City Slicker: Helsinki
The best time to go to Finland's capital is during the long days of summer. Nick Boulos provides a guide for first-time and returning visitors
Sunday 07 June 2009
Helsinki is at its most splendid as summer arrives, heralding long days to enjoy what Finland does best: the great outdoors.
The city's cobbled streets and art nouveau buildings bask in warm sunshine until the early hours, so there's plenty of time for late-night strolls in Kaivopuisto Park and revitalising midnight dips in the Baltic, popular with Finns keen to top up their vitamin D before the dark days of winter return. However, Helsinki is a delight whatever the season. It is easy to navigate on foot, with all the main ports of call within walking distance, and there are gourmet treats for every palate – from Michelin-starred restaurants such as Carma (carma.fi), to those specialising in hearty native cuisine.
But it's the locals that make the biggest impression. With such a dominant café culture in Helsinki, you're bound to get talking to the natives over a possumunkki (piglet doughnut – named so because of its shape) at one of the charming outdoor terraces along Esplanadi. Be under no illusions, though, Finns may be open and warm to visitors but there are ways to offend these mild-mannered, liquorice-obsessed people. Avoid over familiarity unless you know the person well – there's no need for European-style kisses on both cheeks here, a handshake will do just fine – and talk of work should strictly be left outside the sauna doors. Along with every stitch of clothing ...
Don't miss ...
Tuomi-okirkko (00 358 9 23406120). Surrounded by the 19th-century neoclassical architecture of Senate Square, the extravagant Helsinki Cathedral takes pride of place atop an imposing granite staircase. No prizes for guessing why locals call it the "big white Church".
Kauppatori market square (00 358 9 3101671). Fresh produce (Baltic herring, anyone?) and handicrafts attract locals and visitors to this outdoor market on South Harbour.
Temppeliaukion Church. Built into solid rock in the 1960s, this astonishing structure is a favourite for concerts due to its excellent acoustics.
Design Walk (helsinkiexpert .fi/tours). These two-hour tours cover the most progressive concepts in fashion, furnishing and art found within the 25 streets of Helsinki's design district. You'll come across established names, such as Marimekko and Iittala, and rising stars in the world of Finnish design.
Porvoo (tourism.porvoo.fi). Finland's second-oldest town is only 30 miles from the capital. Medieval Porvoo is the most popular day trip from Helsinki.
Suomenlinna Sea Fortress (00 358 9 6841880; suomenlinna.fi). Built across five islands in 1748 to ward off Russian attacks, the fortress is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Explore the museum, walking trails, and landmark church which doubles as a lighthouse. Save time for a coffee or cider at Café Vanille (cafevanille.fi), a cosy spot inside a charming 19th-century wooden house.
Finnish fare. Reindeer fillets, bear meatballs and vendace from Lake Kitka are served on sturdy wooden platters while drinks come in traditional kuksa mugs at Lapland restaurant, Saaga (00 358 9 74255544).
The allure of lower living costs has turned the once predominantly working-class neighbourhood of Kallio – just across the Pitkäsilta bridge – into a desirable stomping ground for the city's artists and young professionals. The now legendary nightlife scene makes it an obvious evening destination, but it's also a worthwhile area to explore by day. The Kallio Church, designed by Lars Sonck, is an interesting blend of art nouveau and Finnish national romantic architecture. Kotiharjun – Helsinki's last totally wood-heated public sauna – can also be found here.
Details: 00 358 9 7531525; kotiharjunsauna.fi
Sticking two fingers up at the global recession, Finland's largest department store, Stockmann's, has opened the country's first champagne bar. Situated at the centre of the store's eighth floor, F8 Sweet served its first flute of champagne back in March, throwing the prevailing caution to the wind. It also offers indulgent desserts as well as nine varieties of bubbly. Glass-enclosed with vivid fuchsia carpets, the bar blends comfort with sharp, feminine designs. Caboche lamps twinkle above glossy chairs designed by the Spaniard Jaime Hayon. The sophisticated ambience ensures there's no finer spot to sit and sip a glass of Cuvée Louise 1998 – if you can stretch to the £254 a bottle.
Details: 00 358 20 7296803; f8.fi/en
Helsinki's newest five-star hotel, which opened earlier this year, is arguably its most desirable, having become a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World collection – the first in Finland to do so. It has three restaurants, a spa and homely lounge bar specialising in Finnish tipples and rum as well as warm drinks. Upstairs, the 77 luxury rooms boast many a fine touch, including king-size beds, Bang & Olufsen appliances, Egyptian cotton bedlinen and bath robes, and Elemis spa products in the bathrooms. The most notable feature, however, remains the panoramic views over Market Square and South Harbour. Doubles are from £178.
Details: 00 358 9 681930; hotelhaven.fi
Finnish Museum of Natural History
The natural history museum reopened last summer after nearly three years of extensive restoration. It takes an in-depth look at the nature and geology found throughout Finland's varied terrains, from the pine swamps of the north-east to the islands of the south. Permanent features include "The History of Life", a virtual exhibition that examines evolution. Keep your eyes open for a new attraction, set to open next year, that will explore nature on each of the seven continents.
Details: 00 358 9 19128800; fmnh.helsinki.fi/english/nhm
My O My
This exclusive store specialising in fashion, design, sweets and art – in that order – is so über-chic it's surprising there aren't bouncers on the door. While My O My's main focus is on womenswear, there are plans to expand into the metrosexual male market. The "bunny hideaway" will keep the little ones busy, allowing you to admire a range of goods from Faliero Sarti scarves to futuristic candlestick holders and dinner plates emblazoned with pictures of French opera singer Lina Cavalieri.
Details: 00 358 10 4233733; myomy.fi
Insider's secret: Tarja Hiltunen
Tarja is a local fishmonger at the Old Market Hall.
"The best place in Helsinki for fresh seafood is a restaurant called Fish Market, just behind Market Place. The menu changes every season but I particularly like the kuha (pike perch). Its flavours are so mild that it's enough to cook it with only a little sea salt and butter – no need for herbs and spices. Whatever you decide to order, the food is always excellent."
Details: Fish Market, 00 358 9 13456220.
How to get there
Finn Air (0871 241 4411; finnair.co.uk) offers return flights from London Heathrow to Helsinki starting at £138 return.
Visit Finland (visitfinland.com/uk).
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