Wednesday 23 August 2017
THE PERFECT CITY FESTIVAL? HELSINKI'S FLOW FESTIVAL MAY JUST BE IT.
First things first I do have admit that I won a competition to attend the festival, including VIP wristbands, a hotel stay and flights there, which of course made it pretty easy for me to have a good time but the fact that I am already planning to return next year (when I'll be paying for everything) proves that Flow delivered, free or not.
Located in a formerly industrial part of town and just a 30 minute walk from the city centre, Flow also allowed me to further explore Helsinki's stellar food and drinks offerings during the day before the festival performances and I was once again lucky enough to have my favourite travel buddy and Helsinki local Emmi to show me the best and newest spots (you may remember when I visited her last year and pretty much instantly fell in love with Helsinki's late summer sunsets and awesome outside drinking spots). It meant that the weekend offered the perfect mix of culture, walks by the sea, live music, amazing food and a bit of unforgettable drama, the festival put on hold for a good hour or so as a massive rain and lightening storm passed over the grounds. Below are a few of my personal highlights, from Flow itself to the best hotel in town, to where we got over our festival hangovers by scoffing down the best cinnamon buns and pizza in the Finnish capital.
Finally a big thank you to Flow's team who looked after us and treated us like total rockstars! It was one of the best weekends of my life and made me love this city even more than I did before. London may be my home but the older I get, the more does the quarter Finnish in me feel a sense of homecoming every time I visit. Kiitos Finland, kiitos Helsinki and kiitos Flow.
THE FESTIVAL: FLOW
How to best summarise Flow festival? For me it was everything that I ever wanted from a festival and much more. No drunk people falling over, no crowds roaming the grounds confused because of bad organisation and lay out, no crappy beige food from questionable food trucks and no performances where as someone that is 5'2 I basically see zilch. Indeed every little detail was considered to perfection here.
All food served for example was locally sourced, mainly organic and incredibly vegetarian and vegan friendly. The range on offer was simply astounding, from deep fried crab in a sticky Korean marinade served with a kimchi salad which we went for on the Friday, to the most flavourful tofu massaman curry that we had on the Sunday - this was food of a top notch quality as you'd expect in London's latest eating out hot spot, not at a music festival.
This attention to detail continued in the general set up of the festival. Toilets were readily available and the crowd so chilled that I was able to get a good spot to watch the musical performers at all gigs including headliners Frank Ocean, Lana Del Rey and The xx (which were all outstanding by the way with the xx leaving us in tears of joy!). Everything felt super chilled and intimate with no gurning 18 year old wearing a flower crown with glitter on their face in sight. Even when a huge code red rainstorm hit the festival on Friday night, a situation that would have surely resulted in the whole festival being called off in the UK, organisers kept their cool, updating their social platforms in real time and meant that within a few hours and after a few emergency tent repairs Flow had weathered the storm and we got see the XX with pink clouds and a rainbow forming behind the stage, with an atmosphere of sheer elation in the air. Sure it isn't the cheapest festival, the ticket may only be 180 euros for the 3 days but food and wine are, much like the rest of Helsinki, prettttty expensive (i.e. an average meal at the festival is 12 euro upwards and a small glass of wine i8 euros) but in my eyes here it is 100 percent worth it. It's a festival for young, but not too young, creative people that know what's good when it comes to music, fashion, food and design, Flow delivering on every single of those fronts. I urge you all to leave Croatia and the like behind next year and make the trip to Flow when it comes to foreign festivalling, it won't be a hidden gem for long.
THE HOTEL: F6
F6 is the boutique hotel in town. It is bang in the city centre, a stones throw away from the main market square and tourist attractions but has that unique sense of style in it's interiors which you never get in chain hotels and an informal, fun atmosphere that super fancy 5 star sort of places usually replace with uptightness. Only open for a year, F6 is a beautifully designed space that is modern yet plays on Finland's long design history. There is the stunning bright orange courtyard with astro turf in which you can have a drink while soaking up some rays, the beautiful art deco inspired tiling throughout the lobby and the perfectly formed rooms that come with everything your heart desires, from Ritual bath goodies to probably the most comfortable bed I have slept in in my 25 years on this planet (in fact I had to snooze my alarm about 6 times before I could make myself get up which is saying something coming from a semi insomniac).
The breakfast included with the stay was impeccable and a typical Scandi affair with an array of fresh bread, pastries, juices and cold toppings including hot smoked salmon, all plated on stylish Marimekko tableware that I immediately wanted for my own kitchen collection. Service was friendly, with staff going out of their way to make our stay a dream. If your budget allows make this place your home for the weekend, you won't regret it, F6 a hotel that is far from generic and one I will set as benchmark for hotels in the future.
THE PLACE FOR FANCY COCKTAILS: RUNAR @ F6
The evening before Flow was about to kick off, full of excitement and in my case relief of having survived another flight, Emmi and I went on a hunt for the best cocktails in Helsinki. As luck would have it they happened to be served in what was basically our living room. Indeed, Runar, named after F6's resident hotel dog, whose cute little face adorns their logo, is not just any hotel bar, no, it is the hottest place in town for unique and expertly made cocktails.
With a distinctively 80's dive bar feel, neon signs and all, you can tell the bartenders here know what they are doing and it was hard for us to choose from their concise but well curated cocktail menu. In the end we both went for a rosemary, champagne and vodka number, slurped through a metal straw to keep it chilled. It was perfectly balanced and flavoured, the sort of cocktail you don't get in your standard bar and akin to a gourmet dish. It may not be cheap but if a stand out cocktail is what you are after in that hotel bar environment (and I'm sorry but that does somehow add instant glamour) come to Runar, it may not be the Savoy but it's seriously good.
