Sitting across a series of islands in Finland's far south, Helsinki has a maritime feel and mood much akin to Eastern Europe and Russian cities as to anywhere else in Scandinavia. For a century an outpost of the Russian empire, Helsinki's very shape and form derives from its more powerful neighbour. Yet during the twentieth century, it became a showcase for independent Finland, many of its impressive buildings reflecting the dawning of Finnish nationalism and the rise of the republic. This ushered in the so-called golden age of Finnish design in the 1950s, and the city is justifiably proud of its cutting-edge architecture. Today, visitors will find a youthful buzz on the streets, where the boulevards, outdoor cafes and restaurants are crowded with Finns who take full advantage of their short summer. At night, the pace picks up in Helsinki's solid selection of bars and clubs.
Following a devastating fire in 1808, and the city's designation as Finland's capital in 1812, Helsinki was totally rebuilt in a style befitting its new status: a grid of wide streets and Neoclassical brick buildings modelled on the then Russian capital, St Petersburg.
Top image © Karavanov_Lev/Shutterstock
Hostel beds are in short supply, especially during summer, so booking ahead is sensible. The Strõmma tickets and tours desk at the tourist office can help with this in person, by phone, email or online (Mon–Fri 10am–4/4.30pm, Sat 10am–4pm; June–Aug also Sun 10am–4pm; t 09 2288 1600).
In Nuuksio National Park thirty minutes’ drive from Helsinki you can camp in the world’s greenest campsite, where state-of-the-art tents are suspended from trees so barely a blade of grass gets trampled. Book through the outdoor adventure company Honkalintu who arrange overnight camping adventures for €150 per two people.
Kultuurisauna Opened in 2013 on the north shore of the Kaisaniemenlahti and blending Finnish and Japanese influences, this is one of the world’s most energy-efficient saunas. Visitors can cool off in the sea afterwards. Tram #3 or #7B to Hakaniemi. Entry €15.
Löyly Design Sauna 2016’s new addition to the capital’s sauna scene uses contemporary wooden architecture to create a huge, stunning seaside complex at the Pyhän Birgitan Puisto park on the Hernesaari peninsula. Tram #1A to Perämiehenkatu. Entry €19/2hr.
Wednesday is a popular night for going out, while on Friday and Saturday it’s best to arrive as early as possible to get a seat. There are occasional free gigs on summer Sundays in Kaivopuisto Park, south of the centre. There’s also a wide range of clubs and discos, which charge a small admission fee (€5–10). For details of what’s on, read the back page of the culture section of Helsingin Sanomat, or the free fortnightly English-language paper City, found in record shops, bookshops and tourist offices.
Many places offer good-value lunchtime deals, and there are plenty of affordable ethnic restaurants and fast-food grillis for the evenings. At the end of Eteläesplanadi the kauppahalli (Mon–Fri 8am–7pm, Sat 8am–4pm) is good for snacks and sandwiches. Another bargain are the numerous university student cafeterias around the city. Kallio district, across the Kaisaniemenlahti 2km north of the city centre, has some great cheap Bohemian hangouts.
Esplanadi, a wide, tree-lined boulevard across a mishmash of tramlines from the harbour, is Helsinki at its most charming. A couple of blocks north of its eastern end, the suavely refurbished City Museum at Aleksanterinkatu 16 (Mon–Fri 11am–7pm, Sat & Sun 11am–5pm; free) offers a microcosm of 450 years of Helsinki life through wonderful interactive exhibitions.
Just west of City Museum is Senate Square (Senattintori), dominated by the exquisite form of the Tuomiokirkko (Cathedral; June–Aug daily 9am–midnight; Sept–May Mon–Sat 9am–6pm, Sun noon–6pm). After the elegance of the exterior, the spartan Lutheran interior comes as a disappointment; more impressive is the gloomily atmospheric crypt (entrance on Kirkkokatu; June–Aug daily 9am–midnight; Sept–May Mon–Sat 9am–6pm, Sun noon–6pm), now often used for exhibitions. West across Unioninkatu, the city’s most spectacular interior decoration awaits in the soaring ceilings and mesmerizing decorative painting of the National Library of Finland (Mon–Fri 9am–6pm, plus some Sat; free).
