Helsinki was always one of those places that I assigned to the “one day” pile. You know – I’ll get around to it one day – when time and money and the sun rising in the seventh house all align. Or something like that.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Finland twice in my ten years living here in Europe – each time has been incredible, and left me wanting to return (I still have to sled ride with huskies in the snow. So Finland, I’m not done with you yet!). But Helsinki was always just the place I’d flown in and out of – I’d never really spent much time in the capital – my time was better spent in getting out and into the wilderness as fast as possible.
Or, you know, so I thought…
In April of this year I had the chance to travel to Helsinki to discover what it is that really makes this city so special. Here’s the necessary disclaimer: I travelled to Helsinki courtesy of Visit Helsinki on their #SecretHelsinki campaign. It’s a fairly ingenious concept – the Secret Helsinki apartment, located in the heart of the city, is your home base as you set out to discover any and all of the things which might interest you, and absolutely nothing which doesn’t. There’s no agenda, no pressure to do things you are not interested in doing, and, most importantly for me, no pressure to share anything that I do not genuinely love. So here is my entirely honest, unbiased impression of this city (TL;DR: it’s good!)
So, Helsinki. It’s a funny little place. A city with a myriad of architectural styles which reflect its storied history. Heavyset Russian-style architecture sits alongside sweet art nouveau flourishes and modern-day glass office blocks. Volcanic rock spills out from the earth and the streets just curve their way around it. People dress for comfort and warmth first and foremost – style only gets a look-in once the practicalities of not freezing your ass of are taken care of – and I appreciate it no end.
As far as the people go, the Finns are generally reserved and rule-abiding, but once you get to know them they are warm and animated. People in general don’t really interact with strangers, or strike up conversations on the trams. You are given your space in this city. Whether you choose to make an effort and interact with the city and its citizens, is completely up to you…
My best piece of advice for those wishing to visit Helsinki would be to plan ahead. Unlike other European countries where an aimless afternoon wander can lead you to discover all sorts of wonderful sights and sounds, the delights of Helsinki are a little more hidden. By all means take a walk and discover (especially in the Design District) but you’ll be better served in figuring out beforehand the places you’d like to go to, and spend as much time as possible in these places. Luckily the public transport system really is incredible, and it’s very easy to navigate your way around the city via the plethora of trams and buses.
So, how am I going to structure this post so that you get the most out of it? I’ve decided to just share the places we went to which we absolutely loved, vaguely arranged by ‘Things to Do’ and ‘Things to Eat & Drink’. All you need really, right? Hopefully you will get a sense of just how much there is out there to enjoy, and you can just go ahead and bookmark this page for your upcoming trip to Helsinki 😉
The #SecretHelsinki apartment – our home away from home
THINGS TO DO
The Yrönkadun Uimahalli is an incredible place, and is the oldest public swimming pool in Finland. Architecturally, it’s like being in an old Art Deco style hospital – complete with curtained off cubicles, wrought iron beds and paper thin curtains for you to change behind (at least in the upstairs section). It feels a lot like how One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest looks, but without the fear of a lobotomy at the end.
This beautiful place is all function with a little old-fashioned form thrown in for good measure. Certain days of the week are given over to make the building men or women only, which allows a great degree of freedom and relaxation – many ditch the swimsuits in favour of sauna-ing and swimming naked. I was definitely in the minority as my swimsuit stayed firmly on, but even wearing more fabric than others were, the feeling of relaxation and liberation abounded. We made sure we try the infrared, steam, and traditional hot stone saunas, and did some laps in the pool for good measure. After an early morning flight and with late-afternoon weariness setting in, this was a perfect spot to ease ourselves into the Finnish way of life. Skin softened and our weary travellers feet restored, we headed to the Aalto rooftop bar and grabbed a drink as the sun started to dip.
Taking it all in at the Yrönkadun Uimahalli – naked ladies blurred to protect the eyes of those who freak out at nudity. In case there are any of you out there 😉
At the complete opposite end of the scale to Yrönkadun Uimahalli is Löyly. Modern and new and made up of angles and light, Löyly sits on the waterfront and is equal parts delicious looking restaurant (sadly we didn’t have time to eat there, but it’s on my list for next time) and a blazing hot, minimalist sauna, with a bonus chill out room complete with fireplace. One of my favourite aspects of this place (apart from the clever angles and interplay of light) was the simple stepladder down into the Baltic Sea. Finnish tradition dictates that a sauna is best enjoyed whilst alternating the hot n’ steamy with a nice dip in a freezing cold body of water (it is really good, I promise) and the simple ladder goads you to just do it already and launch yourself in.
Hannah takes a wee dip in the Baltic Sea
All the light and angles at Löyly.
Yoga + Art
You might have the impression that the Finns are super into health and fitness and generally moving their bodies – and honestly, you’re spot-on. So really it’s totally unsurprising that one of the best art galleries in town offers after-hour yoga classes in amongst the artwork. It’s also not surprising that we signed up for it straight away.
