For most, Helsinki occupies something of a cultural grey area. Not quite Scandinavian, but undoubtedly Nordic; and not entirely Eastern European, yet tantalisingly close to Estonia and Russia, you might be forgiven for thinking Helsinki is a little lost amongst its self-possessed peers.
As Denmark made its debut to the world’s stage thanks to woollen blankets, candlelight and ‘hygge’, so Sweden responded by declaring its own worldly mantra: ‘lagom’ (meaning ‘moderation’ or ‘balance’). Even Estonia saw a marked increase in tourism, as the absurdly photogenic city of Tallin made bucket-lists worldwide. Positioned between this collection of showcasing countries, Helsinki seems a little overshadowed: the friendly, yet quiet, neighbour.
Yet identity-less this city is not. Nor is it a place with a predictably linear past. Once the property of Sweden, Finland was soon declared the jewel in the Russian crown; the city of Helsinki transforming from a fishing backwater into a glittering capital. Following the country’s peaceful transition to independence in 1917, the city assumed yet another role: developing this time into a self-assured, determined and uniquely Finnish place. It even found its own word du jour: ‘sisu’.
“Sisu refers to an inner grit to overcome and endure”, our guide, Elisabeth, tells us as we arrive in the city. “It’s not a word you’d shout out loud, but one you’d say quietly to yourself – to help you deal with swimming in the sea on a winter’s day, perhaps”. I try the word out for size, hissing the ‘s’ as I go. “Our winters here are challenging, so we don’t worry about being too stylish or overdone. We just want things to be practical. We need to be warm and dry when we’re outside with nature – which, of course, is where most Finns want to be”.
Already, Finland’s apparent quietness was beginning to make sense.
Whilst the Danes ‘hygge’ revolution went global, Finland channeled its focus elsewhere: inwardly. A relatively new country, with a capital city still establishing itself, Finland instead focused on its own strengths, challenges and environment. With a passion for nature and a determination to enjoy it – regardless of what it might throw at them – the country is neither overshadowed nor intimated by the strutting countries surrounding it. It is too busy focusing on itself, its attentions elsewhere: inside a quiet sauna, or a ravine-filled forest. It is the very definition, perhaps, of ‘Nordic Cool’.
How to Get to Helsinki
Spanning a vast peninsula, with Tallin to the south and St Petersburg to the east, Helsinki is just a short three-hour plane journey from London’s Heathrow Airport. Travelling with the award-winning airline, Finnair, we were able to take advantage of the airline’s status as Europe’s ‘portal to the east’: boarding an airbus eventually bound for China. As a result, we enjoyed inflight entertainment on HD screens, a food and drink service, and an immaculately presented cabin. For those considering a trip to Helsinki, I’d highly recommended Finnair as your airline of choice.
How to use the public transport in Helsinki
Arriving in Helsinki’s seemingly infinite airport, we quickly found our way to the underground train station, which runs directly to the city centre (take either the I or P train). Incredibly straightforward to use, I’d recommend buying a HSL regional ticket (cost: €5) that will then work on all other forms of public transport for the next ninety minutes. Alternatively a day travel card is just €12. These can be bought both at the airport or inside the train (seek out the little ticketing compartment).
Aboard our train, we discovered that the Finn’s attention to their environment extends even to their public transport. Here, trains boast a mind-boggling array of carriages. There are carriages for babies (and prams), second level carriages filled with play areas for children, carriages for passengers with dogs, areas for those with suitcases and ‘quiet’ carriages for those seeking a little contemplation. Unfortunately, we failed to recognise this and so spent our short journey inside the frenzied baby carriage, surrounded by the sound of tinkling nursery rhymes and the odd waft of nappy. “We quite like having order and rules”, Elisabeth told us a little later. “It’s nice to know how things should be”.
Once in Helsinki, the public transport is easy to use. Whilst the buses are regular and comprehensive, for those seeking a slightly more romantic transport experience, then the city’s trams come highly recommended. Painted yellow and green, they reminded me of the trams of Lisbon, offering a lovely way to see the city. Your HSL tickets are valid on both the trams and buses (just remember to swipe them against the sensor when you get on and off).
