After a weekend in Helsinki, it is easy to see why Finland was recently crowned the World’s Happiest Country. Perched at Finland’s southern tip, the city is surrounded by the Baltic Sea and makes the most of this geographical privilege: Picture a renewed waterfront, and a string of bustling sea-facing cafés and saunas. Snowfall and sun-dappled sea apart, Scandinavian design is legendary, a claim that was reiterated in 2012 when the city bagged the ‘World Design Capital’ title. Today, this honour reflects in Finnish legend Alvar Aalto’s modernist architecture and premium glassware range, and contemporary buildings such as the cup-shaped Kamppi Chapel of Silence and the pinewood-laden Löyly sauna. Design here is rooted in practicality. A fusion of beauty and innovation, it makes everyday life better, and the Design District is the place to spend all your money.
Helsinki is also an immensely walkable city and some of its art nouveau and classic cream-cake-styled buildings are best explored on foot. Strolling past Esplanadi in downtown Helsinki, ogling at display windows brimming with international brands, is one way to gauge how fashion-forward the city is. For traditional fare served with Instagram-worthy plating, old-time favourites Savoy and Salutorget are your best bets. Beyond the Uspenski Cathedral in the Katajanokka district old red-brick warehouses repurposed into chic restaurants and coffee shops hint at Helsinki’s gastronomic credentials. The calories are swiftly burnt in saunas, both public and private.
In Finland, a visit to a sauna is a spiritual experience, like going to church. Share your tobacco and tinderbox, but not your sauna or your woman, preach the Finns. Luckily, Helsinki is still home to an impressive clutch of public saunas that stay abuzz round the year. Be it sub-zero temperatures or balmy summer evenings, tourists and locals can be seen frolicking in and out of them. In a country that brags 3.3 million saunas, the options are plenty. But the Baltic-facing Löyly and Allas Sea Pool are top-notch, in their architecture, sauna and pool options, and the delectable fare they serve in their trendy al fresco restaurants.
Located in the city centre, Allas’ USP is its freshwater pool that makes swimming even in freezing cold a delight—it’s always cosy at 27°C! The unregulated seawater pool, on the other hand, is ideal to laze in during summer months. A 10-minute drive from Allas, in Helsinki’s industrial Hernesaari district that’s being repurposed into a residential hub, stands Löyly. Even from a distance, its multi-terraced pinewood-glass facade looks imposing. Löyly, in Finnish, means the steam that rises when water is thrown on hot stones, and it is Helsinki’s only smoke sauna—most others are electric. Here, you can sweat it out in a smoke or wood-fired sauna, jump into an avanto (ice pool), roll in the snow, head back in, and repeat. Don’t leave without trying some soulful Finnish food. Elk meatballs and salmon soup anyone? (www.allasseapool.com; €12/Rs1,000 for 10 hrs; www.loylyhelsinki.fi; €19/Rs1,500 for 2 hrs).
Did you know that Fiskars scissors, Nokia cell phones and Angry Birds videogame are all Finnish imports? Or that apart from his stunning modernist architecture, designer Alvar Aalto is equally famous for his bent wood furniture and chic glassware? You will once you tour the Design Museum (designmuseum.fi). Exhibitions here keep changing. But the permanent display, Utopia Now: The Story of Finnish Design, is a good introduction to some of Finland’s iconic designers and their globally recognised works. The AVs and fascinating glass displays only enhance the experience.
Armed with this newfound knowledge, head to the Design District, a 25-street cluster comprising over 200 design-focused stores, cafés and galleries (designdistrict.fi). Flagship stores of all major Finnish brands are here, some of them nestled in pretty art nouveau buildings. Marimekko, a textile and home furnishing label, brims with local designer Maija Isola’s colourful signature poppy prints (marimekko.com). Artek, a furniture store conceived by Alvar and Aina Aalto, amongst others, is a haven for modernist, minimalist furniture (artek.fi). For chic glassware by Kaj Franck and Alvar Aalto, including tumblers and vase-shaped glasses, browse through Iittala’s shelves (iittala.com/home). For lesser-known indie labels, keep an eye out for concept stores such as Nudge and Lokal where you must ditch the stereotypical souvenirs in favour of pink and purple penguin-shaped wooden earrings and ceramic salt and pepper shakers (lokalhelsinki.com, en.nudge.fi).
