Helsinki Travel Guide

Helsinki Travel Guide

Despite occupying a stunning location on the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki is often overlooked in favour of better-known Baltic capitals such as Stockholm and Tallinn. But short of being the dull capital that might be implied by its moniker ‘white city of the north’ – which stems from the light-coloured granite favoured as a building material – Helsinki is actually one of Europe’s hottest destinations. An impressive architectural history blends with richly-stocked boutiques and innovative galleries in a country ranked one of the best in the world for being gay. Rainbow flags welcome people to most of the capital’s shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs, where same-sex relationships are accepted as a part of life and gay marriage has been recognised since 2017. Here’s our Helsinki gay city guide.

The best hotels in Helsinki

Its luxurious suites may recall the wilds of Finland’s far north, with beds crowned by deer antlers and chairs draped in the softest of reindeer skins. However, Lapland Hotels Bulevardi lies not in the north but at the heart of the capital, just a short distance from the modern art museum and other significant Helsinki points of interest. The atmospheric suites combine the best of contemporary Finnish design with long-held national customs – the on-site sauna is open daily, while private versions are included in larger suites. Located nearby in the Design District is Hotel Lilla Roberts. Set within a fine example of the country’s National Romanticism architectural movement, the public spaces and rooms bubble with personality, decorated with attractive print art and numerous quirky touches that bring soul to the monochrome interiors.

The five-storey Hotel Fabian has a tranquil setting, yet is just five minutes on foot from the busy cafes of Market Square. Its chic rooms are bathed in natural light, as is the planted interior courtyard, which guests are welcome to enjoy throughout the day. The hidden courtyard at Hotel F6 can be found just off the Esplanade; part major thoroughfare, part urban park, it is an equally short stroll from Market Square. Its rooms are elegantly decorated in natural colours enhanced by black and gold accents, giving each space a unique cosiness. The hotel’s Runar bar is equally full of joie de vivre, whether a fruit juice or a craft beer is your tipple of choice. Atmospheric stays continue across the bridge to the distinguished residential area of Katajanokka Island, just a short tram ride from Market Square and the city centre. Hotel Katajanokka is housed within an early nineteenth-century prison, as its quirky passageways and thick walls soon testify. However, its rooms are anything but institutional, with a richly-textured décor that is a far cry from the building’s origins as a correctional facility.

Photo: Toa Heftiba

Photo: Toa Heftiba

Photo: Tapio Haaja

Photo: Tapio Haaja

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Recommended hotels in Helsinki
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Photo: Jaakko Kemppainen

Photo: Jaakko Kemppainen

Throughout the year, Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden blooms with 2,800 colourful plant species from around the world

Things to do in Helsinki

Helsinki is dotted with green spaces, and the university’s Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden is one of the best. Throughout the year, it blooms with 2,800 colourful plant species from around the world, which survive Finland’s harsh winter temperatures thanks to a series of glasshouses. But if the botanical gardens aren’t enough of an escape for you, how about renting your own private island? Lying between Finland and Sweden, the autonomous Åland Islands offer a wonderful way of exploring all the Helsinki region has to offer, with accommodation options as varied as the list of things to do in Helsinki. Hike across unspoilt landscapes, enjoy a relaxed afternoon in the harbourside cafes of Mariehamn, take in a spot of culture in the museums, or head to the sea for a day of sea fishing or seal spotting.

Winters in Helsinki offer a very different way of getting out onto the water. Join an expert guide on a snowmobile tour through forest trails and across the frozen Gulf of Finland, keeping an eye out for native wildlife, before enjoying a traditional Finnish barbeque lunch and a hot drink. If you’re in need of further warming after your snowmobile adventures, there’s no better place than an authentic sauna. Finland is the birthplace of saunas, which are as popular with local residents as they are with visitors. Kotiharjun Sauna is one of the top places in the city to experience this cultural institution, as one of only three traditional public saunas left in Helsinki. By contrast, Myymälä2 Gallery is one of the capital’s newest cultural organisations. An experimental arts collective, it lends much of its wall space to up-and-coming local artists who have yet to make it into Helsinki’s larger galleries.

