Art and design are among the many autumn attractions of Finland's compact and elegant capital

Why go now?

Helsinki rivals Edinburgh as a city of festivals, which move indoors from the parks and open-air arenas as the cooler weather arrives and the evenings draw in, creating what the Finns describe as "warm melancholy", their national mood. As a taster, an exceptional Picasso exhibition has just opened at the National Gallery (1), known as the Ateneum. Outdoors, whatever the weather, the annual Baltic Herring Fair (4-10 October) attracts big crowds to the central Market Square (2) to tuck into the emblematic fish of the Baltic.

Touch down

Blue1 (0906 294 2016; ), British Airways (0844 493 0787; and Finnair (0870 241 4411; ) fly from Heathrow to Helsinki; Finnair also flies from Manchester; and easyJet (0905 821 0905; ) flies from Gatwick.

From Helsinki's Vantaa airport, 19km north of the city, bus 615 takes you in about 35 minutes to the Central Railway Station (3) for €4. The equivalent journey by metered taxi is around €35.

Get your bearings

Lying on a coastal peninsula, the city is surrounded by water and connected to a complex arrangement of wooded islands by bridges and ferries. Despite its importance, Helsinki retains a refreshing, small-town feel, with no high-rise buildings to speak of, and a wealth of parks, waterways, squares and open-air cafés.

North of the main harbour, the centre was laid out in grid formation in the 19th century after a succession of fires had destroyed almost all of the older wooden buildings of note.

The focal point is Market Square (2), or Kauppatori, at the eastern end of two parallel boulevards, Pohjoisesplanadi and Etelaesplanadi, separated by a delightful green space known as Helsinki's "living room". The tourist office (4) at Pohjoisesplanadi 19 (00 358 9 3101 3300; visit ) opens 9am-6pm at weekends, and to 8pm during the week (From 1 October to 1 May, the hours are 10am-4pm at weekends and 9am-6pm during the week).

A block to the north is Helsinki's neo-classical showpiece, Senate Square, or Senaatintori (5), dominated by the strikingly white and green-domed Lutheran cathedral of Tuomiokirkko (6) – the city's most photographed landmark.

Check in

It opened in 1887 as Finland's most exclusive hotel, and Hotel Kamp (7), (above) at Pohjoisesplanadi 29 (00 358 9 576 111; ) remains pre-eminent today, following a substantial refurbishment. The favoured haunt of visiting VIPs, Kamp exudes an atmosphere of understated luxury, with an excellent gym and sauna. Doubles cost from €184, including breakfast.

Helsinki's most impressive new arrival is Hotel Haven (8), next to Market Square at Unioninkatu 17 (00 358 9 681 930; hotel ), which opened in February. Look out for the hotel's special seasonal promotions, when a double room can cost as little as €125, including breakfast.

For the budget-conscious, the no-frills Omena chain (run by a Finnish family firm) has two properties in central Helsinki, at Eerikinkatu 24 (9) and Lonnrotinkatu 13 (10). You must book online at , in return for a room-only rate of €60 to €75 (depending on demand). There is no reception desk: you are given a unique passcode to your room. These are simple but adequate – all with en-suite facilities, plus a microwave and fridge to atone for the absence of any hotel catering.

Day one

Take a hike

Very little in Helsinki pre-dates the early 19th century, when the Russians established it as the Finnish capital and rebuilt the centre in neo-classical style as a lesser St Petersburg. A century later, the Finns added their distinctive stamp with some eye-catching art nouveau-style buildings designed to assert their national identity by looking anything but Russian. Without straying far from the centre, you can explore both styles in an hour-long stroll. From Market Square (2), cross Pohjoisesplanadi and walk up Helenenkatu with its elegant cream façades. Turn left along Aleksanterinkatu, which leads to the vast, pink-paved Senate Square (5), presided over by the cathedral of Tuomiokirkko (6) – a showy confection on the outside but starkly Lutheran within. Turn down Yliopistonkatu, cross over the pedestrianised Mikonkatu and a right turn takes you into art nouveau-land. Across Kaisaniemenkatu is the National Theatre (11), dating from 1902, and a left turn takes you past the Central Railway Station (3), designed in the same period with a distinctive clock tower and four monumental figures helping to illuminate the main entrance. Turn left at the busy Mannerheimintie, looking out for exquisite art nouveau flourishes at Pentik furniture shop at number five, and the Virgin Oil Co restaurant next door. After passing Stockmann (12), Helsinki's finest department store, turn left down Pohjoisesplanadi, which leads back to Market Square (2).

Lunch on the run

The busy stalls on Market Square (2) make ideal refuelling stops. Pull up a stool and take your pick from salads, sandwiches and local staples such as a bowl of salmon broth with fresh bread (€8) – all the more enjoyable for being consumed right at the heart of the action.

