Helsinki: a delightful city on the sea

by gill19

Small and sparklingly clean, with air as fresh as a newly-picked daisy: that's Helsinki. Finland’s capital city, it's also super-efficient, and a symphony of spires and Art Nouveau facades

Founded by King Gustaf Vasa of Sweden in 1550, Helsinki, with her rich maritime history, is known as 'the daughter of the Baltic'. A refreshingly different city break destination, it pleases and charms, and has plenty to offer visitors. It’s a lively, easy place to be, and the people are polite and speak excellent English. And you don’t have to eat Rudolf if you don’t want to!

Buzzing nightlife

At first glance, it might seem an unlikely destination for ravers - but it doesn’t take long to clock that Helsinki swings, especially in summer. This is one trendy, youthful and laidback city. Who knows, maybe it’s because most of the year is pretty dismal weather-wise that it’s one of the hardest partying places in Europe, with a pulsing club life. Some of the most popular venues for DJ club music, relaxing and dancing include the oddly named We Got Beef and Rosegarden, both of which are located in Iso-Rooberinkatu in the city centre.

An interesting place to visit is the Uniq nightclub (Yliopistonkatu 5, in the city centre), where the bar, tables, seats and even glasses are carved from ice. It's so cold inside (minus five degrees) that you have to wear a parka with fur hood and gloves when you go in. They also offer to lend you cosy boots, too, in case your tootsies freeze. It's gimmicky - and expensive - but definitely worth trying.

There are plenty of pubs in town, but the most unusual has to be the red pub tram, which runs in summer from the train station, with stops at the Opera House and Kauppatori. Beers on the tram cost more than they do in regular pubs but it's a different - if touristy - way to do a spot of sightseeing.

A shopper's dream

There's no chance of shoppers getting bored in this compact, maritime city, and it has public transport par excellence, making it a doddle to get round. As a shopaholic, I started by hieing along to one of Helsinki's main shopping streets, the Mannerheimintie. Here, the flagship Stockmann department store, one of Finland’s largest, occupies a whole city block. Famous for high-quality brands and a comprehensive selection of goods (including loads of posh frocks), it’s the ideal place for one-stop shopping. Stockmann also houses the heaven-for-bookworms Academic Bookstore in a separate block, connected to the department store by a tunnel. Besides Stockmanns, Mannerheimintie has plenty of shopping malls to suit eager-beaver shoppers. Forum is a glass-walled mall that's particularly popular with young locals; as well as shops, it houses a wide choice of cafès and restaurants, including the ubiquitous McDonald's. Another interesting mall, in design at least, is the Lasipalatsi ( Glass Palace), where most of the stores sell computers, cameras and televisions.

Eating out

But let’s forget frocks, books and laptops for a moment. Peckishness had descended and somehow I happened to be standing right outside Carelia (Mannerheimintie 56), opposite the National Opera House. This small and classy restaurant was built in 1966 in a converted pharmacy. Locals recommended it for great food and, even better, reasonable prices - at least by Finnish standards. It has an extensive wine list, too. The restaurant prides itself on its signature dish of mussels, though meat-eaters might prefer to order a bear steak or a reindeer carpaccio. As a vegetarian, I was pleased to see a wide range of salads and vegetarian dishes on offer as well.

One of Helsinki’s best Lapland-style restaurants in the heart of town is the Lappi Restaurant (Annankatu 22). If you want to try roasted elk steak, arctic char, or Finnish cheese with cloudberries, this is where to come.

Sauna scene

After lunch, it was time to make like a local. This country is chock-a-block with sauna-enthusiasts and Finland has a mind-blowing 1.7 million saunas - by my reckoning, that works out at around one sauna for every three people. So, in the interests of research, I set off for the Kotiharju sauna in the almost unpronounceable street of Harjutorinkatu. This is Helsinki’s last all wood-heated public sauna, where bathers sit on wooden benches splashing water on the hot stones of the stove and gently beating themselves with leafy birch whisks (ooer, Matron), and a traditional ‘washing lady’ scrubs you clean. I won’t go into details but suffice to say I left that sauna looking ointment-pink and as shiny as a newborn.

Park life

I decided a leisurely stroll would help reduce the pinkness, so headed off to the district of Seurasaari. This area of lush green parkland and pine forests is home to an open-air museum that features a collection of buildings, including a 17th-century church, Lappish huts and an ancient farmstead. In summer, this tranquil oasis is popular with locals, who come to lie in the sun or have picnics. At midsummer, an enormous bonfire (juhannuskokko in Finnish) is built on a small isle just off the coast and tradition has it that it must be lit by a newly-wed couple. Seurasaari also includes one of only two nudist beaches in Helsinki, segregated for men and women, with no unisex area.

Where to stay

If you're on a budget, try Stadion Hostel, part of the Olympic Stadium built for the 1952 Summer Games. Decor is old-fashioned but it's clean. Perks include free parking, free internet and swimming pool and sauna. Prices from £35 a night.

If you've a bit more cash to spare, go for the four-star Scandic Simonkenttä hotel on Simonkatu 9. It's a bright, shiny, ultra-clean hotel and some rooms have saunas. Price from £76 a night.