A beautiful capital city with a small town feel, Helsinki is the border of east and west. And while it is considered Scandinavian, it is in fact more akin to its Baltic brothers in both style and manner.
Built on many islands and peninsulas, this creates a captivating harbour-side setting along the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland – only 80 kilometres from Tallinn across the strait. Helsinki is a hip, design-friendly place, with fantastic architecture and a stylish and welcoming populace. In the dark winter months, you’ll be met by arctic conditions perfect for ice skating and trips to the sauna. But in the spring’s thaw, expect picnics in the park, bustling streets and lazy days on the beach. Helsinki’s bohemian bars and Russian-style cafés are juxtaposed with Scandinavian design, creating a quirky combination of old and new. It is definitely a city that needs to be seen to be believed, so book your flight to Helsinki now.
Considered to be the city centre, these two neighbourhoods are where you’ll find museums and galleries, such as the superb Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. Also here is the recently renovated 1930s Stockmann department store, whose ‘Stocky's clock’, has been the meeting point for generations of Finns. Go for coffee sat at the famous outdoor cafes on Market Square and see the old American cars on display. In Kluvvi, venture up to the beautiful gardens of Kaisaniemen Park, whose botanical gardens showcase the world’s different environments – rather strange during the winter when it is -17 outside.
With a city so invested in design to have its own district, you know you are going to find some unique pieces and fantastic shops. The district is made up of 25 streets covering the Punavuori, Kaartinkaupunki, Kamppi and Ullanlinna neighbourhoods. With more than 150 shops, from interior design to jewellery and antiques, with lots of galleries, stylish cafés, bars and restaurants, you can see why this is popular area to visit. So whether you are looking to buy a few items for the living room, or just gawp at some stunning design, this is the place for you. Look for the black ‘Design District’ stickers on the doors.
To the north of Pitkäsilta Bridge, the traditional border between the rich and poor districts, Kallio is the bohemian quarter. A former working class neighbourhood, now that artists, liberals and of course, the ever present hipster have made Kallio their home, it is slowly becoming gentrified. While it is a bit further away from the city centre, it is well worth a visit in the evening, when it comes alive with some unforgettable bars and cafés. It is a very laid-back area, much akin to Hackney or Williamsburg, so bring your trendiest clothes to fit in.
On the west of Helsinki, Töölö has some of the best examples of classically Finnish architecture, with beautiful old buildings straight out of a fairy tale. There are parks, like the Sibelius Park, perfect for gazing out on Seurasaari Bay. Have a stroll through the eerie cemetery and make sure not to miss the beautifully-bizarre Temppeliaukion Church. The church was excavated from the solid bedrock and has a green-tinged copper domed roof, truly an unmissable building in the heart of the city. Also visit Töölö Bay, to see the Finlandia Concert Hall and the National Opera, alongside historic wooden villas and a large wild bird population.
One of the oldest neighbourhoods in Helsinki, Kruununhaka is an affluent area with beautiful houses, government buildings and some fantastic antique boutiques and vintage shops. Visit Helsinki Cathedral, whose unmistakable green dome dominates the skyline on Senate Square. Head down to the marina, and walk the bridge to the Tervasaari Island, a popular spot for dog walkers to eat at the traditional Restaurant Savu. It is a smokehouse, so you can try meats and fish smoked on the premises whilst sitting out on the beautiful terrace.
Ullanlinna is the most affluent neighbourhood in the city, and has some very pleasant and peaceful green spaces. The Observatory Park is stunning in the summer months, and offers panoramic views of the Cathedral’s copper dome. In the 19th century Punavuori was the red light district, frequented by sailors, but is now trendy and bohemian with cool bars and – as part of the Design District – some amazing shops. Don’t miss a visit to the Flea Market on Fredan tori (Fredrikintori Square) every Sunday – have a browse and have a couple of pastries at the local café.
Visit unspoilt nature on Vallisaari island, finally open to the public after years being used as a military training base. Linked by ferry to the mainland, this is an opportunity not to be missed, if only to see its incredibly diverse flora and fauna, and its spectacular views of Helsinki. Or venture over to the fortress of Sveaborg, built in 1748 by the Swedish crown, and renamed Suomenlinna in 1918. This UNESCO Heritage Site fortification is built over several interlinked islands, and has been owned by Sweden, Russia and finally Finland. Its historic battlements and iconic Naval Acedemy bring tourists flocking throughout the summer months.