From heavy metal clubs to the indie design shopping district – Finland’s capital is certainly not short on variety…
HELSINKI SIGHTS AND ATTRACTIONS
Senate Square is Helsinki’s biggest set piece, but the grand buildings on three of the sides are dwarfed by Helsinki Cathedral. An odd combination of columns, domes and apostolic statues, it is both raised and on a slope, making it seem about three times as big as it actually is. Another architectural stand-out is Helsinki Central Station – it’s a genuinely striking building rounded off by the enormous granite statues guarding the front. The must-do, however, is the EUR4 ferry trip from Market Square out to the Suomenlinna island fortress, which is packed with museums and military remnants.
Cultural attractions in Helsinki
The top art fix is to be found at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (2 Mannerheiminaukio, 917 336 501). It works as a hang-out, meeting place and modern architectural statement as much as an on-the-pulse gallery. The Finnish National Opera (58 Helsinginkatu, 940 3021) tries to innovate and break newly written operas to a younger crowd, rather than just relying on old stalwarts to keep the grey-haired converted happy. Meanwhile, the Cable Factory (1 Tallberginkatu, 947 638 300) is a huge cultural centre, packed with odd museums and galleries and playing host to numerous theatre and dance performances. No prizes for guessing what it used to be.
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BOOK YOUR OWN ADVENTUREThe following sites are usually my first port of call when booking a trip - so I recommend them as somewhere to start when booking your own holiday.
HOTELS: Hotels.com (£) or Agoda (£)
FLIGHTS: Skyscanner (£) Kayak or Roundtheworldflights.com
CAR HIRE: Car Rentals (£)
GUIDE BOOKS: Amazon (£)
TOURS AND ACTIVITIES: Viator (£)
One of the things that Helsinki does very well is distinctive architecture, and a number of walking routes can be based around gawping at buildings. Art Nouveau, functionalism and modernism are best represented, and a map to base your stroll around can be bought at the Tourist Information Centre (19 Pohjoisesplanadi). If you want to dust off the cobwebs, then a stroll along the coast to the north-west of the centre takes you through a string of parks, past numerous monuments and along a causeway to the open air museum at Seurasaari Island. A lap around Toolonlahti Lake is as good for walkers as it is for the numerous joggers they’ll encounter, too.
Helsinki is the World Design Capital for 2012, and it is milking it. Two hour walking tours around the newly branded Design District, pointing out some of the more enterprising shops and artists, are available through Helsinki Expert (922 881 600) for EUR15 during the summer months. Helsinki Expert also runs the EUR27 Audio City Tour – a bus trip with recorded commentary around the highlights – which is handy for orientation and getting a good overview. Between May and September, Royal Line (207 118 333) runs EUR20 sightseeing cruises around the islands and coastal highlights.
Budget accommodation in Helsinki
Low cost accommodation in Helsinki is scarce, but if you’re prepared to share a bathroom, Eurohostel (9 Linnankatu, 9622 0470) is a bright, perky spot, offering twins – but no doubles – for from EUR52 a night. The real bargains come when you change the traditional model, though. Omena Hotels (6001 8018, from EUR45) have no reception, preferring to send a door code by e-mail or SMS. But the rooms are surprisingly decent and come with nice additions such as free WiFi, a fridge and a microwave. Two city centre options are at 13 Lönnrotinkatu and 24 Eerikinkatu.
Mid-range accommodation in Helsinki
Apartment hotels generally offer good value for money in Helsinki, and the Hellsten Helsinki Senate (5 Kauppiaankatu, 9251 1050, from EUR86) is a good example. The kitchenette and location make it something of a steal. The Scandic Continental (46 Mannerheimintie, 947 371) is four star chain territory, but the slightly north-of-centre location and need to fill 500-plus rooms mean good quality stays can be snapped up for from EUR84. The Premier Hotel Katajanokka (1a Merikasarminkatu, 968 6450, from EUR76.30) has the quirk factor – it has been brilliantly converted from the old prison, and three cells have been knocked together to create far more hospitable rooms.
Luxury accommodation in Helsinki
The new Fabian Hotel (7 Fabianinkatu, 961 282 000, from EUR145) is wonderfully relaxed, but it has cool furnishings – check out the stepladders as bedside tables – and a sense of style to go with the homely feel. Klaus K (2 Bulevarden, 207 704 700, from EUR132.30) is either supercool or horrendously pretentious, depending on your perspective. It’s themed around a Lord of the Rings-esque Finnish epic, and is a celeb favourite. Rooms are small, but have flair. Hotel GLO (4 Kluuvikatu, 103 444 400, from EUR135) is the best bet though. Gorgeous rooms come with furry rugs and soft toy tigers, whilst everything from board games to bike hire are thrown in.
Top end hotels in Helsinki
Hotel Kamp (29 Pohjoisesplanadi, 957 6111, deluxe rooms from EUR206.10) has been standing since 1887, and it’s unquestionably the best in town. Rooms are impressively spacious, the bathrooms are a sea of marble and the little things – such as plug sockets in the perfect position for working at the desk – are spot on. Otherwise, the EUR229-plus junior suites at the Sokos Torni (26 Yrjönkatu, 201 234 604) have roll-top baths and balconies, whilst ‘lux’ rooms at Hotel Haven (17 Unioninkatu, 961 285 850, from EUR219) offer a much sought, but rarely found quality – barn-storming sea views.
