“Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November.” That was the message given to visitors of The Finnish capital as they entered Slush, Europe’s leading start-up tech and media event, attend by over 17,000 entrepreneurs, investors, executives and media. We didn’t go to Slush. We went in December, when the mercury had fallen to minus double digits, so we must be truly out of our minds.
Helsinki sparked our interest a few years back in 2012, when it claimed the international stage of World Design Capital, but five years on and it has shown no signs of slowing down. Architectural masterpieces, world-class museums, shopping that would make even Scrooge drop some Euros (we did visit Father Christmas’s homeland at the height of the Christmas rush, so the retail opportunities were at their peak), a transformed waterfront that boasts spectacular views and venues, a blossoming coffee culture and eclectic cuisines mixed with Nordic staples. And saunas, obviously – there are 3.3 million of them in the country, after all.
We explored the compact city, braving its sub-zero climes and discovering what makes the Finnish capital ideal for a two-day getaway.
WHERE TO SLEEP
We stayed in the Hotel Indigo Helsinki – Boulevard, surprisingly unique considering it is part of the IHG hotel conglomerate, but fitting for its location bang in the centre of the city’s Design District. Rooms are designed eclectically and colourfully, with murals from local artists adorning the walls. Make it home for the weekend and enjoy the stylish bar, gym, sauna, in-room coffee machine and ideal location.
In central Helsinki, this boutique hotel has opulently designed rooms that have either a view of the city or of the octagon-shaped courtyard. With influences from different cultures – Eastern and European – the Jaakko Puro-designed promised (and delivers) Nordic home-like luxury.
GLO Hotel Art is also in the middle of the Design District and takes up space in an old stone castle. The quirky, beautifully designed rooms sit above an impressive lobby, giving an artistic and enchanting, modern meets historic touch to your stay.
WHERE TO EAT
Baskeri & Basso
A Parisian supper club isn’t the most obvious choice when dining in Helsinki, but Baskeri & Basso won’t have you regretting thinking outside the box. The industrial courtyard space is filled with rugs and candles, an energetic atmosphere for a thrown together feel, with a chalkboard menu of small plates and divine French wines that add to the experience.
The recently revamped, almost 130-year-old Vanha Kaupahalli – or Old Market Hall – is the perfect place for brunch or lunch before a stroll around the (frozen when we saw it) harbour, perusing the many stalls or settling down in the restaurant Story. Open daily until 6pm (except Sunday) it’s also great to get in eclectic local ingredients for a home-made supper.
Juuri’s concept is simple: fresh food from local ingredients served surprisingly. Finnish food with attitude. Incredibly taste, incredibly inventive. Incredible.
WHERE TO DRINK
Offering the best views of the city skyline from its 8th and 9th floor location atop the Forum shopping centre, the relaxed G Lounge is perfect for a nightcap, to start your night or spend the whole duration. The welcoming and diverse crowd can lounge in the bar or the sun terrace with a gin cocktail for sunset, or take to the dancefloor on any night where the city’s favourite DJs will take you into the wee hours.
Why Join The Navy When You Can Be A Pirate
Why Join The Navy When You Can Be A Pirate is joint venture between restaurateur Kim Heiniö and SEK creative agency, whose offices are located on the upper floors, this busy corner location goes from day to late offering smoothies, coffee, breakfasts and salads until DJs and cocktails take over in the evening. Mingle with creative minds and soak in the friendly, cool atmosphere.
WHERE TO SAUNA
No trip to Finland is complete without partaking in the obligatory sauna experience. Kulttuurisauna is a public sauna that opened in 2013, its minimalist space and Nordic tradition blending with Japanese influences designed by architect Tuomas Toivonen and artist Nene Tsuboi who both run it today. Saunas are separated by gender – clothes are forbidden once inside – and after sweating it out in the wooden enclosure, grab your towel and cool off with the whole crowd in the outdoor garden beside, or take a plunge off the deck into the Baltic sea for the true Finnish experience.
