With over 130 km of shoreline, an archipelago of over 300 islands and a 10 km forest running the length of the city north to south, Helsinki is the perfect summer destination and a European capital for nature lovers. Here’s a round up of some of the best ways to experience the great Finnish outdoors while you’re there.
1. Vallisaari Island
Just a 20-minute ferry ride from Helsinki’s main harbour, Vallisaari Island was closed to the general public for years and so has developed a unique ecosystem including wild pansies and over 1000 species of butterfly, about 100 of them threatened or rare. Various birds, such as warblers and nightingales have found a home here, as well as six protected species of bat, who enjoy the island’s caves and ruins.
As well as accessing spectacular views over Helsinki and neighbouring islands, visitors can follow trails taking in old fortifications and austere red-brick buildings where sea pilots once lived a hard life punctuated by drinking and smuggling. Information boards conjure up an evocative sense of the island’s history, with photographs including the small population of families whose children grew up in a natural paradise exploring their home’s forested stands, natural ponds, beautiful blush granite coves and tiny golden beaches.
So why did Vallisaari become a no-go zone for so long? The military used the island for storage and training and in 1939 a terrible explosion in part of the island known as Death Valley killed 12 people. A shocking column of smoke could be seen from the mainland. With explosives scattered in unknown locations, the island was considered too dangerous to access, until recent efforts by the military and volunteers to clear half the terrain. It’s still strictly forbidden to enter the other part of the island, which lends the atmosphere a frisson of danger. Look out for the headless ghost of an unfortunate General too.
2. Lonna Island
If you want to experience Finnish sauna life but prefer a rustic option to the novelty Allas Sea Pool at the harbour or the sculptural terraces of Löyly, then Lonna Island is the place for you. A tiny island accessible by boat in the summer, Lonna offers an appealingly pared-back experience in raw timber huts with wood-fired stoves. Sheltered verandas invite you to cool off facing the sea and stepping stones overhung with trees lead you to a refreshing dip in the water. Sauna passes are 18 euros for 2 hours, and starting times are staggered to ensure there are 12 spots available every hour. Mixed saunas are on Tuesdays and Fridays. Swimsuits are optional. Top tip: take water shoes to navigate rocky paths.
When you’ve worked up an appetite and perhaps quaffed an aperitif at the sauna’s licensed bar, you could try a meal at Lonna’s restaurant, which manages to be chic and relaxed at the same time. I had cured rainbow trout, kohlrabi, fennel seed oil and pickled rose leaves, which was to die for.
3. In and on the water
A Finnish proverb says that water is the oldest medicine, and there are plenty of opportunities to get in and on the water around Helsinki. You are spoilt for choice when it comes to swimming spots, but My Helsinki have prepared a handy list of nine recommended places to take a dip. Meanwhile, a peaceful kayaking location can be found on the Laajalahti waterway, near the grounds and gardens of Lapinlahti – a former hospital and now a vibrant community arts space. Alternatively, head out to Töölönlahti Bay, near Finlandia Hall and the breathtaking Oodi library. Here you can paddleboard or eat in an attractive birch colonnaded restaurant.
4. Central Park
The brainchild of architect and city planner Bertel Jung in 1911, this extraordinary green lung starts near the city centre in Laakso and ends at the city’s northern border in Haltiala (see below) and the river Vantaanjoki. Central Park is a popular space for walking and cycling. Visitors can take a train from Helsinki’s central station or a tram from the city and in 15 minutes be among coastal forests, riverbank habitats or an exotic arboretum. This is your chance to encounter ancient spruces, herb-rich meadows and fields, various fungi and even Siberian flying squirrels. Various trails, starting with the Laakso tour of just 2.5 km, can be followed with QR codes offering information in English.
5. On the farm
A 45-minute bus trip to the north of the city’s Central Park, Haltiala Farm gives visitors a taste of Finnish country life. With free entry, it’s a chance to meet domestic farm animals outside from early until late in summer and autumn.
Grain is not the farm’s only crop: peas and flowers are grown on some fields, and city residents are welcome to pick them for nothing in July-August. The sunflower field is a big draw. There are events calendars during Easter and Christmas seasons. And I’m reliably informed you shouldn’t miss the doughnuts at Wanha Pehtoori eatery nearby.