Confession: Before I started regularly visiting Finland, the only thing I knew about its capital was that it was the namesake for the band Architecture in Helsinki and, I dunno, it snows there? But it turns out AiH are actually Australian, and Finnish summers are equally as dazzling as their winters. (#TheMoreYouKnow)
We already know Helsinki is cool enough to produce bands like Phantom and brands like Marimekko. But did you know the capital city is also a short bike ride away from nature? Or that it has both a thriving tech start-up community and design culture? Or that it ranked sixth—one slot above the U.S.—in the 2017 quality of life survey? There are lots of things to unpack about the Scandinavian country, and plenty to like. If you’re headed north for a visit, here are a few places to start.
WHERE TO STAY: Hotel Katajanokka
The first thing you should know: Hotel Katajanokka is located slightly out of the city center. But don’t despair, one of Helsinki’s many trams comes straight to your front door, or else you’re in for a half-mile harborside walk. (The word “picturesque” comes to mind.) The second thing you should know: Opened in 2007, the hotel is in a refurbished prison building that dates back to 1837. (Be sure to quiz the staff: Most of them have a ghost story or two they’re willing to share.)
Care has been taken to preserve the original vibe. All the central staircases are made out of iron, and each floor features a replica of the iron gates that were (presumably) used to keep rioting prisoners at bay. A red brick wall surrounds the “prison yard.” And in the basement, you can help yourself to an extremely lavish breakfast on metal plates and peep solitary confinement cells. But even though they’re (clearly) working on a theme, nothing about Katajanokka comes off as kitschy. The recently remodeled rooms contain enough bedding for pillow/blanket forts (not that I’m confessing to anything), bath products by Spa Vital, and a seriously legit rain shower head. When I checked in, looking noticeably beaten up after what had turned into a 14-hour day of travel, the woman at the front desk joked that I would be “happy to be locked in my cell” for the night. And oh, I was.
WHERE TO SHOP: Finlayson
Design is an important part of Finnish life. (And really, shouldn’t it be an important part of all our lives?) Which is why textile designer Finlayson has been popular since 1820. You can still find their iconic elephants and deliciously lined fabric on tote bags, pillowcases, bath towels, and blankets at any of their locations. However, these days their Helsinki storefronts are also likely to feature home goods from other national heroes, Moomin and Tom of Finland.
WHERE TO SHOP: Marimekko
This is probably the biggest no-brainer in the history of no-brainers. Marimekko, aka the home furnishing and fabric company that practically defined the look of the 1960s, is Finnish, with five (!) retailers, including an outlet in the greater Helsinki area. So if your souvenir shopping includes brightly colored mod-style dresses, or perhaps some fab old-school designed dishes, look no further. The fashion house is currently showing off its spring line, which includes the kind of stripped shirts Coco Chanel would have snatched up, and, of course, an entire botanical garden worth of flower prints.
WHAT TO BUY: MAKIA
In need of something to help ward off the cold? Pop into Helsinki’s biggest department store Stockmann to check out MAKIA’s outwear. What once started as a jacket company has expanded to include shirts, accessories, deliciously warm knitwear, and cozy sweatshirts. (Bonus: A line of bags is next up later this year.) With their two carefully curated collections per year, limited color palette (expect a lot of gray, blue, black, and red), and a catalog that exclusively uses friends as models, this is the very definition of Nordic chill.
WHAT TO BUY: Goodio Chocolate Factory
The only thing Finns love almost as much as coffee is chocolate. So to catch the spirit, keep your eyes open for Goodio Chocolate, available in multiple grocery/health food/gift shops across the city. (The brand will be opening a visitor-friendly factory/community space in fall of 2017). With only three days from bean to bar, their raw chocolate (meaning it hasn’t been heated during the grinding process) has a deliciously grainy feel. Flavors (made using only organic, fair-trade ingredients, nach) include, oh, so Finnish varieties like coffee, wild blueberry, and licorice & sea buckthorn. They’ve also got the lock on more traditional tastes like sea salt, chili, and mint. No judgment if you end up licking the (biodegradable) wrapper.