Cafés in Helsinki
The Karl Fazer Café (3 Kluuvikatu, 207 296 702) has been around since 1891, and once you tuck into the open sandwiches, soups and cakes by the big people-watching window, you start to understand why. Kitch (30 Yrjönkatu, 966 6001) has an unpretentiously cool neighbourhood hang-out feel, with the tapas dishes and pastas being a good bet.
Snacks in Helsinki
The gigantic deli section on the second basement level of the Stockmann store is something approaching heaven. The ‘meals’ section has hundreds of bowls to choose from, featuring everything from tuna salad or meatballs to chicken vindaloo. For food court-style cheap eats, then you’ll struggle to do better than the Old Market Hall next to Market Square. You can pick up local box-ticks such as reindeer sandwiches and lingonberry pastries, while the massive bowls of soup from the soup kitchen are hugely popular. For cakes and gourmet chocolates, the patisserie at Café Ekberg (9 Bulevarden, 9222 5975) hits the spot.
Best restaurants in Helsinki
Chez Dominique (4 Rikhardinkatu, 9612 7393) is the double Michelin-starred top dog in town. The often extremely inventive tasting nine course tasting menu will set big-walleted diners back EUR139, with another EUR134 to add if you want matching wines. Luomo (8 Vironkatu, 9135 7287) is a fairly new pretender to the throne, again specialising in tasting menus with bold dishes such as Thai quail and foie gras or veal with garlic and coffee. High quality mains at Postres (8 Etelaesplanadi, 966 3300) come in at EUR30, but as any Spanish-speakers will infer from the name, the real star attractions are on the dessert menu.
HELSINKI ENTERTAINMENT AND NIGHTLIFE
Bars in Helsinki
Start off with a cocktail at the Ateljee Bar at the top of the Sokos Torni Hotel. It could do with a revamp – the plastic chairs look tacky – but the views from the 14th floor terrace out over the city are unmatched. Bar Llamas (14 Iso Roobertinkatu , 453 230 504) is a young, fun joint with sofas wrapped in hessian sacks, swings to sit on at the bar and big piñatas hanging from the ceiling. It’s the pick of the pedestrianised Iso Roobertinkatu party strip. Villi Waino (4 Kalevankatu, 103 872 350) is another genial spot, with a cracking range of beers, ciders and whiskies to match a friendly vibe.
Live music in Helsinki
Helsinki is hardly New Orleans, but the Happy Jazz Club Storyville (8 Museokatu, 940 8007) is an appealing spot for anyone feeling like getting a dose of Dixieland or swing music. For rock music, Tavastia (6 Urho Kekkosen katu, 977 467 420) is generally the safest bet – it attracts a fair smattering of international acts as well as guitar-wielding locals. But if you’re going for a proper cultural experience, head for a metal club such as PRKL (4 Kaisaniemenkatu, 942 832 792). The Finns tend to like it brutally loud and morbid, and recent line-ups at PRKL have included delights such as ‘Torture Killer’ and ‘Sacrilegious Impalement’. Leave granny at home.
Nightclubs in Helsinki
Ahjo (2 Bulevardi, 207 704 711) at the Klaus K Hotel is the sort of place that people turn up at purely to look cool, but the house music and admirable line-up of international DJs gets the small dance floor pretty busy as the night goes on. Club Playground (10 Iso Roobertinkatu, 405 114 082) is a relatively new kid on the block in Helsinki, but it is seen as one of the most credible, serious, electronic music-loving options. Headbangers can join sweaty, like-minded cohorts at late night metal club Heavy Corner (2 Hietaniemenkatu, 9458 4309).
Markets in Helsinki
Helsinki’s numerous markets are a big part of city life. The scattergun stalls at Market Square mark the seasons – in summer it’s busy and buzzing, in winter it’s a few hardy souls in what look like tents, selling warm hats. The daily flea markets at Hietalahti Square are a hive of eccentricity; you can probably pick up unicorn horns and magic elixirs if you rummage amongst the stalls for long enough. Come winter time, it’s all about the St Thomas Christmas Market, however. It sprawls along the Esplanade Park, with more santa hats and roasted chestnuts than you could possibly wish for.
Shops in Helsinki
The Design District, which is broadly to the south of Bulevardi and Esplanade Park, is an absolute pleasure to browse around. The chain stores generally don’t hold sway here, meaning plenty of interior design, indie clothing, jewellery and antiques stores. If you have to pick just one spot, then Design Forum Finland (7 Erottajankatu) is probably the most interesting all-rounder. It’s got everything from vases and wooden stools to bags and necklaces – just about everything looks ooh-I-want-that cool. Stockmann (52 Aleksanterinkatu), meanwhile, is the big department store. This seven story behemoth takes up a whole city block and has an upmarket vibe.
HELSINKI TRAVEL INFORMATION
Helsinki Travel tip
With many cities, the trick is to aim for the shoulder season. Not Helsinki – arriving in summer (June to August) is the best bet on almost every score. The weather is at its best – you might just need one jumper rather than three – the most interesting tours are running, and the outdoor attractions are fully open. Best of all, hotel rates tend to be lower as well – many Finns disappear to their country cabins with the family at this time of year, and business travel is far less prevalent. Hence hotels drop their prices to fill the suit shortfall.
Finland uses the euro.
The international dialling code for Finland is +358, so add 00 358 to any number listed here if calling from overseas. If on the ground in Helsinki, just add a zero to the front.
Details correct as of March 2011, when this guide was researched by David Whitley. It was originally published by the Sun-Herald in .
All content copyright David Whitley.