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Nov 18, 2012
36 Hours in Helsinki - The New York Times
It’s easy to feel transported to some gorgeously surreal interzone while strolling the streets of Helsinki, Finland’s capital and metropolis. Neoclassical domes, 1930s futuristic architecture, and languid Baltic light seem stuck in limbo between Russia and Scandinavia. While the locals’ famous stoic attitude, “sisu” as the Finns call it, seems colored by the old era of Russian domination, the quirky functionalist design, newly evolved national haute cuisine, and sense of fun are distinctly Scandinavian. One of the first modern planned cities, rebuilt on a grid pattern under Czar Alexander I, Helsinki sits atop a verdant archipelago jutting into the Gulf of Finland. It is surrounded on three sides by water and seemingly endless numbers of hidden coves, beaches, and inlets. Perhaps this setting helps explain the fluid sense of design, the perpetually pink-cheeked nature-loving inhabitants, and the fresh berries that seem to find their way into every restaurant meal.—BY FINN-OLAF JONES


Hot Cultural Immersion  3 p.m.
    Ready to get rid of that jet lag? Saunas are a regular part of Finns’ lives, and Helsinki has some of the country’s best-designed spots to sweat with the locals. Although you are expected to strip down to your birthday suit, males and females customarily take saunas separately. Locals will argue incessantly about which is the city’s best sauna, but aficionados swear by Kotijarju Sauna ( Harjutorinkatu 1, 358-9-753-1535;, built in 1928. Students and their professors from the nearby University of Helsinki can sometimes be found seated on the street in front of the Kotiharju in heated debate while cooling off in their towels.

2  North Star  8 p.m.
    Just two decades ago, Finnish cuisine often meant boiled fish and vegetables, but now a team of youthful, internationally educated chefs have set about a gastronomic revolution, chief among them Teemu Aura and Tommi Tuominen of Demo (Uudenmaankatu 9-11; 358-9-2289-0840;; $$$), who take native seasonal products and cook them up with Gallic flair—for which they were awarded a Michelin star. Settle into the cozy yet minimalist setting for their seasonal prix fixe five-course menu, which can include versions of anything picked, hunted, or fished locally, from pickled herring to berry soufflé.

Top of the Town  10 p.m.
    Climb the narrow stairway on top of the Hotel Torni to find the Ateljee Bar (Yrjönkatu 26; 358-9-4336-6340;, one of the highest spots in the city and a favorite of a glamorous clientele. The bar has a shifting exhibit of local artists’ work and can get quite crowded, but the two terraces are great late-night spots to enjoy the sea air and—if you are very lucky—see the Northern Lights merging into the Gulf of Finland.


Image of Head of Sibelius as part of the monument in his honour, Helsinki, Finland

Outside With Sibelius  10 a.m.
    Join the locals for a stroll or jog at the tranquil Sibelius Park & Monument on the western edge of the city center. Appropriately, given the epic, landscape-inspired compositions of Jean Sibelius, the famous and beloved 19th-century Finnish composer, the park is kept in a natural, semi-wild condition. In the monument, his stern stainless steel visage keeps sentinel over a giant sculptural pipe organ that seems to float amid the park’s ancient birches.

Heroic Meal  1 p.m.
    Located in the shadow of the magnificent onion-topped spire of the Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, the Bellevue (Rahapajankatu 3; 9 358-9/179 560;; $$$) is a maze of cozy, candlelit dining rooms where you will be served the czarist-era dishes that have become Helsinki institutions. Even Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, who became Finland’s national hero for battling the Russians, dined here—perhaps because this is one of the few establishments that serves up bear.

6  Book Smart  3 p.m.
    Step into what appears to be a bland office building at the top of the Esplanade, Helsinki’s grand boulevard and park, and emerge in a white geometric explosion of lightning-like skylights, marble balconies, and books—lots of them. The Academic Bookshop (Pohjoisesplanadi 39; 358-9-121-41;, built in 1969 and designed by the great Finnish architect Aalvar Aalto, might well be Europe’s biggest bookstore, with 50,000 titles on its shelves, many of them in English. In a setting like this, browsing is practically a performance art.

7  Designer Street  4 p.m.
    The blocks immediately east of the Academic Bookshop are Helsinki’s main shopping drag, an intimate version of Fifth Avenue with many of Finland’s top designer stores, including Marimekko  (Pohjoisesplanadi 33; 358-9-686-0240;, whose bold and colorful fabric designs are still chic all these years after Jacqueline Kennedy sported its simple dresses. For cutting-edge glassworks, ceramics, and other household objects, check out the international favorite Iittala (Pohjoisesplanadi 25; 3520/4 393 501; Artek (18 Eteläesplanadi 358-9-6132-5277;, founded in 1935 to market the interior designs of Aalto and his wife, Aino, still celebrates the Finns’ love for furniture with clean lines and natural materials.

8  The Temple of Aalto  8 p.m.
    Eight floors above the Esplanade, the airy Ravintola Savoy (Eteläesplanadi 14; 358-9-6128-5300;; $$$$) is Finland’s design and food Valhalla. Virtually unchanged since the Aaltos put together its elegantly functional appearance in 1937, this is a popular spot for Helsinki’s power elite to nibble sumptuously prepared local game and fish. It’s pricey, but what else would you expect from one of Finland’s most distinct sensory experiences?


9  Russian Outpost  10 a.m.
    Grab an espresso, a fresh-baked pastry, and a front row seat to the human theater that takes place every weekend in the neo-Classical Senate Square. The venerable Café Engel (Aleksanterinkatu 26; 358-9-652-776;, $-$$), located in one of Helsinki’s oldest buildings, is the prime spot to watch the action. The square has been the city’s focal point ever since the Russians constructed it in the 1800s when Finland was part of their empire. Czar Alexander II’s statue still looms over the setting as a reminder of who used to run things here, and indeed the square has been the stand-in for St. Petersburg in several Hollywood movies. During the winter, snowboarders can sometimes be seen making furtive swoops off the steep steps leading up to the gleaming white, domed Lutheran Cathedral.

  Edgy Iceberg  Noon
    The Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (Mannerheiminaukio 2; 358-9-1733-6501;, which appears like a sleek curved iceberg floating toward Helsinki’s sumptuous Art Nouveau main railroad station, looks quintessentially Finnish but was actually designed by the American architect Steven Holl. A hyper-innovative display center for modern art, electrical performance pieces, and new gizmos, the Kiasma is in the vanguard for futuristic trends. The main exhibits change all the time, but a visit through the museum’s dramatically angled galleries provides a stimulating look at Helsinki’s contemporary role as a major crossroads for design and high tech—no wonder those Nokia phones keep changing shapes.

11  Art Deco Dip  2 p.m.
     After a weekend in Helsinki you might be feeling native enough to take a dip at Yrjonkadun Swimming Hall (Yrjonkatu 21; 358-9-3108-7401;, a 1928 Art Deco fantasy of marble arches and mosaics. You won’t have to pack a wet bathing suit for the trip home, as most locals swim in the nude. Call or check the Web site for the separate swimming times for men and women. There’s probably no better way to finish your weekend in Helsinki than with a Finnish purification in one of the pool’s five saunas.


Fly into Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport and take a taxi to Helsinki. Or arrive by ferry from Stockholm.

Hotel Kamp
Pohjoisesplanadi 29
Turn-of-the-century grand hotel. Some higher-priced suites have saunas.

Klaus K Hotel
Bulevardi 2
Cool design and themed rooms; located in Helsinki’s design district.
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