Somewhere for the Weekend: Helsinki

Spirits are high in Finland's stylish capital as the long-awaited Midsummer's Day festivities begin. Jonathan Dyson prepares you for a 24-hour party


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

This Saturday is Juhannus, or Midsummer's Day, when Finns take to the streets and the forests to celebrate almost 24 hours of uninterrupted daylight. Expect open-air folk and rock concerts, the traditional kokko (bonfire), and dancing around their version of a maypole. See this essentially pagan festival at its most authentic on Seurasaari, one of the string of tiny, easily accessible islands that dot the Baltic seaboard of the Finnish capital. Here, celebrations reach their climax when a young couple wearing a crown of roses are married in the 17th-century Karuna church. Juhannus is as big as Christmas, a joyful celebration of a brief glorious summer in a country that endures long, dark winters.

DOWN PAYMENT

British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) has return flights from London Heathrow this weekend from £168.60. Finnair (020-7408 1222; www.finnair.com) flies to Helsinki from Heathrow and Manchester. Direct return flights from Heathrow this weekend start at £204.80 for travel on Saturday, more if you want to head out on Friday. Helsinki's airport, Vantaa, is 19km north of the capital. You can take either a local bus (number 615 – 35 minutes, €3/£2), a Finnair bus (30 minutes, €4.90/£3.10), a standard taxi (20 minutes, €25/£16), or a bookable Yellow Line taxi for around half that (desk in arrivals hall).

INSTANT BRIEFING

Helsinki is very manageable. It has a population of only half a million and is bound on three sides by water, with an easily navigable grid of roads based around 19th-century boulevards. The architecture ranges from extravagant churches to severe granite apartment blocks to cutting-edge 20th-century architecture. Helsinki only became a capital in 1812 when Finland was still a grand duchy of neighbouring Russia and an Eastern feel survives – Gorky Park and Reds were both filmed there.

There are two tourist offices: the Finnish Tourist Board, Etelaesplanadi 4 (00 358 9 41769300, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat-Sun 10am-2pm) and the Helsinki City Tourist Office, Pohjoisesplanadi 19 (00 358 9 169 3757, Mon-Fri 9am-7pm, Sat-Sun 9am-3pm). Here you can buy a tourist ticket valid for all the city's buses, trams, trains and ferries to the main islands (one-day adult €4.20/£2.70; children €2.10/£1.30), or a Helsinki Card, which includes the above plus entry to the sights (one-day adult €24/£15.40, children €9/£5).

REST ASSURED

Hotels, like everything else in Helsinki, are not cheap, but standards of comfort and service are high (see Room Service, opposite). Generally, it is wise to book in advance. The Scandic Hotel Grand Marina (Katajanokanlaituri 7; 00 358 9 16 661; www.scandic-hotels.com) was opened 10 years ago, converted from an old customs house in the redeveloped docklands area, and is modern and smart with weekend-rate doubles from €105/£67.20. The Sokos Hotel Torni (Yrjonkatu 26; 00 358 9 43360; www.sokoshotels.fi) opened in 1931 and still has a American-influenced period style. Its most notable feature is the 13th-floor rooftop Ateljee Bar, which has views over the city and, on a clear day, Estonia. Weekend-rate doubles from €108/£69. Cheaper options include the Hotel Arthur (Vuorikatu 19; 00 358 9 173 441), which has weekend-rate doubles from €88/£56.

MUST SEE

Helsinki is more a city for leisurely wandering and alfresco coffee-drinking (Finns drink more of the stuff than anyone in the world) than urgent sightseeing. The neo-classical heart of the city is Senate Square, a fine collection of public buildings dominated by the great white Tuomiokirkko, the Lutheran cathedral. More fun, however, is the icon-filled Russian Orthodox Uspenski cathedral, five minutes away on Katajanokka. For more recent architectural delights, take the Mannerheimintie, the main road north out of the city, which will quickly bring you to the 1914 late art-nouveau Eliel Saarinen-designed station at Kaivokatu; the beautiful Aalvar Aalto-designed 1976 Finlandia Hall; and the now slightly shabby 1952 Olympics complex where you can ascend the tower for a panoramic view.

If you walk back to the centre via the west coast, you can take in the surreal Sibelius monument, in the pretty seaside Sibelius park on Mechelininkatu; and the Temppeliaukio, at Lutherinkatu, a weird Sixties-designed subterranean church carved out of granite. Finally, hop over to at least one island. The most historical are the interconnected Suomenlinna fortress islands where you can laze among the dunes.

MUST BUY

Finland is famous for its design, and there is plenty to see and buy. The delightful Boulevard Esplanadi is a good starting point: try Artek (Esplanadi 18) for classic furniture by Aalto and others; and on the opposite side of the boulevard, Designor, for more recent domestic products from Arabia (porcelain) and Littala (glassware). Annankatu is also good for design, with around a dozen shops worth a browse including furniture specialists Formverk (no 5) and Helsingin Antiikki (no 9). For children (and grown-ups), a visit to the Moomin Shop in the Kamp Galleria, Esplanadi 33, is a must, and for more traditional Finnish souvenirs, Anne's Shop, opposite the Temppeliaukio on Fredrikinkatu (see Must See, above) is your best bet.

MUST EAT

During the daytime, the Kauppihallis food hall and the neighbouring open-air market in the main harbour are the best places to sample traditional Finnish fare: several cafés are tucked among the greengrocers, fishmongers and delis offering a variety of fish, smoked meats, wild berries and dark rye bread. For pastries and chocolate, head for Café Fazer (Kluuvikatu 3) – a refined 1890s setting. There are numerous international and ethnic restaurants, but if you still haven't had your fill of fish, cabbage and reindeer, the log-cabin-style Lappi (Annankatu 22) offers a warm Lappish welcome. Bright young things do fusion at the modish Pravda (Esplanade 18).

INTO THE NIGHT

The white nights of summer bring out the party animal in Finns. Café Carelia, a champagne bar next to the opera house on Mannerheimintie (56) is perfect for pre-dinner drinks. Trendier and louder is Soda Bar (Uudenmaankatu 16), good for cocktails, with a downstairs club open until 3am on Fridays and Saturdays. For something more Finnish, try the mixed-sex Sauna Bar, at 27 Eerikinkatu (a street crammed with bars). It's open until 11pm and costs €7/£4.50 including towel, plus there's a bar, DJs, pool and snooker tables – swimming costume not required.

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