Can cities be trendy? Countries? Senate even? We think so.
Case in point: Scandinavia. It seems like everybody looks to that Northern part of Europe right now, searching for inspiration. Many things make this area of the world special: The minimalist fashion. The smart furniture design. Exceptional food. But also the collective countries’ take on big issues like feminism and culture and welfare.
Dressing, decorating and eating like a Scandinavian is all the rage from Berlin to Brooklyn, and so is visiting the friendly Europeans way up North. The two most obvious destinations that are all the rage are of course Copenhagen and Stockholm. But there surely must be more?
Oh yes, there is! A bit further up north and to the east, Finland lays quietly, waiting for us to discover it.
Rounds of research left us a bit cold. There were a few sights in the city that everybody seemed to recommend, but not a whole lot more. Reading up on a destination can tell you a lot about it (after all, that’s why we write these travel guides). But no amount of research can ever live up to the actual experience.
So while our first impression of Helsinki from afar was a bit lackluster, our idea of the city changed rapidly after just a few hours in the Finnish capital. What an amazing city! Being in Helsinki feels like a perfect blend of Scandinavia in one city. It’s clearly a Northern town, surrounded by wild nature and lots of open water. Citizens have a mindful eye on design and especially architecture. There is a sense of community there that is quite hard to describe. People are extremely welcoming and friendly, and that weird, weird language is no barrier at all, since almost everyone speaks fluent English (and perfect Swedish, if that is your thing).
If you feel for exploring Scandinavia and haven’t made your mind up yet where to start, consider going off the beaten path and visiting Helsinki instead of the more obvious destinations in Denmark or Sweden. You’ll have a blast, a lot to tell your loved ones back at home, and we promise you won’t regret it. Now let’s crawl out of bed, check the weather (sunscreen or a scarf? maybe both!) and get going. In summer it’s light here well into the night, so we have a long and wonderful day ahead of us. Let’s spend 12hrs in Helsinki!
Helsinki is the capital and largest city of Finland. It is situated on the shore of the Gulf of Helsinki, an arm of the Baltic Sea.
Population (metro area): 1.4 million
Currency: Euro (€)
DO & DONT’S
Do: Bring a sleeping mask. The nights are short and light.
Don’t: Try to read out street signs. You’ll fail.
9.30am – Anton & Anton
A Scandinavian breakfast to go
We searched long and hard for a hotel in Helsinki that fits our usual 12hrs bill: well designed, but not too fancy, reasonably priced, good location, and fast Internet. In the end, we came up with: Nothing. Of course, there are tons of hotels to book in the city, so feel free to have a look on the booking page of your choice. We found that most ‘design hotels’ in the city looked a little drab, and decided to rent an apartment during our stay instead. Like we mentioned above, the Finnish have great taste and are very friendly, so finding a place that’s nice and cozy should only take you a few attempts.
Since private apartments don’t serve breakfast, let’s head out and grab something on the go. Find your way to the city center and head over to the Kruununhaka branch (brace yourself for many more strange Finnish words) of Anton & Anton.
This small organic supermarket chain has three stores in the city, and all are equally good. Apart from selling high-quality organic produce and products sourced from farms around the city, Anton & Anton also sells fresh bread and pastries from the counter. Have your choice of baked goods from Patisserie Markus & Teemu, Cupcakes by Frida, Frambois, Kannisto and many more, but don’t bite into it just yet.
We’ll have a mini picnic with a great view, so pack your pastries and walk over to Senaatintori.
Anton & Anton // Mariankatu 18 // Mon-Fri 9am-8pm, Sat 9am-6pm // website
10.45am – Senate Square
Some of Helsinki’s most famous landmarks on one square
The Senate Square (‘Senaatintori’) is located right in the middle of the city center and is home to some of Helsinki’s most famous landmarks. Most buildings here have been designed by Carl Ludwig Engel, among them the main building of the university of Helsinki and the old senate building.
