48 Hours In Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki, Finland after the rain (Photo: Sergei Sigov Photo/Shutterstock)

As far as Nordic travel destinations go, Helsinki is often overlooked in favour of Stockholm and Copenhagen, but vacationers are remiss to ignore its world-class offerings. The Finnish capital, often referred to as a mini St. Petersburg, represents a confluence of Scandinavian and Slavic influences, evident in the cuisine, architecture, and culture. Boasting a proud design heritage, the city was named 2012 World Design Capital.

What to see and do

Helsinki’s best side is its seaside. Take a trip to Suomenlinna, a sea fortress built across six islands, for a picnicking experience with the UNESCO World Heritage Site stamp of approval, or rent a kayak to enjoy views of the coastline’s natural beauty.

Work up a sweat at Kulttuurisauna, an elegant sauna with a Finno-Japanese aesthetic. Can’t take the heat? Sit beneath the birch tree and on the outdoor deck before a bracing dip in the Baltic. Get a crash course in Finnish history with a visit to the National Museum of Finland. The Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art will captivate you for hours with a stellar rotation of innovative, thought-provoking exhibitions. The Ateneum showcases an expansive collection of Finnish and international art, as does the Amos Anderson, the largest private art museum in Finland.

Where to eat and drink

Finns know good java—they lead the world in coffee consumption. Happiness is a morning croissant and coffee from Kahvila Sävy in Kallio. The ubiquitous Robert’s Coffee chain easily puts Starbucks to shame with piping hot cuppas in a variety of roasts. Enjoy the Töölö Bay vista at Sinisen Huvilan Kahvila, a favourite café among the locals. Café Engel, the grande dame of Helsinki coffeehouses, occupies a venerable place on the Senate Square across from the domed Lutheran Cathedral. Resembling a rustic seaside fishing shack, Café Regatta provides a cozy, laidback vibe and tasty snacks. With five locations across the city, SIS Deli + Café is a convenient place to grab a freshly prepared meal to go. Its store brand promotes products from all over Finland, so you can bring a taste of the north back home. A popular lunch and dinner destination, Tori serves excellent salmon soup and classic meatballs. Kuurna, a charming restaurant tucked away on a quiet side street, prepares delicious Finnish comfort food with seasonal ingredients. After dinner, head to Grotesk for its impressive wine list and well-executed cocktails. In summer, stake out a place on the outdoor terrace. Corona, a cult bar established by famed Finnish filmmakers (and brothers) Aki and Mika Kaurismäki, delivers beer and billiards in a casual, happening atmosphere. Liberty or Death serves artful cocktails without an ounce of pretense. Sipping great drinks with cool people is the reward for ferreting out Musta Kissa’s remote location. Don’t miss a boozy adventure on board Helsinki’s Spårakoff pub tram, the world’s first licensed streetcar. 

Where to shop

Helsinki’s answer to Fifth Avenue is Pohjoisesplanadi. Heaving with international designers, it’s also home to some of Finland’s top brands, including Marimekko, Finlayson, Iittala, and Artek. Design Forum Finland retails unusual pieces from homegrown talent. Directly outside the main post office, you’ll find the postage-stamp-sized Salakauppa, a converted flower stall selling the funky wares of design duo Aamu Song and Johan Olin. If vintage is your jam, Wanha Kaarle stocks all the coolest items from the ‘50s through ‘70s. Designed by the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, the Academic Bookstore is arguably the world’s finest purveyor of the printed word.
Where to stay

GLO Hotel Art in Punavori, equipped with sumptuous beds and blackout curtains for the bright Helsinki summer nights, is close to some of the city’s best restaurants, bars, and galleries. Hotel Helka, a short walk from the main railway station, embodies the Finnish design penchant for clean lines and natural materials.

Tags: Finland, Travel Guide

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