Just off the brackish Baltic Sea, nestled on the coast of the Gulf of Finland, lies the charming capital city of Helsinki. For a quaint and breathtaking escape to crisp air, kooky creativity, radically egalitarian politics and endless days that roll into the renowned White Nights, this Scandinavian micro-metropolis should be on your travel radar this summer.
Although Finland is the most sparsely populated nation in the European Union, you wouldn’t know it when surveying the country’s diverse cultural output and varied tourist attractions. After visiting a medieval sea fortress-cum-national park, and stripping it all off on the local women-only nude beach, you may decide not to depart the town recently named by Monocle magazine as the world’s most livable city.
Finnish is a beautiful but tricky language. Anyone who can manage to remember a few common phrases deserves a sincere pat on the back. Almost echoing a lullaby, it’s easy to get lost in the sounds and confused in an attempt to make sense of it, syllable by syllable. Although Finns are known to be a rather shy people, they’ll readily help a lost tourist. Do not hesitate to ask a fellow cyclist or pedestrian for directions. Fortunately, most Finns in the urban parts of the country speak English.
Lucky for you, the best time to travel to Helsinki is just around the corner. For the entire last week of June, Helsinki Pride brings in more than 190,000 tourists to celebrate all day and all night as the summer sun ceases to set over the design capital of the world.
Upon arriving in the seaside town, shack up at the stylish yet quaint Art Nouveau castle, GLO Hotel Art (Kluuvikatu 4, hotelglo.fi/en/glo-art), built in 1903. Less than a half-mile from the city center, GLO boasts its own creative scene with a bar, restaurant and gallery. Each room has been outfitted with the creative input of Finnish designers. Located on the waterfront, the kid- and gay-friendly Scandic Grand Marina Hotel (Skatuddskajen 7, scandichotels.com/grandmarina) offers a luxurious stay in the heart of the city. Borrow one of the hotel’s bikes to make like a local and cruise around town on the myriad designated bike paths.
If you end up crashing at a hostel or hotel without complimentary bikes, fear not. Greenbikes (greenbike.fi) offers affordable day rates to cycle around town all summer long. With two locations in the city center, 750 miles of bike paths, socialist traffic habits (read: pedestrians and cyclists always have the right of way and drivers are less hurried), and the clean sea air to fill your lungs, there is no reason not to get your spin on and explore this magnificent place. A word to the wise: unless you want to be slapped by the radical penal system, be careful not to speed on those bike paths. The amount you get fined for speeding on the roads in Finland depends on the amount you earn. Recently, a man with an annual income of 7 million Euros was fined 116,000 Euros!
Start your Helsinki tour by taking a stroll to the city center and sate your belly with the wallet-friendly and unique dining opportunities at Kauppatori, the downtown waterfront fish market. Usually open between 6am and 6pm, the market displays the fruits of the sea, soon to be cooked into local delicacies like fish head soup, fresh salmon with potatoes, or a creamy salmon chowder. Invest in locally crafted traditional Finnish wares like hand-carved wooden mugs and colorfully embroidered ponchos under row upon row of bright orange tents.
For a city of barely one million people, Helsinki is studded with more than 80 beautifully curated museums and galleries. You will not be able to see them all. A stone’s throw from the downtown fish market, the Helsinki Cathedral (Unioninkatu 29) is completely unmissable with its pristine white exterior against the backdrop of the cloudless crystal-blue sky. Take a stroll back through the city center to meet the ultra-modern Kiasma Museum, otherwise known as the Museum of Contemporary Art (Mannerheimplatsen 2, kiasma.fi). For a sobering and definitively Scandinavian perspective on contemporary design, see the summer exhibit at the Museum of Finnish Architecture (24, Kasarmikatu, mfa.fi). The student project illustrates the economic constraints and diminishing environmental resources that challenge architects all over the world while they work to build groundbreaking, sustainable and quality designs.
Helsinki’s northern climate means the traditional grub is hearty and comforting. Zetor Restaurant (Mannerheimintie 3, zetor.net) has rustic and kitschy decor that matches its traditional cuisine: hot pots, reindeer saute or the quintessential salmon and potatoes. Similarly, a husband-and-wife duo runs the locally lauded Pelmenit (Kustaankatu 7), where you can gorge on ample Russian-Ukrainian food as you watch them tinker in their unpretentious and quaint open-air kitchen. For a more picturesque and sophisticated culinary experience, Cafe Ursula (Ehrenströmintie 3, Ursula.fi) sits on a pier overlooking the expansive Gulf of Finland.
