Yes I know, Copenhagen is the Scandi city everyone is currently obsessed with - it has an increasingly important fashion week, an army of super cool design labels cropping up by the second and what seems to be an endless supply of gorgeous women with killer style (my personal favourites are Jeanette Madsen
and Thora Valdimars
) who dine at equally aesthetically pleasing cafes and restaurants on a daily basis… and yes, if I had the money I would quite happily buy the entire new Ganni
and Rotate Birger Christensen
collection right here and right now BUT hear me out.
Because for me Helsinki really is the true gem of this region (and I know all you geography nerds will point out that Finland isn't technically part of Scandinavia but you get the idea). Why? Helsinki is effortlessly cool, as yet undiscovered by the annoying hipster masses and a haven for anyone that appreciates good quality food, a modern and advanced approach to living, understated design and a diverse mix of cultural activities on offer.
Since my first visit to Helsinki 4 years ago, the city has really flourished and I have been back to visit every summer since, noticing change and further development every time. It’s almost like they’ve gone the extra mile to catch up with their cool neighbours, Stockholm and Copenhagen, which has seen a plethora of amazing brunch places, wine bars and outdoor bars by the sea open up, truly transforming Helsinki into not only a beautifully serene city by the sea but one that is seriously fun and interesting to young people with good taste.
The last two times I came I was there for Flow festival, in my eyes still the best organised and programmed city festival in Europe (you can read all about my time there here
), so didn’t get to do too much outside the festival, which is why I was so excited to come back this summer for 3 days to really explore the city that Helsinki is now - with all of its new culinary additions but also cultural attractions that I hadn’t had the time to properly tackle before.
Good thing then that I had the perfect local guide in my friend Emmi, who I have known since my uni days when she spent a year abroad in London, and who I have been on many trips around the world and thus fully trust when it comes to choosing only the best spots, and in a very unlike Stella move left her completely in charge of our Helsinki summer weekend itinerary. She did an absolute fabulous job and even though I have always loved Helsinki, this trip made me truly fall in love with this city.
It isn’t a cheap place, even for London standards, but it is clean, friendly and modern and a place that quite rightly always comes in high up in quality of life rankings. It is safe without being boring, laid back yet full of things to do and by the sea so never quite feeling like you are in a polluted capital city.
For your next city break why don’t you give Helsinki a chance and do something a little different (I had to explain to quite a few of my colleagues “what Helsinki is") because trust me you won’t regret it.
HOW TO GET THERE:
The flight is around 3 hours long (2 and a half hours with tail wind) and Norwegian Air
is your best bet for a cheap flight from London, with daily flights going out of Gatwick. If you book ahead, like I did, you can get return flights for under £150. I’ve found Norwegian, though no frills in their lack of free snacks and the like, to be super reliable, with friendly staff, free wifi on the flight (great for someone like me that hates flying that can keep everyone on the ground in the loop if I am still alive) and state of the art planes so can only recommend them, heck they somehow managed to get me to Singapore in one piece last year!
Helsinki’s main airport is very close to the city and you can hop on either the P or I train once you land, which will get you to the main Helsinki station and city centre in 25 minutes. Top tip: download the HSL app
beforehand for free in the app store. The app allows you to map your way from the airport to your accommodation as well as around the city, let's you see suggested routes and gives you the option to buy paperless digital tickets at your fingertips (how advanced compared to TFL am I right?!). I got myself a 3 day ticket for the 2 most central zones which cost me 16 euros and which was great value for money, especially considering how easy the tram network, the main mode of transport in the city, is to navigate.
If you want to have a picnic by the sea with some fizz or rose in hand or generally want to pick up a bottle of wine outside a restaurant environment, be aware that normal Finnish supermarkets aren’t allowed to sell any beverages with more than 5.5% alcohol. So if you don't fancy beer or cider you will have to locate an ‘Alko’, a government operated supermarket that is licensed to sell wines and spirits. There are quite a few in town, most notably one downstairs at Stockmann
, Helsinki’s most famous department store, next to a very well stocked food hall, but a quick google will reveal some others as well. One last thing to bear in mind - while supermarkets are open on Sundays, Alko’s are not so plan ahead if needed.
