When visiting Helsinki you can’t help but notice how fiercely independent and proud the Finns are—in addition to how amazing Finnish sauna is; and how tasty reindeer is; and how quirky and friendly the people are; and how clean and safe it all is; and how impossible it is to understand Finnish.
We digress. Before you head to Helsinki, or anywhere in Finland, you should know a few things about their recent history—like the country’s geography and long road to sovereignty. Finland has a prime location between Europe and Asia. It’s lined with valuable shipping and passenger ports. So, naturally, it’s attractive to either powerful neighbor. They spent centuries under the rule of Sweden, before enduring another one as an autonomous Russian territory through the first World War (it coincided with a 3-month civil war that led to their independence in May 2017). In 1917, Finland celebrated its first century as an independent nation.
They’re proud of that. They’re proud of their unique language, which resembles none of the other Nordic ones (it’s closer to Hungarian, in fact; however, Swedish is the second official language of the country). They’ll remind you that they’re not part of Scandinavia, thank you very much, and they’ll be unabashed standing naked with you in a sauna, because why wouldn’t they be?
The best way to soak everything up is to spend four days eating and drinking and mingling (naked or clothed) in Helsinki perhaps with an easy overnight to the west, as you’ll learn from this guide. Here’s how to do it best, to encapsulate this fantastic country and its very warm, very blonde, very proud people.
How to Get There
Did you know that Finnair has a stopover program, just like Iceland’s and Portugal’s? You can plop in via Helsinki for up to five days, en route to a further destination at no extra cost. (It’s one of Europe’s most popular routes to Asia, FYI.) The airline has seasonal direct flights to New York, Chicago, Miami, and San Francisco, with a new route added direct to Los Angeles beginning March 31, 2019. There’s barely an excuse not to go (plus you can score a Marimekko amenity kit on the flight, which is miles better than stale pretzels).
Where to Stay in Helsinki
Opened in 2015, Lilla Roberts’ building touts a curious history, with past lives as a power plant and, more recently, a police station. Now, the four-star, luxury hotel (which feels more like five stars, in our opinion) is one of the trendiest haunts in town, with 130 Art-Deco-inspired rooms in the heart of Helsinki’s Design District. There’s moody black-and-gold décor in each room with five categories of rooms and suites to choose from. Park yourself at the lobby bar Bar Lilla e for a nightcap, or nestle into Krog Roba for breakfast (or a reserved dinner table). Either way, fresh Nordic ingredients are on display.
Helsinki’s newest hotel has rerouted hip locals and tourists alike. St. George focuses on multi-faceted wellness. For your mind and body, try the sauna, pool, and spa at St. George Care. Sate your appetite at the stellar bakery, restaurant, and bar lounge. Get some much-needed relaxation with a dynamic roster of soft-colored, Nordic-designed rooms and suites. And soak in the culture with rotating works of art, including Ai Wei Wei’s “Tianwu”—a multi-headed dragon dangling overhead in the entryway.
If the Ace model is your preferred way to stay, then Hotel St. George is your obvious pick. Despite its popularity, it’s not as overrun as most Ace properties, making it attractive to those who value aesthetics, location, 5-star comfort—and, yes, solitude.
What to do in Helsinki
Museums: It’s worth getting a Helsinki Card if you plan to visit a bunch of the city’s museums and other cultural attractions. The pass also includes public transit.
Löyly Sauna and Kaurilan Sauna: Finnish sauna is of the utmost priority in Helsinki. Löyly—a huge geometric oasis right on the water—is the most popular pick, and it even has its own restaurant. If you want something more traditional and intimate (not in a scandalous way), make a reservation at Kaurilan. You’ll join a dozen locals after work at the home of its owner, enjoying fresh bread between detox sessions, nestled in a park outside the center of town. The two experiences couldn’t be more different, but they’re equally enjoyable.
Temppeliaukio “Rock Church” and Kamppi “Chapel of Silence” : These aren’t your garden variety, tourism-checklist churches. The former is a Lutheran church built into the side of a giant rock face, complete with a skylight and copper dome. It’s famous for its acoustics, and you can catch a variety of performances when you stop by for a visit. (We happened upon a Chinese youth choir.) The latter is a stunning orange structure planted in Narinkka Square. Visitors come to escape the bustle of the city—to sit calmly and reflect. Neither should be missed.