WHERE TO GO: The Sauna
Sauna culture is so ubiquitous in Helsinki, you can even grab a steam at the Burger King in the center of town. (Believe it or not, this isn’t some weird urban legend.) Don’t worry—even when whipping yourself with birch branches the whole thing is very body-positive and non-sexual. There are an estimated 2 million saunas in Finland… for a population of 5.4 million! So take your pick.
Also called the “ghetto” saunas by locals, this is a free sauna maintained by a group of local volunteers who pride themselves on maintaining the community spirit. A visit means you might be asked to chop wood—but you’ll also be welcomed with open arms (not literally!) into their co-ed, totally nude sweat houses. Be sure to check the website for its current address—due to zoning issues, they’ve changed locations several times.
Not quite ready to show Helsinki your Full Monty? Visit Löyly, where bathing suits are preferred to birthday suits. The Dr. Seuss-like structure by the sea offers three wood-burning saunas with a perfect view of the water—which is exactly where you go to cool off. (Pro-tip: This is one of the few times in your life when “don’t think, just jump” is actually good advice.) The structure also houses a restaurant, because working up a sweat is hungry work.
Helsinki’s oldest swimming pool dates back to 1928—so prepare yourself for some epic architecture. Also, prepare yourself for gender-segregated nude swimming. (Body positivity in action people!) Visit their multiple saunas and splash around in their huge main swimming pool.
WHERE TO GO: Suomenlinna Island
Suomenlinna is only a short ferry ride away from Helsinki proper. (Seriously short—they sell beer/coffee/tea in-transit, but you’re going to have to scramble to finish it.) Every inch of the place feels like an Instagram fest just waiting to happen. You don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate the beauty of the UNESCO World Heritage site’s complex network of underground bunkers and fortresses, which date back to 1748 (and used until the island military base was abandoned in 1973). In the winter, the island is a peaceful retreat, and fans of the season will surely appreciate the dramatic vistas covered in ice and snow. During the summer, locals and tourists alike flock to Suomenlinna’s beaches for a chance to take a dip in the perennially chilly Baltic Sea. (Warning: This swim is awesome, but not for the faint of heart.)
WHERE TO GO: Kiasma
Helsinki’s modern art museum is in the city center. But its multitude of stairways and sloped levels feels more like an M.C. Escher fever dream than anything of this world. You don’t have to be super into art to appreciate the permanent collection’s whimsical room installations. Kiasma also welcomes a rotating slate of temporary exhibitions, many—using current events to spark a much-needed conversation about women’s rights, refuges, and the environment.
WHAT TO EAT: Richard McCormick’s Restaurants
Helsinki is a movable feast. It’s hard to find some type of food that isn’t done well somewhere in the city—and once a year they host Restaurant Day where anyone can indulge in their inner chef and host a pop-up. For those who enjoy following a creative vision, check out Richard McCormick’s string of restaurants.
A family-style eatery with plenty of veggie-friendly options. (One word: risotto. Oh heck, have a few more words: kale chips, sweet potato fries, and McCormick’s own meat substitute, “veef.”) For a delicious boozy dessert, grab a “hot shot” (a liquor made out of Galliano, coffee, and cream) or ask them to make you a special spiked hot chocolate with cream.
As the name would imply, this bar/restaurant leans into the vacation vibes. Since it features outdoor seating along the waterfront, look for it in the spring/summer months. Then you can grab a mouthwatering poke bowl (with a tofu option, because McCormick clearly loves his veggie friends), any number of fresh greens with halloumi and tahini, and a whole ocean’s worth of seafood. And, of course, since it’s holiday-themed, be sure to save room for homemade ice cream.
McCormick’s crown jewel, Sandro, focuses on flavors from Northern Africa. There are three locations to choose from, but, for maximum impact, choose the Sandro at Kamppi where you can look over the rooftops while you dine. Among their offerings is an African sweet potato curry served with hummus, bread, pumpkin, couscous, and cauliflower. (Translation: Portions are extremely generous.) Pair with one of their many imaginative cocktails or glass of sparkling wine—because life is short, and good food deserves a sidekick.
Side note: The cuisine is fairly meat-light with the occasional chicken/lamb/and seafood addition which the chefs are happy to omit. But vegetarians (guilty as charged) will be happy to note that similar to The Cock, the menu at Sandro features veef—making it all the more veggie friendly.
