Checklist: Helsinki, Finland

Travel Lists Checklist
Checklist: Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki is a city of contrasts. The Nordic capital only has a population 600,000 residents, but it’s still big enough to be considered a culinary, design and technology hub. It’s the biggest city in Finland with architecture that’s become a standard in the minimalist movement, but nature is often a quick bicycle ride away. Its residents are forthright and honest (in Finland, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as “small talk”) but will cut loose in one of the area’s numerous karaoke bars. The saying “something for everyone” might be both trite and overused—but there’s no better way to describe this city. Want to delve into the true spirit of the city? Here are a few places to help get you in the Finnish state of mind.

1. Indulge in a Sauna

thumbnail_sauna.jpgPhoto courtesy of Visit Helsinki

Saunas are a ubiquitous part of Finnish life, to the point where nearly every household has one. There’s even one in the Helsinki city center Burger King—just in case you’d like your Whopper with a side of steam. Not only are they considered a great way to cleanse your body and mind, the tradition is also used to make friends and build community. (Yes, you’re often naked with strangers, and no—locals do not see it as sexual or awkward). For the lux treatment, check out Löyly, an angular Tim-Burton-of-the-North-style structure that features a stream and smoke sauna, plus plenty of birch branches to whip yourself with (all the better to enhance both your circulation and the stories you’ll tell when you get home, right?). On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Sompasauna “Ghetto” sauna, a community run steam house located at the very edge of the Kalasatama District. Sure, there are no frills, and you might even be asked to help chop wood for the fire, but you’ll be rubbing elbows (perhaps literally) with Helsinki’s DIY arts community.

2. Eat Dirt

thumbnail_eat dirt Juuri PekkaKastari.jpgPhoto by Pekka Kastari/Visit Helsinki

Finland is a heavily wooded country—and much of its cuisine reflects that with ingredients like lingon berries, cabbage, reindeer and lichen (AKA the stuff reindeers eat). For a true taste of the culture, visit Saaga a restaurant that takes its cues from the area in Northern Finland known as Lapland. Not only will you be given the opportunity to sample delicacies such as pickled kale and creamed morel mushrooms, the atmosphere perfectly echoes a traditional Finnish hunting lodge, right down to the ceremonial prayer drums on the back wall. For a lighter, more modern twist, check out Juuri (pictured), a popular lunch spot that specializes in sapas (think Finnish tapas) filled with locally sourced fish and produce.

3. Eat More

eat more.jpgPhoto courtesy of Visit Helsinki

Fins just straight up love food—to the point where parks and streets are crammed each year with residents participating in National Restaurant Day, a yearly celebration when anyone can play chef for the day. It’s still difficult to name a type of food that isn’t done well somewhere in the city. For the ultimate foodie experience, check out Helsinki’s holy trinity of fusion restaurants, Holiday (pictured), The Cock and Sandro. Owned by chef Richard McCormick, each eatery offers a modern twist on Asian, rotisserie or Middle Eastern cuisine, served alongside locally sourced cocktails.

4. Grab a Brew

thumbnail_helsinki brew.jpgPhoto courtesy of Visit Helsinki

As the leaders in coffee consumption, Finns take their favorite beverage very seriously. Head over to Good Life Coffee (pictured), in the super hip Kallio district, for a cozy dog-friendly living room with Wes Anderson-worthy wallpaper and beans roasted and brewed on the spot. Those with a sweet tooth will appreciate Fleuriste. The Gallic-inspired nook serves strong espresso shots and what many consider to be the best cinnamon rolls in the city.

5. Work Up a Sweat

thumbnail_helsinki sweat.jpgPhoto courtesy of Visit Helsinki

Helsinki is a city that blurs the line between nature and urban life. And residents pride themselves on taking advantage of both. Rent a City Bike for a nominal fee and go explore Töölönlahti, a jaw-dropping expanse of water and woods minutes from central station. For the more adventurous/upper body-strength blessed, there’s Zippy Adventure Park (pictured), one of the country’s largest zip line courses. There you can treasure the surreal feeling of flying 100 feet above the forest floor while still in sight of both an office building and strip mall.

6. Embrace Island Life

thumbnail_Suomenlinna Jussi Hellsten.jpgPhoto by Jussi Hellsten/Visit Helsinki

Just off the coast of Helsinki is Suomenlinna Island. The UNESCO World Heritage site is a popular day trip for both locals and tourists (fun fact: when Conan O’Brien hopped on a boat during his 2006 Finland episode, it was the Suomenlinna ferry he was riding). Venture out early to do some urban exploring through the dense network of abandoned fortresses and underground bunkers, which were built in 1748 and used until the island military base was abandoned in 1973. Then climb down the hills and cool off with a dip in the perpetually icy Baltic Sea. Just make sure to catch the last boat home at 1 a.m.; there are 350 apartments on the island but only one hotel.

7. Lose Yourself in Kiasma

thumbnail_Kiasma.jpgPhoto courtsy of Visit Helsinki

Much of Finnish life revolves around practicality and simplicity. But that stops at the doors of Kiasma, Helsinki’s modern art museum. Inside the sleek spaceship-reminiscent building, artists from all over the world create full room installations that turn ordinary museum rooms into tiny, colorful worlds.

8. Get High

With their clean sweeping lines and red, white and brown roofs, the buildings in the city paint quite a pretty picture. For the best view, pick a clear day and grab a drink at the Sokos Hotel rooftop bar. Before you leave, be sure to visit the woman’s bathroom on the floor below for one more a truly Instagram-worthy panoramic view (sorry, fellas).

9. Check Out Some Classic Finnish Design

thumbnail_finnish design.jpgPhoto courtesy of Visit Helsinki

It’s unsurprising that the Finns treasure design. With harsh weather some six months out of the year, your home really does become your castle. Why not make it as pleasing to the eye as possible? To learn about the history of design within the country, start at the Design Museum where you can check out original prototypes by the likes of Eero Aarnio (AKA, the creator of the bubble chair). Ready to feather your own nest? Head over to the newly launched TRE (pictured), a home goods and design store that exclusively stocks sleek and clever wares from Finnish designers. Conveniently, there’s also a cozy cafe in the back—just in case a coffee break is needed.

10. Take a Lazy Day

Who says you have to rush from place to place? Fins strongly believe in a work-life balance, so bask in the chill local atmosphere. Grab a cup of coffee and take a breather with the locals on the steps of Senate Square. From there, it’s a short amble to several architectural landmarks such as the Russian designed Uspenski Cathedral, Hotel Katajanokka and The Finnish National Gallery—all which can (and should) be seen at a leisurely pace.

Laura is a freelance writer with a taste for international travel, indie pop and tea. Lots of tea.

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