If you like majestic open spaces, fine architecture, and courteous locals, Finland is for you. Mother Nature dictates life in this Nordic land, where winter brings perpetual darkness, and summer, perpetual light. Crystal clear streams run through vast forests lighted by the midnight sun, and reindeer roam free. Even the arts mimic nature: witness the music of Jean Sibelius, Finland's most famous son, which can swing from a somber nocturne of midwinter darkness to the tremolo of sunlight slanting through pine and birch, or from the crescendo of a blazing sunset to the pianissimo of the next day's dawn. The architecture of Alvar Aalto and the Saarinens—Eliel and son Eero, visible in many US cities, also demonstrates the Finnish affinity with nature, with soaring spaces evocative of Finland's moss-floored forests. Until 1917, Finland was under the domination of its nearest neighbors, Sweden and Russia, who fought over it for centuries. After more than 600 years under the Swedish crown and 100 under the Russian czars, the country inevitably bears many traces of the two cultures, including a small (just under 6%) but influential Swedish-speaking population and a scattering of Orthodox churches. There is a tough, resilient quality to the Finns, descended from wandering tribes who probably migrated from the south and southwest before the Christian era. Finland is one of the few countries that shared a border with the Soviet Union in 1939 and retained its independence. Indeed, no country fought the Soviets to a standstill as the Finns did in the grueling 105-day Winter War of 1939–40. This resilience stems from the turbulence of the country's past and from the people's determination to work the land and survive the long, dark winters. The country's role as a crossroads between East and West is vibrantly reflected in Helsinki, from which it has become increasingly convenient to arrange brief tours to Tallinn (the capital of Estonia), and St. Petersburg, Russia. The architectural echoes of St. Petersburg in Helsinki are particularly striking in the "white night" light of June. Tallinn, with its medieval Old Town and bargain shopping, is a popular trip that can be done in a day. Traveling there takes an hour and a half by hydrofoil, three and a half by ferry. "The strength of a small nation lies in its culture," noted Finland's leading 19th-century statesman and philosopher, Johan Vilhelm Snellman. As though inspired by this thought, Finns—who are among the world's top readers—continue to nurture a rich cultural climate, as is illustrated by the 900 museums and numerous festivals throughout Finland that continue to attract top performers in jazz (Pori), big bands (Imatra), opera (Savonlinna), folk music (Kaustinen), and rock (Ruisrock in Turku). The average Finn volunteers little information, but that's a result of reserve, not indifference. Make the first approach and you may have a friend for life. Finns like their silent spaces, though, and won't appreciate backslapping familiarity—least of all in the sauna, still regarded by many as a spiritual as well as a cleansing experience.
Expect private baths in rooms unless otherwise noted. Prices almost always include a generous breakfast and sauna privileges.
Look for room-rate discounts on weekends and in summer months, especially between Juhannus (Midsummer, the summer solstice holiday in late June) and July 31, when prices are usually 30% to 50% lower.
Originally known for its rock and heavy metal clubs, Helsinki has recently developed a suave bar-lounge scene. What began as a love of mojitos is flourishing into a number of carpeted, couch-lined venues combining loungy tunes with magnificent cocktails, some as a separate part of chic restaurants. While the city is generally quiet Sunday–Tuesday nights, a well-dressed, mostly suit-clad clientele begins boozing and schmoozing in earnest on "little Saturday" (aka Wednesday), and you can expect lines at the most popular places starting at 11 on weekends. The compact size of the city center makes it easy to barhop. Almost any place with a terrace or courtyard is sure to be busy in summer, and cover charges, when required, average €5–€10.
Most restaurants open at 11 for lunch, switch to a dinner menu at 4, and close their kitchens around 11; virtually all non-hotel restaurants are closed on Sunday. Finns generally prefer to eat at 7 or 7:30 when dining out, so it's rarely necessary to make a reservation to eat before 7 or after 9. No dress codes are stated and jackets are rarely required, however at top restaurants it is expected that patrons look sharp. Take note that restaurants in the bigger cities are often closed in July.
Finnish food emphasizes freshness rather than variety, although in keeping with European trends, restaurants are becoming more innovative and expanding on classic Finnish ingredients—from forest, lake, and sea.
The better Finnish restaurants offer some of the country's most stunning game—pheasant, reindeer, hare, and grouse—accompanied by wild-berry compotes and exotic mushroom sauces. The chanterelle grows wild in Finland, as do dozens of other edible mushrooms, including the tasty morel. Fish is served in many ways, and is especially savored smoked. Come July 21, when crayfish season kicks in.
Other specialties are poronkäristys (sautéed reindeer), lihapullat (meatballs in sauce), uunijuusto (light, crispy baked cheese), and hiilillä paistetut silakat (charcoal-grilled Baltic herring). Seisova pöytä, the Finnish version of the smorgasbord, is a cold and hot buffet available at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and is particularly popular on cruise ships.
