Walk through Helsinki and you're surrounded by austere beauty. It has cold blue skies scudded with clouds, luminous white buildings, Gotham-like train station flanked by giant granite statues and Art Nouveau facades along elegant boulevards. But it's when you peer into shop windows that you see minimalist Nordic cool at its best. Bright red poppies bloom on Marimekko textiles, Iittala glassware gleams, simple plywood becomes a work of art under furniture-maker Jouko Kärkkäinen. Back in 1956, a leaf-shaped plywood tray by Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala was declared the world's most beautiful object.
Finnish design has pared-down simplicity and functionality with style. If you want to acquire some yourself – or simply browse as you would through an art gallery – then head to Helsinki's Design District, centred in the streets around Dianapuisto Park. The tourist office has a map or free app that lists its 200-odd design shops. Keep an eye on what's happening, since the district puts on regular events, such as late-night shopping, free guided walks and treasure hunts (designdistrict.fi/en).
You might actually want to start not in a shop but in the Design Museum (Korkeavuorenkatu 23; designmuseum.fi/en), which gives a rather pleasing overview of Finnish design across the decades, and its influences on everything from fashion to furniture and architecture. The museum displays everything from orange-handled scissors, Finlandia vodka bottles and Moomin cartoon hippos to Eero Aarnio's iconic 1960s ball chair.
Outside in the Design District, you can see more works from big-name Finnish designers in their stores – plus those of a few foreign intruders, such as kitchenware designer Alessi and lighting and furnishing company Kartell, both Italian. The great Alvar Aalto, who became famous for stools, chairs and lamps, founded Artek (Keskuskatu 1B; artek.fi) in the 1930s, and the shop sells reproductions of his classic and distinctive furnishings. Iittala (Pohjoisesplanadi 25; iittala.com.au) made an international name in glassware, with many notable Finnish designers creating its drinking glasses and vases.
The country's most famous brand might be Marimekko (Aleksanterinkatu 50; marimekko.com/au_en), which hit the headlines in the 1960s with poppy-splashed dresses and a simple pink frock worn by Jackie Kennedy. Its clothes and textiles are still notable for seemingly un-Finnish bold patterns and strong colours. Watch your wallet, because even its simple striped T-shirts sell for wince-inducing prices.
On limited time, you could instead see many famous brands under one roof at Design Forum Finland (Erottajankatu 7; designforum.fi/en ), a showcase of beautiful home wares and a good source of stylish souvenirs. It also carries the work of upcoming designers unable to afford their own shop spaces, and hosts regular exhibitions. The great thing about the Design District is that wannabes who get ahead quickly open shops in the area, providing it with an eclectic range of textiles, fashion, home ware and jewellery to suit all manner of styles. Wander at random and you'll come across a hundred shops and get the chance to meet the owners and designers themselves, often found sketching, snipping and designing at the back of their shop.
For shoes and scarves, head to Minna Parikka (Bulevardi 24; minnaparikka.com), who isn't afraid of using lurid colours, even when it comes to her flats and lace-up boots. For belts, buckles and rather industrial jewellery, Harri Syrjänen (Ratakatu 1; harrisyrjanen.fi) provides in everything from stone to platinum, diamond and leather, and even has old enamel portraits remounted in funky settings. More feminine is the collection of Anna Heino (Uudenmaankatu 34; annaheino.fi), whose chunky, uncomplicated necklaces and bracelets show the usual Finnish flair for artful simplicity.
One of my favourites is hand-blown glassware shop Nounou Design Showroom (Uudenmaankatu 2; nounoudesign.fi) from designer Anu Penttinen, who is especially known for her black-and-white striped pieces. However, she also produces glassware in flamboyant reds and oranges that she says are influenced by Aboriginal art from her time spent in Australia.
For something completely different, it's hard to go past Galateia (Iso Roobertinkatu 35-37; galateiaenglish.weebly.com), which specialises in making handbags, belts and book bindings from fish leather, and occasionally the leather of wild game. Designer Liisa Saarni works onsite, and you might catch her sewing away at the fish skin on one of several machines.
Pop across the road to Art Gallery Piirto (7 Uudenmaankatu; piirto.com/eng), devoted to the ethereal, soft-focus works of Tapani Piirto, who usually paints children and women. It could take you quite a while just to browse along this street, which just for starters also features avant-garde prints at Ivana Helsinki (15 Uudenmaankatu; ivanahelsinki.com), minimalist cashmere knits at Arela Helsinki (26 Uudenmaankatu; arelastudio.com) and gorgeous handmade stationary at Proloque (27 Uudenmaankatu; proloque.com). Just a small part of the variety in Helsinki's Design District.