48 hours in Helsinki

Make the most of Finland's endless summer evenings with a trip to the compact capital. Join in the party season and recover from the late nights with a reviving sauna, says Rhiannon Batten
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

Because summer is when the Finnish capital really lightens up. St Nicholas' Church might look pretty dusted in winter snow (as does much of the city's architectural heritage from its days as a Russian annexe), but most of Helsinki's modern architecture needs the sunshine to make it sparkle. The city's inhabitants are old pros when it comes to making the most of the season's almost constant daylight, with plenty of pavement cafés to hang out in, more frequent ferry services to take you out to the surrounding islands and plenty of vodka-fuelled parties to join in.

BEAM DOWN

British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) and Finnair (0870 241 4411; www.finnair.com) operate a "code-share" arrangement between Heathrow and Helsinki. Finnair also flies from Manchester. Current return prices are around £220. From London Stansted, the low-cost airline Flying Finn (0870 744 7315; www.flyfi.net) offers return fares from around £135. From the airport into the city centre, it's about a 35-minute journey, either on the Finnair bus (€5/£3.50 each way, 00 358 9818 800; www.finnair.co.uk) or on local bus number 615 (€3/£2 each way, 00 358 800 111 811; www.hel.fi/hkl), both of which will drop you outside the main train station . Alternatively, a shared Yellow Taxi costs around €6/£4 per person (00 358 600 555 555; www.airporttaxi.fi) or a private taxi around €20/£14.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Helsinki sprawls messily, but the centre itself is compact. At its heart are the market square (kauppatori) and main harbour , both surrounded by grand 19th-century buildings. From there the city spreads west to the parallel streets of Pohjoisesplanadi and Etelaesplanadi and on to the city's current trendy area, Uudenmaankatu. To the north is the main cultural area, with the Opera House , Finlandia Hall , Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art and lots of other museums. To the east is the Katajanokka district, with the Upenski cathedral , and, to the south, the posh suburb of Kaivopuisto. For maps or a Helsinki Card (it gets you free public transport and entry to more than 50 museums from €24/£17 for 24 hours), visit the main tourist office at 19 Pohjoisesplanadi (00 358 9169 3757; www.hel.fi/tourism). It's open from 9am to 6pm on Saturdays and Sundays and 9am to 8pm the rest of the week.

CHECK IN

The Scandic Hotel Simonkentta , 9 Simonkatu (00 358 968 380; www.scandichotels.com), is close to both the bus station and Eliel Saarinen's bold, functionalist train station and has comfortable doubles from €92 (£64). This price includes breakfast and morning and evening saunas. Alternatively, the Palace Hotel , 10 Etelaranta (00 358 9134 56656; www.palacehotel.fi), has great retro doubles (it was built for the 1952 Olympics) from €120/£83. Otherwise, book a double (€60/£41) or a bunk (€22/£15) at the excellent Erottajanpuisto hostel , 9 Uudenmaankatu (00 358 9642 169; www.erottajanpuisto.com).

TAKE A VIEW

At 72m high, the observation tower at the Olympic Stadium at 1 Paavo Nurmen tie (00 358 9436 6010; www.stadion.fi) is hard to beat for views over the city. It's open from 9am to 8pm during the week and from 9am to 6pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is €2/£1.40 for adults or €1/70p for children (free with a Helsinki Card).

TAKE A HIKE

...around Senate Square . This part of town was where wealthy merchants built their houses in the 18th century. In the 19th century, after Finland was annexed to Russia, plans for a new town were centred here, with grand neo-classical government, municipal, church and academic buildings all adding to the mix. On the northern side of the square is the imposing St Nicholas' Church and, to its right, the university's main building . Get a feel for the rest of the area's grandiose architecture with a walk past the seat of the Finnish government , along Aleksanterinkatu, turning left by the harbour along Pohjoisranta and into Liisankatu . Almost at the end, turn left again and carry on down Snellmansgatan back to the square. For more detailed information on the area, pick up a copy of "Helsinki On Foot" free from the tourist office.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The fish market is a good place to head for fish soup, often a creamy salmon chowder, or a portion of fresh salmon with new potatoes. These would cost €5-€8/£3.50-£5.50. The market's open from 7am-2pm on Saturdays, 6.30am-6pm Monday to Friday.

TAKE A RIDE...

