Battle the local bar wits, ice skate on the Baltic Sea and hit up a Burlesque festival – and that’s just wintertime! In summer enjoy performing arts, shop at outdoor markets or hit the beach for some volleyball, says Constance A. Dunn.
Helsinki might be the perfect summertime retreat for folks further south suffering temperatures that rival the surface of the sun, but the truly brave visit in winter. The Finns are no strangers to harsh climate conditions; hundreds of years in freezing temperatures have given the people a sensitivity to subtle shifts in their environment. Not surprisingly, environmental consciousness is ever-present in the design, the food and the means of transport.
When the Baltic Sea freezes over the locals strap on their ice skates, when the thermometer hits negative the indoor markets hang out the open signs and if life gives you two meters of snow, make snowmen. If your humor is as dry as old radiator heat then you’ll meet your match among the bar wits of Helsinki. After a hard day’s work the elegant exterior of these impenetrable people melts away with the help of a little Kilju (sugar wine) and beer.
Gray days in the land of 188,000 lakes, brighten up with a Marimekko living room and the smell of lingonberry porridge. And before suiting up for that 40km cross-country ski trip be sure to eat your reindeer heart so the wolves can smell your fearlessness. But be back in time to tear up the dancefloor to Finnish pop, and remember to say “Kiitos” to the bartender, but tipping is optional.
Best of the Beaten Track
The maritime fortress of Suomenlinna is a popular summer destination. Rolling knolls just begging to be occupied by the rear-end of picnickers are walled inside 18th-century stones. The exhibits share Helsinki’s story as a city once belonging to the Swedes and the Russians, before becoming the capital of Finland in 1812.
Temppeliaukio church is worth a look-see. Built in 1969, the church is constructed into the natural rock of a hill. The church is still operating so arrive during the afternoon tour hours if you don’t want to attend a service.
Those in need of a bit of whimsy after a long day should stop by Marimekko. The Finns pride themselves on the simple, colorful motifs of Marimekko’s fabrics. In fact, these prints find their way into almost every Finnish home. But if a set of drapes won’t fit in your carry-on then the designer also sells accessory bags, gifts and socks. If you’ve got the shopping bug after your Marimekko excursion you can continue to spend the day in Kauppatori open market from Spring to Fall.
A trip to the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art is quintessential to any visitor with Boho aspirations. You’ll be introduced to influential, young artists from Finland and beyond. Artists like Osmo Rauhala, who spends part of his time in Finland and another part in New York. The Kiasma Theatre produces a season of work from visiting companies and artists. A theatre ‘escort service’ is even provided that matches new theater goers with artists.
If you’re not satiated with Helsinki’s art scene after Kiasma then head over to Kaapelitehdas. The name translates as The Cable Factory and it is just that, or used to be anyway. Now the warehouse space houses over 500 creative tenants, spanning every medium.
Grab a map of Helsinki’s Design District from the well-appointed tourist office on Pohjoisesplanadi 19 or in the central railway station. Every local designer of anything that can possibly be designed is marked on the map. The district also hosts events such as late night shopping and gallery openings. Helsinki was named the Design Capital of the World in 2012, so they have good reason to showcase their own.
Refresh at Bar Loose at the end of your hip city tour. This watering hole will satisfy your longing for tats, beer and good ole rock n’ roll.
Experience & Events
The local population keeps fit with outdoor sports, even in the throes winter. Strap on your ice skates and join a tour group on the frozen Baltic, or step onto a boat that will guide you through the coastal environs of the city. Cycling is popular in the summer months and even those not up for rigorous physical activity can handle the flat terrain. And whilst it’s not quite Copacabana, Hietaniemi beach is a great spot to sunbathe or challenge the locals to a game of volleyball.
Helsinki Festival, which takes place in August each year, is the city’s largest cultural event, with two weeks worth of concerts, theatre and performance arts. A highlight of the festival is the so-called “Night of the Arts” (Taiteiden yö), when artists perform in the bars, parks, and streets of Helsinki for free. More contemporary is the Flow Festival when big names like Kraftwerk and Bat For Lashes come to town, also in August. Fancy something a bit different? How about a Dragon Boat Race (every August), or Burlesque Festival (every February)?
