After falling in love with Iceland (4 trips there in less than a year, writing a travel guide on the South and the East of the country for Hachette), I was in need of more Nordic adventures. I started wandering from a website to another. I needed it to be an easy but exciting city break. Helsinki was perfect – a taste of Finland and the possibility to take a ferry to Tallinn and be there in 2h30… 2 trips in one!
I found in Helsinki’s architecture, a Haussmannian grandeur I had almost forgotten, mixed with an Art Deco vibe and an incredible colour palette. Oh, and amazing sculpted doors too. Walking, wandering, getting lost is a must. So much to admire, so little time! I put my bags down in the district area the first night. Lots of antiques and creative shops all around! And so many cafés (rather discreet so do look in) to choose from in the city – from healthy one (Try Kuuma and Healthinki‘s super breakfast bowls! The latter makes a proper turmeric latte too) to more traditional ones (Ekberg‘s cinnamon bun is a must but do try Fazer‘s apple meringue cake too). Many serve a “breakfast all you can eat buffet”, costing between 10 and 15€.
Foodies will equally love the Market Hall near the harbour – Vanha Kauppahalli, dating back to 1888, each boutique beautifully framed in wood. Pastries, bear paté, crayfish, reindeer snacks, funky infusions by Nord-T (Like Polar Night cap – rooibos, sea buckthorn and birch leaf – or Afloat with folk boat – strawberry, birch leaf, nettle, liquorice root). Nearby is Kaupattori or the Market Square where you will find stalls too. Autumn is brilliant: lots of mushrooms, cranberries, lingonberries, sea buckthorn, apples for quite a small price… which comes in litre, by the way, not kilo. I got myself a litre of plums for 3€!
The first week in October takes place the Baltic Herring Market which has been held here since 1743. The fishermen sell their produce from the boats directly – very picturesque! Fresh, salted, smoked, pickled, marinated fish together, even Tyrni (sea buckthorn) coulis, syrup, sauce and rye bread. You can also indulge in fishcakes to die for, cooked season fillets for a Euro or two. Such a cheerful atmosphere!
There are a few lakes in the city too, framed by forests – an easy escape from everything. Locals cycle through, jog (even late at night). Autumn had painted the trees yellow, gold, orange, copper. Quite a contrast with the blue sky, the wind blowing through, swirling leaves all around me. In Finland, everyone has a right to go foraging – meaning picking mushrooms and berries in the parks too…
Strolling back in to the centre, I decided to try Helsinki’s outdoors floating swimming pool by the harbour – Allas Sea Pool. It opens super early (06.30 most days), closes at 10pm – ideal to relax and meet locals. The water is a delightful 27 deg C and it comes with a sauna too… Imagine that in winter! Even better you have the perfect view on the Skywheel (more about this soon).
I realised pretty quickly I would never have enough time in Helsinki. It’s a difficult balance – you want to take your time yet explore as much as possible, sit down to enjoy the view but capture it in a picture too. Instagram is a great tool for that – with the right #, you’ll find secret gems like the stairs of the local university (great view on the cathedral from the terrace on the last floor by the way) or those of the Stockmann department store…
Time was running out already. I want to see it in winter. In spring. I want to take a ferry to all the little islands that surround Helsinki – some have restaurants, one a fortress. I want to take bike tours of the city (one is sauna themed!). See the picturesque wooden houses in the suburbs. Live there for a week or two. I will be back, Helsinki. Soon.
>> Travelling there: try Norwegian Airlines from London Gatwick
>> From the airport to the centre: there is a train linking to the main railway station in the centre. You will be there in 30 mn max.
>> Where to stay: I stayed in a couple of Airbnbs (great to live like the locals and explore neighbourhoods) but equally loved Hotel Katajanokka (a former prison and near the Viking Line boat if you’re planning to go to Tallinn – more about this soon!)
>> Useful: The Helsinki Card which covers museums, public transport, the hop on hop off bus, a canal boat trip and lots of reductions on other attractions
>> More about the city at Visit Helsinki