Soak up Helsinki's Nordic charm on foot or venture further afield – the city is surrounded by water on three sides, and it is easy to visit some of Finland’s attractive offshore islands
A Scandinavian capital city bathed in near-eternal daylight in the summer and surrounded by frozen seas in winter, Helsinki’s vibrant nightlife and chic dining scene means it rivals Stockholm and Reykjavik when it comes to cool northern destinations. Helsinki has miles of coastline, historically strategic islands to visit, strikingly beautiful Lutheran and Russian Orthodox cathedrals, relaxed markets selling numerous varieties of pickled fish and rye bread, and a new wave of boutiques and restaurants in the design district, where you can find funky Finnish crafts and superb cuisine.
What to do
Helsinki’s main sites are easily visited on foot or via the tram. Start your journey at Senate Square where the snow-white, green and gold-domed Helsinki Cathedral sits. The square is flanked by regal Carl Ludvig Engel-designed buildings, built between 1822 and 1852. Then head to the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe, built in 1868. Its red-brick facade contrasts with the ivory-white of the city, and the golden cupolas gleam from on high.
Must-see museums include the Ateneum Art Museum (www.ateneum.fi; Kaivokatu 2), housing the largest collection of Finnish art, and the museum of contemporary art – Kiasma (www.kiasma.org; Mannerheiminaukio 2), where there’s an impressive range of Scandinavian and Russian work from the 1960s onwards, encompassing film, photography and painting.
A short ferry ride away, Suomenlinna is a huge 17th-century fortress built over six islands just off mainland Helsinki (www.suomenlinna.fi). Explore the stone fortress walls, stop for a Finnish-style sandwich (smoked salmon, dill and spring onion on rye bread), visit the on-site museum or join one of the guided walks that depart from the visitor centre.
A bus ride away from central Helsinki is Töölönlahti Bay, a beautiful park dotted with pastel-coloured wooden villas. Come here for nature walks and to visit the magnificent Sibelius Monument (in honour of the national composer, Jean Sibelius). A collection of huge, stainless steel cylinders, it looks remarkably like a grand organ and the controversial piece of abstract art is suspended in mid-air.
Where to stay
The rooms of the design-led hotel Klaus K are inspired by the themes of envy, desire, mysticism and passion, as depicted in Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala. The walls are lined with quotes from the classic tale. As one of the tallest buildings in the city, Hotel Torni has the best views in town and its bar, Atelijee, is also an art gallery for Finland’s emerging young artists. Overlooking the harbour, Palace Kämp offers a number of restaurants and a day spa.
Where to eat and drink
Nokka (Kanavaranta 7; 00 358 9612 85600; royalravintolat.com) serves fine Finnish cuisine. Sample delicate dill mousse with roe on sweet rye bread and desserts featuring local seabuckthorn berries. End the meal with cheese and honey, and wash it all down with a glass of wine (the first Finnish wine was made from apples in 1992 and is served here).
Lappi (00 358 9645 550; www.lappires.com), on Annankatu, takes its inspiration from the country’s traditional log cabins and Lappish food. The menu is full of interesting choices like roast elk, reindeer sirloin, Arctic char and forest mushroom salad. Savotta (00 358 9742 55588; www.asrestaurants.com) is a fun, traditional restaurant bursting with Nordic atmosphere.
For a break from Scandinavian, try Helsinki’s Michelin-starred French restaurant, Chez Dominique (00 358 9612 7393; www.chezdominique.fi), or for a Mediterranean atmosphere join the locals for lunch at Gran Delicata Café (on Kalevankatu in the Kamppi district), which is run by two jovial Greeks and serves salads and pastries.
Time running out?
Make the most of your last few hours with a caffeine kick. Head to Fazer Café (Kluuvikatu 3) and order your coffee with a delicious cardamom bun or potato pastry.
Buy a Helsinki Card (from €30; www.helsinkicard.fi) for free travel on all public transport, ferry travel to Suomenlinna and entrance to a number of museums and exhibitions across the city. If you can, stay one more day and take a day trip to the Estonian capital, Tallinn. Travel by ferry with Nordic Jet Line (00 358 6000 1655; www.njl.info).
Currency is the euro. Finland is two hours ahead of GMT and a two-hour 50-minute flight from London.
Finnair (0870 241 4411; www.finnair.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) both have daily flights from Heathrow to Helsinki-Vantaa airport.
Helsinki City Tourist Bureau: Pohjoisesplanadi 19 (00 358 9310 13300; www.visithelsinki.fi). Buy a Helsinki Card here or online.
Helsinki: A Cultural and Literary History by Neil Kent (Signal Books, £12). An intellectual insight into the city’s culture.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.