Helsinki boasts over 20 art galleries and museums, but the Tennis Palace in Kamppi is a good point of initiation. The cultural complex houses a 14-screen theatre, many restaurants, and is the principal location of the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM). Though HAM also takes care of all public art in Helsinki (over 9,000 artworks!), it is the changing displays, exhibitions and galleries inside Tennis Palace that showcase the best of modern and contemporary art by both Finnish and international artists. One of the most striking permanent displays here include Finnish feminist artist Tove Jansson’s frescoes and artworks. In “Party in the City,” one of her more popular paintings, Jansson painted her lesbian lover dancing in the centre and herself smoking a cigarette at a table with a Moomin for company, the marmot-like creature she created for her iconic Finnish children’s book series (hamhelsinki.fi).
Just a 10-minute walk from HAM stands another hallmark, the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. The sinuous wave-like glass structure designed by architect Steven Holl it makes you feel like you are inside a spaceship with curving hallways, somber white and grey interiors and high glass ceilings. Loosely translated, Kiasma means a ‘place of encounters,’ and its five galleries are focused on art that surpasses boundaries to experiment with different forms and formats. Current exhibitions at Kiasma include Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen’s absurdist Aalto Natives, which uses audio, video and 3D sculptures to examine Finnish identity; and Russian drag-artist Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe’s collection of photographs, parodies and paintings, including portraits of Russian politicians given makeovers with bindis, piercings and face-masks. Remember to stop by at the museum shop. It’s plastered with postcards and journals bearing Finnish art prints (kiasma.fi).
Nowhere is the Russian occupation of Finland more evident than in its churches. The Helsinki and Uspenski cathedrals emulate the architecture of two Russian churches. With its white-and-green facade and gilded domes, the neoclassical Helsinki Cathedral, towering over the Senate Square, is perhaps the city’s most recognisable landmark. Resting on a cliff in the Katajanokka district, Uspenski is distinguished by its red-brick exterior and green-and-gold cupolas.
Despite the cathedrals’ stately grandeur, the most popular church in the city is also its most unconventional. The Temppeliaukio Church (Church of the Rock) is built inside a depression created by dynamiting granite. Its copper dome, although supported by concrete beams, appears to be floating. The expansive structure is awash with natural light streaming in from sleek panelled windows that cascade down all the way from the dome to the church’s greystone walls. The shocking pink birch benches are a great juxtaposition, and the church’s excellent acoustic is the reason why it is often booked for musical concerts (www.facebook.com/temppeliaukio).
If you like your churches ultra-contemporary, do make a stop at the Kampenkappeli or the Chapel of Silence. The warm-wooded, cup-shaped chapel offers a moment of peace amidst the cacophony of Kamppi, one of the city’s busiest districts.
There is more to Finnish cuisine than rye bread and salmon, and the best place to experience the country’s culinary range is at the Vanha Kauppahalli or the Old Market Hall. The gorgeous red-brick-and-cream facade dates back to 1888—the grand dame of Finnish market halls reopened after an impressive renovation in 2014. Inside are rows of stalls, their vintage wooden shelves and glass displays lined with a vast selection of fresh produce and local delicacies. The catch of the day, herring, pike, octopus, and whitefish, share space with fish roe and caviar. Berry sauces and preserves are sold alongside various types of meat including cuts of reindeer, pork and beef; a food pairing one must try. For an introduction to local Finnish spirits, step inside Alko, a state-run alcohol chain. The tiny outpost stocks an enviable selection of local and international wines along with Lapland vodka and the award-winning Napue gin. For sweet cravings, try the traditional cinnamon rolls with coffee made from beans roasted the same day; you can even pick up a packet (vanhakauppahalli.fi).
Exhausted from all the shopping? Unwind over a bowl of creamy salmon soup at Story, a brightly lit café in the atrium. The hearty broth has chunks of fish and potatoes, and is served with a side of rye bread and butter. Grab a table overlooking the harbour and the Skywheel, and don’t forget to look up—vintage fishing wire traps dangle from the ceiling (www.restaurantstory.fi).
If you have time for only one drink, head to Ateljee Bar. Housed in Hotel Torni, Finland’s first skyscraper, the 14th-floor bar offers sweeping views. On a clear day you can see all the way up to Estonia’s capital Tallinn, a visual luxury reflected in a steeply priced menu. Its bestseller? Aalto, a cranberry vodka and Cointreau-based drink, served in Alvar Aalto’s classic designer vase-shaped glass. And you can take them as a keepsake!
Be warned, though. The tiny, barely 45-seater bar tends to get crowded. But the good news is that even if you don’t get a table, you can still walk around and see the monthly art exhibition promoting local art displayed on the walls (and buy prints if you so choose). Or, head directly to one of the two terraces to spot some Helsinki landmarks. To get you by, info cards are plastered everywhere. Pro tip: for unhindered views of Helsinki’s cityscape, make a trip to the toilet (www.raflaamo.fi/en/helsinki/ateljee-bar).
Lubna Amir travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.