Arguably his most famous building and Helsinki’s most famous landmark is the Helsinki Cathedral, though. The bright white church with its green dome looks quite majestic against the blue Finnish sky, so make sure to take some pictures. But don’t forget your breakfast! Sit down on the big stairs leading up to the church and enjoy your meal with the statue of Alexander II. in sight.
10.15am – Minna Parikka
A ‘love letter to shoe lovers’
Hello // Hei
Thank you // Kiitos
Yes // Kyllä
No // Ei
Maybe // Ehkä
Helsinki’s Metro is small, but the tram system is effective and vast. You can buy tickets from your phone, but we had some problems with that during our stay. Enter the tram at the front and purchase your ticket from the driver instead.
Time for the first round of shopping. Shops in Helsinki close quite early, it’s good to get a head start. One of the city’s busiest shopping streets starts right at the Senate Square. So after you’re done eating, start walking down Aleksanterinkatu to our next destination.
Welcome to the universe of Minna Parikka. The shoe designer’s aptly calls her flagship store her ‘Universum’, and you immediately see what she means once you step in. This one is only for the girls, so feel free to skip this part if you don’t feel for looking at ladies’ shoes for a while. But then again, you would miss out on something!
Parikka loves shoes and sees them as more than just a piece of clothing. She’s known for designs full of humor, putting cat faces or bunny ears on candy-colored footwear. The selection in her beautiful store is quite extensive, and the staff was super friendly when we talked to them. Have a look around, maybe even enjoy the mirrored ‘kissing-booth’, and off we go.
Minna Parikka Universum – The Store // Aleksanterinkatu 36 // Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-5pm // website
10.45am – Marimekko
Finland’s most iconic brand
Maybe it’s Finland’s long, dark winters and the need to brighten up your day that goes along with them. Or maybe the fresh sea breeze that frees you of some inhibitions. Whatever the reason, the Finnish have developed quite a unique sense of personal style, something that is evident as soon as you look around on the street.
While other Scandinavian countries value understatement and minimalism in their clothing, Finns seem to be drawn to bold colors and wild cuts. You’ll see middle-aged women wearing three different, colorful prints on top of each other, tons of dresses-over-pants, and some interesting color choices.
The most famous brand that represents Finland’s urge for color in the world is probably Marimekko. You find their stores all across town (and the whole country), and the brand even designs the paper cups used to serve you drinks on every Finnair flight.
Today, we’ll stop by their flagship store. From Minna Parikka’s shop, take the short walk to down Aleksanterinkatu and turn left onto Mikonkatu. There, Marimekko’s flagship store sells clothes with their signature prints, but also gorgeous homeware and their own fabrics by the meter. Explore the big store, and then cross the street.
Marimekko // Mikonkatu 1 // Mon-Fri 10am-8pm, Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 10am-5pm // website
11am – Artek
An institution of Nordic design
DRESSING THE PART
The Finnish have a love for color, so go crazy if you want to. If you don’t feel too adventurous, casual basics work well for both women and men. And there’s always the Death Metal look…
Home accessories from one of the many Finnish design shops.
Walking through Artek feels like walking through a museum that showcases the very best and the biggest of Finnish design. The company was founded in 1935 by Finnish architect and design legends Alvar and Aino Aalto together with Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl and it is still the go-to place for current yet classic pieces.
Naturally, the store sells classics by Alvar Aalto, Muurame, and other big names in the furniture world, most of them Scandinavian. They also have a great selection of design-related books and magazine to peruse.
Artek // Keskuskatu 1 B // Mon-Fri 10am-7pm, Sat 10am-6pm // website
11.30am – Akateeminen Kirjakauppa
Scandinavia’s biggest bookstore
Head around the corner to Pohjoisesplanadi, Helsinki’s big, tree-lined promenade, to find one of the cities’ best and most beautiful bookstores, the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (‘Academic Bookstore’). From the outside, it’s quite ordinary looking, but don’t get fooled. The spectacular interior was designed by Alvar Aalto, and you can see his touches in the impressive marble structures all through the building.
