Travel: 48 hours in Helsinki

You need a break - and a short-cut to the soul of a city. This week, Nick Selby checks out summer in a place where the sun never sets
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Why go now?

Helsinki adores summer, when its northern locale gives it almost endless daylight, and Helsinkians stay out for most of it. And celebrations commemorating the 250th anniversary of Suomenlinna, Helsinki's stone fortress on an idyllic little green island at the city's south, are in full swing this summer. Both Suomenlinna and the city's charming port-side market are chock-a-block with festivals, open-air concerts, tall ship celebrations and wonderful food stalls.

Beam down

UK-Finland flights are pretty well sewn up by an alliance of British Airways (0345 222111) and Finnair (0990 997711), which between them operate all the scheduled services from London (Gatwick and Heathrow) and Manchester (via Stockholm). Finnair currently has a fare of pounds 185.30 return from London to Helsinki, pounds 30 more from Manchester. Buy the ticket by 15 August and stay for a Saturday night. Finnair coaches connect the central train station with the airport every half hour, taking 35 minutes.

Get your bearings

Helsinki, with its delightful mix of Scandinavian, European and Russian architecture, is a relatively recent invention. The city was established in 1550 as a market to compete with Tallinn, across the Baltic Sea. Nowadays, the Finnish capital is held by many to be the real gateway between east and west, offers the best of European, Baltic and Russian cultures.

Because the compact centre grew up round the port and market area, Helsinki is easily walkable; 15-minutes' walk from the central train station brings you to the port, where ferries and charter boats await to bring you round the city's more than 300 small islands. From the port, too, are ferries and cruise ships leaving for Tallinn and St Petersburg and destinations in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

The TourExpert desk at the excellent Helsinki City Tourist Office (tel: 169-3757), Pohjoiseplanadi 19, near the port, sells tickets to sightseeing tours throughout the city and surrounding islands. Invest in a Helsinki Card (pounds 13), for unlimited use of city public transport (including the Suomenlinna ferry), tours and admission to most of the city's museums.

Check in

The city's Hotel Booking Centre is a terrific source of help for Helsinki and all of Finland, especially when large events book out the city's somewhat limited hotel space. You can call in advance from the UK (tel: 00 358 9 171 133, fax: 00 358 9 175524) or just turn up at the office in the west wing of the main rail station.

The Arctia Grand Marina Hotel, Katajamokanlaituri 7, is one of the city's finest secrets and a personal favourite. A four-star hotel in a renovated former port warehouse, rooms are large, staff attentive and friendly, and weekend deals can get you snuggled up with a view of the harbour for less than pounds 55 (tel: 00 358 9 16 661).

Another pleasant place near the water is the Seaside Hotel (Ruoholadenranta 3, tel: 00 358 9 69 360), with weekend double room rates of pounds 66 for singles and doubles.

The best tip for a cheap room - if you are prepared to forgo an en-suite bath - is the friendly and spotless Eurohostel, right near the port, which has private single and double rooms for pounds 22/pounds 28.

One lovely surprise is that all hotels - and even most hostels - in Helsinki have free saunas for guests' use.

Take a ride

The cheapest way to get your bearings is by hopping on to a tram No 3T, which makes a 45-minute figure-of-eight orientation loop through the heart of the city. Too pedestrian? In the evening, hop on the Bar Tram, which offers much the same plus beer. The greenest way to take a tour is through TandemTaxi (tel: 00 358 40 540 0400), which guides you round on bikes for two. If money is no object, charter one of the tall wooden sailing ships that gather in port for a lunch or dinner cruise (from pounds 3,200).

Take a hike

The most popular place to get away from it all is Suomenlinna, the fortress- village on an island off the centre, where celebrations and special events continue all summer. Walk through the village's streets or along the shore. Helsinki residents - especially lovers - hold Kairopuisto, another island at the city's south-east corner, dear to their hearts. It's great for summer outdoor concerts and picnics in the park.

