Head to the eclectic Finnish capital city’s Design District for a stylish city break.
By: Lynette Botha
It’s official: Finland is the happiest country in the world. The most recent World Happiness Report put together by the United Nations scored this Scandinavian country top – and visiting its eclectic capital Helsinki will definitely put a smile on your face, especially in summer.
If your time in Helsinki is limited (and even if it’s not), base yourself in the Design District in the heart of the city. As the name suggests, this neighbourhood is full of creativity and culture. You’ll find museums, galleries, showrooms, restaurants, nightlife and a whole lot more, all within walking distance. And because it’s one of the safest cities in the world, on foot is the best way to take in the sights and sounds of this Baltic beauty.
Comprising the precincts of Punavuori, Kaartinkaupunki, Kamppi and Ullanlinna, there are 25 streets and 200 places to explore, with the district playing a big role in increasing Helsinki’s reputation as a city of impeccable design. Designdistrict.fi
WHAT TO SEE
One of the highlights of the district has to be the Design Museum Helsinki, which houses 125 000 images, 75 000 objects and 45 000 drawings (at last count). Opened in 1873, it is an internationally recognised national specialist museum of Finnish design, and it is worth every euro to spend a few hours wondering its inspiring spaces. After getting your arts-and-culture fix, pop downstairs to the adjoining Juuri Café & Bar for delicious Finnish pastries, great coffee and a selection of local beverages.
Every Saturday until 16 June, the Design District offers a free walking tour, where you will discover how design became a lifestyle for the Finns, visit iconic brands such as Marimekko and Artek and encounter fresh new faces on the scene. Meet at the Design Museum at 11am and a local guide will take you around. designmuseum.fi
If you prefer to wander the cobblestone streets yourself, you’ll find that many art and design studios double up as galleries, shops and cafés, allowing you to walk in and meet the artists at work, as well as mingle with locals.
Before you leave, get a history fix at Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, one of Finland’s most popular attractions. Situated on islands off Helsinki, it was built as a maritime fortress and a base for the Archipelago Fleet, a branch of the armed forces of Sweden that existed between 1756 and 1823. A 20-minute ferry journey will get you there, offering amazing views of Helsinki from the sea. Visit the site’s museums and explore the nature, then enjoy a meal at one of the restaurants or cafés to make a full day of it. suomenlinna.fi
WHERE TO EAT
As with design, the Finns take food seriously. With no less than 27 Michelin-starred restaurants in Finland (and 26 of them in Helsinki), those into fine dining are spoilt for choice. One of the best in the district is Bronda, which is hailed as the first and only contemporary brasserie in Helsinki: fusing together a range of European techniques, ingredients and flavours, the chefs create classic dishes with a contemporary twist. ravintolabronda.fi
Don’t dismiss little bistros in side streets: they offer just as many culinary delights but in a more casual manner, from famed falafels to delicious vegetarian fare, such as that found at Yes Yes Yes. This quirky-cool diner was once a McDonald’s, but is now a hip-and-happening tapas-style restaurant that’s almost always fully booked. Plates are best shared as portions are large, with most meals able to be veganised. (Herbivores rejoice!) Yesyesyes.fi
For brunch and lunch, South Park is a must. Located on the edge of Sinebrychoff Park, it serves modern fare – buffet-style. Pay on arrival and help yourself to an array of salads, vegetable and meat dishes, breads, cheeses, coffee, tea and juices. The setting is idyllic, so get there early to grab a table outdoors. southparkrestaurant.fi
WHERE TO STAY
The luxurious Hotel St George makes you feel like a more sophisticated and cultured version of yourself the minute you step off the street and into its beautiful reception area. Housed in a magnificent historic building, and open for just over a year, Hotel St George’s oldest section dates back to the 1840s, with the most iconic section designed by architect Onni Tarjanne and completed in 1890. With beautiful artworks everywhere you look and spacious, luxuriously furnished rooms, the hotel is located across from the Old Church Park and within walking distance of great restaurants, bars, and Design District shops and sights. With Finnish water being some of the best in the world, you can drink it straight from the tap – but each room comes equipped with a SodaStream so you can make it bubble, if you wish. stgeorgehelsinki.com
On the border of the Design District, you’ll find the Clarion Hotel Helsinki, another architectural delight. Its unique design links two window-clad towers with a transparent glass footbridge, which sits high above the waterfront in the urban West Harbour area. Its Sky Room, a bar located on the roof, has panoramic views over the city and harbour – as does the heated rooftop swimming pool. If you don’t stay here, definitely keep it in mind as a spot for sundowners. nordicchoicehotels.com
If budget is a concern and you’d prefer to spend your precious pennies exploring the city, check out the affordable apartments and homes available on Airbnb.
AND SAUNA. OBVIOUSLY!
You cannot visit Helsinki without experiencing its sauna culture: seeing as pretty much every single home and apartment block has its own sauna, it would be rude not to. Allas Sea Pool is open all year, and is a very popular attraction for locals and tourists alike. Made up of a floating deck with three pools (a large heated fresh-water pool and two sea-water pools) as well as three saunas, it’s a heavenly way to while away a few hours. allasseapool.fi
WHEN TO VISIT Summer in Helsinki is incredible, especially from mid-June: the sun stays up for 19 hours, and days are long and languorous. Winter begins in mid-November, with the average temperature a frosty -4°C – but the pretty snowfall that often coats the city makes up for it.
MONEY The currency in Finland is the euro. All major credit cards are accepted, and 24-hour ATMs are widely available.
TIPPING Most hotels and restaurants include a service charge on bills, so tipping is not customary. For an exceptional dining experience or service, 10% is the norm.
CONNECTIVITY For free Wi-Fi, connect to “Helsinki City Open Wlan”, or any one of the many open hotspots in the city centre and at the harbour. Most hotels offer free Wi-Fi to guests and diners too.
LANGUAGE Finland’s two official languages are Finnish and Swedish, but English is widely spoken and the city is easy to navigate.
GETTING AROUND The public transport in Helsinki is very impressive. With a single ticket, which can be purchased from ticket machines, R-kiosks and various other outlets, you can use trams, buses, the metro and even the ferry. Bus tickets can also be bought directly from the driver. A lovely way to explore the city is by bicycle; shared-use city bikes can be hired for a fee by anyone in central Helsinki. myhelsinki.fi
GETTING THERE FLY SAA flies to Frankfurt daily. You can connect to Helsinki with SAA code-share partner and Star Alliance member Lufthansa. Visit flysaa.com
WORDS Lynette Botha