This is the biggest bookstore in Scandinavia, stocking something around 450.000 copies, among them an extensive international section. Take your time to browse, but don’t get stuck on the comfortable couches. We have a much better place to rest coming right up.
Akateeminen Kirjakauppa // Pohjoisesplanadi 39 // Mon-Fri 9am-9pm, Sat 9am-7pm, Sun 11am-6pm // website
12pm – Kampin kappeli
Taking quiet refuge in the middle of the city
WHAT TO ORDER
Food: Fresh fish and seafood, local veggies from the woods outside the city.
Drinks: Anything with plenty of alcohol to warm you up at night.
GOOD TO KNOW
Helsinki is the only city in Finland that has trams and subway trains.
More women than men live in Helsinki. Females make up 53% of the population.
The city was founded by a Swede, King Gustavus Vasa.
Exit the Academic Bookshop and turn right twice onto Mannerheimintie. This big street leads you to the area around the main station, Kamppi. When you see the station on your right, turn right onto Simonkatu until you spot the Kampin kappeli in front of you.
The Kampin kappeli, also called ‘Chapel of Silence’, is a chapel right in the busiest area of downtown Helsinki. Its oval wooden shape stands out from its surroundings, yet it’s hidden well enough for you to only spot it once you stand almost right before it.
While this is an active chapel, it is also just a wonderful place to get some peace and quiet while also soaking in some pretty spectacular architecture. The way the light enters the building is stunning, and sitting down on one of the benches or next to the cozy fake stones made out of felt has an amazing effect. It’s just so quiet!
Take your time, take a breath, and enjoy this beautiful building that was constructed as part of the World Design Capital program in 2012.
Once you’re ready to move on, walk back to the station and find the tram stop in front of it. Jump on the 3 or 9 that will take you to Kallio, it’s time for lunch! Leave the train at the stop called Kallion virastotalo.
Kampin kappeli // Simonkatu 7 // Mon-Fri 8am-8pm, Sat/Sun 10am-6pm // website
1pm – Sandro
A whirlwind trip through the world’s most colorful cuisines
Kallio feels much more like a local neighborhood than the busy city center. It’s where the cool kids of Helsinki live, go out at night, and where they meet for brunch on Sundays. In fact, Sandro, our lunch destination, serves what many describe as the best brunch in town every weekend. But today, we’re here for lunch. Because really, who can resist a duck confit burger? (Except, of course, the vegetarians among you. In which case you’ll still have plenty of dishes to choose from here.)
The restaurants calls itself the ‘neighborhood oasis of Kallio’, and that relaxed vibe definitely comes across as soon as you enter the building. There’s a hustle and bustle and a very pleasant mix of people from all walks of life enjoying their meal here.
The menu takes you on a whirlwind trip through the world’s most colorful cuisines – from the Balkan to Beirut, taking inspiration from Marrakesh and Jerusalem on the way. We really enjoyed their Batbout Burger with duck confit, served with a massive selection of middle-eastern sides like homemade hummus, pomegranate and carrot yogurt and harissa mayonnaise.
Peruse the menu and have your pick, and if there is any way, leave a tiny bit of room for a dessert. Sandro’s homemade Baklava hits the perfect spot between sweet and satisfying.
After lunch, continue walking up the hill until you reach the tram number 8. Right next to the restaurant is a good café called ‘Good Life Coffee’, but if you can, resist. We’ll have an afternoon coffee break soon!
Sandro // Tredje linjen 17 // Mon-Thu 7.30am-12am, Fri 7.30am-2am, Sat 10am-2am, Sun 10am-12am // website
2.40pm – Temppeliaukion Kirkko
The famous Rock Church was built into solid stones
Exit the tram at the stop Caloniuksenkatu right in the middle of Töölö. This pretty area consists of big, old houses and rather grand streets. Still, it somehow feels cozy here. One of the main attractions of the city is very close, let’s have a look.
The Rock Church (‘Temppeliaukion Kirkko’) is aptly named. It has been excavated into solid rock and fits into its surroundings perfectly. In summer, people are sunbathing on the warm stones on top and children are playing hide and seek right on top of the building. The church hall is covered with a dome, lined with shiny copper, and the interior walls are made out of rugged rocks.