...to nearby Suomenlinna , a Swedish-built fortress and Unesco world heritage site, on a group of islands just off Helsinki's main harbour. With its surrounding restaurants and museums, there's plenty to keep you entertained. Most of the museums (mainly military or history) are free with a Helsinki Card. You can walk around the fort itself for free. To get there take one of the ferries from the passenger quay by the fish market. These run roughly every half an hour during the summer, take 15 minutes and cost €2/£1.40 (free with the Helsinki Card). For more information: 00 358 968 41880, www.suomenlinna.fi.

WINDOW SHOPPING

You can't go far wrong on the Esplanadi - which is what the two parallel streets are called together. Shops here include Jackie Onassis' favourite clothing and accessories brand, Marimekko, at 2 Pohjoisesplanadi (00 358 962 22317; www.marimekko.com). The kitchenware store Designer (00 358 2043 93501), at number 25, stocks the three big Finnish names: Iittala, Hackman and Arabia. If you've still got space in your shopping bag, walk on to the designer clothes store, Ivana Helsinki at 15 Uudenmaankatu (00 358 9622 4422; www.ivanahelsinki.com). Alternatively, head to the enormous Stockmann department store at 52 Aleksanterinkatu (00 358 91211; www.stockmann.fi) for everything from expensive underwear to a tin of reindeer soup . Most shops in Helsinki are open from 9am to 9pm on weekdays and from 9am to 6pm at weekends during the summer.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The country may still be on the cutting-edge of contemporary design but, for many people, Finnish design reached its peak in the mid-20th century with architect/designer Alvar Aalto. His most famous architectural legacy is probably Finlandia Hall , 13e Mannerheimintie, a white marble monolith that serves as a concert space (00 358 940 241; www.finlandia.hel.fi). But more interesting is his own house, in Munkkiniemi: 20 Riihitie (00 358 948 0123). This is a one-stop lesson in 20th-century design. It opens 2-6pm daily except Mondays; entrance €10/£7. To get there take the No 4 tram from anywhere along Mannerheimintie .

AN APERITIF

Sit back and toast the summer with a cool Lapin Kulta beer (around €4/£2.70) at one of the bars on lively Uudenmaankatu. Start at trendy Demo at number 11, and then head on for late-night drinking a couple of doors down at Bar 9 (9 Uudenmaankatu).

DINNER WITH THE LOCALS

The chic but low-key decor at Sea Horse , 11 Kapteenikatu (00 358 9628 169), was designed by Alvar Aalto, but such artistically minded patrons as Dizzy Gillespie, Pablo Neruda and Jean-Paul Sartre were probably just as attracted by the food. The menu is traditional but good value (€11.50/£8, for a huge plate of herring, €10/£7 for meatballs). For something more glamorous, Teatteri , 2 Pohjoisesplanadi (00 358 9616 211), is the place to book; it reopens after a summer break on 4 August.

SUNDAY MORNING: A WALK IN THE PARK

The huge Kaivopuisto Park was founded by a businessman, Henrik Borgstrom, in the late 1830s, when Helsinki was gaining a reputation as a spa town. It is set right by the sea to make the most of the often more-than-bracing coastal breezes. Concerts and other events are often held here but it's an equally good place just to wander aimlessly through the trees.

SUNDAY AFTERNOON: GO TO CHURCH

Temppeliaukio Church at 3 Lutherinkatu, was designed by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in 1969 and is blasted from solid rock. It is usually open from 10am-8pm on weekdays, from 10am-6pm on Saturdays and from 3pm to 5.45pm on Sunday afternoons. These days it serves as a concert venue as well as a church. If you're here to worship, time your visit for a Sunday at 2pm, when there's a service in English.

OUT TO BRUNCH

There's plenty of time to work up an appetite for the traditional Lappish dishes on offer inside the all-wooden walls of Lappi , 22 Annankatu (00 358 9645 550), because the restaurant doesn't open until 1pm on Sundays. It's worth the wait though; a typical menu might include a selection of roe, with sour cream and onions, followed by reindeer sirloin with creamed juniper berry spiced potatoes and, for pudding, Lappish farm cheese with cloudberry jam, all for €45 (£31).

WRITE A POSTCARD

Check out the bar at the top of the Hotel Torni, or "tower", , 26 Yrjonkatu (00 358 943 360, www.sokoshotels.fi). The fact that this 14-storey building is still the tallest in the city centre shows just how controversial it was when it was first built in 1931. But it's now one of the city's best-loved buildings because of the view.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

When you're footsore from seeing the sights and your head hurts from overdoing the local beer, there's no better way to get your body back in shape than going for a dip and a sauna in the opulent surroundings of the Yrjonkatu Swimming Hall , 21b Yrjonkatu (00 358 9310 87401). Entrance costs €4.50/£3.

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