Lots of people in Helsinki asked what made us want to visit and the truth is that the trip was equal parts based on whim, opportunity and two chance encounters. 1. I read in Monocle last year that Helsinki was their choice of 'most liveable' city in the world 2. a vintage shop owner I talked to in Melbourne told me that Helsinki was a great place to go if you were interested in mid-century design - and to go before all of the vintage lovers of the world cleaned it out. Lucky for me, my lovely friend Megs was up for an adventure into the unknown (because, seriously, I knew nothing about Helsinki beyond those two things).
The following list of hints is by no means an exhaustive guide to the city. I've left off almost all museums and heritage sites - mostly because I figure you'll find those anyway. It is distinctly design-orientated. And there's quite a bit of shopping on there too ...
1. Get a copy of the 'Design District Helsinki' map.
It's available at the Tourist Info at the airport, and at other locations around the city. The map has an excellent listing of galleries, shops, bars and restaurants, all within easy walking distance of the central train station / city centre. (Although the map itself is on the sketchy side, so you'll probably need another map for actual wayfinding.) Map in hand, go on an architecture / design walking tour of the city centre - either self-guided or on one of the tours listed. The king of Finnish architecture is Alvar Aalto (responsible for the central train station and the Finlandia concert hall, among others) but there are many gems to discover, from Art Nouveau through Nordic Classicism (and a dash of Soviet realism) and on to Modernism.
We had hoped to take the Helsinki font tour (yes, that's fonts as in typefaces) but the gallery that runs it was closed for holidays. For future reference, the font tour is available from Napa Gallery - and the period around midsummer isn't the absolute best time to visit because many businesses take a summer vacation then.
Being the creative, resourceful types we are, Megs and I invented our own font tour. Step 1: walk around Helsinki. Step 2: exclaim every time you see a beautiful sign, house name or number. Step 3: go for drinks.
The World Design Capital app is another useful guide to fun design-y things happening around the city.
2. If experiencing design overload, go to the Lutheran Cathedral to refresh your palate. The cathedral is visible from almost everywhere in the city: white domes, copper roofs and just a hint of gold. The interior is equally pared back.
For contrast, the nearby Russian Orthodox Cathedral is considerably bling-ier.
3. Have a cloudberry and black pepper martini at A21, Helsinki's coolest cocktail bar. You do have to ring the doorbell to get in, but this is the only hint of pretension about the place. The staff were super friendly and the atmosphere was very relaxed by comparison with similar style bars in most big cities. (Oh, and the combination of cloudberries with a suggestion of pepper was sublime.)
4. Go for a walk / run along the seafront and admire all of the boats. You can either start from the Market Square and walk south and west; or start near the Eira district and walk east and north. An excellent spot for a drink and a chance to admire the view is Mattolaituri (address is Ehrenströmintie 3 A). In the morning they serve coffee and in the evening they serve Moet and at any time they offer you fleecy blankets to wrap around yourself.
We kept finding ourselves magically drawn here - it's a beautiful spot to gaze at the water.
5. Have dinner at Teatterin grilli on Pohjoisesplanadi (main shopping street),
for the food, the decor but most especially for Piipa, the sweet waitress who served us. Piipa was straight from a Disney movie: pixie dust fell from her shoes and bluebirds followed her around the restaurant ... On hearing it was my birthday she offered heartfelt birthday wishes, refilled our champagne in the biggest glasses available and - we discovered when we came to pay the bill - gave it to us on the house.
6. Try to contain your excitement at the Marimekko outlet shop. The address is Kirvesmiehenkatu 7, Helsinki 00880. You can get there by public transport: take the Metro to Herttoniemi, going in the direction of Mellunmaki or Vuosaari (in actual fact, there is only one Metro line, but it bisects after Herttoniemi.) Once you get to Herttoniemi, the Marimekko factory/shop is an easy 1km walk.
7. Find Moomin-decorated mugs, beautiful Iitala ceramics and Alvar Aalto-designed glass at the Arabia factory, north east of the city centre. There's a museum where you can learn about the history of ceramics manufacture in the city and (wait for it) another outlet shop. The number 6 tramline goes all the way to Arabia.
8. Head to Kallio, the former workers' district just north of the centre. Hakaniemi indoor market sells all sorts of Finnish delicacies and has wonderful vintage signs on the roof.
From the market, you can walk west around the little inlet where lots of boats are moored and over to Lake Tooloniahti. If you follow the path around, you'll come to a little wooden house, painted blue. They'll sell you a tea bag and point you to an urn of hot water. You drink your tea looking over the lake and a breathtaking view of the Finlandia concert hall.
9. Make friends with some locals. Courtesy of some friendly Helsinki natives (Helsinkers?) we were introduced to the most amazing pub in Kallio, run by a delightful Bulgarian called Peter. The decor doesn't appear to have been updated since 1955 and the jukebox (!) certainly hasn't.
I gave my word I wouldn't publish the name of the pub here - and it's true that part of its magic was the serendipitous way we came upon it. My advice is: pick a pub (any pub), getting talking to the natives and you too will find yourself - if not here, then in some equally special place.
10. Visit the thousand-and-one shops specialising in mid-century modern design. Looking for a Scandic sofa, a retro radio, collectable ceramics? You will be spoiled for choice. Prices in the antique/secondhand/vintage shops are not cheap - but they are cheaper than in many other countries.
11. One of the things we truly meant to do but didn't quite manage was to take a trip to Suomenlinna, an island in the harbour with a walled fortress. We did gaze at it from a bench on the mainland and many people we met recommended it. My suggestion would be to go to the main food market in Kauppatori (Market Square), at the eastern end of Pohjoisesplanadi, buy a picnic and then take the ferry to the island.
12. The other thing that we truly meant to do but were unable to do was take a sauna. Our chosen sauna was the Art Deco palace on Yrjonkatu ... but it was very firmly closed - for summer holidays, I think.
We'll just have to try again next time.