Temppeliaukio // Lutherinkatu 3 // opening hours vary, check website // website
2.50pm – Arkadia
A pool table, a chapel, and a snake meet in a bookstore…
Just a few minutes walk away from the rock church, you’ll find Arkadia International Bookshop. This charming second-hand bookstore was founded by Ian and Liisa Bourgeot in 2008, and it’s one of these places you’ll remember for a long time after returning home.
The mood inside is just so welcoming, relaxing and friendly, with the owner himself pointing you to the best spots. There’s space to read and write, a pool table, and a friendly pet snake in a terrarium. If you are looking for something specific, you might find it here, since the selection is just so vast. And if you just want to browse, you’re in luck! Most books are stored in labeled boxes and you’ll stumble upon some you didn’t even know you found interesting. Just their selection of National Geographic magazines would take you weeks to sift through.
Arkadia International Bookshop // Nervanderinkatu 11 // Tue-Fri 12pm-7pm, Sat 10am-6pm // website
Helsinki’s beautiful Museum of Contemporary Art
Flexible Heart – Jaakko Eino Kalevi
Annankadun kulmassa – Heli Kajo
Hard Rock Hallelujah – Lordi
Steam of Life
Mother of Mine
12hrs is a rather short time to discover any city. So some locations that are well worth a visit don’t make it into our guide. If you’re in town longer, though, make sure to schedule a visit to Kiasma, Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
You’ll pass it on your way from Kalle to the Design District, and it’s also just a stone-throw away from the main station.
Like in many places in Helsinki, the architecture alone would make Kiasma worth a visit. But it’s not only the building by Steven Holl that we loved. The permanent collection of the museum is mostly made up of works from Finnish artists and artists living in neighboring countries. Among the highlights are works by Kalervo Palsa, Jakob Dahlgren, and Christo.
Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art // Mannerheiminaukio 2 // Sun & Tue 10am-5pm, Wed-Fri 10am-8.30pm, Sat 10am-6pm // website
3.30pm – Design District Helsinki
Featuring more than 200 shops on 25 streets
When you’re done browsing through the books at Arkadia, walk (or take the tram) back towards the city center. Continue past the main station, and you’ll inevitably end up in the Design District Helsinki. This cluster of 25 streets hosts 200 or so shops, galleries and design studios that are showcasing the variety in Finnish design today.
We have picked out a few of our favorite shops and put them in an order that makes sense as you’re walking, but of course feel free to roam around and visit as many or as little of them as you please.
72% art and 28% coffee
Part exhibition space, part café, Lokal hosts changing exhibitions during the year. They also sell beautiful homeware and accessories. Some cups at Freese Coffee Co. were made here.
Lokal // Annankatu 19 // Tue-Fri 12pm-6pm, Sat/Sun 12pm-4pm // website
Glasses, cups and boxes, and so much more
At Pino, you’ll find even more items for your home, they sell anything from super practical little inventions to tableware and glasses. In the back of the shop, there are sunglasses, bags and beautiful storage solutions.
Pino // Fredrikinkatu 22 // Mon-Fri 11am-6pm, Sat 11am-3pm // website
An analog lover’s dream shop
You won’t have to guess twice what Paper Shop sells. Correct, anything made out of paper! That includes beautifully screen-printed cards and posters by local artist, wrapping paper and useful knick-knacks like notebooks and pens. We stocked up on birthday cards for the next few years here.
Paper Shop // Fredrikinkatu 18 // Mon-Fri 11am-5pm, Sat 11am-3pm // website
Bold prints for bold women
Bold prints are the trademark of local label R/H, and jackets and dresses with these make up big parts of their collection. Founded by Hanna Riiheläinen and Emilia Hernesniemi, both graduates from the University of Art & Design in Helsinki, R/H designs playfully shift between hard and soft, often using menswear details in their womenswear collection.
