The Finnish capital, which has committed to being carbon neutral by 2035, is great for island-hopping, nightlife, cool design and steaming saunas.
An island refuge
Just a 10-minute boat ride from Helsinki’s Market Square (JT-Line ferry, round trips and same-day island-hopping tickets from €7), is the island of Lonna. Once used as a storage site for naval mines, Lonna is now a refuge from city life and well-placed for sunset views over downtown Helsinki. There’s a restaurant serving locally sourced, organic food, as well as a coffee shop, bar, event venue and sauna. Every summer I enjoy a yoga retreat on the island, but it’s lovely at any time of year.
The architecturally striking Oodi Helsinki Central Library, on Kansalaistori square in the heart of the city, is the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ 2019 Public Library of the Year. And it’s not just for bookworms – it’s an energy-efficient, vibrant space that really engages with the local community. There are, of course, books, but also meeting areas, children’s play spaces and cafes. Also worth visiting is the Amos Rex Museum (€15) on nearby Mannerheimintie, which opened with a lot of buzz last year. The exhibition programme extends from ancient cultures to experimental, contemporary art and 20th-century modernism.
Cafe ahead of the curve
Kallio is a spirited, hip district known for its nightlife, with some great places to eat and drink. Vaasankatu is a great place to start – on this street you can still experience “Old Kallio”. A short walk away on Porthaninkatu, IPI Kulmakuppila is a forward-thinking cafe with a mission to make the training and hiring of people with learning disabilities more visible. Tanner is great for a lively dinner – it’s a combination of music store and restaurant, and most nights feature DJs – while Sandro Kallio is my favourite brunch place and also serves a buffet lunch with lot of vegetarian options. For a night out, start at the compact and minimalistic Post Bar, run by local DJs, then try the atmospheric Pub Sirdie and go clubbing at the Kaikukatu complex.
Garden city district
Käpylä in north Helsinki is a historic district, full of red wooden houses built for workers in the 1920s. It’s a beautiful, leafy place for a slow, easy walk any time of year, but especially in autumn. Käpylä has a strong sense of community that’s particularly evident at Kahvila Siili, a summer cafe and focal point of the area. The coffee is excellent as well – too bad it closes for the winter! Alternatively visit Sose, a vegan cafe that’s open for colourful, seasonal lunches and cake.
Great food, zero waste
On special occasions I like to celebrate at Nolla, the zero-waste restaurant, whose proprietors have shown that it’s possible to combine unusual, delicious food with a zero-waste philosophy, having removed all trash bins and single-use plastic. It offers four- and six-course menus (€48/€59), with dishes including pea royale, grilled gem lettuce and lardo, and grilled duck, oyster mushrooms and spring cabbage (there are vegetarian and vegan options too).
The Finnish Nature Centre, called Haltia, is a modern exhibition and event venue a few kilometres out of town that showcases the splendour of Finnish nature – from Lapland to the southern archipelagos. It introduces Finland’s natural parks, diverse wildlife, great hiking trails and characteristic landscapes through multimedia exhibitions: you can watch live videos and listen to the sounds of nature. The building, itself an architectural must-see, sits on the edge of Nuuksio national park, a real wilderness with lots of activities on offer from rock climbing to kayaking.
• Adult €13, child €8
When people lived in small apartments with no bathrooms, there were public saunas on every corner – places both to wash and to meet people. Sauna Arla (€12, cash-only), founded in 1929 in Kallio, is one of the few remaining originals but over the past few years it has been joined by modern public saunas, such as Kulttuurisauna in Merihaka and Löyly in Hernesaari, where you can also swim or ice dip – one of the best parts of the sauna experience, even in winter.
Lokal is a concept store and a gallery showcasing Finnish designers and artists. The Lokal philosophy is living with art and objects that matter: everything from beautiful ceramics by the likes of Jatta Lavi to jewellery by Inni Pärnänen and prints by Reeta Ek. Exhibitions change regularly.
Accommodation in Helsinki can be expensive, but Hostel Suomenlinna (dorm bed from €25) on the island of the same name is one of Europe’s most beautiful hostels – staying there is an experience in itself. Euro Hostel (dorm bed from €19) is another affordable option in an attractive area close to the city centre with a mix of shared and private rooms.
The impressive sea fortress of Suomenlinna (a 10-minute ferry ride from Market Square) – a Unesco world heritage site – is spread across six islands and dates back to the mid-18th century, when Finland was still part of Sweden. Its network of walking trails makes it one of the best places to experience Helsinki’s coastal glories, and although it’s one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions it aims to minimise the negative impacts of tourism and take sustainability into account in all its operations. There are restaurants and cafes, and the fortress has its own brewery.
By train and ferry it’s a three-day, two-night journey from the UK. Take a daytime train from London to Hamburg (changing in Brussels and Cologne), then on to Stockholm, and by ferry to Finland on the third day. More details from the Man in Seat 61.
Best time to go
Each season has its positives. The saunas really come into their own – along with nightlife and snow sports – in winter when there’s also a reasonable chance of seeing the northern lights, particularly between January and March. Spring, summer and autumn are best for exploring the islands and nature parks.
Beer around €6.75 (half litre), coffee €3.80
Published by “The Guardian”