Helsinki's cool bars and restaurants are waiting to be discovered. Finnish style prevails, but it doesn't have to be exclusive or expensive.
I have never experienced a city that is so different in summertime than in winter. Helsinki gleams on warm sunny days, and the folk of this Nordic hotspot respond in kind. Beaches and parks are the hotspots when the sun is out, but the Fins don’t turn their backs on their bars and cafés.
The city has great sights and delights for weekend-break tourists, but I've seen them before and I know that the best thing about the place is city life itself. Being free from the obligations of sight-seeing made my weekend refreshing and connected me with real, cool Helsinki life. What's more, most of the places I visited will fit into a winter break just as easily as they did for summer sojourn.
Places to drink
First stop on Friday evening was actually unplanned - A21, a cocktail bar in Punavuori district close to the city centre. I had only just read about it in the in-flight magazine on the way over before we wandered through the open door (it's usually locked and there's a doorbell for entry). The cocktails were delicious but averaged €14 each. Constant references to "worldsbestbars.com" throughout the lounge annoyed me and we left after one drink, with my suspicions of in-flight magazine recommendations intact.
Much more to my liking was a bar called Nolla on Pohjoinen Rautatienkatu. With a slightly stripped-down look of wood tones and white-wash walls, the understated feel of the place is in contrast with a heady atmosphere, beers and great music (Saint Etienne band member Bob Stanley was on DJ duty that night). Highly recommended.
Saturday morning’s sore head was soothed almost as soon as the first few mouthfuls of a cracking brunch at Siltanen where you can choose either the “Berlin” or the “Barcelona” breakfast. Each comes with unlimited bread and croissants so worth every cent of the €9. Siltanen is located slightly away from the city centre in Hämeentie 13 B, but it’s worth the walk. We sat outside on their large terrace bathed in sunshine with ultra-cool minimal house tunes for some tempo. DJs play inside at night, the interior notable for its dentist chair lighting!
One of Helsinki’s finest (and very traditional) saunas, Kotihartju, is located nearby. There we drank bring-your-own beers between bouts inside Finland’s largest wood-fired sauna. They even provide fridges for you to store your booze while you're sweating away. It’s a real social get-together and popular with the young and old of the city. It’s €12 including towel hire and you can stay all day.
Places to eat
Nothing brings on hunger like a few hours in the sauna and nothing cures that hunger like a plate of Finnish meatballs and mashed potatoes. And so to Bullman, just five minutes' walk on Fleminginkatu. It’s a fairly basic place, but the food is hearty and piled high. Don’t go here unless you are really hungry. Really.
I can’t believe I even ate anything the following day, but eat we did, at the very cool Bali Hai on Roobertinkatu in the city centre. It’s a bar/café/restaurant with impeccably restrained style. There’s an interesting menu with good prices and everything is served up by smiling staff who seem genuinely pleased to have our custom. If the weather’s good, and you're lucky you can grab a table outside on the street.
After spending the day at a music festival, the weekend’s eating and drinking came to a relaxing conclusion late, late into the night at Bar 9 on Uudenmaankatu. A decent bar that is a great after-hours option, even on Sundays.