Helsinki's winter wonderland

Visit Helsinki now while you can skate on the Baltic

"Don't mind me, Terry," Basil Fawlty famously said to his reluctant chef. "You go off and have a bit of fun with a Finn!" Nordic folk, stoical and courteous, belie such notions of frivolity. But Helsinki bucks this notion of phlegmatic cool and offers a welcome as warm as their ubiquitous saunas. The streets are spotless and litter-free; rolling parks give way to the clear waters of the Baltic Sea, and the design - both architecturally and in the shop windows - oozes cool and contrast, from clean modernity to bulbous onion domes that remind you that St Petersburg is just across the border. At 450 years old, Helsinki is ageing with style and serenity.

"Don't mind me, Terry," Basil Fawlty famously said to his reluctant chef. "You go off and have a bit of fun with a Finn!" Nordic folk, stoical and courteous, belie such notions of frivolity. But Helsinki bucks this notion of phlegmatic cool and offers a welcome as warm as their ubiquitous saunas. The streets are spotless and litter-free; rolling parks give way to the clear waters of the Baltic Sea, and the design - both architecturally and in the shop windows - oozes cool and contrast, from clean modernity to bulbous onion domes that remind you that St Petersburg is just across the border. At 450 years old, Helsinki is ageing with style and serenity.

Why go? Helsinki, to borrow a phrase most used when describing Istanbul, is where East meets West. Not just in its onion domes, but also its café culture: there are more than 300 establishments where you can sit all day nursing a kahvi (coffee) and pulla (wheat bun).

Helsinki's finest sights are all within a comfortable walk of one another. Senate Square, designed 150 years ago to look like St Petersburg, is mightily impressive: a huge expanse of cobblestones basking in the glow from the green and gold domes of the neo-classical Lutheran cathedral that fills the north side of the plaza. A few yards down the hill and along the bustling waterfront lies the kauppastori, the fish market - the city's bustling hub and the place to pick up food on the run. It helps if you like salmon and herring, which are dished out from beside the unfortunately named Cholera Basin.

Monuments abound to Finland's most celebrated sons, Jean Sibelius having an entire park laid out in his name, while the athlete Paavo Nurmi has the Olympic Stadium where a lookout tower offers stupendous views across the city and the Baltic. If the former Formula One champion Mika Hakkinen can oust Michael Schumacher one more time, he might just get the cathedral.

Meanwhile, modern architecture buffs have plenty to see here, including Finlandia Hall, the premier edifice of Finland's Modernist hero Alvar Aalto. It lies near to the National Museum, which was partly designed by Eliel Saarinen, a kind of Finnish William Morris.

But Helsinki's highlight is the celestial, inspiring, and altogether astonishing Church in the Rock, a breathtaking slice of modern ecclesiastical architecture, and a structure of such awesome grace and simplicity you'll just want to sit in contemplation. Blasted from a rocky outcrop rising 40ft above the ground, it is topped off by a vast copper dome. Make sure to go when the gospel choir is in concert.

Why now? Helsinki is fundamentally a cold place, so go when it's coldest, in winter, as nature intended. That way you'll get to skate on frozen lakes - even on the frozen Baltic - and you can cross-country ski from the heart of town along woodland tracks, right out to the country. Grab every hour of daylight you can: in mid-December Helsinki is on a five-hour day.

The Christmas illuminations are already up and make Regent Street in London look tawdry. The town is cranking itself up nicely for the festive period, and the forthcoming season brings La Traviata and Il Trovatore to the National Opera House, as well as a Finnish-language version, would you believe, of Death of a Salesman at the National Theatre. Most of all, go now while Helsinki still has a few weeks left as the European City of Culture for 2000. All the museums, arthouses, hotels, and restaurants are doing their bit.

The mission Go, because we sometimes forget that Europe exists north of Edinburgh, and Helsinki is a fine introduction to the land of reindeer, Santa and floodlit golf. Or go to see if Helsinki compares favourably with other Scandinavian cities, although, strictly speaking, Finland is not part of Scandinavia. Argue about that one with the Finns over a few drinks - they like to drink.

