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With trips to Scandinavian capitals becoming increasingly de rigueur, the Finnish capital Helsinki, offers a quirky but stylish experience filled with hip design and cool eateries juxtaposed with beautiful historic architecture. Find out the places you should definitely include in your Helsinki itinerary.
Art Nouveau buildings
The city’s fine historical centre is compact enough to discover on foot. I recommend heading down to the streets of Eira, Ullanlinna, Punavuori, Kamppi, Töölö and Katajanokka and taking your time to wander, soak up the atmosphere and spot the beautiful Art Nouveau buildings.
The Rock Church
In Töölö, make sure you include a visit to he very special Rock Church (Temppeliaukion kirkko) carved inside the granite. It’s not only gorgeous, but has also amazing acoustical features too.
Helsinki offers good options to experience upscale new Nordic cuisine, with four different Michelin-starred restaurants (Olo, Ask, Chef & Sommelier and Demo). For a less expensive but still great gustative experience, I recommend restaurant Kuurna in Kruununhaka district.
Ateljee Bar in hotel Torni
When the sun begins to set (which means very late during summertime), climb up to hotel Torni’s 13th floor and have a fancy drink at the stylish Ateljee Bar which offers stunning 360-degree views of the city bathing in golden light.
In a less visited district of west Helsinki, the impressive Sibelius monument (in tribute to the Finnish compositor) is worth a quick visit. You can walk there from Töölö.
This UNESCO-listed sea fortress dating back from 1748 is a must-see, located 15 minutes by ferry from the city center (included in the public transportation system). Circle the island by foot, then have coffee at the hidden Samovarbar and make sure you sample their exquisite apple pie!
For a taste of how the locals live ride a tram (line 1) to the neighborhood of Puu-Käpylä and have a peaceful stroll in the calm residential streets full of colourful traditional wooden houses.
Helsinki makes a fine weekend trip during the middle of the summer (from mid-June to mid-August) when there is sunlight almost 24 hours a day, or in the middle of the winter (mid-January to late February) when the sea is usually frozen and snow covers the city. A very special winter experience during this time is to go walking on the frozen Baltic Sea. Although just be aware this can be quite dangerous and sadly each year many people drown because of thin ice (even if it has been freezing for a long time, the sea and its unpredictable currents are tricky). Only head out when there are already other people on the ice and always stay close to the shore.
Further away from the city centre, easily reached by bus (line 24) and a long wooden bridge, is the island of Seurasaari and its open-air museum featuring old constructions from all over Finland. You’ll find lots of locals here on their weekends. The President’s official residence is close-by and can be seen from the bridge.
Another interesting thing to do away from the city centre is to have a walk in an allotment garden (siirtolapuutarha in Finnish). There are many of them around greater Helsinki, but the easiest ones to access are the one in Vallila (by tram) and the ones in Herttoniemi and Marjaniemi (by metro). Although this is a summertime activity only – they are open to public only from May to September.
This place is not located in Helsinki, but I would recommend at least a half-day tour to visit the charming old town 30 minutes from Helsinki by freeway (no train service to Porvoo, but many buses per day). Old Porvoo is one of the very few historical wooden towns in Finland that survived wars and fires. The oldest houses are from the late 1700s and Porvoo itself was founded in 1346.
From the very touristic Kauppatori market in the harbor to the more popular one of Hakaniemi, Helsinki’s open-air markets are worth a visit especially in summertime when they fill with Finnish berries, sugar snap peas and mushrooms. Pay also attention to the adjoining market halls (again the one next to Kauppatori is more touristic and a bit more refined, whereas the one in Hakaniemi is more popular and down-to-earth).
Finally, if you are keen on culture (or if it’s raining) there are multiple museums to visit in Helsinki. My favorite ones are the Design Museum, Kiasma (modern art), National Museum (Kansallismuseo) and Ateneum (fine arts), all located within walking distance from the Three Smiths Statue (considered as Helsinki’s point zero) next to the mythical Stockmann department store.