The city that can’t stand still
The Finnish capital’s ability and willingness to reinvent itself knows no bounds. Oodi, an enormous wood-clad marvel that redefines the concept of the library; the cavernous Tripla mall, hotel and transport hub in the Pasila district; ambitious, achievable targets for public transport and sustainable development, breathing new life into existing suburbs and creating new ones; world-class cultural venues and festivals; exciting bars and cosy cafés, and restaurants expressing new confidence in Finnish cuisine; a justified claim to be one of the world’s safest capitals: these are just a small sample of Helsinki’s assets. Museums and galleries offer physical and spiritual warmth on dark winter days. Light-filled summer days are perfect for taking a ferry to the Baltic archipelago, including the magnificent Unesco World Heritage-listed Suomenlinna sea fortress, or jumping on a city bike and exploring the trails along the shorelines and into the forested parks. No surprise, then, that Helsinki is capital of the ‘world’s happiest country’.
48 hours in . . . Helsinki
Energised by a generous breakfast buffet at a central Helsinki hotel, stroll down the verdant Esplanade to the Market Square on the South Harbour quayside. More vigorous types should head to the Allas Sea Pool (Katajanokanlaituri 2a; 00 358 40 5656 582) for a morning swim and sauna – there isn’t a more Finnish way to start the day. Jump on a ferry for a 15-minute voyage to the Unesco World Heritage-listed Suomenlinna sea fortress (00 358 295 338 410). Spend the morning dropping into the museums and cafés dotted around this windswept mini-archipelago, including the Toy Museum (Suomenlinna C66; 00 358 40 500 6607) – enchanting for children of all ages. Finish your explorations with a light lunch at the Café Silo (Suomenlinna C10; 00 358 40 535 6610) or at the Panimo brewery bar (Suomenlinna C 1; 00 358 96 682 00) before taking the ferry back to the Market Square.
Continue the day’s outdoor theme with a ride on the Hop On, Hop Off bus service (00 358 207 118 338), hopping on at the Senate Square. Each ticket is valid for 24 hours and buses leave daily from 9.40am to 4pm every 20 minutes. Hop off at the Sibelius Monument, a silver installation resembling a vast cluster of organ pipes in tribute to Finland’s most revered composer. Stroll down to the shoreline for a coffee and slice of blueberry pie at Café Regatta (Merikannontie 8; 00 358 40 414 9167), a former fishing-net hut with a cheerful seaside terrace. The Hop On, Hop Off bus ticket discounts include two coffees for the price of one here. Head back to the bus stop and ride as far as the Winter Garden (Hammarskjöldintie 1 A; 00 358 9 310 39985) at the northern end of Töölö Bay for a wander around the immaculate rose gardens and hothouse. Hop back on the bus or take a pleasant 20-minute stroll along the bay back into the central area.
For dinner, head to Restaurant Andrea (Lönnrotinkatu 4; 00 358 9 4246 0042) at the St George Hotel (book ahead) for a delicious spread combining Finnish ingredients with Turkish mezze elements. Round off the day with an award-winning cocktail (try Learning to Fail in a bird-shaped glass) or a wine from the excellent list at the Winter Garden bar in the same hotel. If you still have some energy, dance it off with live music at Storyville’s basement jazz club (Museokatu 8; 00 358 50 363 2664).
Much of your second day can be happily focused on Helsinki’s considerable range of indoor attractions, most of which are located within walking distance or easy tram hops in the central area. Start with a visit to Amos Rex (Mannerheiminitie 22-24; 00 358 96844 4633), the city’s newest art museum ingeniously contained below the 1930s functionalist Lasipalatsi (Glass Palace). Don’t miss the rear courtyard, the site of Helsinki’s former bus station, now occupied by strange tiled funnels doubling as skylights for the museum. Wander across to the giant silver shell of Kiasma, the Museum of Contemporary Art (Mannerheiminaukio 2; 00 358 294 500 200), another architectural showpiece. Kiasma forms one side of the ‘People’s Square’ (Kansallistori), a wide space dominated by the sweeping wooden façade of Oodi, the Helsinki Central Library (Töölönlahdenkatu 4; 00 358 9 310 85000). Take the escalator up to the third floor for a view across to the Parliament House from the outdoor terrace.
Head over to the Kamppi Centre mall and the street food market 6K (Urho Kekkosen katu 1; 00 358 44 5544592) for a late lunch. Try the sumptuous boneless fried chicken or an artisan tortilla before taking the 15-minute walk over to the Töölö district and the Tempelliaukio kirkko – the Church in the Rock (Lutherinkatu 3; 00 358 9 2340 6320). As its name suggests, this unusual place of worship is excavated out of the bedrock and capped with a low-domed copper roof, Helsinki’s best example of modern architectural ingenuity. You’ll still have time for some souvenir and gift shopping in the Design District, clustered in and around the Esplanade. Explore the boutiques along trendy Korkeavuorenkatu. Drop into Tikau (Korkeavuorenkatu 9; 00 358 44 969 6108) to check out quality Indian handicrafts in Nordic styles and rest up with a coffee and a voluminous cinnamon pastry at calm and cosy Café Succès (Korkeavuorenkatu 2; 00 358 9 633414).
