One morning not so long ago a very exciting email popped into my inbox: an invitation to join a two-day press tour to Helsinki, courtesy of Finnair and Finavia (the company which runs Helsinki Airport). It was tricky timing, sandwiched between already-booked trips to Copenhagen and Budapest, but how could I pass up the chance to explore the only Nordic capital which I hadn’t yet visited, and somewhere that had been on my travel wish list for years?
I’m so glad I didn’t, as Helsinki turned out to be everything I’d hoped for and more. Wrapped around a series of Baltic inlets, with vibrant design and food scenes, magnificent architecture and leafy parks, it somehow feels both monumental and laid-back. It’s also compact and explorable on foot, making it a great option for an easy city break. And, as Finnair offers handy connections for onward travel to Asia (flying the shorter northern route for faster overall journeys), it’s very do-able as a stopover on longer trips, too.
So, whether it’s your final destination or you’re just passing through, here are my top tips for 48 hours in Helsinki…
Stay at Hotel St George
You know that any hotel where you’re greeted by a giant Ai Weiwei paper-lantern sculpture suspended over the lobby is going to be special, and the St George certainly is. It sits in a grand 19th-century building on Old Church Park in the heart of Helsinki, and has a sophisticated, gently luxurious air. At its centre is a ‘winter garden’ housing a bar and restaurant; beneath, a subterranean spa and pool with a range of massages and treatments (you can even book sleep consultations). There’s also an on-site bakery, plus the first-ever Nordic branch of Monocle Shop.
Designed by Nordic Light and Mirkku Kullberg (ex-CEO of Artek), the 148 rooms are decorated in calming tones of beige, blush pink and sage green, with Finnish artwork and modernist furniture. They’re also very practical, with lots of useful little touches such as USB points by the bed (why don’t more hotels do that?) and a soda stream for making your own sparkling water. I particularly loved the bathrooms, which are clad in Spanish marble and stocked with lovely lotions and potions from Swedish brand LA Bruket. And the mattresses are heavenly!
Shop in the Design District
Spread across 25 streets in the neighbourhoods of Punavuori, Kaartinkaupunki, Kruunuhaka, Kamppi and Ullanlinna, Helsinki’s Design District has a cluster of more than 200 galleries, studios and boutiques. You’ll find everything from independent fashion brands to homeware stores and internationally renowned labels such as Marimekko, as well as a huge array of cafes and restaurants. My favourite was concept store Lokal, which showcases the work of Finnish artists and designers (including minimalist ceramics by Nathalie Lautenbacher, decorative textiles by Klaus Haapaniemi and wooden furniture by Poiat, who I wrote about last week).
Dine at Roster
For fine dining without any hint of formality, head to Roster – a stylish yet relaxed restaurant on Pohjoisesplanadi in the city centre. Head Chef Kari Aihinen and his team strip away anything overly fussy and focus on showcasing high-quality, seasonal ingredients. Everything we sampled was mouthwateringly good and expertly paired with fantastic wines.
Visit the Amos Rex Museum
Housed in a former cinema and an underground annex topped by bubble-like skylights which seem to sprout from the tarmac of Lasipalatsi Square, the newly opened Amos Rex Museum is unmissable. It’s currently home to ‘Massless’, an interactive exhibition from Tokyo-based digital art collective teamLab which immerses you in light, sound and colour. One installation mimics waves which roll and break around you; another is a colourful ecosystem featuring blooming flowers, hopping frogs, crawling lizards and a giant whale who spins and swirls beneath your feet. Yet another is a dizzying 360-degree kaleidoscope of swooping birds and dancing chrysanthemums set to Japanese music. I won’t share many photos as I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but it’s utterly mesmerising and we found ourselves grinning in wonder the whole way around.
Take a boat trip
Helsinki’s archipelago is studded with more than 330 islands, many of them covered with dense forest. Ferries zip back and forth from Market Square in the city centre, so it’s easy to take to the water for an afternoon of exploring. Unesco-listed Suomenlinna, home to an 18th-century fortress, is one of the most interesting. The ride there takes less than 20 minutes and you’ll be treated to fantastic views en route.