GLO Hotel Art is an environmentally conscious lodging only 700 meters from the center. The hotel is housed inside a 20th century castle inside Helsinki’s design district. Academica Summer Hostel is a respite for an eco-traveler on a budget because every room is equipped with its own kitchenette for cooking local produce. Prices run anywhere from €60 to €27, a steal for a room with wireless and a private bathroom. But sorry winter travelers, the hostel is only open from June until September. Another summer lodging is Hostel Suomenlinna located inside the 19th century fortress of the same name.
The boutique hotel Klaus K offers three artist rooms, each reflecting the varied artistic sensibilities of the Finnish capitol. Every other room is chic and simple, but the best part of Klaus K is the buffet breakfast.
For simple, traditional fare spoil yourself with a trip to Kuurna. A set menu will set you back about 35 Euro, but the taste sensation is worth the bling. Local fish, veg, nuts and berries are worked into entrees with a light hand, in-line with Finnish design – simple, but high quality.
You can’t vacation near the Baltic without eating something from the cold, clean waters. Check out Meri Makasiini for seafood. Fresh catches and a view of dark waters. If you’re sick of “authentic” and continental sounds more appetizing then Tapasta offers tasty tapas and the like in a casual setting. Helsinki will eat away at the the pockets of budget travelers, but have no fear, even those short on Euro won’t starve for sustenance or cultural satisfaction. Ristorante Mare Chiaro Secondo is an inexpensive pizza joint splattered with graffiti. The owner may serve you if he is in the mood, if he is not then just whip out your best Donald Duck impression. He is the biggest collector of Donald Duck memorabilia in Scandinavia. Find him at Hämeentie street number 20, he has no website to speak of.
Helsinki can morph from hip and chill to hoppin’ and happening within a few blocks. Begin the evening at Kafe Mockba, part of the Andorra bars on Eerikinkatu. The place recalls the days of Russian occupation in Finland or what is generally known as “the days of stagnation”. Nothing like a good beer surrounded by a bit of socio-politico history. The hippest of Helsinki stop in at Siltanen. Don your chicest pompadour and your best glad rags to enjoy the daily music program of DJs and live music. If you want a beat to get your blood flowing then head over to Kaarle XII, or “Kalle”, where two floors house six bars – one of which is Bar 4 where Finnish pop music rules the night.
Flights out of most major airports: London, New York, Paris. The local carriers offer the best deals on direct flights, so if a search engine doesn’t help you find the fare you want then visit the Finnair, SAS and Norwegian airlines websites. DB Bahn train lines run daily from most major European hubs, such as Paris and Berlin. Once you’re in town, local transport is by train or bus. Buses are the more popular of the two. The fare is expensive at about €4.50 one-way. However, most of the city sites are accessible by foot. Tunnels and covered pathways running between shopping centers and major buildings protect the pedestrian from harsh winter temperatures.
The best site for local Helsinki sites, events and experiences is hands down Visithelsinki.fi. The site is run by the city, you can’t get more knowledgable than that. But if you’re looking for a personalized version from a local enthusiast check out Helsinki10.com.
Lonely Planet and Frommers are dependable guides for food and sights. If a feel of the city and the people is what you’re after then seek out Mikko Rimminen’s Pussikaljaromaani, literally translated as Beer Pouch Novel. A novel which the Guardian very aptly described as a Ulysses for Helsinki. Another good read is Kjell Westo Lang’s Kites Over Helsinki a noir-like crime novel set in 80s.
The dumb-founded, deer-caught-in-the-headlights humor of Aki Kaursmakki is the best cinema option for any Helsinki explorer. Kaursmakki’s films showcase that special brand of Finnish humor, but he doesn’t shy away from the socio-politico life of modern Finland, making him the quintessential king of Finnish satire.
Soundtrack to the City
Additional photos by Jean-Pierre Dalbera and Simon Collison.