Suomenlinna: Catch a ferry and head to this former fortress island, rich with history from Finland’s occupation by both Sweden and Russia.
Market Square and the Old Market: These are open-air and enclosed markets, respectively, that are the best places to pick up traditional souvenirs and gifts. Get smoked reindeer or a bowl of salmon soup, a kuksa cup, or a hand-woven lapp hat.
Lightbringer (Winter War Monument): Erected in 2017 in Kasarmitori Square, this metal, punctured sculpture commemorates the efforts of soldiers who held off the advances of the Russians in the winter of 1939 and 1940—a valiant milestone for the young nation.
Sibelius Monument and Sibelius Park: This beautiful waterfront park has an organ-pipe sculpture to memorialize the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
Senate Square, Moscow Patriarchate (Orthodox Church), and Uspenski Cathedral: These are three of Helsinki’s architectural icons, and the most-photographed squares.
Katajanokka and Hotel Katajanokka: Katajanokka is a charming peninsula neighborhood with Art Nouveau architecture, including the Uspenski Cathedral. This is a great corner of the city for fine harbor-front seafood or a craft cocktail.
Where to Eat and Drink in Helsinki
Yes Yes Yes: We felt our happiest and coziest here, thanks to the bustle of young locals that gave this vegetarian restaurant its colorful energy. You must order the halloumi fries with pomegranate and coriander.
The Cock: Get your yuks out of your system, and saddle up for some delicious brasserie-style oysters, steak, or of course, chicken. (Hence the name, you pervert.)
Story in the Old Markethall: You’ll inevitably find yourself in Helsinki’s marketplace, perusing smoked meats and woven winterwear. Stop by Story for fresh bread, creamy salmon soup, or pork belly with beer-braised sauerkraut.
Ravintola Nokka: Stop by this waterfront gourmet, in the foodie-haven neighborhood Katajanokka, for lunch, wine, or coffee.
Restaurant Andrea: Finnish-Turkish chef Mehmet Gürs combines Anatolian and Nordic cuisines for one of Helsinki’s most-buzzed-about new restaurants (located in Hotel St. George).
Wintergarden Bar: This living-room lounge is flooded with light by day, and Helsinki’s hardworking hipster class by night. It’s also located onsite at St. George—further proof that the hotel is the city’s hub of ‘cool’.
B-Side Bar Teurastamo: A Hollywood-caliber dive bar with an A-list selection of whiskey, wine, and beer.
Bronda: More brasserie gold, in case your palate demands a taste of western Europe. (With a dinnertime DJ, to boot.)
Ora: Don’t wear a belt, because this six-course seasonal menu will have you bursting.
Bar Molotow: Craft beers with an outdoor terrace, often soundtracked by live music.
Consider This Overnight Trip: Hanko (The “Hamptons” of Finland)
We think three days in Helsinki is the sweet spot, though we’d never complain about a bonus day. That said, we also think a day trip (or overnighter) is in order. Lots of tourists will hop the boat to Tallinn, but that’s a city that deserves more time than a pass-through.
That’s why you should skip the boat and hop on a train a couple hours west to Hanko. With 30 km of soothing, sandy beaches on the southernmost tip of the country, it attracts weekend leisurerers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Crash at the cozy Hotel Regatta if you want the best location between beaches, docks, and dining. They even have daily bike rentals, which allow you easy access to the entire coastline, passing kite surfers and sailors, kayakers and sunbathers. Make dinner reservations at the marooned Hangon Portti for romantic waterfront dining (there’s a little boat that shuttles between the mainland and the tiny island every couple of minutes). Next to the restaurant is Itämerenportti Sauna. If you haven’t noticed, sauna is requisite for any day in Finland. You can rent a private one there, on quite literally your own private island. Otherwise, we suggest a meal at the historic, newly restored Hangon Casino (it’s not a casino). Park your bikes outside The House of Four Winds for a Montauk-like dining experience with panoramic water views. If worth pedaling out to Ravintola På Kroken for the freshest (and world famous!) seafood in town. If you go, take a look at Hanko’s tourism site to inquire about any activity bookings, like board rentals, far-off lighthouse visits, and the like.