48 Hours: Helsinki

With long summer days and a vibrant arts festival on the agenda, the Finnish capital is now at its most alluring, says Chris Leadbeater

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

Helsinki comes alive when the temperature soars, the brief window of the Nordic summer fomenting a party spirit in Finland's capital. Between June and August, the sun scarcely seems to set on a metropolis that ranks as continental Europe's northernmost capital. This sunny vibe will play out next month in the Helsinki Festival (August 19-4 September; helsinginjuhlaviikot.fi), a fortnight of music, film and the arts.

Touch down

Finnair (0870 241 4411; finnair.com) flies from Manchester and Heathrow; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Blue1 (0906 294 2016; blue1.com) also fly from Heathrow. Norwegian (020-8099 7254; norwegian.com) flies from Gatwick.

The city's main airport, Helsinki-Vantaa (00 358 200 14636; helsinki-vantaa.fi), is 12 miles north of the centre. Bus 615 visits both terminals every 15 minutes, and costs €4 for a 30-minute ride that drops you in Rautatientori, outside the city's art nouveau rail station (1). The Finnair City Bus traces an identical route in 20 minutes, for €6.20. Taxis ask €20-€30.

Get your bearings

Helsinki lies on Finland's south coast, hard against the Gulf of Finland – the easternmost arm of the Baltic Sea. Water is key to its appeal: while the hub of the city sits on terra firma, the landmass is laced with lakes and channels – and several of Helsinki's big sights perch on islands just off-shore, notably the 18th-century sea fortress of Suomenlinna (2).

The centre fans out north of the shoreline, a mixture of the pragmatic and the pretty – and the fruit of two distinct eras.

Helsinki was founded as a trading post in 1550 by Gustav I of Sweden – in a period when the Finns lay under the yoke of their westerly neighbours – but did not enter its glory years until 1808 when Russia conquered the region and remodelled the city as a sibling to St Petersburg. This latter influence is visible in Senaatintori (3) (Senate Square), where a statue of Tsar Alexander II, Finland's ruler between 1855 and 1881, surveys what was once his realm.

The metro largely caters for commuters and is of little use to tourists, but buses, trams and local ferries are plentiful. Single tickets for all four services (Helsinki Regional Transport: 00 358 9 4766 4000; hsl.fi) cost €2 if bought in advance from metro stations or tram stops, and cover unlimited journeys in a one-hour window. A one-day pass costs €7.

Tickets are also available at the tourist information office (4) at Pohjoisesplanadi 19 (00 358 9 3101 3300; visithelsinki.fi, and also visitfinland.com) – as is the Helsinki Card ( helsinkiexpert.com). This covers all public transport and most museums, priced €35 for 24 hours, €45 for 48, €55 for 72. However, with the city compact enough to be explored on foot, the card is good value only if you visit at least three institutions.

Check in

A short stroll from the museums at Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu 23, Hotel Helka (5) is a gently stylish three-star, with a sauna and doubles from €124, including breakfast (00 358 9 613 580; helka.fi). The four-star Hotel Torni (6), at Yrjonkatu 26 (00 358 20 123 4604; sokoshotels.fi), is an Art Deco dame that dates to 1928; doubles from €108, with breakfast. The Hotel Kamp (7) at Pohjoisesplanadi 29 (00 358 9 576 111; hotelkamp.com) is a gilded 1887 five-star, where local boy Sibelius used to drink. Doubles from €224, room only.

Day one

Take a hike

Alive with people on the edge of the harbour, Kauppatori (8) (Market Square) gives notice that Helsinki is still a busy port, its stalls overlooking docks where ferries pull in from Stockholm and St Petersburg.

But the city's softer side quickly takes over in the form of the Esplanadi (9) – a manicured walkway that offers hints of Paris as it flows uphill – part Jardin des Tuileries in its leafy café culture, part Champs Elysées in the two chic avenues (Pohjoisesplanadi and Etelaesplanadi) that flank it.

Follow the Esplanadi to the top and turn right onto Mannerheimintie, then right again to move onto Aleksanterinkatu. The city's main shopping drag is a further echo of the Russian era, bearing the name of Alexander I (Tsar 1801-1825) as it spears east into Senaatintori (3).

Window shopping

Aleksanterinkatu is dotted with the usual international names and chain brands – but brandishes a symbol of retail tradition at number 52, where Stockmann (10) (00 358 9 1211; stockmann.com) does seven storeys of department store finesse dating back to 1930.

Inquisitive visitors should skip south to the Punavuori district, the heart of Helsinki's design scene (the city is next year's World Design Capital; wdc2012helsinki.fi). Nou Nou Design (11), at Uudenmaankatu 2 (00 358 50 60081; nounoudesign.fi), dishes up some really cool kitchenware, and Design Forum (12) at Erottajankatu 7 (00 358 9 6220 8130; designforumshop.fi), offers products of myriad talented Finns.

The Classic Audio (13), at Iso Roobertinkatu 44 (00 358 500 550 054; classicaudio.fi), sums up the district's ethos by dispensing vintage stereo equipment and old radios.