Remember this Helsinki is 50 miles by ferry to Estonia, two hours by train to St Petersburg, an hour or less by road to any number of quaint ports and villages along the Baltic coast. For a supposed outpost en route to the Arctic Circle, Helsinki is handily placed for several intriguing day trips. My own favourite is Porvoo, 40 minutes away. Here, painters and poets are inspired by the narrow, winding streets, the old salt warehouses that reflect in the estuary, and the brightly painted weather-boarding of the fishermen's cottages.

You'll over-eat in Helsinki. It's unavoidable. So work it off at the smart midtown gym, Alexium, at Aleksanterinkatu 15 (tel: 00358 9 612 9010), where it costs just £5 to train, sauna, steam, and shower. Then it's back to the café.

Eating out The best Russian food you'll eat is in Helsinki. In Moscow the food can be dodgy, but in Helsinki there are blinis and borscht to die for. Best of the Russian bunch is Volga at Richardinkatu 1. Look out for the life-sized plastic cow out front - that's how big the portions are. Italian food is good here: top of the pile is the authentically Genoese Tony's at Bulevardi 9 (tel: 00358 9 641 100). The deli counter makes mouthwatering bruschettas with roasted vegetables and the best fettuccini alfredo north of Como. Vegetarian restaurants abound, and for less than a fiver you'll enjoy a banquet of nut roast, buckwheat pancakes and heavenly organic juices at Zucchini on Fabiankatu, Helsinki's self-styled vegetarian cafe.

Finns, they say, consume an average of nine cups of coffee per person per day. The standout cafes are Café Ekberg, Café Strindberg, and the Israeli-run and therefore extremely animated Café Schubert. No addresses are needed: they are much beloved and anyone will direct you.

What of the Finnish food? Well, reindeer tongue, boiled elk and bear pâté are not for everyone. And nature surely did not intend that the fluffy snow goose be fricasseed to a cinder. But when it comes to fish the Finns are in a league of their own. No need to splash out at a restaurant. The kauppahalli (covered market) sells superb marinated salmon bagels and all manner of seafood sandwiches.

Where to stay The best hotel in town is the Hotel Kamp at Pohjoisesplanadi 29 (tel: 00358 9 576 111; fax: 00358 9 576 1122). Restored to its 19th-century origins, it's in a great location on the esplanade and also has a good health club, with heated divans and all. Expect to pay upwards of £200 for a double. For sheer art deco style, try the Lord Hotel at Lonnrotinkatu 29 (tel: 00358 9 615 815; fax: 00358 9 680 1315), which has towers, turrets and sweeping balustrades. Double rooms cost from £100, but as with most Helsinki hotels, it's as much as 50 per cent cheaper at weekends. The best value hotel must be the comfortable and welcoming Klaus Kurki Hotel at Bulevardi 2 (tel: 00358 9 618 911; fax: 00358 9 6189 1234). It has two excellent restaurants, a lively bar and sumptuous breakfasts. Doubles cost from £90. Budget travellers might try the Hostel Erottajanpuisto at Uudenmaankatu 9 (tel: 00358 9 642 169; fax: 00358 9 680 2757) - clean, comfortable and very central, with b&b from £12. And if you are truly adventurous, and short of cash, blow your last £6 on a shared cabin at Rastilla Camp Site five miles east of town (tel: 00358 9 316 551; fax: 00358 9 344 1578).

Getting there Finnair (tel: 020-7408 1222) offers return flights from Heathrow to Helsinki from £139 plus taxes, flying out from Monday to Wednesday. Virtually identical deals are on offer from British Airways (tel: 0345 222111). Travelscene (tel: 020-8427 8800) offers two-night weekend breaks until 31 December at the four-star Klaus Kurki Hotel for £323 per person based on two sharing, with b&b accommodation, flying from Gatwick with Finnair. From 1 January the same package reduces to £303. Flights from Heathrow cost about £20 extra.

Further information Finland Tourist Board (tel: 020-7930 5871; fax: 020-7321 0696). The Helsinki City Tourist Office is by the markets at Pohjoisesplanadi 19 (tel: 00358 9 169 3757). Ask there about the Helsinki Card, a great way of getting around, both in and out of town.

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