Local yogurt and dairy products are extremely good and ice cream is popular; an increasing number of places sell low-fat flavors or frozen yogurts. Finnish desserts and baked goods are renowned. Mämmi, a dessert made of wheat flour, malt, and orange zest and served with cream and sugar, is a treat during Easter. More filling are karjalan piirakka, thin, oval rye-bread pierogi filled with rice or mashed potatoes and served warm with munavoi, a mixture of egg and butter. Munkki (doughnuts), pulla (sweet bread), and other confections are consumed with vigor by both young and old.
Alcohol is expensive here, but beer lovers should not miss the well-made Finnish brews. More coffee is consumed per capita in Finland than in any other country, and you'll see a staggering number of cafés and coffee bars throughout the country. Particularly in Helsinki, patrons of cafés downtown and around the waterfront spill outside onto the streets.
Just a short walk from Stockmann's department store, this cozy restaurant has become a lunchtime favorite among businesspeople working nearby. Come evening, it's given over to artists and journalists. Its high ceilings and understated interior give it a Scandinavian air of simplicity and efficiency. Menu highlights include reindeer fillet in a sauce of spruce shoots and rosemary that's served with roasted potatoes, and vorschmack, a ground-meat and anchovy dish, which is served here with duchesse potatoes (a rich version of mashed), pickles, and beets.
Salutorget Scandinavian Bistro
Right beside City Hall, this building retains Doric columns and deep wood panels that harken back to the days when it was a bank rather than an elegant restaurant. Toast skagen, a Nordic classic, is a good bet for a starter—it's shrimp, mayo, and chives on toasted bread, topped with a generous dollop of whitefish roe. Moose Wallenbergare, served with potato puree, game sauce, and cranberry jam, is definitely worth trying as a main course. Salutorget has adopted with gusto the very British concept of afternoon tea. Two Sunday brunch sittings are available, at noon and 3.
From large, well-organized malls to closet-size boutiques, Helsinki has shopping for every taste. Most sales staff in the main shopping areas speak English and are helpful. Smaller stores are generally open weekdays 9–6 and Saturday 9–1. Small grocery stores are often open on Sunday year-round; other stores are often open on Sunday from June through August and December. The Forum and Kamppi complexes and Stockmann's department store are open weekdays 9–9, Saturday 9–6, and (in summer and Christmastime) Sunday noon–6. An ever-expanding network of pedestrian tunnels connects the Forum, Stockmann's, and the train-station tunnel.
The area south and west of Mannerheimintie has been branded Design District Helsinki. It includes roughly 170 venues, most of them smaller boutiques and designer-run shops selling handmade everything from jewelry to clothing to housewares. The majority are located on Fredrikinkatu and Annankatu; look for a black Design District Helsinki sticker in the window. You can pick up a map detailing the shops in the district at most participating stores. Kiosks remain open late and on weekends; they sell such basics as milk, juice, camera film, and tissues. Stores in Asematunneli, the train-station tunnel, are open weekdays 10–10 and weekends noon–10.
Since the 1950s Marimekko has been selling bright, unusual clothes for men, women, and children in quality fabrics. Though the products are expensive, they're worth a look even if you don't plan to buy. There are four locations in central Helsinki.
At the outdoor flea market (open weekdays 8–7, Saturday 8–4) that's held here, you can get an ever-changing assortment of used items; the indoor market brims with food, flowers, fish, and more.
Design Forum Finland
This shop sells items from many of the nearby stores as well as items by designers without places of their own. It also puts on exhibitions featuring particular artists and it has a café.
The city center, characterized by its large multistory malls, is densely packed and easily explored on foot, the main tourist sites grouped in several clusters; nearby islands are easily accessible by ferry. Just west of Katajanokka, Senaatintori and its Tuomiokirkko (Luthern Cathedral) mark the beginning of the city center, which extends westward along Aleksanterinkatu. The wide street Mannerheimintie is comparable to New York's Broadway, moving diagonally past the major attractions of the city center before terminating beside the Esplanade. Southern Helsinki is a tangle of smaller streets, some of them curving and some of which run for just a few blocks before changing their names; carry a good map while exploring this area.
At this Helsinki institution, open year-round, wooden stands with orange and gold awnings bustle in the mornings when everyone—tourists and locals alike—comes to shop, browse, or sit and enjoy coffee and conversation. You can buy a freshly caught perch for the evening's dinner, a bouquet of bright flowers for a friend, or a fur pelt. In summer the fruit and vegetable stalls are supplemented by an evening arts-and-crafts market. The crepes, made-to-order by one of the tented vendors, are excellent.
Praised for the boldness of its curved steel shell but condemned for its encroachment on the territory of the Mannerheim statue, this striking museum displays a wealth of Finnish and foreign art from the 1960s to the present. Look for the "butterfly" windows, and don't miss the view of Töölönlahti from the north side of the fifth floor gallery.
The harmony of the three buildings flanking Senaatintori exemplifies one of the purest styles of European architecture, as envisioned and designed by German architect Carl Ludvig Engel. This is the heart of neoclassical Helsinki. On the square's west side is one of the main buildings of Helsingin Yliopisto (Helsinki University), and up the hill is the university library. On the east side is the pale yellow Valtionneuvosto (Council of State), completed in 1822 and once the seat of the Autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland's Imperial Senate. At the lower end of the square, stores and restaurants now occupy former merchants' homes.
