Finland’s capital city, Helsinki has come a long way in 20 years. The last time I visited was nearly that long ago, en route to St. Petersburg. It was icy, expensive and everything was closed on a Sunday. The nation’s design and architectural heritage hadn’t yet become a cornerstone of their tourism strategy. About 10 years ago, that changed and in 2014, Helsinki was declared a UNESCO city of design. There are walking routes taking in the compact design district, and others featuring art nouveau architecture and buildings designed by one of Finland’s most famous sons, Alvar Aalto. There are also striking additions to Helsinki’s skyline with exteriors as engaging as what goes on inside them.
A recent trip allowed me little more than 24 hours in Helsinki, and a few days in Lakeland, a region about three hours north of Helsinki, where, you guessed it, there are thousands of lakes. You can read more about what to see and do there here. It’s an easy and scenic train journey from Helsinki or directly from the airport.
With a couple of trade-offs, it is possible to take in a lot of Helsinki’s attractions within one day, but I recommend two days to get a feel for the city and visit some of the museums. These are my picks whether you’re pressed for time or take a more leisurely place.
See: Helsinki is a walkable city. There are also bikes and scooters available to rent via designated apps. Helpfully, the Helsinki Tourism board has mapped out four routes taking in the city’s signature highlights: history and architecture, design and fashion, sea and nature, and food and drink.
Temppeliaukio Church, a stunning, one-of-a-kind place to worship, is carved into rock. It opened in 1969 after two brothers, both architects, won a competition with their controversial design. Despite public apprehension, the church has become an important fixture of the city. The copper dome is surrounded by rectangular glass windows filling the interior with light. Regular services and concerts are held here.
In one of the busiest parts of the city, sits the Kamppi Chapel, or chapel of silence, built in 2012. The intimate, cylindrical, soundproof structure is made of three different kinds of wood snugly wrapped around the building. Formal services are not held here; it’s simply a place for quiet thoughts and another chance to marvel at Finnish architecture.
Possibly my favourite building in all of Helsinki is the new Oodi Library, which opened in late 2018. More urban hub than book-lined reading rooms, it’s an architectural wonder spread over three floors and is open from 8:00am to 10:00pm during the week, and 10:00am to 8:00pm at weekends. The light-filled spaces are airy and inviting, with communal areas as well as comfortable, quiet spots to read inside or on the terrace. The idea behind the library was to create a welcoming place for the entire community. There are soundproof gaming rooms, a cinema, café, a demonstration kitchen that can be booked for private events, drum studios, podcasting booths, and a workshop with equipment like sewing machines and 3-D printers. If anything could get me to consider moving to Helsinki, it might be this.
If weather permits, head over to the harbour and hop on a boat to Suomenlinna, a UNESCO-listed 18th century sea fortress. Navigate the island via easy trails surrounded by views of the Baltic Sea. In summer, it’s a great place to pack a picnic and climb down to the water’s edge where there are small coves. There’s also a café on the island.
Eat: Kappeli, a short walk from the harbour, is located in Esplanade Park. A local institution dating back to the late 19th century, it used to be a favourite spot for poets, artists and musicians; Jean Sibelius, Finland’s most famous composer, among them. A bandstand out front gives way to summer concerts, and meals are served from breakfast time until late. We ate typical Finnish dishes; salmon and Arctic char followed by a very memorable licorice chocolate cake. Service is impeccable.
Stay: Family-owned, boutique Hotel F6 is around the corner from Kappeli. It’s centrally located, quiet and comfortable. The service and style are the attractions here. Décor is eclectic, fun and slightly theatrical. Breakfast is hearty, with smoked fish, local cheeses, and very Finnish lingonberry jam. If I was a regular visitor to Helsinki, this would be my home away from home.
Amy Guttman is a freelance journalist and broadcaster based in London regularly reporting for PBS Newshour, BBC and Forbes, focusing on current affairs and entrepreneurship.