Lunch on the run

Tops for a delicious and quick lunch are the food stalls around the city's excellent covered market. Inside are dozens of options, including smoked reindeer meat, excellent vegetarian food, authentic Italian, superb Vietnamese, and the more pedestrian doner kebab. Outside, along the waterfront, sample some of the heavenly smoked fish sold from small boats.

Cultural afternoon

Kiasma, the city's new contemporary arts museum, opened with a bang in May; along with the prerequisite multi-media installations, don't miss Christian Steel's immensely popular scent installation, "Babylon", a series of intricately shaped porcelain pots from the Royal Danish Porcelain factory filled with oils scented with everything from birch tar to galbanum (through December). The Cygnaeus Gallery, in a lovely villa, has a great collection of 19th-and 20th-century Finnish paintings and sculpture. There are fine industrial and fine arts exhibits at the Helsinki City Art Museum, and transport buffs will love it here: there's a good aviation museum at the airport and a fascinating tram museum in the centre.

Window shopping

The best shopping is right in the centre, around the enormous Stockmann's department store. Though it is heavily touristed, the market near the port is not a tourist trap, and there's a fine selection of Finnish handicrafts on offer, with good value for the money thanks to the present strength of the pound.

An aperitif

Throughout the city you'll see pavement cafes overflowing into the streets at the first sight of good weather: Helsinkians love drinking outdoors. Try Koskankorva, a vodka-like firewater taken in shots or mixed with fruit juice.

A fun place to start a night out is Molly Malone's Irish Pub (tel: 00 358 9 171 272), with good beers and live Irish music at weekends. Then head for the Kallio district, about 1 km from downtown, packed with typical Finnish pubs and beer gardens, or for the flashy and trendy pubs that line flashy and trendy Uudenmaankatu, in the centre.

Demure dinner

One place not in most guidebooks is Helsinki's outstanding Garlic Restaurant (Fredrikinkatu 22, tel: 00 358 9 651 939), a must for any garlic fan, with fine service, sensational home-made bread and herb butter and a highly creative menu. Try the stupendous fish kebab: pike wrapped in fresh salmon, char-broiled then served in a garlic-cream sauce over home-made seafood ravioli. Wash this down with a garlic beer (much better than it sounds) and you're guaranteed a seat alone on the flight home.

For traditional Lapland specialities of salmon, gorgeous fish soups and tender reindeer steaks, head for Lappi Ravintola at Annankato 22. There are lots of places to get expensive, stylised Russian food, but when Russians come to town they go for the delicious down-home (and reasonably priced) Russian food at Babushka Ira (Uudenmaankatu 28, tel: 00 358 9 680 1405), right in the centre.

A night on the tiles

Helsinki starts hopping early, and people head for discos around 11pm. Happy Days, Pohjoisesplanadi 2, is a yuppie hangout with mainstream hits and a fun crowd, and Nylon, Kaivokatu 10, is a small but jamming dance and hip hop club with a younger and much wilder crowd. Opposite Nylon, 10th Floor, Kaivokatu 3, is an upmarket, flashy late-night club. Too wild? Throw on some nicer togs and take a friend over to Vanha Maestro, Fredrikinkatu 51, for some wildly popular Finnish tango (you read that right).

Sunday service

The city's premier Lutheran church, in Senate Square, is currently closed for renovations, but its main competitor, the Temppeliaukio Church, Lutherinkatu 3, is worth a visit for its unusual architecture: built into rocks, it looks for all the world like a downed UFO. The best bet is to attend Russian services at the largest Orthodox cathedral in western Europe: the glorious brick Uspenski Cathedral, Kanavakatu 1.

A walk in the park

There are bits of green throughout Helsinki, including Goff park at the southern end of the centre. And to get away from it all - or from what passes for hustle and bustle in Helsinki - head straight for Pihlajasaar, a wild island where you are immediately immersed in the quiet of the countryside (except at weekends, when you're immersed in crowds of Finns looking for the quiet of the countryside). Seurasaari is yet another island, a combined historical park, picnic area and swimming-spot. It is lined with 19th- century houses, and also has some small beaches. Take the plunge - after August, the Baltic cools rapidly.