The gay scene in Helsinki is small but spirited. For the latest details, pick up a copy of the widely available monthly Z magazine – in Finnish only but with a useful listings section – or drop into the state-supported gay organization SETA, Pasilanraitio 5.
This tranquil, award-winning space (Mon–Fri 8am–8pm, Sat & Sun 10am–6pm; evl.fi) west of the train station on busy Narinkka Square (locally referred to as Kamppi Square) is a non-ecumenical structure designed to instil a sense of calm in anyone needing respite from the hustle and bustle of downtown.
Kiasma is Helsinki’s museum of contemporary art (Tues 10am–5pm, Wed–Fri 10am–8.30pm, Sat 10am–6pm, Sun 10am–5pm; €12), its gleaming steel-clad exterior and hi-tech interior making it well worth visiting. Temporary exhibitions feature everything from paintings to video installations.
North of Kiasma is the National Museum (Tues–Sun 11am–6pm; €8), its design drawing on the country’s medieval churches and granite castles. The exhibits, from prehistory to the present, are exhaustive; concentrate on a few specific sections, such as the fascinating medieval church art and the ethnographic displays. The highlight could just be by the ticket desk anyway: glance up for fabulous vivid murals based on Finland’s fabled national epic poem, the Kalevala (which inspired Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings).
About 50km east of Helsinki, Porvoo is one of the oldest towns on the south coast and among Finland’s most charming places. Its narrow cobbled streets, flanked by brightly hued wooden buildings, give a sense of Finnish life before Helsinki’s bold Neoclassical geometry came along. The Porvoo Museum (May–Aug Mon–Sat 10am–4pm, Sun 11am–4pm; Sept–April Wed–Sun noon–4pm; €8) includes the Johan Ludwig Runeberg House at Aleksanterinkatu 3 near the station where the famed Finnish poet lived from 1852; one of his poems provided the lyrics for the Finnish national anthem.
The old town is built around the hill on the other side of Mannerheimkatu, crowned by the fifteenth-century Tuomiokirkko (May–Sept Mon–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat 10am–2pm, Sun 2–5pm; Oct–April Tues–Sat 10am–2pm, Sun 2–4pm), where Alexander I proclaimed Finland a Russian Grand Duchy. The cathedral survived a serious arson attack in 2006 and reopened two years later.
The Golden Age of Finnish Design started in the 1950s, driven by the innovation of architects like the celebrated Alvar Aalto who designed many of Helsinki’s most striking modern buildings, cementing Helsinki’s place as a European design capital. Design-wise there are plenty of attractions to check out and even a Design District, an area fanning out from the Dianapuisto park at the northeastern end of Uudenmaankatu and full of fashion stores, galleries and showrooms.
Built on five interconnected islands by the Swedes in 1748 to protect Helsinki from seaborne attack, the fortress of Suomenlinna, fifteen minutes away by boat, is the biggest sea fortress in the world. Reachable by ferry from the harbour, it’s also a great place to stroll around on a summer afternoon, with superb views back across the water towards the capital: you can either visit independently or take one of the hour-long summer guided walking tours, beginning close to the ferry stage and conducted in English (June–Aug daily 11am, 12.30pm & 2.30pm; Sept–May Sat & Sun 1.30pm; €11 high season, €4 low season). Suomenlinna has a few museums, none particularly riveting, but the best is Suomenlinna Museum (daily: May–Sept 10am–6pm; Oct–April 10.30am–4.30pm; €6.50), with a permanent exhibition on the island. There are several atmospheric places to eat and drink.
The square towards the eastern end of Aleksanterinkatu is overlooked by the onion domes of the Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral (May–Sept Mon–Fri 9.30am–4pm, Sat 9.30am–2pm, Sun noon–3pm, Oct–April closed Mon). Inside, there’s a glitzy display of icons. Beyond is Katajanokka, a wedge of land extending between the harbours; with some beautiful Art Nouveau architecture, it’s one of the city’s most atmospheric places to walk around.
The islands lying off the Finnish coast run into the thousands, of which Vallisaari – until 2016 private military property – is the latest to become easily accessible. It’s an island for wildlife lovers, as the flora here is superb, and marked trails criss-cross it. Bring a picnic. The ferry (May–Aug daily hourly; Sept Sat & Sun hourly; €7.50 return) stops at Suomenlinna on the return, so you can explore both.