With the addition of some significant new cultural attractions and festivals to add to the existing range of museums, concert venues and theatres, Helsinki makes credible claims to be a world-class cultural city. At the same time, this is a city of the sea whose Baltic archipelago defines its breezy, casual character, enhanced by the opening up to public access of a cluster of islands previously reserved for military use. ‘Sauna’ is perhaps the only Finnish word to have entered global vocabulary and the tradition, never in risk of dying out, is more popular than ever with young and old alike.
Widen your horizons at Oodi
In view of how proud Helsinki citizens are of this dramatic new addition to the skyline, it would almost be rude not to drop in. More than just a book depository (although it is that as well), Oodi, Helsinki’s Central Library, contains a cinema, a café and a restaurant, 3D printers, sewing machines, a recording studio, function rooms and a silent working space.
Insider’s tip: Find your way to the third-floor terrace for a broad view across many central landmarks, including the graceful white Finlandia Hall, the church-like National Museum and austere Parliament House, and Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art.
Contact: 00 358 9 310 85000; oodihelsinki.fi
Nearest metro: Central Railway Station
Connect with culture
The city’s newest art museum, Amos Rex, is ingeniously contained in a gleaming and flexible space below the functionalist Lasipalatsi (Glass Palace), describing itself as a meeting place for art and urban culture. The exhibition programme, invariably exciting, varies from classical themes to more challenging contemporary shows. It’s also the permanent home of the Sigurd Frosterus Foundation’s post-impressionist collection.
Insider’s tip: Be sure not to miss the rear courtyard, the site of Helsinki’s former bus station, now occupied by surreal and strangely sculptured tiled domes, some of which double up as skylights for the museum.
Contact: 00 358 9 6844 4633 00; amosrex.fi
Nearest metro: Central Railway Station
Discover your inner artist
The swooping silver shell of Kiasma, the Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Steven Holl was controversial for its perceived inelegance when it opened in 1990, but now it is very much an established feature of the Helsinki profile. As well as hosting cutting-edge modern exhibitions, Kiasma is the contemporary wing of the Finnish National Gallery.
Insider’s tip: The shows might not always be to your taste, but the premises are fun to explore. Make your way to the broad windows on the north-facing end for rewarding views across to the Parliament House and the Music Centre.
Contact: 00 358 294 500 200; kiasma.fi
Nearest metro: Central Railway Station
Price: €15 (£13); free for under 18s. Free for everyone on first Friday of the month.
Bask in the sea breeze
Rugged shoreline walks with cannons, cafés and restaurants, a microbrewery bar and a selection of museums await on the Unesco World Heritage-listed Suomenlinna sea fortress, a mini-archipelago linked by bridges on the outer edge of the South Harbour. The 15-minute ferry ride from the Market Square is its own joy, on fine summer days or surrounded by winter ice.
Insider’s tip: Buy an island-hopping ticket at the city quay and make a day of it, stopping off at the restaurant on tiny Lonna and taking a stroll on Vallisaari with its fabulous seaward and city panoramas and unique nature preserved by decades of exclusive military use.
Submit to market forces
Compact in winter, expansive and bustling in summer and the berth for island boats gathering for an October Herring Fair, the Kauppatori, or Market Square, on the northern quay of Helsinki’s South Harbour is one of the city’s most colourful spots. Depending on the season, the stalls are laden with fish, fruit, vegetables, berries and mushrooms.
Insider’s tip: After souvenir shopping at the handicraft stalls, indulge in a fresh doughnut or filling meat pie at one of the café tents. Visit the nearby indoor Old Market Hall for fresh bread, cheese, wine and other ingredients for an island picnic.
Contact: 00 358 9 310 23565; hel.fi
Feel the heat at a sauna
Hernesaari is one of several new seaside Helsinki suburbs and it’s where you’ll find Löyly, a restaurant-cum-sauna housed in an elegant wood pyramid with a waterfront terrace and an open-air rooftop lounge. Try this Finnish ritual in the private and public saunas (löyly is the Finnish word for the steam emitted from throwing water on the hot stones) and take a sea dip between sauna sessions.
Insider’s tips: Many Finnish hotels have saunas for guests to use. Swimming pools and sports centres almost always have saunas. For more details about the sauna and the other, more traditional public saunas in Helsinki, contact the Finnish Sauna Society (sauna.fi).
Contact: 00 358 9 6128 6550; loylyhelsinki.fi
Take the plunge at a sea pool
Extending into but separated from the edge of the South Harbour, Allas comprises three outdoor pools, one heated and open even in the chilliest winter weather, one reserved for kids, and naturally, saunas. The terrace atop the wooden pavilion is a pleasant place to sip and watch the big Baltic ferries, and you can take a post-dip dinner at Allas Wine & Dine.
Insider’s tips: Ask about the summer concerts staged behind the pavilion. Some top Finnish acts and the occasional international band get the place bouncing on long sunny evenings. You can also book swimming and yoga courses.
Contact: 00 358 40 565 6582; allasseapool.fi
Plan your own cycling tour
Helsinki and neighbouring Espoo share an excellent, popular and very affordable City Bike scheme, and a growing network of designated bike lanes and trails. Once you’ve registered online, you can take a bike from, and return it to any of 345 stations in and around town. It’s an excellent way to nip between attractions or explore further afield.
Insider’s tip: Pick up a Helsinki Cycling Map from Oodi Central Library and plan a two-wheel excursion. Follow the Vantaa river from its mouth at Vanhakaupunki and circle north to the rapids at Pitkäkoski before pedalling back through the densely wooded Central Park.
Contact: 00 358 9 425 788 10; kaupunkipyorat.hsl.fi
Step back in time
Helsinki’s own inner archipelago includes the delightful island of Seurasaari, reached by means of a long footbridge and covered in forest that conceals an outdoor museum of reconstructed original rural architecture. The collection includes a timber church, a manor house and an assortment of barns and cottages. Access to the island is free; a booth sells tickets to enter the buildings.
Insider’s tip: Come here at Midsummer for traditional celebrations. Watch newly-weds emerge from the church and make their way by boat to ignite an offshore Midsummer bonfire. You can also join in the folk dancing on the Festival Stage.
Contact: 00 358 40 649 3040; seurasaarisaatio.fi
Price: Free to visit island; €10 (£9) for museum buildings.
Enjoy altitude with attitude
The Helsinki skyline doesn’t feature many really tall buildings but the few that it does have make the most of their elevation. That’s definitely the case at the Clarion Hotel’s 16th-floor Sky Room, one of the best spots in town to drink in a Helsinki panorama. The view extends from the docklands on the edge of the Jätkäsaari suburb across the central area.
Insider’s tip: With an ambience of modern art and cool music, it’s a favourite location for celebrations, and the bar staff pride themselves on their champagne cocktails. You could also take the opportunity here to sample some fine Finnish gins.
Contact: 00 358 10 850 3820; nordicchoicehotels.fi
Nearest metro: Ruoholahti