Visit the Iittala & Arabia Design Centre
Founded by two of Finland’s most famous brands and located in their former factory, the Design Centre encompasses a museum, exhibition spaces and an outlet where you can buy Iittala and Arabia pieces at discounted prices; there’s even a collection of sculptures made from tools manufactured by Arabia-owned Fiskars (the company behind the iconic orange scissors). Most interesting for me were the ninth-floor displays charting how Finnish glass and ceramic design has evolved over the years, including original prototypes by Tapio Wirkkala (whose textured ‘Utlima Thule’ glassware was inspired by melting ice and has been used for decades in Finnair’s business class) and renowned modernist architect and designer Alvar Aalto.
Marvel at Aalto’s masterpieces
Speaking of Aalto, Helsinki is home to some of his most notable buildings, including the House of Culture (1958), Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (1969) and the Finlandia concert hall (1971). We only had time for a quick peek from the outside, but guided tours can be arranged via the Aalto Foundation; you can even visit his house in the suburb of Munkkiniemi.
Aalto was equally famous for his minimalist furniture and you can see examples, including his iconic bar cart and ‘Stool 60’, at Helsinki’s Design Museum. If you want to buy some for yourself, head to the flagship store of Artek (which he co-founded in 1935) on Keskuskatu, or browse the pre-loved selection at Artek 2nd Cycle at Pieni Roobertinkatu 4-6.
Have lunch and a sauna at Löyly
Saunas are an integral part of Finnish culture and it would seem wrong to visit Helsinki without trying one. Löyly (named after the Finnish word for steam) is one of a new breed of public saunas which combine contemporary design with ancient tradition. Set on the waterfront, it occupies a striking wooden building created by architect Joanna Laajisto to be as eco-friendly as possible, with deckchair-lined terraces jutting out over the Baltic. Start with lunch in the restaurant, which serves excellent New Nordic food – I had a velvety mushroom soup topped with slithers of smoked reindeer, followed by grilled perch with dill and then a raspberry and liquorice cheesecake. Afterwards, roast yourself for a while before leaping straight into the sea to cool off. And don’t worry if you’re a little shy – unlike most Finnish saunas, swimsuits are compulsory here.
Enjoy the world’s best gin
It would also seem wrong to visit Helsinki without indulging in a G&T made from Finnish gin Napue, which won first prize in the International Wine & Spirits Competition. Made from foraged botanicals, with notes of meadowsweet, sea-buckthorn, cranberries and birch leaves, it’s supposed to evoke a misty Finnish meadow early in the morning. It’s available at Löyly and in bars all over the city and is normally served with rosemary and cranberries – a delicious combination.
Take in a film premiere at an airport
Admittedly you can’t normally do this, but I couldn’t resist squeezing in a mention as it was one of the highlights of the trip. To celebrate Helsinki’s role connecting East and West, Finnair and Finavia have teamed up to fund an experimental short film by Swedish director Johan Storm and South Korean director Wookie, and it’s beautifully produced. It tells the story of a chance airport encounter and we were invited along to the first screening, held in a hangar complete with Finnair jets and cabin crew serving mini bottles of champagne from trolleys (I’m a bit of a secret aviation geek, so I loved it!). Even though you may have missed out on that, you can watch the film online here.
As for Finnair itself, I was very impressed – and I’m not just saying that because they co-hosted my trip. I’ve flown on countless airlines over the years and this has to be one of the best, with modern planes, friendly staff and food that’s a cut above most in-air fare. I was treated to business-class flights, but I also had a peek at economy and it looked very good. I’d happily pay to fly with them again.
Finnair flies to Helsinki from cities across Europe, North America and Asia. Fares from London Heathrow start at £97 return.
My visit to Helsinki was hosted by Finnair and Finavia, who covered my travel, accommodation and expenses, but as always all words and opinions are my own. Thanks to both companies for a fantastic time!
Most photography by Abi Dare; final image by Lucy Woods