R/H Store // Fredrikinkatu 18 // Mon-Fri 11am-7pm, Sat 11am-4pm // website
Design Forum Shop
The next generation and the old guard under one roof
You’ve seen plenty of Alvar Aalto’s work all over the city, so if you feel for supporting some young up-and-comers instead, make sure to visit the Design Forum Shop. Here, young Finnish designers showcase and sell their works, leaving you with tons of great souvenir options and beautiful furniture pieces for your home.
If you prefer to play it a bit safer, don’t worry. This is the world’s largest focused on contemporary Finnish design, so of course they also stock all the big names in the business.
Design Forum Shop // Errotajankatu 7 // Mon-Fri 11am-7pm, Sat 11am-6pm // website
Mood Coffee Roastery
A stylish coffee break
Make sure to leave some time to take the short walk to Mood Roastery. This is one of Helsinki’s nicest cafes, with stunning interiors and a beautiful minimalist vibe that works wonders for stressed travelers.
The knowledgeable staff serves their own roast in whatever way you prefer, and there are almost freshly baked treats on display behind the counter. If you are in town longer, consider to head here for breakfast or – even better – for one of their famous brunches on Sunday.
Mood Coffee Roastery // Tarkk’ampujankatu 4 // website
6.30pm – Kulttuurisauna
Sweating – the Finnish way
Most of the shops are closed now, and we’re sure you’re quite exhausted. So before it’s dinnertime, either head to your apartment and hotel and get some rest, or join us for a little Finnish adventure.
Saunas are almost synonymous with Finland, and there was no way we’d let you spend 12hrs in Helsinki without breaking a healthy sweat. Almost every house in the city has a private sauna for its inhabitants, but sadly, only a few public saunas remain in the city.
One of them is the Kulttuurisauna, that was opened during Helsinki’s time as World Design Capital in 2012. The project was conceived by Japanese Designer Nene Tsuboi and Finnish architect Tuomas Toivonen, and this beautiful mix of Northern and Eastern influences becomes apparent as soon as you see the building.
Located on the edge of Merihaka right at the water, the sauna is housed in a building made entirely out of wood. Every day, wood burners heat up the rooms, and it takes them until four in the afternoon to build up that heat.
Reach the sauna by tram, cab or on foot, and enjoy a few hours of serenity. You only need a bathing suit if you’re planning on jumping into the sea behind the building, and the staff rents out fluffy towels for the duration of your stay.
Take in the views of the harbor through the giant window, think about all the great things you’ve seen today, and take your time. Afterward, we’ll have dinner.
Kulttuurisauna // Hagnäskajen 17 // admission: adults 15, students and seniors 12 Euro, towel 4 Euro // Wed-Sun 4pm-8.30pm // website
Nordic food at its very best
Our last stop for the day is also one of the nicest: dinner at Spis. This small restaurant is dedicated to all things Nordic, and we can’t think of a better way to end a day spent in Helsinki.
You choose between two menu options – a short and a long tasting menu – and the staff will take care of the rest. Chefs Antero Aurivuo and Perttu Jokinen are preparing their menu with whatever is freshest at the market, always showcasing local and Nordic ingredients. All of the courses include vegetables, and if you eat meat, you’ll get a fish and meat course as well.
Jani Kinanen the head waiter will ask you about any dietary restrictions beforehand, so don’t worry if your diet is gluten free, vegetarian, or if you have an allergy.
When the 12hrs team had dinner at Spis, we got served one of the most delicious meals we had in a long time. Some dishes included the very Nordic Knäckebröt, there was birch tree foam and licorice, scallop with a rich lobster sauce and pork belly. Dining here takes time, and it’s a joy listening to Jani as he explains what’s on your beautiful plate.
If you can, get the wine pairing, Spis offers some fantastic artisanal wines and also some great Nordic beers. The restaurant only has a few tables and 18 seats, so make sure to book a table in advance online.
Enjoy the Nordic cuisine, sip some wine, and relax. Kippis and skål, you just spent 12hrs in Helsinki!