Helsinki, just half an hour from the airport, makes a great stopover choice. Consistently ranked in the top ten most-liveable cities in the world by The Economist, it boasts gorgeous architecture, a stunning waterside location, and some great dining.
Arguably the best time to visit is the summer, when the days seem to stretch on endlessly and the city is bathed in sunshine. It’s not always hot but it’s often a nice temperature for exploring and sightseeing. Plus there are often lots of festivals during July and August making for a vibrant atmosphere. If you’re willing to accept early sunsets and temperatures below freezing, it’s incredibly picturesque in the winter.
For parents it’s easy to inject some excitement at this time of year either by making a trip to up to Father Christmas in Lapland by train or just suggesting he might be nearby. The icy landscape in more rural parts is evocative of Disney’s Frozen – so exploring in short bursts is a great way to fuel the imagination of younger kids. If you have the time to roam further into Finland, visiting September to March offers the best chance to see the magical Aurora Borealis.
Want to experience life as a local? A wonderful way to do so is immerse yourself in the sauna culture. Leap from alternating hot and cold baths, a process which many Fins say energizes and detoxifies. A hugely popular pastime for families, it is also a common way to catch up with friends. In fact it’s so enmeshed in the way of life that you’ll even see business meetings held this way.
Head to the Ruoholahti district on the waterfront, and explore the Kaapelicultural, a factory turned artisanal hub housing around a dozen art galleries. It’s an ideal place to pick up unusual pieces from new talent.
Even in the cold, the Design District is a joy to amble around, and it’s a treasure trove for shoppers. From bespoke and one-off clothes and furniture to an array of vintage and retro stores on the buzzing streets of Albertinkatu and Roobertinkatu. The focus is on the handmade, the restored and the refashioned. Head to the centre of creativity, Globe Hope, but be warned you’ll come away with things you never knew you wanted. Check out the boutique Pop Antik, which is bursting with antiques and classic toys.
Idyllic Seurasaari Island has a decent-sized beach, restaurant and a museum. During the summer, the atmosphere is vibrant and it’s warm enough to take a dip – well worth making the short trip. There are also regular boats to Suomenlinna Island throughout the day.
In winter, the city glows with the Season of Light installation (held each January) and there’s outdoor skating everywhere, try the Ice Park in Railway Square.
Another wonderful activity in summertime is berry picking – Finland is home to around 37 edible berries, including blueberries, lingonberries, raspberries, cranberries with many varieties growing naturally in the wild. So if you fancy getting a bit closer to nature – there are plenty of day trips that take you on an edible discovery tour of nearby forests. If you’re keen to explore more, it’s possible to take a day cruise through the waterways around the capital.
Or for the adventurous there are longer trips taking you further into the Finnish archipelago. Made up of 315 islands with 38 national parks… the landscape is breathtaking.
There’s no escaping it, Helsinki is an expensive city. It is worth purchasing a Helsinki Card, which gives you free access to selected museums as well as discounts on key attractions.
If you’re craving some culture, pay a visit to the Ateneum Art Museum showcases classic Nordic art. Contemporary art lovers should make a beeline for Kiasma, the striking museum in the heart of the city.
Take tram route number 4 for an architectural tour of the city. Running from the Katajanokka to Munkkiniemi district, it is a lovely way to see some of the city’s key sites including the gorgeous Uspenski Cathedral, Government Palace, and the Olympic Stadium. If you climb the tower at the latter on a clear day, you’ll be rewarded out across the Baltic.
It’s impossible to miss the designs of Alvar Aalto on this journey, as the renowned architect’s work is dotted across the landscape. Stop off at the striking Finlandia Hall and see what concerts are on offer if you fancy a night of classical music.
Widely regarded as Helsinki’s best restaurant, Olo is an elegant eatery housed in a 19th-century mansion on the former. The dishes are mainly Finnish cuisine with a modern twist. If you have the time, and either well-behaved children or a babysitting service, try the degustation menu, which has nods to the Scandinavian dining trend for foraging, and molecular gastronomy. Expect the unusual… plates include moose with celeriac, chicken liver with raspberry, and Emmer semolina with reindeer heart. Book at least a month in advance.
Another popular high-end spot is Juuri, a Suomi tapas place serving up the weird and wonderful. Service is good and staff are great at helping you navigate the menu. If you’re feeling brave, you can just tell the chefs your likes and dislikes and they will put together a menu to suit your tastes. Portions are bite-sized, so you’ll need to order plenty of dishes. Call well ahead of your visit to secure a seat.
Locals also love Kuu restaurant, a stalwart of the city since the 1960s and conveniently located, which cooks up classics such as reindeer fillet and smoked salmon soup. It’s small but very cosy, and kid-friendly.
The food booths are a little easier on the wallet – close to the Hakaniemi Market – there are little huts that offer delicious, warm donuts. There are also some gorgeous little restaurants that have served the people of the city for decades. Seahorse first opened in 1934 and offers the best of local fare at reasonable prices. Also worth a stop is the adorable Cafe Regatta, which is right on the water.
There’s a coterie of weird and wonderful places to rest your head in Helsinki. Fancy sleeping on a UNESCO-listed fortress island? Take the short ferry trip from the city centre to Suomenlinna Island and stay at the hostel of the same name. There are dormitories or adorable doubles upstairs.
Want to sleep in a castle? The GLO Hotel Art is the place for you. Located in the city’s design district, its vintage Art Nouveau style will have you wishing your life was always so glamourous. The hotel Katajanokka is a Best Western residence with a difference, it was once a prison, decommissioned around 15 years ago. The attached restaurant and bar play on the history – drinks are served in tin cups.
If you just want a place with great amenities and lush views, head to Hotel Haven or Hotel Fabian – both are excellent boutique spots that take very good care of their guests.
Ateljee Bar at the Hotel Torni, once the tallest building in Helsinki, is a must for the views. History buffs will enjoy having a tipple at the spot that served as the Russian headquarters late into the Second World War.
A fun way to have a drink is to ride the Sparakoff beer tram while you take in the sights. The vehicle has been converted so there’s an actual bar inside, with some excellent beer on tap. If you’re a fan of Finnish cinema, or just like the bohemian crowd, the Corona Bar is popular with the nation’s acting stars. There is a billiards’ hall attached.
Finn Air are currently running a great deal where travellers from Asia can stay in Helsinki – with no additional airfare charges – for up to 5 days before carrying on with their journey to other European destinations. Additional information on the stopover offer can can be found at visitfinland.com/stopover.