Helsinki lies on a peninsula on the north coast of Finland, and looks out onto the Baltic Sea… perfect, isn’t it? Asks David Hughes.
Finland is often unfairly thought of as the slightly less well-known Scandinavian sibling of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It’s not renowned for oil wealth (Norway) IKEA, Abba and Volvo (Sweden) or gritty TV cop dramas (Denmark) but it is the land of voracious coffee drinkers (more cups per capita than in any other European country; Italy included), and its capital city absolutely radiates cool (in every sense of the word).
A more outdoor-oriented city would be hard to find. Helsinki lies on a peninsula on the north coast of Finland, and looks out onto the Baltic Sea. The peninsula has numerous isles and craggy inlets, and the city itself is surrounded by acres of forest.
And it certainly doesn’t stint on the design front, either. The pristine architecture; from the Neo-Gothic and Art Deco of yesteryear to the clean-cut lines of the modern era are immediately apparent, and the city’s ochre and azure-blue coloured edifices are very easy on the eye.
One must-do in Helsinki is to visit a sauna. This particularly Scandinavian form of keeping clean has been a way of life in Finland for more than 2000 years, and was invented here. Before people had their own bathrooms (and now, built-in saunas), a communal neighbourhood sauna was the place to go, keep clean and socialise. There are still a few original ones open, and a few new ones have opened such is their prominence in the culture.
There’s more to Finnish food here than simply herring and pickle, and the fashionable Kallio area has a host of eateries; from hip and affordable delis to cosy cafes offering home-made fare to more fancy bistros many of which offer some really great value lunch-time deals.
Waiting to be savoured are mouthwatering Kalakukko (a kind of pasty filled with minced herring), grillimakkara (big fat juicy sausages), crayfish, and of course, reindeer steak served with mashed potatoes and cranberries.
My favourite place- I think the real heart of Helsinki is Mannerheimintie Street. It runs north from the Central Railway Station and starts from the end of Helsinki’s Esplanade. Named after the prominent military leader Marshal Mannerheim (there’s a statue of him, too), it’s a great place to walk, hang out, shop and take in some of the city’s best cultural attractions. A stroll will bring you to Kiasma, the city’s magnificent Museum of Contemporary Art as well as the Parliament building. The street is also the nucleus of all tram and bus routes to almost anywhere in Helsinki and even beyond.
Highlights- Keskuspuisto, Helsinki’s central park, is more of a wild forest than simply a park with well-maintained gardens and paths. It really is huge (more than 10 sq km) and is packed with biking and walking trails as well as the usual complement of swings, roundabouts and chutes. The park begins at the Olympic Stadium and stretches into the Paloheina forest, which is popular for cross-country ski-ing.
After your taster of what is clearly a model for modern urban outdoor life, you might want to head to Market Square. It’s the traditional heart of the city and hosts one mighty outdoor market that boasts an array of stalls selling food, flowers and takeaway snacks.
As you’d expect, they do museums well here, and there’s plenty to choose from. From the Helsinki Olympic Museum, the National Museum, the National Museum of Art, Seurasaari (an open-air museum of Finnish dwellings though the ages) and Suomenlinna (an 18th century island fortress now UNESCO listed, there is much to broaden the mind.
Lowlights- It’s Finland so don’t expect it to be cheap.
Souvenirs- The Design District is the place to head to for jewellery, clothing, antiques, objets d’art etc. Finland’s flagship scion of furniture design, Artek, is a great place to meet friends, drink coffee, sit down (on numerous display models) and buy that funky piece to be shipped back home, and maybe a light or two while you’re at it.
Getting there- Oman Air, Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines all offer flights from Muscat with one stop on the way (Munich or Istanbul).
Where to stay– There are plenty of hotels here to suit all budgets. All the world’s top chains are here, and most are in the city centre. The best places to look for options are websites such as Trivago, Booking.com, Hotels.com, Kayak or Expedia.
1. Watch the world go by in Mannerheimintie Street
2. Take a ferry trip to the Suomenlinna islands
3. Admire the commanding buildings in Senate Square
4. Step back in time at Seurasaari open-air museum
5. Let off steam with a walk through Keskuspuisto