Finland's compact capital is one of Scandinavia's best-kept secrets. Ute Junker reveals how to make a day of it.
Helsinki is on a high. From its hip bars to its thriving design district, this is a city that's discovering its sense of self. The only question is, what's taken so long? From its island-studded archipelago to its grand cafes, the Finnish capital has always had a unique charm. And how many other cities let you swim naked in their city swimming pool?
For more than 150 years, well-heeled Finns have known that the most elegant way to start the day is at the glorious Café Ekberg (cafeekberg.fi). Its breakfast buffet is the best in town, and good value too. For just 11.90 euros on a weekday, you can feast on anything from cereal and croissants to omelettes, porridge or – if you want to eat like the locals do – herring.
10am Delve into design
Leaf through any book on Scandinavian design, and you will find plenty of Finns popping up, from legends such as Alvar Aalto and Tapio Wirrkala to contemporary talents such as Harri Koskinen. Whether you want to pick up a classic piece or get a glimpse of what the next generation is up to, Helsinki's Design District is the place to go. The broad promenade of Esplanadi is lined with big-name brands such as Marimekko and Iittala; the narrow streets around Bulevardi and Uudenmaankatu house small studios and boutiques. Go for a browse, or arrange a guided visit (designtourshelsinki.com).
12pm Have a locavore lunch
If you're visiting between May and September, a meal at a summer restaurant on one of Helsinki's islands is a must. Most of them are a quick ferry ride away, but Savu (ravintolasavu.fi/en), which smokes its own salmon, can be reached by strolling across a bridge. In the colder months, head towards the harbour where you will find the pretty market hall at Kaupattori. This is a great place to graze on local ingredients including reindeer meat and fine Finnish cheeses.
2pm Tall stories
Whether you are mad for modernism or prefer art nouveau, Helsinki is a treat for architecture fans. For the pick of the contemporary crop, head down Mannerheimintie, past the modernist glass box of Lasipalatsi, towards two of the city's most spectacular buildings. Alvar Aalto's performing arts centre, Finlandia Hall (finlandiatalo.fl/en), is an icon of Scandinavian architecture, while the light-flooded KIASMA modern art museum (kiasma.fi/en) by Steven Holl is one of the city's most recent additions. If you prefer old-school style, the Katajanokka district, with its elegant art nouveau buildings, is a must, as is the eye-catching Central Station. Whatever your taste, a visit to the Temppeliaukion Kirkko or Rock Church (helsinginkirkot.fi/en) hollowed out of a massive block of granite, is highly recommended. If you can, catch one of the concerts that are occasionally held here.
5pm Sweat it out
Reinvigorate your weary limbs with that quintessentially Finnish pastime, a sauna and a swim. The centrally-located Yrjönkatu indoor pool has ornate, Roman-style interiors, and a swimsuits-are- optional policy. Baths are open to men and women on different days, so check the schedule before heading in.
7pm Here's cheers
The small bar movement is booming in Helsinki. We love A21 Decades (a21.fi/en/decades) for its curtained booths and its creative updates of golden oldie cocktails, and Steam Hellsinki (steamhellsinki.fi), for its striking steampunk interiors - including a zeppelin anchored above the bar – as well as the impressive range of gins on offer.
8pm Culinary journey
Copenhagen is not the only Scandinavian metropolis with a healthy helping of culinary cred. For a small city, Helsinki is well represented in the Michelin listings, with four starred restaurants. Longtime favourite Demo (restaurantdemo.fi) has been joined by newcomers such as Ask (restaurantask.com) and Chef & Sommelier (chefetsommelier.fi/en), but we love the intimacy of Olo (olo-ravintola.fi/en), which seats just 24 guests. The spotlight is on local ingredients, which may include anything from salmon to spruce.
If you are not in the mood for a Michelin-starred meal, Helsinki has plenty of other options. Emo (emo-ravintola.fi) is a relaxed gastropub which melds flavours from around Europe. Farang (farang.fi/en) has been the city's best Asian restaurant for many years, while North African flavours are on the menu at Sandro (sandro.fi).
10pm Check in
If you were opening Helsinki's first design hotel, where would you locate it? In the Design District, naturally! Apart from its stellar location, the chic Klaus K (klauskhotel.com/en) has plenty of welcoming public areas spaces to hang out in. That is just as well, given some of the rooms are on the small side – although the Sky Lofts, which have their own private entrances, are suitably luxe.
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