WHAT TO EAT: Bar 9
A casual diner in the center of Helsinki’s design district that (plot twist!) offers up some delicious options. The eatery excels at pasta (but also offers up some well-crafted soups, burgers, and salads in case you’re not looking to carb out), so tuck into one of their many wok options, including the cilantro crown jewel, the “classic coriander.”
WHERE TO DRINK: Coffee (Everywhere—no, really!)
Finns are famous coffee drinkers, on average downing three cups a day. So if you’re in Helsinki, there’s zero excuse for ending up with a bad cup of the brown stuff. Local coffee chains like Robert’s Coffee and Espresso House both offer strong brews, but it’s worth paying a visit to the indies. Required pilgrimages:
Fleuriste is an extremely cozy coffee nook that feels like a tiny bit of Paris in the heart of Helsinki. Come for the lattes (with—word to our vegan friends—several different milk options), but be sure to pick up one of what many consider to be the best cinnamon rolls in the city.
The Finnish coffee house of your dreams. The bright red cabin-turned-café is located in Töölö next to a jaw-dropping view of the water. Even when the weather is chilly, patrons sit at tables along the ocean shore, wrapped in blankets and drinking and drinking steaming lattes. There’s even a fire pit that’s regularly in use with a liberal BYO sausages and marshmallow policy.
Sponsored by the University of Helsinki, the Think Corner operates as part coffee shop, part gathering space. Which means your espresso could very well come with a side of science. Bonus points for the shop’s plant-heavy interior, which brings a sense of summer to even the harshest winter storms.
Moomins, (whimsical cartoon characters that look like a cross between a marshmallow and hippo) are a ubiquitous part of every Finn’s upbringing. Treat yourself to the Nordic childhood you never had and stop by one of Helsinki’s multiple Moomin-themed cafes. A coffee (or two, or three... or…) for you and your inner child—with playtime in the indoor jungle gyms and story corners for the actual children. Win-win.
WHERE TO DRINK: Cafe Talo
A watering hole popular with students (So. Many. Laptops.), Café Talo’s got a laid-back living room vibe, an impressive beer selection, and, for those who venture upstairs, one of the world’s weirdest paintings. (Seriously, what do Superman and a random swimmer have in common?) Bar snacks range from the down and dirty usual suspects to a lush Caesar salad.
WHERE TO DRINK: Why Join the Navy When You Can Be a Pirate?
A multi-use venue that does triple duty as a smoothie/lunch bar, a watering hole, and the best question you never thought to ask yourself. Stop in during the day for a vitamin blast. (Highly recommended: “The Ritva” which features ginger, chili, and coriander.) Come back again at night for wine, beer, and hand-crafted cocktails that—to the surprise of none—feature some of the same fresh ingredients as their day menu.
WHERE TO DRINK: A karaoke bar
For the most part, Finns tend to be pretty laid-back. (As the saying goes in Finland, they don’t believe in small talk.) That all changes in a karaoke bar, where on any night of the week, you can find a local or two happily warbling away to an ad hoc audience. With a joint on seemingly every corner, it should probably come as no surprise that Helsinki is hosting the world karaoke championships in November. Until then, grab some friends, a Lonkero (a ubiquitous Finnish gin/grapefruit-premixed cocktail), and indulge in the local pastime. Here are a few hot spots worth checking out:
The name is both a nod to the city’s past and an acronym for “Krunikka Gay Bar.” (Or so say locals.) Inside you’ll find a wash of rainbow lights, disco ball, and (on most nights) a crowd ready to hear your best renditions of pop hits in both Finnish and English. It's a known location for truly epic after-parties, so prepare for a late night/early morning situation.
Swengi is popular among the youth of Helsinki, so hit it up when you’re ready to see how the kids party. (Don’t worry, the legal drinking age is 18.) There are lots of red lights and a very high stage, so be prepared to sing to the masses—which, by the time weekend rolls around, are ready to dance to pretty much anything you can warble.
One of Helsinki’s go-to karaoke joints. So expect to be packed into the former public bathroom-turned-bar. Dive into their deep bench of song selections and expect to make a few new friends.