna beckoning a polar plunge. The art and food scenes are on the up-and-up, the architecture is refined and quirky, and the music scene, thanks to Flow Festival, is drawing folks from around the world.
The city has it all. New Nordic cuisine. Outstanding bars. Hiking, skiing, and swimming, both in and outside the city. There’s ample art and design happenings, and not just the minimalist kind. Design runs from classic (Iittala, Artek) to whimsical and modern (Marimekko, Minna Parikka).
Helsinki is a small place with a huge heart; unlike other Scandinavian capitals, prices are fairly reasonable. The population is not overly warm — you may have already heard tales of the Finns’ gentle introversion — but don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations or start up a conversation. Locals are friendly and very ready to share what they love about their city, especially if you ask about their favorite public sauna.
Lay of the Land
Helsinki is made up of four municipalities (Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, and Kauniainen) and 315 small islands located on and off the Uusimaa peninsula in southern Finland. The capital shares historical and cultural connections with many of its neighboring capitals — Finland used to be part of both Sweden and Russia before declaring independence in 1917. When you realize how recent their hard-won statehood is, you begin to see the ways Finland has differentiated itself from its Scandi neighbors.
Here’s the neighborhood breakdown. Katajanokka, Kruunuhaka, and Eira are old Helsinki. Kallio is the up-and-comer, a student-centric area with tons of cafes and shopping. Itäkeskus is one of the city’s most ethnically diverse districts and has a huge indoor shopping center. Suomenlinna, an island fortress and UNESCO Heritage Site, is a must-see for history buffs. Get to all these areas by tram, metro, or ferry.
If You Only Do One Thing
Trek to the Allas Sea Pool. It’s a public sauna on the shores of the Baltic Sea. You get a two-for-one deal: an incredible view of the city and immersion into one of Finland’s greatest cultural events. It’s soothing any time of year.
What You Should Know on Your First Day
Jump on the tram rather than the tour bus. Take Route 2 to see most of the city’s tourist sights. The bus changes to Route 3 along the way but will swing back to your starting point, so don’t worry. You can get on and off the tram all day for one 8 EUR ticket.
What to Do
Showcasing everything from furniture to textile and industrial design, it's a great place to learn about design from a Finnish and Scandinavian perspective, in both historical and cultural terms.
Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, University of Helsinki (main building), and Sederholm House are the four buildings lining this famous city square. Carl Ludvig Engel built the plaza as an allegorical take on scientific, commercial, and religious powers operating in Helsinki.
Designed by architect Steven Holl in 1996, this postmodern contemporary art museum has an incredible collection, wonderful revolving exhibitions, and a lovely museum cafe. (The white chairs that fill the space are made from 100% biodegradable material!) Not sure which galleries to visit while you're there? Take the museum test and they'll match you with art based on your emotional profile.
This Lutheran church was designed by brother architects Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in 1969. The space is carved out of bedrock underground and is absolutely otherworldly.
This ecumenical chapel, also known as the Chapel of Silence, is located on Narinkka Square. Designed by K2S Architects Ltd., the chapel looks golden from the outside with a minimalist wooden interior. The space was designed so that people can enjoy a moment of silence in a hectic world. Let the calming atmosphere roll over you like waves.
Enjoy a live performance, a stroll with friends, or a quiet moment to yourself in the lush surroundings of the long, narrow park locally known as Espa. Designed by Carl Ludwig Engel in 1818, the park runs east to west and the eastern end has the Kappeli restaurant, a Helsinki favorite since 1867.
A minimalist public sauna built in 2013 is the perfect way to unwind, especially during winter. The space seats up to three people at a time. While towels can be rented, it’s recommended that you bring your own.
Where to Shop
Design-lovers will go wild for this place. The beautiful shop, located in the heart of the design district, sells classic and modern Finnish furniture and interiors. It’s where you can get all the Finnish brands you’ve been lusting over.
The fashion-forward crowd will want to stop at the shop of this beloved Finnish fashion icon who creates incredible, whimsical shoes. Her store is delightful and certainly doesn’t fall into the Scandinavian minimalism archetype.
Where to Eat
Helsinki’s food scene is exploding at the moment. There’s a huge range of options, from gourmet to super cheap and yummy. For a quick bite, Fafa’s is a local favorite. This shawarma and falafel chain makes delicious pitas for a great price. If you’re want upscale, try Ravintola Werner for seasonal Nordic dishes and Boulevard Social for north African/Mediterranean fusion.
Finding a good bar isn’t a problem, with great cocktails, beer, and wine at the ready. For mixed drinks, A21 Decades and Trillby & Chadwick (the password to get inside is “soap”) are both excellent with experimental flavors and cozy interiors. Vin Vin is a wine bar with an impressive menu, not to mention a hairdressing salon in the back, — you know, in case you need a quick style change.
Where to Stay
Hotels don’t come cheap in Helsinki, but there are a range of good options in the city center, from the affordable to the very luxurious. Design-lovers will dig Klaus K Hotel while GLO Hotel Art offers an artsy experience in a renovated castle in the design district. Opening in February 2018, St. Georges Hotel is bound to be the most talked-about spot of the year.
Plan Your Trip
How to Get There
Fly into Helsinki Vantaa Airport (HEL), the hub for Finnair. From the airport, it takes 30 minutes to get to Helsinki Central Rail Station on either the I or P commuter rail lines, which run until 1 a.m. (1:30 a.m. on weekends.) The 615 bus runs 24 hours a day, every day. You can also catch a cab outside of terminals 1 and 2.
There’s great public transportation options, so don’t feel the need to rent a car (even with kids). A regular HSL transport ticket gives you access to the tram, bus, metro, commuter rail, and ferry. (Trams are most popular in the city center.) You can even go between the transport methods on the same ticket.
When to Go
Summer is the best time of year to go, but if you’re going to Helsinki, it’s not really about the weather, is it? Fall and winter can be dark, cold, and rainy, while spring and summer offer endless sunlight. The midnight sun can be jarring, but we’d recommend it any day over the extreme darkness of peak winter.
Service is included in restaurant bills, so no need to tip. Tips are not expected for cabs, hotel concierge, etc., but if service is especially good, tipping is not seen as an insult.
Finns are universally known to be a bit…hm, what’s the word…awkward. If someone doesn’t say sorry after bumping into you or doesn’t hold the elevator door as you try to get in, don’t take it personally.
What to Pack
If you’re going between October and March (or even April!), you’ll need warm clothes and lots of layers — hats, scarves, gloves, and shoes that’ll keep your toes warm.
For Your Bedside Table
Read The Unknown Soldier by Väinö Linna for a WWII history lesson and insight into the culture. There’s a 1955 film based on the same book that’s equally important to Finnish culture — it’s watched yearly on Independence Day. For something lighter, Inspector Palmu’s Error is a 1960s murder mystery that is nationally beloved. The Year of the Hare is both a novel (1975) and a film (1977) about a man who quits his job and goes to live in Lapland, where he encounters a hare that changes his life. It’s a Finnish classic and gives you a great feel for the country’s sensibilities and humor.