WHERE TO STAY:
HOTEL INDIGO HELSINKI - BOULEVARD
I had a dreamy stay at this centrally located, boutique style hotel. Staff were a delight and looked after us from start to finish. Room fittings were top notch and brand new, and the rooms themselves felt very spacious. Overall I can’t recommend The Indigo Helsinki
enough, especially considering value of money and the location you get, ideal for exploring the city.
In the poshest part of town, a short walk from the main market square and surrounded by lots of cute cafes and boutiques. The hippest part of town, Kallio, where a lot of the foodie spots were located I went to on this trip, is also only a short tram ride away and there is a stop literally right outside the hotel entrance!
Modern, clean and with an incredible shower. I had one of the best sleeps in a very long time there so the beds must be pretty good too.
Included in the room price, breakfast is served from 7am until 11am every day, just by reception, in a nice and bright dining room. You can also get a very decent cappuccino made for you and I liked the selection of fresh fruit, lots cheeses, smoked fish and bread. Perfect to fuel up at ahead of a day of exploring Helsinki.
WHERE TO EAT:
SIMPLICITY AT ITS BEST @ WAY BAKERY AND WINE BAR
Way Bakery & Wine bar
is the type of local spot everyone would love in their neighbourhood. Friendly staff, Scandi chic interiors and an attention to detail to food and wine that made me love Way at an instant.
Emmi had told me how famous their bread and churned butter had become in Helsinki since they opened and though I was initially dubious how something as simple as bread and butter could be that hype worthy upon trying it for myself I really did understand why. Why? Well their sourdough bread is undoubtedly one of the best I have ever had, fluffy, with just the perfect crust and an absolute must try for any Helsinki visitor.
Come in for breakfast and have yours with a variety of toppings like cheese, ham or a hard boiled egg and be prepared to be wowed - simplicity at its absolute best, especially as each slice of bread comes with the most incredible churned butter, topped with coarse sea salt.
Bread and butter a foodie highlight? For sure if it is done to utter perfection like here, I for one have been lusting after it ever since finishing every last crumb of my portion. At night they offer a selection of wonderful wines and small plates, of course served with more fantastic sourdough, and I for sure will return to Way, both for breakfast and dinner. Bread that is almost worth getting on the plane for alone.
SERIOUSLY GOOD CINNAMON BUNS @ ST. GEORGE HOTEL
is a brand new boutique hotel in Helsinki’s centre that gives out all kinds of Soho house vibes and that also happens to have a very cool bakery in its basement for which you don’t even have to book one of their snazzy rooms for to make the most of and which serves incredible baked goods.
I have tried many, many cinnamon buns in my time and Emmi has always attempted to show me the best Helsinki has to offer on my visits, but St George's
bun was hands down the best bun of my life - juicy, sticky and full of flavour, I could have easily eaten 3 in one sitting. Not that they only do buns well, all the cakes and breads looked outstanding and being located just by a leafy square, with plenty of outside seating, St George’s bakery
is the ideal ‘fika’ spot for something sweet and a cup of coffee. A new Helsinki favourite.
FINNISH CLASSICS REINVENTED @ KEKRI
home is a canopy kiosk, one of the many retro looking sheds dotted around the city that used to sell refreshments to locals in the 30’s and 40s, of which many have fallen into disarray and disuse since. To combat these wasted spaces a lot of the kiosks have recently been transformed into foodie pop ups and Kekri
is one of those.
Here the little space is used to serve up some fantastic modern twists on Finnish culinary classics, to be enjoyed on one of their outside tables, and I have to say the dishes don’t only sound quite spectacular on their menu (rye-blueberry bread, smoked vendace, maple syrup bacon, apple salsa verde, sorrel crème fraîche, juniper powder & pickled wild herbs anyone?!) but taste it too! We only stopped by for an afternoon snack but I would have happily tried my way across the menu - clearly here there is a kitchen at work willing to experiment and create exciting new dishes that will challenge your tastebuds.
We shared the infamous ‘Karelian pasty 2019 Vol. 2' - a modern take on the classic finish Karelian pie, which consisted of deep fried balls of rice porridge with a crispy rye crust, served with the most moorish egg-butter mousse dip. This was an utter and unexpected delight to eat, not only because it came served out of an unassuming kiosk but also because at Kekri
they are not afraid to push the culinary boundaries to transport Finnish cuisine straight into 2019.