THE PIZZA THAT IS WORTH THE HYPE @ PIZZERIA VIA TRIBUNALI
Via Tribunali had been on Emmi's to-try list for a good few months, it supposedly making THE best pizza in Helsinki and commanding waiting times of up to two hours most evenings. I like a challenge and I also like to know if a place is worth the hype surrounding it, with Emmi of a very similar mindset, which is why we were absolutely determined to squeeze in an early dinner here before heading to our first evening at the festival. And well there was a wait.. and not a short one at that especially considering that we showed up at 6pm on a Friday, but after we left our name on the list and an hour and a half later (in which time we freshened up at the hotel and downed a rather amazing espresso martini at Runar) we did manage to snag a table in the bright and open space dining room. I, of course, had super high expectations after all of this palava and the numerous ecstatic reviews I had read about the place on social media (someone even said it was better than my favourite NYC pizza joint Roberta's) so am very happy to report that I was not let down, even a little surprised just how good the pizza was here.
Toppings are kept traditional and we decided to go halves on two flavours to make the most of the menu, ordering the Siciliana, a classic combination of Neapolitan peeled tomatoes, mozzarella, olives, capers, basil and olive oil, made to perfection here, and the stand out Tonnarella, the stretchiest of doughs with just the right amount of crust, topped with mozzarella, tuna, onion, basil, capers, pecorino romano, olive oil, lemon peel. This place doesn't need gimmicky truffle oil or other culinary showstoppers to adorn its pizzas because the flavours speak for themselves. You may find yourself in a Helsinki restaurant but any Italian nonna would be very impressed with what they dish up here. Get yourself a good book or prepare to get a little tipsy while you wait for your table here, it'll be worth it
THE APEROL SPRITZ ON A BOAT @ MERIKERHO
Helsinki is full of amazing outdoor drinking venues with stunning views over the Baltic sea and this newly opened bar right by the Flow festival area is hard to beat in it's location and vibe, it being housed on a repurposed boat with spacious deck, full of high stools and tables that let you gaze across the bay. I can't imagine many places better suited to enjoy a sun downer drink and I felt a world away from London as I sipped on my Aperol Spritz here just a few hours after landing. It's a place you wouldn't expect in the centre of Helsinki but one that makes this such a cool city visit.
THE BEST FISH IN TOWN @ OLD MARKET HALL
Sometimes one just has to be a stupid tourist and go for the stereotypical foods of the place you are in and on the Sunday morning of my weekend in Helsinki all I wanted was some typically Scandinavian gravadlax (a type of mild smoked salmon I grew up with and love to this day but rarely find made well in the UK). So I skipped the hotel breakfast and demanded Emmi to take me somewhere where they would sell exactly this, nothing fancy, no super cool hipster spot, no I just wanted smoked salmon done well, a lot of it and right away.
She of course knew exactly where to take me and got us heading towards Helsinki's famous old market hall, touristy yes with it's array of (eye roll) reindeer sausages that Japanese tourists can't wait to buy and which are eaten maybe once a year by a regular Finn, but also housing old school fishmongers and smokers that have been there for decades and really know their stuff. I settled for two types of open sandwiches on some fantastic dark Finnish rye bread, one simply with butter and gravadlax and one with an incredible salmon tartar with a hint of mustard and dill that I couldn't have been happier eating off a paper plate right by the sea. It wasn't fancy and definitely not the most underground of places but it was Finland on a plate for me and an unexpected highlight food wise. Touristy doesn't always have to mean bad after all.
THE CINNAMON BUN WITH A SIDE OF DREAMY SEA VIEWS @ BIRGITTA HERNESAARI
I would quite confidently call myself a bit of a cinnamon bun connoisseur, not only regularly seeking out the best ones you can find in London (Fabrique is the current frontrunner though I won't ever say no to an excessively calorific Cinnabon number) but am also always bugging Emmi to find me the best one in Helsinki. Last time we weren't too lucky with many of the top bakeries shut for the summer holidays but boy this time she did VERY well taking me to this unique spot right by the sea. I mean the whole place is an architect's dream, a glass and wood walled pavilion that looks out onto the wide open bay, modern and sexy in it's design yet somehow effortlessly blending into the nature surrounding it, if I was local to this I would basically spent every single Sunday in the summer here perched on one of their outside tables, watching the world go by with the waves swishing in front of me. It's so beautiful in it's setting, it almost feels unreal. Which is not to say that the food and drinks don't deliver in the same way.
No, the baked goods, presently beautifully behind a glass counter for you to drool over as you order your (very good) cup of coffee, are out of this world and I had to stop myself from ordering more than one thing. Indeed I felt almost bad going for my default cinnamon bun looking at the many other fantastic creations here but oh wow am I glad I did go for this favourite of mine in the end. Why? Well this was hands down the best cinnamon bun of my entire life (and I have had many)- gooey, crispy, juicy, sugary, cinnamony... I cant even describe to you how good it was, even Emmi commented on how happy I looked slowly devouring it, making the most of every bite. If there is one place we shall have to go back to on my next visit no matter how many cool new places have opened in the interim it will have to be Birgitta Hernesaari, not just for the bun or the view but for the whole unique package here. A true Helsinki gem.
Levain Bakery - Super cool crowd, great coffee, insane looking salad
Löyly - Architecturally stunning sauna and outdoor bar right by the sea
Stockmann - Head to Helsinki's equivalent to Selfridges for their fantastic food hall and pick up some Finnish sweets, chocolates and biscuits - super well organised and merchandised!
3 Kaverin jäätelö is a Finnish ice cream brand that is out of this world! If you see it anywhere grab a tub, it's all locally sourced and made and tastes insanely delicious!