Where to stay in Helsinki
‘My Helsinki Residence’, the sign read as we stood outside our apartment door. After a short five-minute walk from Helsinki’s train station, we had arrived at our home for the next few days. Turning the key, we walked inside: a rainbow of colours meeting us. A concept dreamed up by the imaginative lot at My Helsinki, the ‘Helsinki Residence’ is open to bloggers, journalists and press, and is located in the wider Aallonkonti Hotel Apartments building.
Decked head to toe in the designs of Finland’s beloved designer, Marimekko, the apartment offers everything a visitor might need during their time in Helsinki. Boasting designer wellies for if it rains, robust winter coats for if the weather takes a turn, anoraks, Marimekko-designed bags, flip flops and sunscreen, the Helsinki Residence again hints at the Finn’s attention to their environment (and their dedication to being prepared for any eventuality). It was one of the most beautifully designed and equipped places we’ve ever stayed.
“We just want you to experience authentic city life”, Elisabeth explained as she arrived a little later, handing over our Helsinki Survival Kits. “And to provide you with all the practical things you might need during your stay”. Inside, the kits were filled with restaurant vouchers, maps and guides. I asked her if people really used the wellies or anoraks. “Oh, yes. In Finland, you have to make the best out of any situation – however wet or cold”. I sensed the presence of ‘sisu’ hovering behind her words.
What to do in Helsinki
A destination worth visiting both in summer and winter, there is plenty to do in this ever-growing and maturing city. Although the Finnish nation is only recently urbanised (most people were living in small towns or villages until the nineteenth century), Helsinki is nonetheless crafting its own unique take on city-life; blending nature with dynamic museums, an upcoming food scene and creative outlets. It is a city that prides itself on being distinctly Finnish: with one particular institution supporting this objective – the public sauna.
The Finnish Sauna Experience
It’s difficult to stress just how important saunas are to the Finnish nation. Far from just a cultural thing – like a British cup of tea or a Spanish siesta – the sauna appeals to the Finns on an almost cellular level; as though those hot, wooden rooms are somehow built into their DNA. Thirty-square-meter-apartments have them, Helsinki’s Houses of Parliament boast them, there are even saunas at the country’s airports. “My Grandfather takes a sauna every Saturday night around 5pm, and normally on a Wednesday night”, one guide told us. “I can’t imagine Christmas or Midsummer without one”.
For the Finns, saunas are not just places to relax, but places to socialise, to reflect, to connect with nature, to improve your health, to do away with hierarchies (in a sauna, everyone is equal) and – once upon a time – a place to cure meat (saunapalvi), to give birth, to cleanse corpses and to make those final farewells. In Finland, saunas are almost a religion. Indeed, even the word ‘löyly’ (referring to the steam generated from throwing water on hot rocks) is an ancient word meaning ‘soul’. It therefore goes without saying that if visiting Helsinki, one of the first things you must do is take part in this distinctly Finnish rite of passage.
Allas Sea Pool
It’s a strange experience to be floating in an outdoor pool, surrounded by shoppers, fishermen and tour boats; but then again, Allas Sea Pool is a sauna experience like no other. Positioned in the heart of the city, next to the Kauppatori marketplace, it is here that visitors can experience the traditional Finnish sauna and bracing outdoor dip, all whilst absorbing the hum of city life.
“I feel a little exposed”, Claire muttered as we power-walked from the warm sauna to the outdoor pool. Jumping in, the rush of cold made my skin prickle and lungs contract. It was an incredibly invigorating experience and after a few tries going back-and-forth, I soon forgot I was in the city centre wearing nothing but a bikini. Indeed, in Finland, it seems that there is nothing more natural than seeing your half-naked colleague jumping into the sea whilst you’re doing your shopping. Come summer or winter, rain or shine, there will always be crowds here. “The sauna is a very convening experience; a very equal one”, Elisabeth explained. “Actors, politicians, office workers, grandparents – they are all one in the sauna”.
