Okay, so Helsinki is one of the lesser-visited European capital cities, which baffled me; the city seemed to tick a lot of boxes! Fins are known for their sauna culture, moomins, of course, for having more heavy rock bands per capita than anywhere else in the world, and a word in their language ‘kalsarikanni‘ that translates as ‘being drunk in your pants’, which is certainly something I can get on board with.
I travelled to Helsinki for a long weekend as part of my birthday in late October, which is arguably the ‘worst‘ time to visit Finland; Finns hit headlines a couple of years back for congratulating tourists on braving the Finnish winter complete with an oversized banner reading “Nobody in their right mind comes to Helsinki in November, except you, badass“. We got lucky with the weather though. Sure, any exposed flesh was close-to frostbitten, but it was mostly bright and we were happy to be welcomed by Helsinki’s first snow of the winter, which was more of a Disney-style dusting than full-blown snow storm, so perhaps I haven’t quite earned the ‘Badass’ title just yet?
Embrace Finnish Sauna Culture
Having experienced different sauna’s and spa’s around Europe; from Budapest’s steamy communal baths to Iceland’s natural geothermal pools, I quickly discovered Finland presents something different entirely. To be fair though, these Finns have had thousands of years to perfect and refine the sauna experience, so we can’t be overly surprised that these unassuming wood cabins, seemingly have other-worldly properties with the power to transport the spa-goer to a place of peak-Zen. And breathe…
We had two nights in Helsinki, so we chose two saunas; both so different that I can’t possibly pick a favourite, so don’t even ask me to!
Allas Sea Pool, Helsinki
Our flight into Helsinki landed late-ish in the day that there wasn’t enough time to tick off all the sightseeing in the first day, but I knew that Allas Sea Pool, which is perched right on the edge of the harbour, would be the most perfect introduction to this wonderful city. Approaching dusk, we slipped into their large heated outside swimming pool. The air outside was beautifully Baltic; so cold it was biting, which made the transition into the warm water even better. If you tire of the sparkling panorama of Helsinki’s harbour, you can move inside to the mixed sauna which is where I began to process why the sauna is such a huge part of the culture here. For the Finns, the sauna is a social experience, but is also an opportunity to physically and mentally relax; sauna’s here isn’t a luxury, but something that is worked into an average routine. The longer I sat there sweating from every pore, and feeling the stresses of the previous week leave me, the more I realised these guys have got something very right here.
Loyly, Helsinki’s Eco-Friendly Public Sauna
Loyly, the impossible to pronounce, eco-friendly public sauna is on the other end of the scale, created as a more luxurious alternative to the standard sauna. Even from the outside, it’s seriously impressive; cutting a modern angular shape right on the sea-front. This is Helsinki’s uber-stylish, ultra-contemporary twist on the traditional sauna experience and is rightfully becoming a real hot-spot for those visiting Helsinki. Loyly manages to be simplistic and trendy at the same time, with a traditional smoke sauna, a wood-burning sauna, a super-cosy chill-out space in the centre with a hygge-inducing fire, and outside, stairs dropping directly into the Baltic sea for those icy sea-swims.
I’m going to stop there, because I’m not even really sure I can put into words, the very real sense of deep relaxation that can be felt, if you allow yourself succumb to the Finnish sauna experience!
The Sights of Helsinki
There’s not denying the beauty of this Finnish capital. Helsinki throws around some striking, clean lines and boasts some seriously grand buildings. Our free walking tour guide talked us through history of Finland and explained why the city has such obvious Swedish and Russian influences.
Senate Square, Helsinki Cathedral and the City Centre
Senate Square is easily the most recognisable view in Helsinki, with the steep stone steps leading up to the glowing-white presence of Helsinki Cathedral. Our free walking tour also managed to take us past quite a few other really remarkable buildings including red-brick Uspenski Cathedral which also dominated the city’s skyline.
Walking past the Government Offices by the harbour our guide was keen to highlight a few differences between Finland and other countries. Our trip came only a few months after the heavily publicised Russia-USA summit hosted in Helsinki and he noted how amusing it was that it was almost impossible to catch a glimpse of Trump or Putin through the thick layer of security, whereas the President of Finland is often seen taking solitary walks around the city, alongside his super-cute Boston Terrier, Lennu. Just one example of how they do things here!