In a similar vein to Kulttuurisauna but offering a bit extra, Löyly is housed in an architecturally impressive and eco-friendly space. With a terrace extending the length of the building along the Helsinki coast, with stairs leading to the sea, there is the opportunity to take in brunch from the sustainable menu, yoga, or the traditional sauna experience in one of the three saunas that it boasts.
WHERE TO SHOP
In Stockmann, Helsinki’s “Selfridges”, you can spend hours out of the cold looking through the vast floors of fashion, homeware, electricals and more. The store is familiar in concept and stock internationally-renowned designers, but retains some local charm with Finnish names and quirky lesser-known brands.
Acolyth’s store is a multibrand fashion store that sells Finnish and international designers, its bricks and mortar location an extension of its impressive online store. As well as championing Finnish designers, it brings international names to the Finnish market. Each season, the store’s selection and look transforms to fit the current mood in fashion and culture.
The Design District is a must for an eclectic mix of retail temptation. It started in 2005 with the idea of bringing together all the creative businesses in the neighbourhood and has grown hundreds of locations, including jewellery, design, fashion and antique shops that mingle with galleries, showrooms, bars and restaurants.
Lokal was started by photographer Katja Hagelstam. A hybrid of gallery and retail, it unveils new exhibitions regularly as well as selling works from local artists and designers.
WHERE TO DRINK COFFEE
Finland has the highest consumption of coffee per capita in the world, so it isn’t surprising that their coffee scene is vast, what is surprising is that their love of speciality coffee and their pioneering approach only started in recent years. In every area of Helsinki, coffee shops and roasteries are making their mark on the city.
Sprudge’s Helsinki coffee guide is a who’s who in the field, and includes some of our favourite finds.
Kaffa Roastery is a small bunker-like space serving deliciously strong coffee and even more delicious cinnamon rolls that we made a habit of in our time in the city. The adjoining design and homeware shops (Moko) sells an interesting and unique range to shop post-caffeine fix.
You’d happily spend a day sipping Good Life Coffee’s flat whites and filters. The colourful but calming space, the design focus evident, is the perfect place to work, read and re-fuel.
Kahvila Savy pulls perfect espressos using (and selling) beans from small Finnish roasteries, and Swedish roaster Johan & Nystrom’s recently opened brick façade warehouse coffee shop location – the perfect place for just your MacBook as company – is filled to the wooden beams with the scent of its expertly crafted drinks.
WHERE TO CHILL
Inconspicuously located on one of Helsinki’s busiest thoroughfares, the Kamppi Chapel was constructed as part of the city’s year in the spotlight as World Design Capital. Commonly known as the “Chapel of Silence”, its curved structure and wooden panelled walls block out all noise from the bustling streets outside, allowing visitors to bask in absolute silence. It’s a calming, warming experience that, when looking up at the windowless but bright space from the ash pews, is as impressive as it is tranquil. The Chapel is open to all and does not hold religious services.
WHERE TO BE INSPIRED
With a new Amos Anderson Art Museum set to open next year, the design capital doesn’t lack in cultural destinations already. As well as the impressive Natural History Museum and recently re-opened Helsinki Art Museum Tennis Palace, which has a great selection of local and international artist exhibits, the Cable Factory in the west of the city is a must-see. The former manufacturing plant’s huge industrial space has been reimagined and is today home to a mix of art studios, performance spaces, galleries, schools and museums, and the Finnish Museum of Photography.
Taking residence in a former high school, the Design Museum is a must for all design buffs, showcasing the best of Finnish design as well as travelling exhibits and international icons from the mid-nineteenth century to today.
Quarried out of the natural bedrock, Temppeliaukio Church – or Rock Church – is one of Helsinki’s most popular attractions. The interior walls are created naturally by the rock. The church was designed by architects Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and opened in 1969. Due to its excellent acoustics the church is a popular venue for concerts.