Hernesaari is one of several new seaside Helsinki suburbs and it’s home to Löyly (Hernesaarenranta 4; 00 358 9 6128 6550), a restaurant-cum-sauna housed in an elegant wood pyramid with a waterfront terrace and an open-air rooftop lounge. There are private and public saunas (löyly is the Finnish word for the steam emitted from throwing water on the hot stones) and bathers can take a dip between sauna sessions. It’s a great way to work up an appetite before either dining here or walking over to the Eira district and taking tram 3 to Kallio, Helsinki’s hipster central, for dinner from the Middle Eastern/North African menu at Sandro Kallio (Kolmas Linja 17; 00 358 9 6128 5151). Finish up the evening exploring Kallio’s ample bar selection, sampling some fine Finnish craft beers at Sivukirjasto (Fleminginkatu 5; 00 358 40 372 3603).
Where to stay . . .
The St. George is as central as you can get, occupying a converted 19th-century office building on the corner of a quiet leafy park. The hotel is a subtle showcase for Finnish art and design, most conspicuously in the murals and fabrics by young designer Klaus Haapaniemi, whose work is one aspect of a holistic approach to nurturing a sense of wellbeing among guests.
Doubles from €225 (£200). Yrjönkatu 13; 00 358 9 4246 00 11
The Hotel F6 sets a new standard for independent boutique hotels in Helsinki and Finland. The reception area, tastefully furnished and spacious, has an instantly breezy feel that puts you at ease on arrival in this converted government ministry building. It’s only a pity that the outdoor terrace area in the hexagonal courtyard, decked out in Moroccan riad style, can’t be enjoyed through the brisk Finnish winter.
Doubles from €160 (£135). Fabininkatu 6; 00 358 9 68999 666
The Hotel Indigo is on tree-lined Bulevardi, one of Helsinki’s most characterful central streets, merging with the arterial Mannerheimintie street and Esplanadi at one end and running down to the shipyards and West Harbour at the other. The hotel’s interiors, housed in an unassumingly modern block, have been designed to identify strongly with its neighbourhood, where the industrial area of the docks and shipyards meets the trendy retail district to the east.
Doubles from €120 (£102). Bulevardi 26; 00 358 200 48105
What to bring home . . .
When to go . . .
Helsinki comes into its own in summer, when the sun barely bothers to dip below the horizon until around midnight and pops up again a few hours later. Cafes and bars open terraces along the pedestrian streets of Keskuskatu and Iso Roobertinkatu, and a continuous flotilla of ferries and tourist boats scuttle out of the South Harbour and around the islands. Expect some moody, drab weather in late autumn. Otherwise there is plenty to savour, from the carnival-like spring celebration of May 1 to crisp winter days when ice forms on the Baltic bays and snow gathers in the parks.
Know before you go . . .
Emergency fire and ambulance: phone number 112
Emergency police: phone number 112
British Embassy: Itäinen Puistotie 17, 00140 Helsinki. Phone: 00 358 (0) 9 22865100; gov.uk/world/organisations/british-embassy-helsinki
Flight time: 2 h 45 m
International dialling code: +358
Local laws and etiquette
Some finer restaurants offer the option of tipping, but generally tips are not expected and one should not feel under any pressure. The same applies for hotel staff. There is never any need to tip taxi drivers.
Helsinki and its neighbours, Espoo and Vantaa, offer a comprehensive, safe and efficient public transport network covering trams, buses, metro, commuter trains, and ferries, using a zonal fare system.
Taxis are reliable, safe – and expensive: expect to pay upwards of €40 (£37) from the airport to the city centre. Call 0100 0700 to preorder. Fares are calculated on a complex system depending on day of the week, time of pick-up, distance and number of people.
Drivers in central Helsinki should be aware of tramlines and be prepared for buses pulling out from bus stops.
Jaywalking – proceeding to cross the road when the pedestrian light is red – is an offence in Finland.
Greetings: formal handshakes are normal for first meetings. Continental-style cheek kissing is rare.
It’s often polite to offer to remove your shoes when entering someone’s home.
Helsinki is one of the world’s safest capital cities, but things can get a little rowdy near the Central Railway Station on weekend evenings. If you lose something of value, there is a very good chance that someone will hand it in somewhere if it is found, but best not to put this to the test.
Tim Bird is Telegraph Travel’s Helsinki expert. He has been watching the Finnish capital transform completely since he settled here in the early 1980s. He spends the long summer days cycling and island-hopping, and loves photographing the half-lit moods of the Finnish winter.