We loved Helsinki. We added on two days in this Nordic city before our trip to Estonia because our good friends Melanie and Alex were going to be there and it’s only a two hour ferry ride from Tallinn, our final destination. I’d never been before and Rasmus had only had a business trip there (= airport to office to aiport). And Helsinki exceeded all our expectations.
So here is a (long) list of recommendations if you find yourself flying north any time soon…
The most famous landmarks of Helsinki are the two churches that face off across the harbour from their own small hills. The Lutheran cathedral, Tuomiokirkko, is the stately white domed church. It’s huge bank of steps leading up to its door made me feel like a pilgrim approaching its holy hill. Inside it is very simple and unadorned, quite a pleasant change from the many ancient churches that seem crowded with decoration. On summer evenings, the cathedral steps steal the last of the sunlight (well after 10pm) and young people were gather here to drink and socialise.
The Orthodox Uspenskin Cathedral is the smaller of the two but what it lacks in size it makes up for in decoration, from its green domes to its gold-covered interior. No space is left uncovered and its an impressive view up to the domed roof inside.
Between the two cathedrals, you will cross the Market Square, which was one of our favourite spots in the city. The orange-tented market there is full of tantalisingly fresh fruit and vegetables, local Finnish souvenirs and fresh fish being grilled in front of you. The prices are no doubt hiked up for the tourists but its still a great place to buy some food and enjoy the atmosphere of the seafront. We bought some sweet peas in their pods, that were “better than candy” as the seller cheerfully told us.
If you buy food, protect it carefully from the hovering seagulls who will literally pluck it from your hands! Finish off your fish lunch with a fresh (square!) jam doughnut from one of the stands. These were heavenly good!
Buy your lunch or snacks from the market and then buy a boat ticket to Suomenlinna Island. We were unsure how interesting this fortress island would be but we loved it. The short boat ride out to the island gives you a fantastic view back of the city and is not too expensive.
On the island you can wander the length and breadth, eat your picnic on the rocks in the sunshine, explore the ruins of the fort, visit the island church which doubles as a lighthouse (apparently the only such combination in the world) and watch the sail boats coming in and out.
We’d heard the Rock Church was worth seeing but we didn’t really feel like heading that way. Instead we searched out the newly built Chapel of Silence, right in the middle of the shopping and business district. This is a joint venture between two church denominations in the city and provides a quiet place to pause, pray and reflect in the middle of all the bustle. I was not ready for the intense experience it was for me to sit there in the beautiful little room. It felt like holy ground.
If you’re worn out from sightseeing and shopping by the end of the day, head for the Esplanade. This little strip of park on a wide shopping avenue leading the market square filled up towards the end of each afternoon with young people relaxing after a busy day. The atmosphere was fantastic and we were happy to join them with a beer and crisps bought from a local kiosk before heading out for dinner.
To Eat and Drink
Helsinki is a typical Nordic city – fantastic options for eating and drinking but you better have saved up your euros before travelling there! Still, we found some good spots.
1. Our first night we found this cute little Tapas restaurant, Bar Tapasta (Uudenmaankatu 13). The portions were a little small for the price but we enjoyed the food, especially the goats cheese crème brûlée with strawberries, which was original and delicious.
Our second day we discovered a great little bagel cafe close to where we were staying. Brooklyn Cafe (Fredrikinkatu 19) did great coffee and fresh bagels with free wifi available – the perfect morning combination!
We bought snacks from the market, and then ate lunch on Suomenlinna Island, at a little cafe called Cafe Bar Valimo. It was right next to a small harbour where we could watch the sail boats coming in and out and a sleeping man slowly getting more and more sunburnt. The cafe served simple salads and wok dishes and was good and satisfying food.
2. In the evening we headed to Vin Vin (Kalevankatu 6), a wine bar in the centre. They had fantastic vintage sofas to relax on and a good wine list.
4. We managed to find a great budget option for dinner that night. Cafe Bar 9 (Uudenmaankatu 9) is a friendly student bar with basic but filling food options. After how expensive everything else was, we loved finding this cheaper option.
3. After dinner we headed for the Ateljee rooftop bar of the Sokos Hotel Torni, which we’d read had fantastic views over the city. It did indeed have great views, but it seemed every other tourist in the city had also heard this fact and the little bar has heaving with people, and the over-priced drinks didn’t make up for lack of space. It’s maybe worth a five minute elevator ride to peek at the view, but don’t plan on a relaxing drink here unfortunately.
Helsinki is the 2012 World Design Capital and it shows. This city had so much energy and much of it was focused around the amazing shops we found. We love all things interior design, especially anything with a Nordic feel, so we were in our element! Here are a few of our favourite discoveries.
We found this great coffee bar on our second morning in the city, not far from where we were staying. Kaffa Roastery (Pursimiehenkatu 29) roast and blend their own coffees and they only do coffee, so you know it’s going to be good! Right next door is the fantastic Moko (Peramienhenkatu 10) cafe and interior design store. There was lots here that I could have bought, but it’s a little hard to fit a sofa in my suitcase… we did take home lots of ideas and a much longer wishlist for our home.
Wandering through the city centre and finding all these great stores was so much fun for us. We could have spent sooo much money and spent much more time exploring.
1. Artek on the main Esplanade (Eteläesplanadi 18) is a who’s who in Nordic design, and I got to sit on (and sigh in contentment) a number of design classics.
2. Formverk (Annankatu 5) was stacked high with smaller design products for the kitchen, bathroom, living room. There was a lot that was more affordable and a lot that you would recognise from the most recent interiors magazine.
3. A trip to Helsinki is not complete without visiting perhaps the most famous Finnish design firm: Iittala (Pohjoisesplanadi 25). Their uniquely shaped vases and bowls, together with the moomin cups and saucers, are most well known. But they had a range of cups designed to celebrate Helsinki’s year as the World Design Capital, and I loved this little collection.
4. Fasaani Antik (Korkeavuorenkatu 5 ) is one of those antique and vintage furniture stores that looks small from the front but is in fact a maze of rooms and corridors full of second hand classics (and not-so-classics). You could find some good bargains in here I’m sure, especially if you were willing to recover or repaint your find.
I saved the best till last. Peroba (Fredrikinkatu 33) was my absolute favourite shop. I could have happily lived there. I wanted to buy everything I saw and we took home lots of ideas of things we could do in our home (perhaps for much less money!).
We stumbled on this antique bookstore (Fredrikinkatu 35) and it was a complete treasure trove of old books and maps, in all the Nordic languages and English. A book lover could spend many happy hours trawling through the piles.
The Design District map is a fantastic resource for finding many of the best interior design, clothing, jewellery and art stores and good restaurants. You can pick up a map in any location that is featured on it, or download it from their website (prints on two A4 pages). We love interior design so we made a route that covered all the green dots and were really happy with what we discovered.
We picked up a fantastic free guide called the Finnish Design Guide. Through this we found some great shops and coffee bars, and wished we’d known about it earlier, so we could have included more places in our little tour.
The Lonely Planet have made it possible to download pdfs of chapters of their guides for quite reasonable prices. We downloaded the Helsinki chapter of the Finland guide, and it was a helpful orientation guide, although we used the two other guides more often.