Window shopping

The Finns take the art of design so seriously that they've named an entire neighbourhood, the hub of which is approximately at the junction of Yrjonkatu and Erottajankatu, the Design District (13) ( ). It consists of dozens of shops, studios, galleries, workshops, restaurants and bars dedicated to the clean, bright, minimalist principles of Finnish design. Prices can be as jaw-dropping as the designs.

An aperitif

Get a taste of Finland's frozen north at the Arctic Icebar (14), which is part of a restaurant called La Bodega at Yliopistonkatu 5 (00 358 9 278 1855, arctic ). The €10 admission fee gets you the loan of a cape and gloves to cope with the -5C temperature, and a drink. (Open daily from 4pm to 11.30pm).

Dining with the locals

You could keep the Arctic theme going at Kosmos (15) at Kalevankatu 3 (00 358 9 647 255), which is a place with a history. Kosmos has been run by the same family since the 1920s, apart from a wartime interlude when it was requisitioned by the German army and used as a mess hall. The menu is on the pricey side, but the dishes manage to be both traditional and imaginative. Stand-outs are the fried Arctic char on a bed of nettle risotto (€26) or fillet of reindeer with a sauce made from shoots of spruce and rosemary (€32).

Day two

Sunday: go to church

There's nothing quite like Temppeliaukio Church (16) at Lutherinkatu 3 (00 358 9 2340 5920) anywhere in the world. Quarried out of a seam of granite bedrock in the 1960s, daylight floods through its glass dome, and the natural rockface delivers such superb acoustics it's become as much a concert hall as a place of worship. Students from the Sibelius Academy give regular free performances. Sunday opening times for tourists are restricted to 11.45am-1.45pm and 3.30-6pm due to several (Lutheran) services, including one in English at 2pm. On other days, it opens at 10am to 5pm on Monday-Wednesday (with a lunch-break on Tuesday), to 8pm on Thursday and Friday, and to 6pm on Saturday.

Take a ride

Helsinki has one of the oldest electrified tram networks in the world, and the modern, low-slung vehicles are quiet, comfortable and inexpensive. Tram 3 – marked either 3B or 3T – follows a figure-of-eight route that takes in most of the city's main sights. At Market Square (2), buy your ticket (€2.50) at the machine – the drivers don't sell them – board a tram in either direction, tick off the landmarks as you go, and finish up where you started 50 minutes later.

Take a view...

One of Helsinki's most notable landmarks, on tram route 3, is the tower adjoining the Olympic Stadium (17), north-west of the centre. Had it not been for the Second World War, the futuristic stadium would have hosted the 1940 Olympics; as it turned out, Helsinki had to wait another 12 years for the opening ceremony. Outside, there are statues of Finland's two legendary runners, Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren. From the top of the 72m-high tower, you get a magnificent view of the low-lying city and the 300 islands stretching out towards Estonia. The tower is open 9am-6pm at weekends, to 8pm on other days, admission €2.

A walk in the park

Close to the Olympic Stadium is the wooded Sibelius Park (18), where you can pay homage to Finland's greatest composer at the splendid monument unveiled in his honour in 1967. Locals and tourists pose for photographs in front of a bust of Sibelius framed by a spectacular arrangement of welded steel tubes.

Out to brunch

Situated near the harbour, from where it sources many of its fish and seafood dishes, Salutorget (19) at Pohjoisesplanadi 15 (00 358 9 6128 5950; ) is a new bistro, that used to be a bank, with an attractive café/bar attached. Family brunch on Sundays (noon-5.30pm) will set you up for the day with a three-course meal at a fixed price of €31.50 per head, wine extra.

Cultural afternoon

The National Gallery (1) at Kaivokatu 2 (00 358 9 1733 6401; ) is Finland's oldest and largest art museum, tracing the development of Finnish painting and sculpture from the 18th century to the present. International artists are well represented too, and from now until 6 January there's an exhibition of 200 of Picasso's works rarely seen outside Paris. It opens 11am-5pm at weekends, 10am-6pm on Tuesday and Friday, and 10am-8pm on Wednesday and Thursday, admission €16 including the Picasso exhibition.

The icing on the cake

Ferries for the island of Suomenlinna leave from the quay next to Market Square (2); a return ticket, valid for 12 hours, costs €3.80. Built on six islands guarding the southern entrance to Helsinki, this was once the world's most formidable sea fortress. Suomenlinna was founded in 1748, when Finland was under Swedish rule, as a defence against Russia. When the Russians captured it 60 years later, they strengthened the fortifications; the Royal Navy called it the "Gibraltar of the North" after failing to capture it in 1855. Today, 900 people live there, and even when ferries and water-buses deliver day-trippers there's room to enjoy quiet coves and walks among the ramparts. The five museums are open all year. Check details of admission prices and opening times with the Visitor Centre (00 358 9 684 1880; ).