When we visited, the main exhibition showing at the Taide Halli was the incredible mass of ceramic flowers by Anu Pentik. The entire city was plastered with posters advertising this show of colourful, larger than life ceramics, and it was just incredible to walk through a veritable garden of these giants. The yoga lesson itself took place in the airy and calming main room (all artworks being white or clear) and it made an incredible spot to breathe and stretch and practice our warrior pose.
The Design District
Helsinkians are rightfully proud of the Design District. Spread over a few blocks, it’s full of artists and ateliers and shops which cater to those of us who are artistically inclined. The city produces free maps showing which studios are open and where all the stores are, so you’re best to grab one of those little beauties and check out the ones that appeal to you most! During our time in the city we were able to check out the metalwork and jewellery studios, Plootu design store (if only I owned a house!) and the charming little paper shop across from it.
Local artisan Nino Hynninen
Get Outta Town!
Three days of eating and drinking our way around town had us itching to stretch our legs and see a bit of this fabled Finnish nature that we’d heard so much about. So we legged it (actually, trained it, but that’s far less interesting-sounding) over to Haltia.
It’s a simple journey to get there – it takes longer to cross from one side of London to the other, usually! Just catch the train to Esboo then the bus on to Haltia. Pro tip – make sure you press the button to tell the driver to let you off the bus. We blindly assumed we must all be going to the same place, but it turns out that all the other hikers on the bus were getting off much later on down the line. We get off the bus, red-faced, a little late and start the hike early by walking back up to Haltia…
In the park is a large modern and eco-friendly-looking building with super helpful people, trail maps, food and shop. Full of families and groups on scavenger hunts and it’s quickly very obvious that this is a normal part of everyday life. I decide that I’m slightly jealous of all the little girls in bright pink puffy onesies.
I know I want to amble and take photos, and Hannah wants to stretch out and go faster, so we split up and each take different routes. It’s brilliantly sunny and warm and yet snow is falling. Echoing on the hood of my waterproof and dropping perfectly round tiny hail-like snowballs in my hair. I sit and eat my sandwich lunch on an outcrop of volcanic rock overlooking the trees and lakes below. Poor balancing on my part means I lose half my sandwich to the bottom of the hill (don’t worry I went back and got it and bagged it up. I’m a tidy Kiwi).
The trip is so easy, and there are so many trails to suit all different abilities – if you have the time I’d definitely recommend getting out and amongst the trees for a bit…
Details in Haltia
Planning our respective walking routes
My little lunch spot with a view
Pick an Island…
Arriving back in Helsinki we headed straight out to Seurassaari, an island accessible by bridge. We arrive when it’s still slightly overcast and it’s completely ethereal – large ornate wooden houses are dotted around the island. We find a little row of them which are just my size and I decide to move right in. It’s a beautiful wild coastline. The clouds part every now and then and we are treated to warm golden light that bathes us and the land in warmth before it scampers behind the clouds again. Our time on Seurassaari is actually my favourite of all the things we have done. It was unexpected and so completely charming – like wandering around a tiny piece of history surrounded by water.
Ambling around Seurassaari
Found my perfect starter home! Image by Hannah Ray
Installation on the shorefront, Seurassaari
Golden light between the snowfall on Seurassaari
The funny little houses on Seurassari
PLACES TO EAT & DRINK
Hands down, A21 Decades was our favourite bar of those that we visited. Housed in an old sex shop (for all their quiet naturedness, the Finns do love a bit of naughtiness, and there’s a lot of innuendo in this town), the bar is all brick walls and photo-worthy neon (I mean c’mon, what child of the 80’s can go past that ‘Cocktails and Dreams’ sign?). Keeping on that naughty vibe we partake of a Sex in the Forest (blueberries, thyme, cranberry and vodka) and another concoction whose name escapes me, with sea buckthorn berries. Our French waiter is super charming and we spend the rest of the evening sitting window-side watching life roll by. Ahhhhh.
Hannah and the incredible cocktails (& neon) at A21 Decades
When we first read the name ‘The Cock’ we both thought ‘Oh jeez another English bar in a foreign country. We’ll be giving that one a clear miss’ – after all, who travels to far-off lands in order to sit in a place that reminds them of home? Not us, that’s for sure. After a little googling (and on the recommendation of some Finnish friends) we realised that the name really didn’t mean it was a British pub. Not at all. We were glad we were wrong.