Lunch on the run

Just off the Esplanadi (9) at Kluuvikatu 3, Fazer (14) (00 358 20 729 6702; fazer.fi) is a hallowed landmark: an 1891 coffee salon. Indulge your sweet tooth with its many pastries and cakes, or try the signature Fazer Chocolate Tea (€3).

Cultural afternoon

Helsinki's major museums are gathered in a cluster immediately north of the centre. The Kansallismuseo (15) (the National Museum of Finland), at Mannerheimintie 34 (00 358 9 4050 9544; kansallismuseo.fi; Tuesday 11am-8pm, Wednesday to Sunday 11am-6pm, Monday closed; €7), is a faux-Gothic castle in which the history of the country from the Stone Age onwards is dissected – folk traditions, Sami culture and a "throne room" containing one of the regal chairs that seated the 19th century tsar overlords.

Metres away at Mannerheiminaukio 2, Kiasma (16) (the Museum of Contemporary Art) is a stark pile of concrete and glass that acts as Helsinki's modern art showcase (00 358 9 1733 6501; kiasma.fi; 10am-5pm daily except Monday, with late opening on Wednesday and Thursday to 8.30pm, and Friday to 10pm; €10). Currently, its five floors are hosting Ars 11, an exhibition on identity in post-colonial Africa (until 27 November).

Finland's National Gallery, Ateneum (17), at Kaivokatu 2 (00 358 9 1733 6401; ateneum.fi), houses the titans of Finnish art – Akseli-Gallen Kallela, Helene Schjerfbeck – plus pieces by Van Gogh and Gauguin. It opens 11am-5pm at weekends, other days 10am-6pm, Wednesday and Thursday to 8pm, closed Monday; €10.

An aperitif

Hop back to Punavuori and sip a beer amid the hip young things at Café Bar 9 (18), at Uudenmaankatu 9 (00 358 9 621 4059; bar9.net). There is nothing especially striking about its mildly gloomy interior – small tables and a long bar against the back wall – but the atmosphere is lively. Beers from €6.

Dining with the locals

Havis (19) at Etelaranta 16 (00 358 9 6128 5800; royalravintolat.com/havis) is an upmarket fish restaurant that occupies a prime slice of Helsinki's harbourfront. The signature dish is the chargrilled perch with asparagus for €31.

Slightly less pricey, Bar Kanava (20), at Kanavaranta 7 (00 358 9 6128 5520; royalravintolat.com/kanavabar), serves roasted Finnish sirloin with a chorizo salad for €24.

Day two

Sunday morning: take a ride

From Kauppatori (8), pick up the ferry that sails to Suomenlinna (2) every 20 minutes (taking 12 minutes to do so). This colossal stronghold was founded by the Swedes in 1748, and is so large it stretches across eight close-knit islands.

Even 250 years on, it bristles with defensive might, tall ramparts and cannons threatening the sea. Nonetheless, it failed in its moment of truth: when Russia invaded in 1808, Sweden surrendered it with barely a struggle.

Take note of the Kirkkopuisto church, which hails from the Russian era. Its dome doubles as a lighthouse whose beams are visible from the mainland at dusk.

Out to brunch

Slotted into the fortress's outer walls next to the ferry jetty, Panimo ("Brewery") serves up solid staples such as Finnish salmon soup (€8.50) and spicy lamb sausages with vegetable mash (€17.50), as well as fine house beers from €3.20 (00 358 9 228 5030; panimo.com).

Go to church

The Tuomiokirkko (21) (the Lutheran cathedral), Helsinki's most dramatic structure, rises on a low hillock above Senaatintori (3) (00 358 9 2340 6120; www.helsinginseurakunnat.fi/tuomiokirkko). Open 9am-midnight daily until the end of August, until 6pm daily otherwise, it is a fantasy in white – and also something of a reverse-Tardis. From the outside, it appears vast and ornate, gold crosses crowning green domes. Within, it is oddly compact and austere – a statue of Martin Luther one of the few adornments. He glares into the distance at the rival Uspenski Cathedral (22), a red-brick Orthodox bastion that, with its cupolas and icons, could not look more Russian. Open noon-3pm on Sundays, 9.30am-4pm on other days (00 358 207 220 683; ort.fi/helsinki).

A walk in the park

Laid out in the 1830s as a strolling enclave for the Russian aristocracy, Kaivopuisto park (23) exudes a breezy nobility as it spreads out at the southern tip of the centre, within sight of the Baltic. A statue at its western corner, Odotus (Expectation) – a bronze figure of a mother gazing worriedly at the horizon – is far less cloying a concept than it sounds.

The icing on the cake

Round off your stay at the Hotel Torni (6), whose 14th (and top) floor is given over to the Ateljee Bar (00 358 9 4336 6340; ateljeebar.fi) – a tiny watering hole filled with evening drinkers and character in an equal measure. The cocktails are hardly cheap (an apple mojito is €12.90), but the view over city rooftopsjustifies the expense.

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