Helsinki is a city with a variety of identities. Maybe it’s the Russian influence (St. Petersburg is a quick train ride away). Maybe it’s the strong appreciation of contemporary design — the capital of Finland is home to Marimekko, world-renowned for its boldly patterned textiles; Kalevala, known for distinctive bronze and silver jewelry; and Iittala, known for glassware. The city also might be associated with the dark, cold and snowy winters that last half the year (fortunately, most travelers choose not to visit then). Helsinki embraces a bit of oddball fun too. One annual festival features the tossing of Finnish-made Nokia cell phones, and another popular mainstay is a wife-carrying competition.
Finland differs from Nordic neighbors like Sweden and Norway because of its near-inexplicable language. (It originated as an oral language, rather than a written one, so it’s very difficult to follow; Swedish is also widely spoken.) The country itself is one of Europe’s newest; independence from Russia was achieved in 1917 following the Bolshevik Revolution.
Helsinki was founded in 1550 by Swedish King Gustav Vasa and offers monuments such as the Lutheran Cathedral (Lutheranism is one of the national religions), the onion-domed Uspenski Cathedral (Eastern Orthodox) and the neoclassical buildings in and around Senate Square. The city also features Kiasma, the avant-garde Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Design Museum.
Helsinki’s other major plus is that it’s bounded on three sides by the Baltic Sea. In summer, the city’s waterfront is the liveliest place in Finland — whether you’re soaking up the sun at a cafe, riding the ferry to the island housing the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress or taking a boat tour of surrounding waterways.
The city’s waterfront is not only the takeoff point for boats and ferries but is also home to both indoor and outdoor markets (some vendors even sell their wares from boats). At Market Square, locals and tourists shop for flowers, fresh fruits and local delicacy herring. There are cozy cafes that are terrific places for a quick coffee — and it’s a great place for people-watching.
Senate Square’s prime attraction is the historic Lutheran Cathedral. Another religious place worth visiting, also from the 1800s, is the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. The modernist Temppeliaukio Church is dubbed the Rock Church because it has been carved out of solid rock (it is a considerable walk to this church, so a cab or trolley may be advisable).
If you want to know more about Finland’s history, check out the city’s museums. Start with the National Museum of Finland for artifacts from the country’s long history, dating back to prehistoric times. Ateneum Art Museum was opened in 1887 and today houses the largest collection of art in Finland with more than 20,000 works from the 1750s to the 1950s. If you enjoy contemporary art, don’t miss the stylish Kiasma. To learn about Finnish modern design, check out the Design Museum.
Music lovers will want to visit Sibelius Park on Mechelininkatu (a long walk from downtown), home to an unusual monument featuring hundreds of steel pipes that pays homage to famous Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957).
A 15-minute ferry ride away, Suomenlinna Sea Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The fortress, which dates to 1748, is set on a series of interconnected islands. Within the walls are numerous historic buildings and museums. Start at the visitor center and work your way through museums such as the Suomenlinna Museum (which displays military artifacts), the Toy Museum and the submarine Vesikko, among others. (Note that many are open only during the summer.) The fortress is also a residential community — there are numerous cafes and restaurants as well as a brewpub.
Helsinki’s train station is one of the more notable buildings in town, guarded by four stone-carved warriors from Finnish mythology. The figures have inspired set designers for the first “Batman” movie and the guardians of Gondor in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”
The Linnanmaki Amusement Park features water slides, a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel and an arcade. The park, set on a hilltop on Helsinki’s outskirts, also offers a gorgeous view of the city.
Korkeasaari, Helsinki’s zoo, sits on an island of its own just spitting distance from downtown. Highlights include lynxes, wolves, vipers, brown eagles and, yes, reindeer. Ferries to the zoo depart from Market Square during the warmer months.
Unique Lapland’s Winter World Helsinki offers an indoor opportunity to discover the north of Finland with its igloos, tobogganing, kick sledging and tandem skiing inside a huge sports hall kept chilled at minus-3 degrees centigrade.
Helsinki has become a gourmet city in recent years with several Michelin-starred restaurants and very ambitious young restaurants snapping at their heels. You can eat cheaply at a Burger King or even have reindeer burgers at McDonald’s, but it’s worth spending a bit more to enjoy what this city has to offer. Restaurants tend to be small in Finland, so book ahead if you can.
Lingonberries are a local specialty in northern Europe. These tart red berries are picked in the wild and used to accompany a variety of dishes. You’ll also find bowls of them available at breakfast time — often eaten with yogurt — if you stay at a Helsinki hotel.
For a casual sandwich on the go, head for the indoor food hall at Market Square.
For (pricey) Scandinavian-style gourmet dining, Savoy and G.W. Sundmans are good bets.
Enjoy a leisurely meal with a fine view of South Harbour at Pure Bistro, which is the latest venture by Michelin-starred chef Jouni Toivanen.
If you like looking for the trendiest spot in town, head to Spis. This ambitious Nordic restaurant has a variety of tasting menus in the Design District.
Love wine? Ask, with its emphasis on organic and biodynamic farming, is also very imaginative in its wine pairings.
Shopping in Helsinki
For lovers of art and artisan crafts, Helsinki is a fabulous shopping destination. The Design District offers numerous boutiques showcasing work from young Finnish designers — head to Uudenmaankatu Street.
The Esplanade, in the heart of the city, is Helsinki’s version of Paris’ Champs d’Elysee. Here you’ll find the flagship stores of three great Finnish designers: Marimekko (bright fabrics), Iittala (colorful glassware) and Artek (the design classics of Alvar Aalto). If there’s a live concert — often at lunchtime there are free dance and music performances– plunk yourself down in the grassy park or at one of the sidewalk cafes.
Don’t miss Stockmann (Aleksanterinkatu 52) the city’s most elegant department store. Beyond the usual fare, it’s got a nice array of Finnish-made housewares (candlesticks and the like) and craft items from around the country, including Lapland (the northernmost part of the country and, supposedly, the home of Santa Claus). It’s also got a huge bookshop, the Academic Bookstore, with a good selection of works in English.
–written by Fran Golden; updated by Adrian Mourby