Effortlessy cool Helsinki - the city where East meets West - is about sauna, Scandinavian chic and enjoying long summer days or cold winter nights
It’s a snowy wonderland in winter and party central in summer - a city for all seasons. Home to sauna, the Northern Lights and a picture-postcard harbour, the Finnish capital is walkable, ultra-safe and not as expensive as everyone thinks.
The city sits on a peninsula that juts out into the Baltic Sea and wherever you are in Helsinki you are never very far away from the water. A visit to Suomenlinna fortress is a great introduction to Helsinki’s, and indeed Finland’s, history. Situated on a cluster of six islands, just off the coast but a stone’s throw from the city, the sea fortress is now home to commuters, visitors and picnic lovers. Built more than 250 years ago, it has had a colourful past. Over the centuries it has been part of the kingdom of Sweden, a Russian fortification and was even attacked by the British navy. It is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List, a popular day trip destination and a great way to see the city from the water.
The Suomenlinna ferry drops you off near the Market Square, which is the beating heart of Helsinki. Locals doing their weekly shop mingle with tourists stocking up for an impromptu picnic lunch. You will find traders selling vegetables, snacks, handicrafts and fish, right by the edge of the lapping waters of the Baltic. The fruit stalls in summer have berries galore, including some you may never have heard of like cloudberries and loganberries.
Within walking distance of the square is Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, one of the largest orthodox churches in Europe and simply beautiful. Built in striking red brick, it is topped by 13 green and gold onion domes. Inside it is filled with icons (including one said to perform miracles) and lit by sparkling chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling.
Sauna is a way of life for the Finns and visitors shouldn’t miss out on this traditional form of relaxing and socialising. Most apartment and office blocks have a sauna, as does Parliament. So put your modesty aside and get naked! A fantastic introduction to the art of sauna is available at Yrjonkadun Swimming Hall. This beautiful Art Deco building has a pool where you swim, with or without your trunks or bikini but with those of your own sex, before you unwind in the wood-fired sauna.
Helsinki is very walkable and logically laid out but if you’re overcome by laziness in the summer you can hire a bike for free. Pop into Stockmann’s - Helsinki’s answer to Harrods – for traditional Finnish fare of mustard herring, rye bread and reindeer, then head out for a picnic. Alternatively, the Finnish National Gallery is a lovely way to spend an afternoon; if you don’t get a chance to travel to Lapland, drinking in the landscapes captured on canvas in here is the next best thing.
The Finns like a drink and they know how to party. Clubbers are effortlessly cool and the venues trendy. Try the Arctic Ice Bar (where the temperature is a constant -5°C and drinkers are issued with a warm cape and gloves before ordering) or legendary gay night club Don’t Tell Mama. By the way, kippis is Finnish for cheers.
Helsinki has to be one of the few European capitals where you can walk home alone in the early hours and be as safe as houses. While you’re doing that, look out for the Northern Lights, which are often visible in Helsinki in early spring or autumn. This natural spectacle - nature's free light show – is awesome, so keep your eyes peeled.
If you fancy going a bit further afield, Helsinki is a great springboard for a trip across the water to the Estonian capital of Tallinn. You could even take a Doctor Zhivago-esque train journey deep into Russia - from the striking granite landmark that is Helsinki Central railway station, trains leave daily for Moscow and St Petersburg.
Helsinki is often perishingly cold in winter but the Finns know how to make the most of winter. City streets are covered in a pretty blanket of snow, and people keep warm in the sauna and skate on the city’s new ice rink. The city comes alive in summer, though. In late June, when there is 19 hours of daylight between sunrise and sunset, people make the most of it and stay out late, drinking, enjoying festivals and soaking up the sun.
Where to stay
Hotel GLO: spacious rooms and a very central location make this a popular choice. Furnishings are modern and trendy and beds are especially comfortable. There is a spa and bar on adjoining floors and all staff speak English. Approximately £180 a night.
Sokos Hotel Presidentti: this hotel has a great city-centre location, ideal for the bus, metro and railway station and next to the Kamppi mall. The sauna, tapas bar and huge breakfast buffets are highly recommended. Approximately £90 a night.