Kiasma Museum | Photo: Natalya Letunova

Photo: Natalya Letunova

Photo: Aaron Blanco Tejedor

Photo: Aaron Blanco Tejedor

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Recommended experiences in Helsinki
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What to see in Helsinki

With Helsinki’s best hotels in and around the Design District – the name given to an area spanning several downtown neighbourhoods – it would be a mistake not to explore this area more thoroughly. The Design District Trail leads visitors around the area’s most impressive structures, from its Jugend-style buildings to more than 200 different boutiques, museums, and cafes. Should you have time for just one stop on the trail, make sure it’s the Chapel of Silence. Born out of the Scandinavian tradition of building in wood, this innovative circular chapel is located at the entrance to Kamppi Shopping Centre. Its windowless form is constructed from Nordic Spruce, while its location is deliberately intended to provide a space to sit and think amid the hustle and bustle of everyday city living. A short ferry ride away from the Design District is Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, a work of military architecture so unique it’s been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built across six islands to protect the mainland from Russian attack while Finland was still under Swedish rule, the fortress owes much of its preservation to the fact it never suffered a sustained military assault.

Although a trip to the beach might not sound like the most traditional of Helsinki things to do, a day out at Hietaranta Beach can be a breath of fresh air. Situated on the city’s northwest coast, the beach has shallow waters perfect for canoeing and swimming, while the shorefront abounds with the sound of basketball games, tennis matches, and volleyball competitions. Keep heading north, and you’ll soon reach Sibelius Park and Monument, dedicated to the memory of the avant-garde Finnish composer is best known for his Finlandia tone poem. The monument itself, completed in 1967, comprises more than 600 hollow steel pipes weighing a total of 24 tonnes, said to capture the essence of the composer’s music as well as the country’s vast forests.

Photo: Natalya Letunova

Photo: Natalya Letunova

Suomenlinna | Photo: Kevin Tadema

Suomenlinna | Photo: Kevin Tadema

Authenticity drives Helsinki’s dining scene, whether you’re eating in a simple side-street bistro or in a Michelin-starred restaurant

Helsinki certainly hasn’t missed out on the recent boom in Scandinavian cuisine. Here, foraged ingredients star on menus not because they’re trendy but because foraging has been a way of life for generations. In other words, authenticity drives Helsinki’s dining scene, whether you’re eating in a simple side-street bistro or in a Michelin-starred restaurant such as Demo. Based around classic French cooking techniques with a contemporary Finnish twist, the four- to seven-course daily menu uses the highest quality seasonal ingredients to produce plates that are technically challenging and loaded with creative flavour combinations. The chefs at Boulevard Social blend dishes from North Africa, Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon to create Helsinki’s first restaurant focussed on the savoury cuisine of the Mediterranean. The sharing nature of its dishes creates an intentionally warm atmosphere reminiscent of a Greek taverna or Moroccan taginerie, within walking distance of Helsinki sightseeing must-dos.

Photo: Markus Tourunen

Photo: Markus Tourunen

Offering a menu described as ‘uniquely Finnish’, Savotta, next to Senate Square, specialises in traditional cooking – filets of lake fish, reindeer with berries, and wild blueberry buttermilk cake, for example – using local ingredients purchased from small producers. Also right by Senate Square is Bryggeri, a brewery restaurant that pairs unique beer recommendations with each of its dishes, eaten in full view of the copper kettles used to lovingly create its in-house brews. Wines are the order of the day at Baskeri & Basso Bistro, where the laid-back yet buzzing ambience is as welcoming as the range of dining options. Seafood continues to play a large part in the city’s diet, and Finlandia Caviar near the southern harbour has Helsinki’s widest selection of this black gold. Its tasting menu matches caviar and fresh oysters (their other speciality) with perfectly-paired wines and spirits for a dining experience worth celebrating.