HELSINKI'S HIPSTER HANGOUT @ HARJU8
Located in the up and coming neighbourhood of Kallio (think of it as Helsinki’s Hackney), Harju8
looks like it may as well be down a leafy street in the East Village and has a cosy local bistro vibe about it, with plenty of outside seats and shabby chic interiors.
It can feel a little too “hip” for its on good, tattooed waiters too busy at times chatting with regulars than to serve you and I am not a massive fan of self service by the bar when it comes to sit down dinners, but I did really like the atmosphere of the place, indeed it is the spot to watch the cool kids of Helsinki congregate over Aperol Spritz's.
They also serve some pretty good food - lots of small plate veggie options like parsnip fries with vegan mustard mayo, which I had on this occasion as we only popped in for a drink and snack, but also many amazing looking mains with lots of vegan and fish options and a focus on using seasonal veg. One place I would be keen to return to for dinner and perfect for taking a bigger group.
BRUNCH FOR THE INDECISIVE @ FLAT NO 14
Flat NO 14 won me over with their novel way of serving brunch. Once seated you are given their menu and a highlighter and are then encouraged to select and mark 3, 5 or 7 brunch options of their menu, resulting in a kind of brunch tapas spread that allows you to try both savoury and sweet options.
Whether you go for half an avocado with nut crumble, broad bean and beet hummus, porridge or eggs, it means you can try a little bit of everything which is exactly how I like to eat. Portions are pretty decent, which meant 3 plates proved plenty to fill us up but really the world is your oyster here when it comes to ordering.
My tip: Be adventures and try the Skagen, a Swedish inspired prawn, mayo and dill dip that may sound odd but tastes delicious and is not your average brunch option.
INVENTIVE PIZZA TOPPINGS @ PUTTE’S BAR AND PIZZA
has been known to serve some of the best pizza in Helsinki for a while now and we weren’t let down when we headed there for a chilled Sunday dinner after a busy weekend of exploring the city.
They are not afraid of an inventive topping, their Silence of the Lamb pizza features lamb with North-African spices, mozzarella, tomato, rucola, but here that boldness works a treat.
Their dough is perfectly stretchy yet light and I adored my slightly odd sounding NIERIÄ pizza which was a fishy delight and came topped with arctic char (similar to salmon), mozzarella, parmesan, mascarpone, fennel - not your average Franco Manco margarita but all the better for it.
Drinks are decently priced and pizzas get served up quick and efficiently. If you have a craving for pizza with a difference that still gets all the basics right Putte’s
is your spot, we weren’t surprised to see how busy it was on a Sunday, Helsinki’s people know where it's good.
THINGS TO DO & SEE
ARCHITECTURE FIX @ OODI
Recently opened, this public library, cinema, cafe and meeting place has been designed to resemble a boat and is proof that modern architecture can add to the communal feeling of a city. Make sure you check out the view from the top floor.
CULTURE FIX @ HAM
The Helsinki Art Museum is definitely worth a visit with its changing exhibitions showcasing Finnish artists from all decades, and is a perfect pit stop if you need a break from sightseeing or the weather isn’t playing ball.
NATURE FIX @ SUOMENLINNA ISLAND
Make sure you to dedicate a morning or afternoon to explore this 18th-century sea fortress and nature area with centuries-old artillery and defensive walls, spread across 6 linked islands which is only a 15 minute ferry ride away from Helsinki’s main market square.
The ferry ride itself is worth it alone. You can use your HSL day ticket to get on a little boat which will get you there and which comes every 10 minutes or so, allowing you to enjoy a very quaint boat ride that this little Londoner already found super exciting.
Once on the island you can simply enjoy the beautiful untouched nature, explore the old fortress and take in the lovingly kept wooden summer houses that make the whole place look super picturesque. Many bring picnic supplies and find a hidden spot right by the sea or amidst nature to sit down at but I also highly recommend Cafe Silo
, an unexpectedly stylish cafe on the island that serves excellent coffee, baked goods and artisan ice cream.
Now it’s your time to discover Helsinki.