Light and airy with a small but sweet menu, we scrape in just before lunch service ends and treat our bodies to some Tokyo bowls (basically grains and goodness, with a salmon or tofu option), some delicious light local beer, and maybe a cocktail or two. The bonus of going for a very late lunch was that the place was fairly empty, and we got to leisurely chat in the sunshine. If you’re into colourful food and highly Instagrammable interiors then this, my friend, is your holy grail. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
To be filed under: Things we Didn’t Know Were a Thing In Finland – Sapas. Essentially the Finnish version of tapas prepared with traditional Finnish ingredients, it’s a popular pastime to meet with friends and imbibe a glass or two of sparkling wine whilst enjoying some small, light plates. We partake of this Finnish tradition at Bar Latva – just as the snow starts falling, sitting cosy and warm with a bunch of other young hip things. Like most places in Helsinki it’s an unassuming exterior and a few steps down to a raised basement level. After a busy day this place is relaxed and welcoming and has an excellent drinks menu. We have found our people.
If you’re in Finland, and you also happen to be a carnivore, then you have to try Reindeer. Like many people I was initially a little uneasy about trying this local delicacy, but after learning how very sustainably and ethically the reindeer are raised (they roam freely their entire lives), and that the entire animal is used, I reason that the Reindeer often has a better life than the cows and pigs that are common staples in our own diets, and decided to give it a try. If you’re looking for an uber-traditional, Lapland-style Finnish meal, you have quite a few options. We headed to Skalla and indulged in their traditional menu. Beginning with a starter of Jerusalem artichoke soup with birch sap and then moving on to sautéed reindeer with traditional mashed potatoes and lingonberries and gherkins; and finishing it off with a cloudberry sorbet for dessert. You’ll be surrounded by wooden planked walls and lampshades made of antlers, the waitresses all in ‘traditional’ grab. Normally I’d steer clear of a place which claims to be traditional (let’s face it, they’re often tourist traps) but this really was a delicious, and very generous (we had to be rolled outta there) meal…
Why Join the Navy When You Can Be a Pirate?
I’m stubbornly refusing to call this cafe by it’s new name of Creative House. Simply because I don’t understand why you’d change it from a name that’s so bloody perfect. It was also still named thus on Google Maps and the locals still called it by its (better) older name, so I’m running with it. It was here at Why Join the Navy… that we met Nina and Mirka from local Tea brand Nord-T. They’re vibrant and energetic and, as best friends who launched a business together, have a wonderful vibe about them that makes their passion totally infectious. These childhood friends have launched a new business together creating teas inspired by Nordic ingredients like sea buckthorn, birch tree leaf, lingonberries and nettles. After indulging in more than a few cups back in our apartment, we left the city with armfuls of the stuff. It’s good.
Cinnamon bun taste testing
Look it’s a tough job, I admit it. But I was willing to do the hard yards when it comes to taste-testing as many cinnamon buns as was realistically possible during our few days in Helsinki. I might have a few regrets now, but at the time, I regretted nothing. And it’s in that spirit that I present my top 3 buns of deliciousness, for your edification and delight:
1. Leipomo Keisari – Bought quickly and on the go, we almost didn’t catch the name of this place. But it lives on in my memory.
2. Le Fleuriste – crunchy on the outside (yessssss) gooier on the inside. The only reason this one wasn’t Number One was that it was pretty greasy. But that’s OK. I loved it anyway.
3. Cafe Regatta – Because I saw them bring in the bag of frozen pre-made buns and my heart broke just a little.
The winner! Cinnamon bun from Leipomo Keisari
We noticed that written on the suggested list of things to do and places to go during our time in Helsinki, reference was often made to ‘Hispterville’. It’s a place? Here we were thinking it was just a state of mind (jokes, jokes)
Turns out it basically is a place, and once you find the bridge that leads you over the water and the train tracks, you’ll find yourself smack dab in the middle of it. After a wander around and sticking our noses in a few places, we found the perfect place for us in Cafe Talo. By the time we made it here, it was late, chilly, and we’d been walking all day – all we really wanted was a couple of drinks, good people watching, and decent music. And this spot was perfect for us. Simple food, a ton of beers on offer and a very chilled out vibe made us very happy indeed… We whiled away a good few hours in this spot – beer for Hannah and wine for me as we talked about life and love. Hannah stole my phone and my Tinder and tried to match me with any and all local men. Never fear, dear reader – I grabbed it back off her before it got too out of hand.
OK so as I mentioned above, I was a little heartbroken when I saw one of the lovely staff of the Regatta walk in the kitchen with a bag of frozen buns. BUT they can be totally forgiven, because the place is tiny and there really isn’t room to make a single bun. We wandered here on our last day in Helsinki, and loved sitting by the window, watching the hoardes of tourists stream in, each one exclaiming at how tiny and cute the cafe is. And it is. A really lovely spot to stop and rest and take advantage of the free coffee refills on a chilly morning 🙂
All the cute at Cafe Regatta
Just a few minutes away is the intriguing Sibellius Monument
To my incredible friend and travel buddy Hannah Ray for being up for such an adventure AND being a willing & wonderful model! To Visit Helsinki for asking me to be part of such an innovative idea, and for giving us free reign to run around the city and do whatever we felt like. Hey Tourism Boards – more of this please!