Quite unlike anything else in the Finnish capital, Löyly is situated within a stylish wood-clad building on a rejuvenated stretch of the Helsinki waterfront, uniting the country’s two favourite past times: sauna and eating. Its simple interior of blackened concrete and pale birch wood, not to mention its large terrace overlooking the gulf, makes for an enchanting place to sample a select menu of burgers, fish, and soups, while the public saunas provide a rare space for unisex bathing. If coffee and cake are more to your liking, be sure to visit Café Ekberg, Finland’s oldest café. First opened in 1852, it’s best known for hand-crafted Napoleon cake, although it boasts a wide variety of pastries whatever time of day you decide to drop by.

Loyly Helsinki

Loyly Helsinki

Shopping in Helsinki

Feted as far afield as Paris and Korea, FRENN is a Helsinki-based contemporary menswear brand combining the simple lines Scandinavian design has become famous for, with an easy-to-wear finesse and sustainable production methods. Top-quality Finnish design can also be appreciated at concept store Makia Clothing, the first of its kind for the Helsinki-based clothing company. Producing everyday items with that Scandinavian je ne sais quoi, these clothes are not only gorgeous to look at but are also made to last. Pinkomo, meanwhile, is dedicated to spotlighting fashion that isn’t easily available elsewhere, be that shoes by Red Wing, shirts by Indigofera, or jackets by Carhartt.

Costo Concept Store aims to counter the trend for fast fashion by producing timeless items of stunning quality. But what makes them a true trendsetter is the fact that all their collections are culled and crafted from leftover materials, creating clothing out of what would otherwise become landfill. Founded in 1954, family firm Aarikaa has been producing exquisite homewares for the Finnish capital for more than half a century. Predominantly drawing from local forests for sustainability, the eco-friendly products that result are all handmade by local artisans and range from tableware to jewellery.

Should you be in the city at the beginning of October and wonder what to do in Helsinki, be sure not to miss the Baltic Herring Market on Market Square, which has been running annually since 1743. But whatever time of year you visit, Market Square is a must-see for its vast array of colourful stalls. From fish straight out of the Gulf of Finland, to reindeer hides carted down from the northern reaches of Lapland, Market Square and the nearby Market Hall will give you a real sense of what life is like in the Finnish capital, as well as the chance to purchase some locally-produced souvenirs to remember your time in Helsinki.

Photo: Nordwood

Photo: Nordwood

Photo: Julius Jansson

Photo: Julius Jansson

For cocktails, head to Liberty or Death, a speakeasy complete with soft jazz, styled after the American Prohibition era

Helsinki nightlife

Room BLVD has become a must on Helsinki gay nightlife guides – it is the bar of choice for those looking to enjoy a relaxed drink in like-minded company. Located on fashionable Boulevardi Street, you might stop by for a single drink with the after-work crowd but are sure to end up staying for at least one more thanks to the friendly vibe within. For cocktails, head to Liberty or Death, a speakeasy complete with soft jazz, styled after the American Prohibition era. So charming it steals the hearts of everyone who visits, this cosy little bar has an extensive cocktail list and a particular affection for bourbon. Though defined as a lounge-style cocktail bar, Gate A21 offers a similarly relaxed experience to Liberty or Death, albeit in a very different style, with the number of patrons limited to the number of seats available. Making a reservation is key in order to secure your chance to enjoy the fresh Nordic ingredients that make the cocktails here so popular.

With a regular list of live events that include drag performances and a line-up of locally-born and internationally-renowned DJs, Club Kaiku guarantees solid music and unrepentant moves on its basement dance floor. After Kaiku, dance until dawn at the cheekily-named Don’t Tell Mama, a club with at least one DJ set a night from Wednesday to Sunday, and a happy crowd that’s here to party.

Photo: Aaron Blanco Tejedor

Photo: Sergio Alves Santos

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