Alongside offering traditional wooden saunas and three outdoor pools (including one salt water pool), Allas Sea Pool also offers a beautifully designed restaurant and rooftop bar; a perfect place for evening drinks in the summer sun. It was one of my favourite places in the city, and one I’d highly recommend visiting.
Although Helsinki offers a host of public saunas, another we were keen to visit was the fashionable Löyly. Located in the south of the city, in the former industrial area of Hernesaari, Löyly offers beautiful architecture, an endless waterfront terrace and of course, another atmospheric Finnish sauna experience. Inside, an open fire burns, offering an inviting place for locals to gather after a winter’s dip. During the summer and crowds gather outside on the decking area, ready to celebrate Midsummer with a sauna and a swim.
Visit Löyly to experience three different sauna experiences (including a traditional smoke sauna) and, if visiting in the winter and feeling brave, the chance to take advantage of the avanto: a hole in the sea’s ice where heroic Finns take the plunge. “It makes us feel alive and back with nature”, one of Löyly’s friendly staff told us. “It’s important to feel like that even when it’s cold”.
Island Hopping in Helsinki
Whilst Helsinki is backed by roaming forests and lakes, ahead lies a sprawling and seemingly endless archipelago. Consisting of around 330 different islands, Helsinki’s geography reminded me of Stockholm’s: a bustling city, surrounded by small oases of quiet. “I’d like to live on one of those islands with just the cat”, Claire had commented as we came into land just a few days earlier. It seemed to be an objective she shared with much of the Finnish nation.
Now invigorated and positively glowing (I assume) from our Finnish sauna experience, we decided to spend our afternoon exploring the archipelago: beginning with a visit to the famous fortress island of Suomenlinna.
Getting to the island is incredibly easy, and we were able to use our public transport tickets to travel on the municipal (HSL) ferry to get there. Located in the city’s Market Square next to the harbour, the ferry is easy to find and travels 1 – 4 times an hour (the full timetable can be found here).
After five minutes at sea, we docked first at Lonna, a tiny island featuring a beautiful little restaurant and café, before collecting passengers from the neighbouring island of Vallisaari. Declared the poster boy of ‘urban nature’, Vallisaari was originally a military installation and closed to the public. However, after the military left, the island was overrun by trees and flowers, resulting in a ‘lost city’ inspired landscape. It’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon exploring with a camera and a picnic.
Next to Vallisaari looms Suomenlinna, its dusky pink arches welcoming hosts of international visitors. A popular tourist attraction, the island has a complicated military history, belonging both to the Swedish and the Russians. Built originally in 1748, the island was called Sveaborg and was a bustling city of its own; albeit one surrounded by wolves. One local officer even reported that the wolves were taunting his pet bears. By 1808, and now called Viapori, Russia lay claim to the island, and it underwent a brief spell as a brewery. Come 1917 and it was all change again, this time a newly independent Finland renaming the island Suomenlinna – or the Castle of Finland.
Stepping off the boat, an almost azure blue water beneath us, Suomenlinna didn’t feel like a former military fortress. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its very own community of residents, today Suomenlinna is a flower-filled, blissfully quiet oasis. A favourite spot for Helsinki residents in the summer, we spotted families walking up into the island’s rolling hills (formed by its many dungeons and canons) with picnics in hand, ready for lunch amongst the buttercups. It was difficult to imagine that the place had ever been occupied by marching cadets or lieutenants.
Although the island boasts a host of fantastic restaurants, we began our adventure with lunch at Restaurant Susisaari. Surrounded by meandering wisteria and clematis, we ate fresh fish outside in the sun, with only the sound of birdsong for company. It was hard to imagine that we were just ten minutes from Finland’s vibrant capital. With lunch complete, we spent the next few hours exploring the rest of the island – walking through its six museums, brewery, pastel-coloured cafes and along its breathtaking cliff edges. It was an absolutely beautiful place, and a day trip that any visitor to Helsinki must take.
