Travel guide and things to do in Helsinki: Three-minute guide

WHY

Helsinki is a new capital in European terms, and sets itself apart with its chic, early 20th-century architecture, contemporary sculptures and parks of shimmering birch trees. It offers a fabulous water-hugging setting of indented bays, one of the continent's foremost design scenes, and a distinctive east-west European culture thanks to its balancing-act Cold War history and more recent influx of Baltic immigrants. Graceful, confident and finely attuned to the seasons, Helsinki offers no big sights but plenty of charm.

VISIT

Start on harbour-side Market Square for a lively market selling smoked herring sandwiches and reindeer skins. Nearby is the Lutheran Cathedral (helsinginseurakunnat.fi) and mosaic-studded Russian Orthodox Cathedral (ort.fi). Follow the park-lined Esplanade into the city to admire its many Art Nouveau buildings, including the Gotham-like train station, guarded by giant granite statues. Lingering in innumerable parks and cafe terraces is a summer must; in winter, repair to a public sauna such as Arla (arlansauna.net).

EAT

For excellent, upmarket Finnish fare look no further than Lokka (ravintolanokka.fi). Japanese meets New Nordic cuisine and organic wine at sushibar + wine (sushibar.fi). For fine but very relaxed bistro-style dining, sashay into Michelin-starred Demo (restaurantdemo.fi) for French- and Scandinavian-inspired set menus. Juuri (juuri.fi) has a deli that tempts with Finnish country produce, while the adjacent restaurant offers "Finnish tapas" that includes salmon and reindeer. Be brave and try the dessert of parsnips with white chocolate.

LOOK

For such a small city, Helsinki has a sophisticated design scene that highlights the famed Nordic design flair and great Finnish brands such as Iittala (glassware), Aalto (furniture) and Marimekko (fashion). Its Design District (designdistrict.fi) is crammed with 200-odd design shops selling leather, fashion, homeware and jewellery from aspiring and established designers. In the city centre, the Design Museum (designmuseum.fi) runs through the impressive Finnish design influences and leading designers of the 20th century.

MUST

Suomenlinna (suomenlinna.fi) is one of an archipelago of cottage-dotted islands in Helsinki harbour, reached on a scenic 15-minute ferry ride from Market Square. The former naval base is crowned with one of the world's largest maritime forts, whose ramparts provide lovely views across the water. You'll also find historic houses, cottage gardens, a decommissioned submarine and several small but interesting museums on the island's naval history. Summer, when lilacs bloom, is lovely.

SLEEP

Sokos Hotels (sokoshotels.fi) is a local chain that has seven reasonably priced and centrally located hotels in Helsinki, including Sokos Hotel Albert right in the middle of the Design District. The boutique GLO Art Hotel (glohotels.fi) is fronted by a pseudo-castle and panelled in wood, but comfortable guestrooms sit in a modern building behind. The historic grande dame is Hotel Kamp (hotelkamp.com), with a stunning marble lobby, great spa (with Finnish sauna) and dining overlooking the Esplanade.

TIP

An excellent network of buses, trams and ferries (hel.fi) will get you around, and unlimited-travel tourist tickets are a bargain. If the weather is fine, you can also rent one of 2500 city bikes (kaupunkipyorat.hsl.fi) from 150 stations across downtown.

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Finnair, Celebrity Cruises and My Helsinki.

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