Back in 2011 Monocle magazine voted Helsinki as the most liveable city in the world. The Economist Intelligence Unit placed it in their top ten cities in the world last year and last year they welcomed a record 3.5 million visitors who added nearly €1.5 billion to the already thriving economy. It’s fair to say Helsinki, and Finland overall, are enjoying life at the moment.
But will you? Your 24 hour experience in the capital of Finland will ultimately depend on two factors:-
1. The time of year
2. How well you have prepared for point 1
It’s fair to say that your experience of this fantastic city will be dependent in many ways on the weather. Whilst the sun shines hard and long into the night in the height of summer, the bitter winter is enough to send the most durable Finn indoors to enjoy their favourite past time – Saunaring.
I’m not sure there is a verb “to sauna” but if there isn’t it then the wordsmiths have obviously never visited Finland. There are more saunas here than cars but not quite as many as mobile phones – after all this is the country that brought us Nokia, and of course Snake. Consequently, a Finnish fact to take how is that there are no pay phones in the country.
Let’s assume for the sake of this post (and how I’ve experienced the city twice now) you visit during the summer. Whilst there will be the odd “grey day” where low cloud and drizzle will be the order of the day, most days will be wall to wall sunshine, with daylight disappearing in late June/early July close to midnight.
The new train line now takes you direct from the very smart Vantaa airport around 10 miles north of the city direct to the main station in around 20 minutes. The station can be found in between the two terminals and a single ticket to the city is €5.50. Trains run via two routes but both ultimately go to the city centre with very little difference in journey times. Remember to validate your ticket when you board in the orange/yellow machines.
The Soviet influence (after all, St Petersburg is only a four and a half hour journey away) is obvious from the block-line buildings and the fantastic architecture of the main station featuring the poshest Burger King in the world.
The importance of the water during these months cannot be underestimated. Finns love to take to their boats and sail out to the three hundred plus islands that form the archipelago of Helsinki. Whether it’s on an organised boat trips sailing gently around the islands or a visit to such historic places as the fortified islands of Suomenlinna, which are today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Another place to visit for an afternoon is Helsinki Zoo or Korkeasaari, located on a rocky garden. A ferry and water buses take visitors to the island summertime from the Kauppatori and Hakaniemi where the market stalls are.
With few tall buildings in the city, the best views of the skyline are from the water. The one building that dominates the panorama is the Helsinki Cathedral, the icon for the city since it was built over 150 years ago, a brilliant white structure with the green and gold rooftops sparkling in the summer sunshine.
For football lovers, head to the Sports Academy opposite the station that has enough screens to keep even the most ardent fan happy as well as decent American diner-style fair. If you are in town for the football season then a trip up to the Olympic Stadium, where the Finns hosted the games in 1952 and the next door is the Sonera Stadium (Finnish for stadium by the way is Töölö), how to arguably the biggest team in Finland, HJK and HIFK. The ground is a 15 minute walk up Mannerheimintie from the central station.
On the other side of the railway line from the stadium complex is the amusement park of Borgbacken and the Sea Life centre that heaves of a weekend but is great to get a feel for family life in Finland.
The city centre is compact and easily walkable. The pedestrianised streets are cross-crossed with trams if your legs need a rest but nowhere is more than a ten minute walk away. The streets around the main station (remember if arriving by train Helsinki is often written in the Swedish form Helsingfors. The main artery of Mannerheimintie is flanked by institutions including the National Museum, tracing Finnish history from the Stone Age to the present, imposing Parliament House and Kiasma contemporary art museum as well as some of the upscale shopping establishments. At right angles to this is the tree-lined boulevard of Esplanadi which runs to the water’s edge and is where the good and beautiful congregate after work on a summer’s evening.
Talking of midnight sun, then the place to head is Hernesaaren, a ten minute cab ride to the furthest southern tip of the city. The old abandoned industrial land has been converted into a massive beach club with various pop up bars, street food vendors and a huge stage for outdoor events. Deckchairs and cabanas provide a Cafe deal Mar feel whilst the deck area offers superb views of the city, silhouetted by the setting sun. Five minutes walk back towards the city is Löyly, a huge sauna open to all on the rocks that is covered by another superb bar and restaurant.
There’s no shortage of decent bars and restaurants in the city. If craft beer is your thing, and quite frankly why wouldn’t it be, then head to the tiny Wall Street cabin bar on Ateneuminkuja, behind the Ateneum art gallery where the have a fridge full of the stuff.
For a drink with a view then jump on the old red tram called Spårakoff that departs from Mikonkatu near the central station every hour during the summer from 2pm. The posh team not only tours the sights of the city but has a fully stocked bar. A ticket costs €9. Alternatively head to the 14th floor of the Hotel Torni where their panoramic terrace offers some of the best views in the city.
Another unique bar is the Trillby and Chadwick Detective Agency on Katariinankatu street. Themed as the 1920’s Helsinki branch of a London detective agency set up to support the enforcement of Finland’s prohibition laws and combat alcohol smuggling, it’s hidden behind an unmarked wooden door. Pass through here and pick up the phone and make an appointment with Trillby. If there’s room, they will invite you through a second set of doors to the most secret bar in the city.
The usual hotel chains are scattered across the city centre but if you are looking for something a bit different then the Hotel Katajanokka may be up your street, located in an old prison whilst the GLO Kluuvi is highly recommended with a great city centre location, a decent bar and very comfortable rooms.