Remember, Finland is for life, not just for Christmas. Helsinki’s summer season is just hotting up and there’s never been a better time to visit. Glorious parks and public spaces, exciting events and exhibitions, long sunny evenings on the waterside and knock-out food scene all mean Helsinki should be at the top of your summer to-do list.
1. A city close to nature
As the world opens up post-pandemic, travellers might well be seeking destinations where they can avoid crowds. Helsinki has over 130km of walking and cycling trails around the city’s watersides, as well as a 10km long forest and nature reserve, known as Central Park, that starts near the city centre.
Or get up close and personal with the water and wildlife, kayaking on Laajalahti waterway, near the peaceful grounds of the former hospital of Lapinlahti – now a community arts space.
2. Helsinki’s islands
On a peninsula in the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki is surrounded by water. In the summer, more ferries run than in winter, opening up fantastic itineraries. Why not visit Suomenlinna, a quaint island just minutes from Helsinki, with a school, cafés, picturesque weatherboarded houses and a centuries-old fortress that tells the story of Finland’s push-pull relationship with neighbours Sweden and Russia?
In summer, from Suomenlinna’s King’s Gate, you can take another boat to Lonna Island and enjoy a sauna and a refreshing dip in the sea before sampling the restaurant’s modern take on traditional Finnish food.
3. Design, design everywhere
Finland is famed for beautiful textiles; for expert and inventive approaches to naturally abundant materials like wood and granite; and for a wise and sustainable approach to life in general. At the Design Museum, you’ll of course find icons of Finnish design from the post-war years to Nokia. But good design is evident almost everywhere. Take for example shop studios like Lapuan Kankurit, fourth generation weavers of natural yarns into gorgeous clothes, towels and soft furnishings for the wardrobe, home, spas, and saunas.
4. Architecture and space
Finns value nature, space, and silence, and their architecture is an astonishing showcase for this philosophy. Pikku Finlandia (near Finlandia Hall, a white marble convention centre by Alvar Aalto which is currently being refurbished) is a waterside café and events space.
Its imaginative colonnade of natural birch trunks leads to Töölö Bay, where you can paddleboard and kayak, or eat and watch the world go by.
Nearby is Oodi, Finland’s 100th anniversary gift to itself and possibly the world’s most breath-taking library.
Your jaw will drop at its fluid lines, instagrammable staircases, huge windows and amazing array of free-to-use stuff, from button presses to 3-D printers, from recording studios to meeting spaces.
5. Sunbathing and picnics
In summer, Finns make the most of their long hours of sunshine. Here are just three of the many spots beloved by locals. Esplanadi, near the harbour, is a tree-lined green promenade that comes alive well into the evening, with picnickers, musicians, friends and families.
Meanwhile, Temppeliaukio Church or the ‘Rock Church’, is a modern Lutheran Church carved beneath a large outcrop of granite in the city. The play of light and shadows inside is mesmerising.
Climb over top of the church and you’ll find Helsinkians sunbathing, eating strawberries and peacefully reading their books.
Finally: ‘Koff Park‘, bequeathed to the city by the Sinebrychoff brewing family. Check out the brewery buildings and their splendid home just next-door.
6. Sauna life
We mentioned the sauna on Lonna Island earlier, but there are plenty of other chances to experience this essential element of Finnish civilization. Most Finns go to the sauna at least once a week, and you can probably bet they have a sauna in their apartment building or their house. There are floating saunas in the harbour and, overlooking them, there’s even a ‘sky sauna’ in the SkyWheel Helsinki Ferris Wheel.
We visited the pleasingly-named Löyly or ‘Steam’, a sauna restaurant with over 1600m2 of terraces with views over the sea where sauna-users cool off. In the winter, they cut holes in the sea ice, so the hot-cold thrills never have to end.
With all that sight-seeing and sauna-ing, you will work up an appetite, and Helsinki’s food scene will not disappoint. Island and city restaurants alike offer local ingredients, and traditional dishes – newly spun. Start the day with coffee and a cinnamon bun, or Karelian Pie with egg butter. Lunch could be at Alexanderplats, a chic but relaxed European-style brasserie just off Esplanadi. I tried their speciality: pike quenelles, which were tender and delicious.
Or how about treating yourself at Finnjävel? ‘Finnjävel’ means Finnish Devil. It’s an insult the Swedish used to direct at their Finnish neighbours. Finnjävel has taken humble Finnish dishes, like beef patties and mash, or bread and mackerel, and elevated them to Michelin Star level.
There are many ways to enjoy art in Helsinki, from the Finnish National Gallery Ateneum opposite the magnificent light bearers at the grand central station to outdoor sculpture trails and street art. One of my favourite spots was Amos Rex, a vast art museum built underground to protect Lasipalatsi, or the glass palace, a 1930s entertainment and retail complex nearby. But the museum’s tentacles reach up into the street in the form of bulging space-age mounds, a bit like futuristic igloos. You can climb over them, and borrow skateboards to fully experience their contours.
Don’t miss the Chapel of Silence next door. It’s an organic wooden structure that provides a haven of peace and light (as well as free walk-in counselling). It feels a bit like being inside a very pleasing egg!
Of course, if you go to Helsinki in late June, you’ll have the chance to experience Midsummer – the annual summer solstice celebrations. Bonfires are lit on shorelines around the city and its islands. Music events are laid on, for example at the Allas Sea Pool. The whole city throbs with the joy of light and warmth.
10. A hub for northern Europe – and beyond
From Helsinki’s harbour, you can take regular ferries for a day-trip to Tallinn, Estonia, or a visit to Stockholm, Sweden.