The best tips for a city trip to Helsinki

Food, design and happy people: the best tips for a city trip to Helsinki

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Helsinki, the small metropolis, is big in architecture, design and cuisine. A city trip in the footsteps of the happiest people in the world – with the best tips for everyone who has the Finnish metropolis on their bucket list.

As small as Helsinki is compared to other big cities, it still has some superlatives to offer. For example, the happiest people in the world live here. According to the World Happiness Report, the Finns top the happiness list for the fifth year in a row. In addition, the northerners drink the most coffee in the world, eat the most ice cream in Europe and speak one of the most difficult languages ​​in the world: Suomi. They also have the most saunas per capita in the world: 5.4 million Finns have 3.3 million sweat rooms.

Where Finns work up a sweat

My visit to Helsinki begins in the sauna, where a lot of the Finnish mentality shows. The smartest public example in the city is the “Löyly”. The facility is owned by actor Jasper Pääkkönen, internationally known for his role in the hit series Vikings. Löyly refers to the burst of steam that occurs when water is poured over the hot stones. The facility right on the Baltic Sea shore not only has a cool design, but is traditionally heated with wood and is ecologically built and operated. Time Magazine put Löyly on the list of the “World’s Greatest Places” in 2018.

Sweating together is different in Finland than I know. At Löyly, everyone wears bathing suits and some men have a bottle of beer in hand. There are no sauna masters, no shows and rituals, no scented oils and wedel technology. There is a lot of laughter, and this is where the Finns, who are otherwise so reserved, start talking to each other. From time to time one of those present pours water on the hot stones. In between you jump into the Baltic Sea to cool off. At first I only dare to go in up to my knees, after the second course up to my hips and after the third I dive completely under. Completely different than expected, I don’t get the cold shock, but my body immediately feels warm and lively.

The sauna culture in Finland is part of the Unesco cultural heritage

Although the Finns didn’t invent the sauna themselves – it came from East Asia – the term “sauna” came from them. Depending on the statistical source, between 60 and 90 percent of Finns take a sauna at least once a week. “The Sauna Culture in Finland” even made it onto the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

Eating and drinking afterwards is almost as important as sweating itself. The Löyly has a bar and a restaurant. Many guests spend their entire evening here, first relaxing in the sweat bath, refreshing themselves in the Baltic Sea, drinking an aperitif at the bar and then enjoying Jaspers salmon soup (19 euros) or hamburger with fries (23 euros).

Walk through the center

The Löyly combines an important concern of the city of Helsinki: to combine modernity and sustainability. It is two kilometers from the old port. Where ferries and small cruise ships dock, travelers often get their first glimpse of Finland’s capital: stately facades behind which the gleaming white cathedral, the city’s landmark, with its domed towers rises. Helsinki is a miniature metropolis. Just 630,000 people live here. This has the great advantage that I can explore Helsinki on foot.

Locals and people from all over the world stroll along the kilometer-long waterfront and enjoy the early rays of the sun. At the Kauppatori (market square) there is a market every day from spring to autumn, where you can buy groceries and souvenirs. Here it is too Vanha Kauphallithe old market hall from the 19th century, which is architecturally reminiscent of a church.

Inside there are 120 stalls selling delicacies such as fried fish, meat pies and fine coffee. One of the oldest bakeries here, Hongiston leipämyymälä, has been selling cakes, tarts, pies and buns since 1903. There are also numerous cafes and restaurants offering daily specials. From here I stroll to the Esplanadi shopping boulevard, where all the internationally renowned Finnish fashion and decoration designers have their shops. The legendary Finnish fashion label Marimekko is represented with several boutiques.

Just a few steps away is Senate Square with the city’s landmark, the gleaming white cathedral with its green domed towers. Inspired by Russian Orthodox architecture, it evokes the days when Russia occupied Finland. The real highlight, however, is the huge staircase, which is full, especially in summer. This is where musicians, street performers and the rest of the city gather to enjoy nice weather. From here you can also admire the other imposing buildings on the square, the main university building, the Senate building and the House of the Knights.

  • Tip: Helsinki’s metro network is very well developed. The day ticket costs 9 euros. The tram lines 3T and 3B, which stop in opposite directions in two circles at all important sights, are ideal for a city tour.

Finnish modernism and contemporary architecture

Architecturally, Helsinki has not stood still. In the center, classicism and art deco meet Finnish modernism and contemporary architecture. Those who are passionate about functional and minimalistic Nordic architecture should focus on the Töölönlahti district, adjacent to the historic district, where some of Helsinki’s visionary buildings are gathered. These include Helsinki’s Central Station by Eliel Saarinen (1919), still considered one of the most beautiful railway stations in the world, and the massive marble Finlandia Hall (1974) designed by world-class architect Alvar Aalto.