Architect Eliel Saarinen and his partners combined the language of Finnish medieval church architecture with elements of art nouveau to create this vintage example of the National Romantic style. The museum's collection of archaeological, cultural, and ethnological artifacts gives you insight into Finland's past.
The steep steps and green domes of the church dominate Senaatintori. Completed in 1852, it is the work of famous architect Carl Ludvig Engel, who also designed parts of Tallinn and St. Petersburg. Wander through the tasteful blue-gray interior, with its white moldings and the statues of German reformers Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, as well as the famous Finnish bishop Mikael Agricola. Concerts are frequently held inside the church. The crypt at the rear is the site of frequent historic and architectural exhibitions and bazaars.
Perched atop a small rocky cliff over the North Harbor in Katajanokka is the main cathedral of the Orthodox Church in Finland. Its brilliant gold onion domes are its hallmark, but its imposing redbrick edifice, decorated by 19th-century Russian artists, is no less distinctive. The cathedral was built and dedicated in 1868 in the Byzantine-Slavonic style and remains the biggest Orthodox church in Scandinavia.
Topped with a copper dome, the church looks like a half-buried spaceship from the outside. It's really a modern Lutheran church carved into the rock outcrops below. The sun shines in from above, illuminating a stunning interior with birch pews, modern pipe organ, and cavernous walls. Ecumenical and Lutheran services in various languages are held throughout the week.
This white, winged concert hall was one of Alvar Aalto's last creations. It's especially impressive on foggy days or at night. If you can't make it to a concert here, try to take a guided tour.
This outdoor square and the adjoining train station are the city's bustling commuter hub. The station's huge granite figures are by Emil Wikström; the solid building they adorn was designed by Eliel Saarinen, one of the founders of the early-20th-century National Romantic style.
The best traditional Finnish art is housed in this splendid neoclassical complex, one of three museums organized under the Finnish National Gallery umbrella. The gallery holds major European works, but the outstanding attraction is the Finnish art, particularly the works of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, inspired by the national epic Kalevala. The rustic portraits by Albert Edelfelt are enchanting, and many contemporary Finnish artists are well represented. The two other museums that make up the National Gallery are Kiasma and Synebrychoff.
Piles of colorful fish roe, marinated Greek olives, and much more—the old brick market hall on the waterfront is a treasury of delicacies. The vendors set up permanent stalls with decorative carved woodwork. At this writing, the market is undergoing a major renovation that will last at least through summer 2014.
A former island fortress, Suomenlinna is a perennially popular collection of museums, parks, and gardens, and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1748 the Finnish army helped build the impregnable fortress, long referred to as the Gibraltar of the North; since then it has expanded into a series of interlinked islands. Although Suomenlinna has never been taken by assault, its occupants surrendered once to the Russians in 1808 and came under fire from British ships in 1855 during the Crimean War. Today Suomenlinna makes a lovely excursion from Helsinki, particularly in early summer when the island is engulfed in a mauve-and-purple mist of lilacs, introduced from Versailles by the Finnish architect Ehrensvärd
Grand gilded operas, classical ballets, and booming concerts all take place in Helsinki's splendid opera house, a striking example of modern Scandinavian architecture. All events at the opera house draw crowds, so buy your tickets early.
This fountain's brass centerpiece, a young woman perched on rocks surrounded by dolphins, was commissioned by the city fathers to embody Helsinki. Sculptor Ville Vallgren completed her in 1908 using a Parisian girl as his model. Partying university students annually crown the Havis Amanda with their white caps on the eve of Vappu, the May 1 holiday.
Obeliski Keisarinnan Kivi
This obelisk with a double-headed golden eagle, used by Imperial Russia, was erected in 1835, toppled during the Russian Revolution in 1917, and fully restored in 1972.
This diminutive gallery, in a cottage with a tower overlooking the harbor, is the perfect setting for works by various Finnish painters, sculptors, and folk artists. This was once the summer home of Fredrik Cygnaeus (1807–1881), a poet and historian who generously left his cottage and all the art inside to the Finnish public.
Gulf of Finland Archipelago
In winter Finns walk across the frozen sea with dogs and even baby buggies to the nearby islands. On the land side, the facades of the Eira and Kaivopuisto districts' grandest buildings form a parade of architectural splendor. One tradition that remains, even in this upscale neighborhood, is rug-washing in the sea—an incredibly arduous task. You may be surprised to see people leave their rugs to dry in the sea air without fear of theft.
The best of Finnish design can be seen here in displays of furnishings, jewelry, ceramics, and more.
Here you'll see the best of contemporary Finnish art, including painting, sculpture, architecture, and industrial art and design.
Since it opened in 2011, the Helsinki Music Center has been praised for its acoustics and daring design. It's home to the Sibelius Academy and two symphony orchestras. Guided tours are available, but most are in Finnish—check the website for details. The one-hour guided walking tour introduces participants to what happens here, as well as to the architecture, main audience, and the concert hall.