If you’ve already plowed through the entire Shades of Grey trilogy and are looking for a new title for your next train ride, make your way to Arkadia International Bookshop (Nervanderinkatu 11, arkadiabookshop.fi). They sell new and used titles, published in a variety of languages. The place serves as a cultural hub for tourists and locals alike, announcing exhibitions, book launches and readings for each day of the week.
For souvenir scavenging, you cannot leave the design capital of the world without visiting the Design Forum pop-up shop (Erottajankatu 7, designforumshop.fi). From fashion to glassware to ceramics, furniture and jewelry, the emporium is so chock full of tchotchkes that you may need an extra bag on your flight home. Artists, interior designers or fashionistas with a penchant for patterns can pick up Marimekko textiles, a Finnish national treasure, at their source. Head over to their shop (Esplanadi 33, marimekko.com) for trippy yet sophisticated retail therapy.
Finns love their saunas—more than a simple spa experience, going to sauna is an integral part of the Finnish national character. Dive into this tradition at the divinely classic Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall (Kalevankatu 3). Built in the 1920s, it stood as the city’s only indoor swimming hall for years. There are designated women-only bathing hours where you have the opportunity to soak, frolic and steam with or without your swimsuit. For a more contemporary experience, Kuulturisauna (kulttuurisauna.posterous.com), a new public Finnish sauna, is scheduled to open on the waterfront this summer. Be one of the first to rest your cheeks on that Nordic white wood!
While same-sex marriage in Finland is still “under consideration,” registered partnerships were legalized in 2002, and Finland continues to rank as one of the world’s most welcoming countries to the LGBT community. Like Helsinki, the lesbian scene, too, is small and adorable, and is not especially focused in one part of town. For lady-loving events, Facebook is a great source to see where certain party girls announce weekly or monthly events held at various venues. Two websites worth a glance before you head out on the town are Peijakas! (peijakas.net) and Homotekno (facebook.com/ h.m.tekno). Both offer event flyers in Finnish and English.
Finns may be naturally reserved, but some let off steam with the new local obsession: roller derby. Since 2009, Helsinki has hosted a pretty active community of babes in fishnets and mouthguards for your entertainment. Like U.S. crews, they feature intimidating team monikers—Hurtta Lottas, the Angry Nerds—and a campy but serious dedication to the sport. Check out helsinkirollerderby.com for the season’s meets.
It will probably still be bright and sunny, but when you’re ready to delve into Helsinki’s nightlife scene, Mbar lounge and café (Mannerheimintie 22-24, mbar.fi) in the Kamppi neighborhood is a great place to meet strangers of both the local and foreign persuasion. By day, the joint serves as a cafe with free Wi-Fi; at night it becomes a bumping bar with a diverse lineup of up-and-coming DJs. Cafe Bar 9 (Uuden-maankatu 9, bar9.net) has been a Helsinki institution serving the local art scene since the early 90’s, with soups, salads, curries and booze on the menu late into the night. For a consistently cool and oft-queer watering hole, check out DTM, which is short for Don’t Tell Mama (Mannerheimintie 6, dtm.fi). If the name isn’t enough to draw you in, then perhaps their Cougar Bar and weekly Gay Karaoke events will.
If you want to escape the urban center of town, Helsinki‘s surroundings boast beautifully serene activities. From the downtown seaport, pack a picnic and hop on a ferry for a day trip to the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress (suomenlinna.fi/en). Built as a maritime fortress and a base for the Archipelago Fleet, today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a magnificent place to explore on your own, or with a darling, pal or posse. Stroll the grounds, check out the museum and cafe, and unwind with a beer at the on-site brewery.
For a more bucolic escape, take a three-mile trek to the island district, Seurasaari (nba.fi/en). Although only a short jaunt from the city center, the area has never been inhabited and therefore radiates remarkable ruralness. Summer is the best time to visit, when you can enjoy its Midsummer festival and open-air museum. The island also boasts a nude beach, separated for women and men, with no unisex area. Strip down, step up and take that nippy Baltic dip you never thought you would!