Touching further on the quirks of Finnish people our guide asked us whether we’d noticed how quiet the city was. Weirdly enough, it was one of the first things we’d picked up on when we touched down at Helsinki Airport; passing through arrivals, the atmosphere was oddly silent; families silently moving through the terminal, couples sipping on coffee cups without so much as a murmur. It’s actually pretty eerie at first, but once you’d got used to it, it was strangely calming. As it turns out, Finns aren’t huge fans of small-talk, and once you get to grips with that, it’s ridiculously refreshing to wander around a capital city and not be overwhelmed with the typical buzz, chatter and constant noise. Little known secret: Finland is so good for the soul!
We took a wander out to the other side of the city where we found the Kamppi Chapel or the “The Chapel of Silence”. From the outside, this copper-coloured window-less shape in the middle of the city is almost alien-like – it certainly doesn’t blend into it’s surroundings. But once you walk inside and experience the ultra-still silence within the space, it’s just another example of the importance Finns place on individual wellbeing. Honestly, this whole holiday was fast becoming a real wellness trip. Forget ‘Eat Pray Love’, I now know if I ever crave a bit of TLC I just need to hop over to Finland for a few days…
Helsinki – Design Capital
This part of the world is top of its game when it comes to design; if we had a bigger budget and a larger suitcase we might have almost be persuaded to take our window-shopping a step further. The city centre is full of design shops, with stylish homewares and high-end fashion boutiques, so as we dodged the cold weather we’d dip into every other shop to have a nosy at all the latest Scandi-trends. To ensure that even in the heaviest snow storm, the Finns can continue to shop, the pavement on the main shopping street is heated from below to prevent the snow from settling. Clever stuff!
Unique Spaces: Helsinki’s Temppeliaukio Rock Church
A church, is a church, is a church, no? Perhaps not when Helsinki gets involved. I have been to countless churches in Europe, some beautifully minimalist, and some intensely ornate, but I can’t recall any being built directly into a rock at the heart of a capital city. Helsinki’s Temppeliaukio Rock Church is something pretty special and they like to do things a little differently too, and often host concerts in the space to take advantage of the unique acoustics within the space. Usually when we travel, we have a quick look around the church and then scooch off, but the natural space had a really calming effect and we ended up staying for a full service.
Eating And Drinking In Helsinki
Budget Helsinki: Friends & Brgrs and Naughty Burgers
Straight-up… we found it near impossible to not haemorrhage money on eating and drinking out in Helsinki, but to attempt to keep costs down we lived off an exclusive diet of fabulously greasy burgers and fries. Could have done worse! We became more than acquainted with fast food joint ‘Friends & Brgrs’; the burgers were big, the chipotle dip hit the spot, and if I could get a whole meal for less than 15 Euro’s in this uber-expensive city, then that’s all good with me. Figuring that burgers were pretty much the only thing that allowed us to keep within a budget, we also caught a ‘cheap’ meal at Naughty Burger which was nearby to our hotel.
Craft Beer in Helsinki: Bier Bier, Tommyknockers and Black Door
Alcohol is so damn expensive in Helsinki! But, you know, with so many craft beer bars in Helsinki, I wasn’t going to miss out. ‘Bier Bier’ was a really short walk from our hotel; a scandi-cool, dimly-lit bar with a killer selection of draft beer. We had to select our tipple carefully so to not accidently splurge our entire budget on a single drink, but once we’d figured out the menu and settled down in a corner, this cosy bar had us in for the night!
Moving on, we headed onto the next street down for ‘Tommyknockers’ and ‘Black Door’, both casual craft beer bars with a welcoming vibes and a substantial international offering.
Experience the Mumin Kaffe
Finally, I will assume that everyone is a fan of the tiny Finnish marshmallow-like cartoon characters, the Moomins. Regardless, I am declaring it mandatory for everyone to visit the Mumin Kaffe when in Helsinki! The Moomins are so inherently Finnish and there is something so wonderfully bizarre about dipping into this café to dodge a particularly heavy snow fall, only to warm up over a white hot chocolate and a Hattifattener cookie, next to a stuffed Moomintroll.
Anyone else been to Helsinki or elsewhere in Finland? Is Finland on your bucket list?