The Moomin Cafe, Helsinki (Mumin Café)
The champion of saunas and nature, Father Christmas and endless lakes, Finland is also parent to one other prized export: The Moomins. As kids, the Moomins were a weekend staple, their white blobby shapes and vaguely existential conversations filling my television screen. I was fascinated by them, but also slightly disturbed. Why was Little My always so angry?
The pipe dream of Finnish artist, Tove Jansson, the Moomins are held up as an example of Finnish creativity and independence: a hint that beneath its pretty (troll-filled) valleys, is a deeper creative current. Today, and thanks to a Japanese animation company, the Moomins are celebrated worldwide, predominantly as a children’s cartoon. As such, it’s perhaps only right that we therefore began our second day in Helsinki with a trip to a Moomin Café.
Helsinki has a number of these ridiculously cute spots, however, perhaps our favourite was the café on Fabianinkatu. Designed to mirror the famed Moomin Valley, the café is painted a deep green and pale pink; filled with murals of the little critters. Filling the café are also Moomin toys, and drinks are delivered complete with delicate, Moomin-shaped sprinkles. Entirely empty on the morning we visited (Wednesday), Claire and I therefore surrounded ourselves with our new Moomin friends, gleefully drinking mugs of frothy hot chocolate.
(I did feel slightly unnerved by Little My’s presence, and ended up carefully placing her around the corner).
Helsinki’s Design District
In and amongst the city’s many green spaces lie a host of leading museums and galleries. From the beautifully located Seurasaari Open-Air Museum, to the historic Mannerheim Museum, the city’s museums cater to the most eclectic of tastes.
For those intending to spend more than an hour exploring these spaces, then I’d definitely advise investing in a Helsinki Card: offering you free and discounted entry into these institutions. However, with limited time on our second day in the city, we decided to focus entirely on one area: Helsinki’s Design District.
Spanning 25 streets, the District brings together the city’s leading designers, trend-setters and creatives: creating a vibrant neighbourhood filled with Finnish design and products. As someone who finds it difficult say no to a ‘concept store’, this part of the city was one of my firm favourites.
Situated behind the train station, we spent a whole afternoon exploring this diverse area. It was the city’s answer to a hipster paradise.
For design and stationary lovers, I’d highly recommend visiting Butoni Design, the Paper Shop and the Republic of Fritz Hansen Store. For those looking for a slightly alternative museum experience, then Päivälehti Museum offers an excellent insight into all things media related. Just being in this neighbourhood made me feel ever so slightly cooler, and I only wish I’d had a little more time to explore it.
Final Thoughts on Helsinki
Our last evening in Helsinki was spent briefly exploring its apparently boundless Central Park. Spanning over ten kilometres, the parks reaches from the heart of the city right up to its northerly tip, where the River Vantaa waits. Running through Helsinki, the park acts as the city’s lungs: providing its residents with much needed lungfuls of nature. Walking through it, I wondered what would happen if it were to be cut off: the Finn’s supply to all that is green, all that is fresh, gone. I imagined that they would find it very difficult.
Helsinki – and wider Finland – is no doubt a place bordered by perhaps nosier, more assertive neighbours. Certainly in the time that I’ve been travelling, I’ve never given much thought to visiting this city, my mind instead distracted by hipster Stockholm or pretty Tallinn. Yet, its quietness should not be mistaken for emptiness. Quite the opposite.
Visit Helsinki and you’ll soon realise that it’s a place that prides itself on its peacefulness; on its connection with nature. Rather than shouting about its latest Nordic Noir or fashion scene, it is instead sat peacefully inside a sauna, contemplating the day. Or perhaps it’s outside, exploring the city’s green spaces, or swimming through its cool waters. Maybe it’s even holding picnics on an island. You see, in Helsinki, life is not to be shouted about, but quietly enjoyed; the concept of ‘sisu’ helping it deal quietly with every event, every opportunity and every dark winter.
Yes, Helsinki might not be the most vocal of destinations: but don’t let that fool you. That is exactly how it wants to be.