Recent prestigious architectural projects include Kiasma, the Museum of Contemporary Art (1998), the Musiikkitalo concert hall (2011) and the Amos Rex Museum of Modern Art, which opened in 2018. All these buildings are characterized by innovative ideas. The Amos Rex Museum, for example, is underground; for reasons of monument protection, no new building was allowed to be erected on its site. Therefore, the architects moved the exhibition rooms down one floor. They are illuminated via domes of different sizes with glass windows at street level. I go for a walk in between and feel transported into a science fiction landscape.

But what I like best is the Oodi, the central library from the same year. The spectacular building, clad in Finnish wood at the bottom and glazed at the top, is reminiscent of a giant sculpture. The Finns share a huge living room on 10,000 naturally energy-efficient square meters. A heaven of books with comfortable sofas opens up at the top. There are also numerous meeting rooms, workshops with sewing machines and all kinds of tools, 3D printers, musical instruments, Playstations. Everyone can use everything here for free.

  • More info: kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art: closed on Mondays, Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 8.30 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission 20 euros, reduced 12 euros, free for visitors under 18 years of age. Amos Rex Museum: Tuesday closed, Monday and Wednesday to Friday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday, Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission 20 euros, reduced 15 euros or 5 euros, free for visitors under the age of 18.

All these buildings are symbols of modern Finnish architecture. They represent what Finnish design stands for: timeless elegance without decorative ballast. This is also reflected in the legendary Finnish design.

Stroll through the design district

Helsinki Design Districtt gathers over 200 fashion boutiques, jewelry workshops, designer studios and art galleries in the Punavuori district. Good design is a way of life for the Finns. The Finnish style stands for straightforwardness without frills. For this approach, Helsinki was able to call itself the design capital of the world in 2012.

Anyone who loves beautiful things can spend the whole day in the design district, admiring classic design and discovering new talents in the design and fashion scene in between.

I keep coming across famous local brands like Marimekko, Iittala and Artek. Finland’s most famous architect couple Aino and Alvar Aalto founded the furniture label in 1935. The furniture store Artek brings together classic and new designs on two floors.

Fashionistas will discover pieces from Finnish brands such as Marimekko, Lumi Accessories and Vietto. Helsinki trendsetters love the Nomen Nescio label. His signature designs are all black, minimalist and unisex creations. This is sustainable, timeless slow fashion.

Finnish shoe design can be found in Terhi Pölkki’s store. The designer creates the perfect balance between minimalism and luxury. Your shoes are of course sustainably produced and extremely durable.

The design kiosk is unusually located between the train station and the Amos Rex Museum. The small glass case offers accessories and design objects from Finland and neighboring countries, for example funny versions of the Russian babushka.

The Design Museum in the same district gives an overview of Finnish designers who made history. Eero Saarinen, Aino and Alvar Aalto, Kaj Franck or Maija Isola – they can all be seen here.

  • Info: Design Museum, Monday closed, Tuesday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission 15 euros, reduced 12 euros or 6 euros, free for visitors under the age of 18.

Finnish style food culture

The typical approach – tradition-conscious, resource-saving and sustainable – is of course also evident in Finnish cuisine, for example in the trendy restaurant “Nolla”. The name means zero and refers to the concept. The restaurant tries to cause as little waste as possible, what it offers is regional and seasonal.

In a corner of the guest room there is a stainless steel box, buzzing. It is a composter that, within a few hours, produces the finest soil from table and kitchen waste, which goes back to the farmer who produces the vegetables for the restaurant. The chefs cook very creatively and bring the local ingredients to their best advantage. The Michelin Guide deserves one star and a recommendation for particularly good value for money.

There are currently six one-star restaurants in Helsinki. This includes the Finnjävel restaurant. The kitchen not only takes up traditional Finnish dishes and preparation methods such as smoking, curing or fermenting. From the knife rest to the table lamp, every detail of the interior design is specially designed for the restaurant.

It doesn’t always have to be star cuisine to eat well in Helsinki. The bistro-restaurant “The Glass” serves small dishes, including a large selection of vegetarian dishes, of course everything from the region. Be sure to try the vegetarian “snails” in herb butter!

Overnight in Helsinki: There are quite a few comfortable and concise hotels in Helsinki. Scandic Grand Central is perfectly located for train and air travellers. The airport train line takes you directly to the train station. The hotel is right next to it in an Art Nouveau building designed by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen as an administration building together with the train station. The rooms are spacious and tastefully furnished.

Hotel St George: Also in the heart of the old town is the St. George, Finland’s only design hotel. The rooms and lounges are accordingly imaginatively furnished. The hotel also exhibits 400 works of art. This includes the monumental dragon sculpture Tianwu by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The best thing to do is to enjoy the house specialty, the smoked cocktail, at the hotel bar alongside the art on display.

Arrival and departure: Flight to Helsinki with Finnairfor example from Hamburg in August around 280 euros, from Munich around 350 euros.

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