Helsinki was always one of those places that I assigned to the “one day” pile. You know, the I’ll get around to it one day places that only seem within reach when time and money and the sun rising in the seventh house all align. Or something like that.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Finland twice in my 10 years living in Europe—each trip incredible, leaving me with the desire to return (I still have to sled ride with huskies in the snow. Finland, I’m not done with you yet!). But before that, Helsinki was always just the place I’d flown in and out of, believing my time was better spent in getting out and into the wilderness as fast as possible.
When I finally stopped to spend time there, I learned that it’s a city with a myriad of architectural styles to reflect its storied history: heavyset Russian-influenced façades abut sweet art nouveau flourishes and modern-day glass office blocks. Volcanic rock splits the earth, the streets swerving around it. Denizens dress for comfort and warmth—style only gets a glance once the practicalities of not freezing your tush off are addressed. Striking up a conversation on the tram is uncommon but not unheard of; interaction with strangers tends to be limited. There’s room to breathe in Helsinki.
While the public transport system is efficient and easy to navigate for first-timers, my best piece of advice for visitors is to plan ahead. Unlike other European countries where an aimless afternoon wander frequently leads to discoveries of all sorts, the delights of Helsinki are slightly more hidden.
The Finns take their cinnamon buns seriously. As tourists, we applied a methodical taste-testing regimen. This bun, purchased from a bakery near the waterfront called Leipomo Keisari, emerged as the clear winner.
To get the full Finnish sauna experience, you need to combine the sauna part with a swim. The Yrönkadun Uimahalli is the oldest public swimming pool in Finland. Architecturally, the structure evokes an Art Deco-style hospital, with changing areas shielded by paper-thin curtains. Think of "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest," but without the fear of a lobotomy at the end. It’s oddly beautiful, yet function supplants old-fashioned form. Here, many ditch the swimsuits, and I was definitely in the minority with mine firmly in place. After an early morning flight, with late-afternoon weariness setting in, this was a perfect spot to ease into the Finnish way of life.
Helsinki is replete with comfortable, stylish accommodations, and most of them have at least a few ubiquitous Marimekko products somewhere in the room. Founded in the 1950s, and printed in Helsinki, Finns are justifiably proud of this brand which regularly releases new signature prints. Some are loud and colorful, while others are delightfully minimalist. For Scandinavian-design enthusiasts, Marimekko factory visits are available for scheduling.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Yrönkadun Uimahalli is ultra-modern Löyly, which sits on the waterfront.
Löyly houses an enticing restaurant (sadly we didn’t have time to eat there) and minimalist sauna, with a bonus chill-out space and cozy fireplace.
One of my favourite aspects of Löyly (apart from the angular architecture that allows for a fascinating interplay with light) is the simple ladder leading into the Baltic Sea. Finnish tradition dictates that a steamy sauna is best enjoyed in tandem with a dip in icy waters. Adventurous (and impatient) bathers skip the ladder, launching themselves into the sea from the platform.
Cold if not refreshing, but a dip in the Baltic Sea was worth it.
We scraped into a light an airy restaurant named The Cock just before lunch service ended. With a small but sweet menu, we treated ourselves to a hearty bowl of flamed salmon (or Jalotofu), sushi rice, Tokyo gold, kimchi, avocado, edamame, and watermelon radish. For those who are into colorful foods and highly Instagrammable interiors, this spot is the Holy Grail.
There are many islands near Helsinki. After a few days of exploring the city, we took a trip to Seurassaari, easily accessible by bridge. Here, ornate wooden houses dot the island's untamed coastline.
We arrived to Seurassaari with an overcast sky, which was completely ethereal. The clouds parted every now and then to treat us to warm, golden light that casted shadows across the island.
The need for caffeine (and one last cinnamon bun) before hitting the road led us to the touristy yet charming Café Regatta. There was a steady flow of patrons in this tiny café, but I found a spot by the window where we could sit and linger. With bottomless coffee and a small selection of pastries, it’s a great spot for a bit of people-watching, especially on a chilly day.