Finland is not a common destination when it comes to European travel but by some oddity it was our first stop on a 4-country tour of Europe. In retrospective I could not have asked for a better way to start.
Helsinki is a rather small city where everything within city core could be easily accessed by foot. Despite the proximity public transportation is very well developed, easy to navigate and with your day ticket you can ride under and above ground and even take the ferry to Suomenlinna Island. As a Nordic country Finland is clean and crisp, both on the streets and when it comes to design – everything from transit signage to construction notifications appears to have a designer behind it.
The people are friendly, the hotels are nice and the food is a reflection of future-forward modern cuisine that only fresh, Nordic ingredients and creativity can offer. We stayed in the city for 4 nights at Hotel Scandic Paasi, a lovely hotel just a couple quick subway stops from city center. This quick in-and-out was enough to get to know Helsinki but I could have easily spent over a week in this relaxed environment exploring the rich food and culture. All things considered here are a few of my most memorable experiences and recommendations:
Food: the wealth of options is simply astonishing, though it might not seem like it at first. One quick thing to note is that unless you are in a fine-dining restaurant or wine bar there is likely no table service (a pretty common thing in Europe in general) – for the most part you need to order and pay at the bar. As a rule best choice of protein in Helsinki is always fish, whether it’s crispy mackerel at the Market Square or surgically-cut fish with a high price point.
A couple must-tries are Ravintola Nokka and Holiday, both located on the harbour near the Uspenski Cathedral. Ravintola Nokka is a fine dining restaurant serving up dishes with modern take on Finish classics (set course is a great option). The restaurant itself is beautifully decorated with a view on the water. Each plate is carefully crafted with unique ingredients that just might add to the long list of your firsts: the ice cream special during our visit was birch leaf with a dusting of mushroom “earth” (we naively thought it was mango matcha with chocolate). Holiday is a new resto-bar with a sunny terrace and spacious indoor area decorated with reclaimed furniture, oversized plants and a carefully matched selection of art. The menu is a world fusion mix of filling small plates, nordic beers, and craft cocktails.
On a more casual and simple side of things there is Putte’s Bar & Pizza. With it’s easy-going attitude, great selection of thin-crust artisanal pizzas and small batch beers it’s the kind of place you would make your dining room if it was nearby.
Drink: more than likely you will enjoy any random bar you stumble into in Helsinki but there are a couple places you have to try: Restaurant Grotesk terrace and The SpåraKOFF pub tram (aka beer streetcar). We found Grotesk terrace by complete accident but being the cocktail, beer, and hip hop fanatics that we are it ended up being our favourite patio. Tucked away near the restaurant through an alleyway, just down the street from Bier-Bier (another great place if you like beer and hard liquor) this terrace is a fun place to spend a few hours on. Koff pub tram, on the other hand, is a tourist destination, but you kind of have to do it, being a tourist in Helsinki and all: it’s a bar and a city tour in one! Plus the car itself is quite nice which makes for a great way to see Helsinki past the borders of Downtown.
Sightseeing: Helsinki is a beautiful city so it is strongly recommended to spend a day walking around (with the appropriate amount of food and beer breaks, off course). There are plenty of Churches to explore from Uspenski Cathedral and Rock Church, where you can sometimes see live music, to Helsinki Cathedral and the nearby Senate Square.
Tip: Each Church has a unique organ so make sure to look back and up after you enter the church to not miss these wonderful works of art and architecture.
University of Helsinki is a home to wonderful Botanical Gardens (entrance on the lake side) and right across from the Helsinki Cathedral is the The National Library of Finland with beautiful ceilings and round rooms spiraling on top of one another.
An absolute must-do day-trip is Suomenlinna Island, accessible by ferry from the harbour. Fairly recently declared as a Unesco’s World Heritage site Suomenlinna is fortress island originally built by the Swedish, a military base under Russian administration for about a hundred years and finally, in 1918, reclaimed by Independent Finland. All of those influences are visible throughout the Island. Today, a portion of the island is a military base while the majority of it is essentially a park where you without a doubt can spend a full day exploring the fortresses, having a picnic, running along the sea-bank, knocking on hidden doors, or enjoying the view from one of the cafes.
Next time: Lapland!