Helsinki is one of those dark horse city-break destinations. It doesn’t feature top of everyone’s list of cities to visit. Not when you have the grandeur and flash of Stockholm and the understated cool of Copenhagen so close by to get your Scandi fix. But as a summer weekend destination, I have found it to be all of quirky, eccentric, creative, stylish, hilariously fun and beautifully scenic.
Last year, Finland was ranked, by various international indices, the most stable, the safest and the best-governed country in the world. It is also repeatedly ranked as one of the most ethical and socially advanced countries on earth.
Helsinki is a rare place, in the sense that it is part of the larger Scandinavian region, but has so much delightfully quirky individuality which makes it stand out from the others. Contrary to they reputation for being reserved and self-effacing, the Finns are some of the most exuberant and funny people I know. And I find them to be a lot more friendly than their Scandinavian neighbours. Due to its history, its streetscapes are so fascinatingly unique. There is a real mix of architecture with influences from Sweden and Russia, Art Nouveau and current day works of local architectural art. And the Finnish legacy of design and art means there is a lot to see and shop that you won’t find anywhere else.
A good time to go to Helsinki is the weekend before the summer solstice. On the summer solstice (21st June) the country takes a holiday and everyone vacates the city for their summer houses. This leaves some shops and restaurants closed and a noticeable lack of buzz around town. The weekend before this, however, is perfect. The sun barely sets, the weather is (touch wood) pleasantly hovering in the low twenties celsius, and the locals are all exuding that pre-holiday happy anticipation.
So if this hasn’t convinced you to seriously consider a cheeky trip to Helsinki, here are a few of the highlights from my recent trip by way of clincher.
- Yes Yes Yes: a new vegetarian restaurant in downtown Helsinki is the vegetarian restaurant for non-vegetarians. The chefs make vegetarian substantial and deliciously moreish – enough to please even the most ardent carnivore. My personal recommendation: the halloumi fries and zucchini feta croquettes. Herkullinen! Yes Yes Yes, Iso Roobertinkatu 1, Helsinki
- Penny: as in many European capitals, many restaurants in Helsinki close for Sundays. Which is why Penny is a Godsend for visitors who still want their culinary tour of the city to continue on Sunday. Penny does a limited but by no means any less delicious “comfort Sunday” menu. Sunday lunch has a brunch vibe to it, which is a great hangover antidote in my personal experience. The staff at Penny are also very friendly and knowledgeable. Penny, Uudenmaankatu 13, Helsinki
- Juuri is a bit of a Helsinki institution. Its raison d’être is to preserve Finnish food culture and tradition, but it also has a refreshingly modern take on all its dishes. It’s an ideal spot for a special meal out in Helsinki. Juuri, Korkeavuorenkatu 27, Helsinki
- Shelter: I loved Shelter. Inhabiting an old warehouse on Katajanokan Harbour, close to the centre of town, it is modern, cool and it’s owners obviously have a great sense of humour (the warning printed on the bottles of water tell you that “Nothing epic happens when you drink water”). The menu is varied and delicious and came with impeccable wine pairings. Shelter, Kanavaranta 7, Helsinki
- Soil Wine Room: a little Spanish tapas place in the design district with a cosy vibe and tapas plates that momentarily transport you to Spain. Soil Wine Room, Fredrikinkatu 37, Helsinki
The Finns love a drink and so do I. For summer vibes, wild karaoke and al fresco cocktails here are my picks:
- Mattolaitturi is one of my favourite Helsinki watering holes, probably because every time I have been there, the Helsinki summer has turned on the most glorious sunshine. And what is more glorious than enjoying a glass of champagne in the sun on the water, watching the yachts pull in, with Helsinki’s most beautiful residents? Mattolaitturi, Ehrenströmintie 3 A, Helsinki
- Grotesk has a phenomenal cocktail menu, and incredibly pleasant outdoor terrace for early evening aperitifs. Grotesk, Ludviginkatu 10, Helsinki
- Loyly: The bar on the terrace of the public sauna, Loyly takes some beating. The view is expansive over the Baltic, the crowd is cool and lively, and the architecture of the building awe-inspiring. Loyly, Hernesaarenranta 4, Helsinki
- Restroom Karaoke Bar: if you are a fan of wild nights, fun people, random parties and karaoke, then Restroom Karaoke Bar is for you. I had the most fun singing karaoke in this former public toilet block than I’d had in a while. It’s open karaoke, so not for those who are shy to sing in front of strangers. If it helps, I sang a spectacularly off-key version of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing and was the only person to not get a round of applause for my performance. I still had a ball. Restroom Karaoke Bar, Tehtaankatu 23 A, Helsinki.
Helsinki’s Design District is worth a whole day of exploring. It stretches south from Helsinki’s downtown area to the suburbs of Punavuori, Ullanlinna and parts of Eira. It has everything from fashion to interiors to antiques and vintage to jewellery to museums and galleries.
Of course, my focus was on local fashion design, and I found that Helsinki has a plethora of local designers who are not hugely famous on the international stage, but whose designs are unique, colourful, innovative and ever so stylish. My picks for shopping are:
- North: a shop that is run by four local designers, made to measure and some ready to wear. Unique, locally made and so stylish. North, Kapteeninkatu 26, Helsinki
- Ivana Helsinki: Finnish designer, Paola Suhonen, takes Scandinavian clean minimal design, gives it an American vintage feel and then throws colours, prints and sparkles all over it in the most stylish way. Ivana Helsinki, Uudenmaankatu 15, Helsinki
- Nomen Nescio: a very forward thinking brand, Nomen Nescio is a gender neutral clothing label. Its designs are so minimalistic that they work for both men and women. And everything is black. I loved this store. Nomen Nescio, Fredrikinkatu 24,Helsinki
- Urban A: a lovely little boutique with a carefully curated selection of all my favourite Nordic brands including Baum und Pferdgarten, Toteme, Stylein, Samsoe & Samsoe and Custom Made. Urban A, Fredrikinkatu 18, Helsinki
- Beam: a hip concept store with fab collection including the likes of Comme des Garcons Play, Jil Sander and Acne Studios. Beam, Erottajankatu 15-17, Helsinki
- The Helsinki Design Museum is a must for any design-nerds (of which I am one). It has a comprehensive permanent display of Finnish design throughout its history as well as temporary exhibitions featuring the best of Finnish designers. Design Museum, Korkeavuorenkatu 23, Helsinki
- Kiasma is Finland’s national art museum. The architecture is breathtaking. The exhibitions always world class. Kiasma, Mannerheiminaukio 2, Helsinki
- Sauna and sea swim: when in Finland… Saunas are everywhere, and the Baltic is at your feet. For my post on the best Helsinki has to offer in saunas, sauna yoga and dips in the Baltic sea, read here.