Headed on a Baltic cruise? Be sure to visit Finland’s dynamic capital. At once design-driven and food-focused, Helsinki may well be Scandinavia’s capital of cool.
Arrive in Finland in style with Finnair, the country’s national carrier, which connects the capital with points across Asia, Europe, and the US. The airline’s business class, designed to offer a glimpse of what you can expect at your destination, features Zodiac Cirrus III wide and lie-flat business class seats, complimentary wifi, and a unique light show that includes an Aurora Borealis-inspired light show. There is plenty more color thanks to eye-popping Marimekko prints on duvets, slippers, and amenity kits. The food also nods to the Nords, with the likes of warm smoked Arctic char and wild reindeer on the menu.
Drop your bags off at Hotel Indigo, a playful introduction to the city’s Design District. The boutique hotel’s lobby showcases creations by local designers, while the rooms are decorated with whimsical art and artifacts complemented by spa-style bathrooms.
The menu at intimate restaurant Kuurna, with space for just 20 diners, changes every other week. Regardless of when you visit, you’re guaranteed modern Finnish food that celebrates local ingredients. The menu lists just three entrees, mains, and desserts: think, roasted eggplant with hazelnut and emmer wheat tabouleh, or cold smoked pike atop malt bread with an egg yolk crème. It’s steps from Helsinki’s waterfront where the beautiful 1868 Uspenski Cathedral shines brightly at night.
If you don’t find Trillby & Chadwick Detective Agency right away, you’re not alone. The speakeasy has no sign, just big doors on Katariinankatu Street that open to a telephone booth. Place a call and bartenders will let you into the dimly lit space, where you can sink into velvet sofas and listen to jazz. The drinks menu is not for the faint-hearted, with each cocktail garnering a full-page description detailing its history and prominent flavors – try the gimlet made using Old English gin.
Kick your day off close to your hotel with a local institution, Karl Fazer Café. Founded in 1891, the café’s striking art-deco façade gives way to a cavernous dining room where you can fortify yourself with freshly baked breads, pastries, and chocolates – yes, for breakfast!
Helsinki holds its own among the heavy hitters of Scandinavia’s Nordic design belt thanks, in part, to a 2005 initiative that saw the country’s top creatives join forces to promote their mutual talents. The resulting Design District is a stunning showcase of Finnish finesse, encompassing a network of 25 streets and 220 designers.
Among the highlights are Lokal, a concept store that is part homewares haven and part art gallery; the Minna Parikka shoe boutique, replete with her signature glittered “rabbit’s ear” sneakers; and Marimekko, known for its bold patterns emblazoned on everything from handbags to umbrellas.
Three of Helsinki’s most experienced, not to mention passionate, restaurateurs are behind Vinkkeli. All dark wood and starched linen, the space is dedicated to food that is local and based on the seasons, which might mean an entrée of marinated Baltic herring with tartar sauce, followed by a main of poached perch with egg and spinach. The wine list is excellent, with rare and boutique bottles proving the perfect accompaniment to the flavourful fare.
Originally established in 1873 by the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design – and housed in a stunning space by architect Gustaf Nyström – today’s Design Museum showcases a dizzying collection of more than 75,000 objects, 45,000 drawings, and 125,000 photographs. With a remit that sees it responsible for research and documentation in its field, the space also holds an impressive archive of Finnish designers.
Located in Helsinki’s busy Narinkka Square, Kamppi Chapel of Silence offers welcome – and unexpected – respite from the noise of the city that surrounds. With its curved wood façade and warm interior made from thick oiled alder planks, the ecumenical chapel welcomes everyone, irrespective of religion, philosophy, or background. Soft lighting filters in during the day, making it a calming place to contemplate your journey.
The waterside Old Market Hall has served customers since 1889, but thanks to a recent makeover it’s as fresh as ever. Stalls here sell everything from cheese and smoked meats to fish, vegetables, cakes, and spices. There are a number of cafes and bars throughout so you can pause between delis and sample Kaalikääryleet cabbage rolls; Leipäjuusto cow’s milk cheese; and Lohikeitto salmon soup.
Overlooking the Gulf of Finland, Löyly offers traditional sauna experiences in a dramatic modern complex resembling rice terraces but crafted from pine. Inside, three wood-heated saunas are carved from black concrete, Scandinavian birch, and blackened steel, set beside a spa where you can cool off between sweat sessions. Or, follow the lead of locals and jump directly into the sea.
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