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WHY GO NOW?
As a city on the water, Helsinki has a magical quality of light – particularly so at the start of autumn, when the low sun lends the Finnish capital a poignant feel. Later this month, on 20 September, the citizens will be marking 50 years since the death of the nation's musical hero, Sibelius. Film buffs will be descending on the city for Helsinki's 20th International Film Festival (20-30 September; www.hiff.fi). There's action of a very different kind next month, when crowds gather for the lively annual Herring Market in the central Market Square (1) (7-13 October; www.visithelsinki.fi).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Helsinki occupies a peninsula and splinters on to outlying islands that are linked to the mainland by bridge and ferry. The centre is compact and very walkable, built around, and back from, the main harbour, Etelasatama. Its focal point is the Market Square (1), or Kauppatori, where fish stalls trade while boats and ferries dock nearby. The central City of Helsinki Tourist Office (3) is just off the Market Square at Pohjoisesplanadi 19 (00 358 9 3101 3300; www. visithelsinki.fi). It is open Monday to Friday 9am-8pm and weekends 9am-6pm.
Just north is the great Senate Square, or Senaatintori (4), while to the west are the leafy boulevards of Pohjoisesplanadi and Etelaesplanadi. These lead to the wide thoroughfare of Mannerheimintie, which is flanked midway by two seminal landmarks: the Finnish National Museum (5) housed in a striking Art Deco building; and the modernist Finlandia concert hall (6) by the architect Alvar Aalto.
Note that Helsinki's street names are shown in Swedish as well as Finnish, although these are similar and simply have different endings.
Branding can be misleading. The Hotel Katajanokka (7), a few minutes walk from the main harbour, at 5 Linnankuja (00 358 9 686 450; www.bwkatajanokka.fi; doubles from €207/£148 including breakfast), may be part of the Best Western consortium – but it's far from uniform. It opened this year as part of the latest crop of Helsinki's design hotels, strikingly created from a former prison. Most of its chic bedrooms have been devised out of two or three cells.
The Sokos Hotel Vaakuna (8) at Asema-aukio 2 (00 358 20 1234 610; www.sokos hotels.fi; doubles from €160/£114) is a period piece built for the 1952 Olympics. Set just across the road from the railway station, it has a great 10th-floor roof terrace and ladies' and gents' saunas.
For a cosier atmosphere head to family-run Hotel Anna (9) at Annankatu 1 (00 358 9 616 621; www.hotel anna.com), west of the main harbour, where doubles start from €160 (£114), including breakfast.
TAKE A HIKE
Helsinki was established as the Finnish capital by the Russians, with much of the centre rebuilt in the early-19th century in the gracious neo-classical style of St Petersburg. Beyond this core area lie Art Deco buildings, designed as a defiant expression of Finnish identity. For a walk that takes in some of the best of both styles, start at the Market Square (1), one side of which is lined with pastel-coloured offices from the early 19th century. Cross over Pohjoiseplanadi and walk up Helenankatu with its elegant cream façades. Turn left along Aleksanterinkatu, which leads to Senaatintori (4), its huge pink-paved square presided over by the great white Lutheran cathedral of Tuomoikirkko – although the austere interior might disappoint. The entrance (open weekdays 10am-4pm, Saturdays until 6pm, Sunday midday-6pm; free) is on Unionkatu, on the west side of the square. From the cathedral, turn down Yliopistonkatu, keeping straight on past cafés and Vinyl cocktail bar (10). Cross over pedestrian Mikonkatu and turn right, effectively reaching Art Deco-land. Across Kaisaniemenkatu is the National Theatre (11), designed in 1902 in National Romantic style (effectively the Finnish twist on Art Deco) by Onni Tarjanne. Turn left and continue past the huge and wonderfully imposing railway station (2) devised in 1906 by Eliel Saarinen, with monumental figures guarding the main entrance. Turn left at Mannerheimintie and walk down this busy street, looking out for Art Deco detail at Pentik furniture shop at number five, and the Virgin Oil Co restaurant next door. Past the Stockmann department store (12), turn left down Pohjoisesplanadi and stroll down this avenue back to the Market Square (1).
LUNCH ON THE RUN
At the Market Square (1), pull up a stool at one of the stalls serving meals al fresco, such as salmon broth at €6 (£4.30) or whitebait with potatoes and salad for €7 (£5).
TAKE A RIDE
From tram number 3, you see most of the highlights of Helsinki. Buy a ticket (€2/£1.45 from machines, €2.50/£1.80 from the driver) and take a circular tour from the Market Square (1), passing the Senate Square (4), the Opera House (13), the Olympic stadium (14) and the central station (2).
From Stone Age finds to Viking artefacts, wooden church interiors, 18th-century elegance and more, you get an absorbing view of the country's past at the National Museum of Finland (5) at Mannerheimintie 34 (open Tues and Weds 11am-8pm and Thur-Sun 11am-6pm; €6/£4.30). There's even a bullet hole in the front door, preserved as a stark memento of the civil war in 1918, which tore Finland apart.
WRITE A POSTCARD
Have a coffee at the first-floor café of the huge department store, Stockmann (12), at Aleksanterinkatu. The shop is something of a Helsinki institution and you can write your card while taking in the atmosphere.
For a drink with a view, make for Sokos Hotel Torni (17) at Yronkatu 26 (00 358 020 1234 604; www.sokoshotels. fi). At this fine Art Deco building, the 12th-floor Ateljee Bar serves the likes of lime passion cocktails (€9.50/£6.80) and offers a great outlook from its small terrace.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Kosmos (18) at Kalevankatu 3 (00 358 9 647 255) is a much-loved family brasserie serving Finnish cuisine such as fried Baltic herring with mashed potato (€18/£12.85) and fillet of reindeer with shoots of spruce and rosemary (€26/£18.60).
SUNDAY MORNING: TAKE A WALK
The Botanic Gardens (19), with entrances at Unioninkatu 44 or Kaisaniemenranta 2 (on tram 3B or 6 from the centre), contain a magnificent collection of tropical plants in elegant greenhouses as well as rock gardens and an arboretum (open daily 9am-5pm; greenhouses closed on Mondays; €4.20/£3).
Get a taste of Finnish Lapland at Lappi (20) on Annankatu 22 (00 358 9 645 5500; www.lappires.com), where dishes include smoked reindeer with forest mushrooms and fried perch with carrot sauce; three courses for €49/£35.
GO TO CHURCH
It is with good reason that the Lutheran Temppeliaukio Church (21) at Lutherinkatu 3 is one of Helsinki's most popular sights. This extraordinary building was blasted out of solid rock in 1969, partly to ensure excellent acoustics and partly for the resulting drama of the place. The interior walls are the natural rock face, and daylight bathes the church through a glazed dome. The church is open on Sundays from 11.45am-1.45pm and 3.30-6pm, and from Monday to Saturday from 10am-5pm (until 8pm on Thursday and Saturday).
ICING ON THE CAKE
On a small knot of islands just south of the city are the buildings of the great sea fortress Suomelinna, founded in 1748 when Finland was under Swedish rule – and Russian threat. There are seven museums here (details from the Visitor Centre: 00 358 9 684 1880; www.suomenlinna.fi) and numerous cafés and restaurants. But best of all are the walks around ramparts, bays and coves. The 15-minute journey across the sea sets the mood: ferries to Suomenlinna leave regularly from the Market Square (1). Tickets, valid for 12 hours, cost €3.80 (£2.70).Reuse content