48 hours in helsinki

48 hours in helsinki

June 15, 2018

Anthony Ham is a travel writer, based in Melbourne he knows where to go + what to do when you go there.

If Europe were to nominate just one city as its design and style capital, Helsinki would almost certainly win the nomination.

All across Finland’s capital, design stands at the heart of city life. From public architecture to avant-garde furnishings, from clothing to kitchenware, Helsinki is the sort of place where style is less an adornment than a way of life. Brands like Artek, Marimekko and Iittala lead the way, but these are merely those which are known beyond Finland’s shores. An entire zone of downtown Helsinki goes by the name of the Design District, and it’s easy to spend days here wandering from boutique to showroom to cutting-edge designer space, taking in that quintessential Helsinki blend of minimalist Scandinavian aesthetic with a quirky approach to line and colour.

In keeping with the city’s passion for the good things in life, the sense of style and sophistication here extends into the culinary realm – this is a city for epicureans, for those who value refined settings in which to enjoy high-quality cooking. The city’s chefs share with its designers a passion for innovation without ever straying too far from traditional Finnish cooking – sometimes it will be smoked reindeer fillet, others some weird-and-wonderful confection to emerge from the out-there world of molecular gastronomy. Timeless cafes steeped in old-world elegance, busy market halls, classy coffee bars in clean-lined spaces, upmarket dining rooms beloved by Helsinki’s great and good – Helsinki caters for most budgets as well as tastes.

Helsinki is also a graceful, beautiful city, one whose architecture very much reflects its position at one of Europe’s most significant geographical crossroads. Less than two hours by road from the Russian border, Helsinki has its share of Russian-inspired creations, especially around the main harbour, Kauppatori, including churches crowned with onion-domes, Orthodox-style, alongside grand yet austere facades that wouldn’t look out of place across the border. Along the quietly elegant shopping streets of the city centre, well-to-do and equally elegant locals glide through largely traffic-free streets (save for the trams), the sound of high heels on cobblestones echoing after they pass. And it wouldn’t be Helsinki without a handful of daring structures – a curved, pine-wood church without windows masquerading as a Finnish sauna, a new hotel swathed in glass that transforms an industrial harbour.

Helsinki’s location has other benefits. Clinging to the shore of the Baltic Sea, close to St Petersburg and Tallinn, two of northern Europe’s most sought-after city escapes, Helsinki is a fine base for exploring the region. But Helsinki is above all a destination in its own right, an East-meets-West outpost of style unlike anywhere in Europe.

Clarion Hotel, Helsinki

Here is our list of must-sees and dos in Helsinki: WHERE TO STAY

  • Rising above one of Helsinki’s lesser-known harbours but a short hop from the city centre, the Clarion Hotel Helsinki is supremely comfortable and an architectural showpiece. Try for a room on the upper floors for superlative views. The rooftop bar and swimming pool are highlights.
  • Hotelli Helka won’t break the bank, but that doesn’t mean you compromise on style – many of the furnishings come from the studio of Alvar-Aalto. This being Finland, there’s a rooftop sauna.
  • One of Helsinki’s premier designer stays, St George Hotel has Ai Wei Wei art on the walls, sleep monitors in the bedrooms, and an abiding sense of cool in every corner.
  • Klaus K is another upmarket option where contemporary Finnish flair meets Scandinavian minimalism – don’t miss the all-organic breakfast.

Allas sea pool



  • Set aside a morning to wander the Design District, a downtown grid of streets almost entirely given over to showroom-like boutiques selling homewares, designer clothes and cool cafes. The bigger names tend to have larger showrooms elsewhere, so this is all about discovering up-and-coming local designers.
  • Soak up the serenity of Kamppi Chapel, the curvaceous, ultra-modern downtown chapel designed by some of Finland’s most creative architects and built from local woods. It’s not known as the Chapel of Silence for nothing.
  • Join the locals at Allas Sea Pool, overlooking the city centre. With three outdoor pools (two freshwater and heated, one straight from the freezing Baltic) and a mid-winter sense of you’d-have-to-be-crazy, it’s very Helsinki.
  • Finns love their saunas, and Kotiharjun Sauna is a fine example of the genre. Dating back to 1928, it’s the city’s last remaining traditional public wood-fired sauna. Get a scrub down and a massage for the full experience.
  • In the heart of the city centre, Karl Fazer Café is where Finns go for fine foods – shrimp sandwiches, a lunchtime soup buffet, to-die-for sweets – and old-world café elegance. It’s noisy, classy yet casual, and a Helsinki institution.



  • On an island across the water from the city centre, 18th-century Suomenlinna is often called the ‘Fortress of Finland’. A Unesco World Heritage-listed site, it has cafes, picnic spots and museums arrayed across a series of islands connected by bridges.
  • Helsinki’s Design Museum is a fabulous journey through the history of Finnish design, highlighting the role of local traditions and Finnish nature in forging the distinctively Finnish design look.
  • Ateneum is Finland’s premier art gallery and a wonderful place to take the cultural pulse of the nation. There’s a Van Gogh, a stunning representation of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and a gorgeous café and bookshop.
  • Helsinki’s neo-classical Lutheran cathedral, Tuomiokirkko, rises above the downtown as one of the city’s most striking buildings. The views from the steps are worth the visit on their own, but the combination of extravagance and austerity is what lives longest in the memory.
  • Architecture buffs won’t want to miss the Museum of Finnish Architecture for the backstory, then the open-air island museum of Seurasaaren Ulkomuseo with its 87 wooden buildings transported here from all over Finland.
  • For contemporary art (everything from painting to digital art installations), look no further than Kiasma. It’s an eclectic collection, the eye-catching architecture and interplay of light and space are part of the appeal, and the glass-walled café is uber-cool.


  • Deep in the city centre, World of Tre lays out the creations of Finnish designers in fashion, jewellery and other accessories, ranging across umbrellas, furniture, ceramics, textiles, stationery and art.
  • There is no finer design showroom in Helsinki than Artek, showcasing the work of iconic architect-and-designer double act Alvar Aalto and Aino Aalto in 1935. It’s all about textiles, lighting and furniture.
  • Finnish glassware is rightly lauded for its beauty and craftsmanship, and Iittala, with a showroom in the city centre not far from the main harbour, is the mother lode of the genre.
  • One of the beacons of Helsinki’s Design District, Lokal blurs the line between shop and art gallery with woodcarvings, ceramics, paintings, furniture and jewellery all on display.
  • Lasikammari rides the passion for vintage Finnish design, with all the big names in glassware, furnishings and homewares represented in this tiny Aladdin’s Cave.
  • Knife-making traditions from the Arctic north are alive and well at Marttiini, with traditional knives, their handles crafted from leather, birch and reindeer antler.

Market hall of Vanha Kauppahalli


  • The waterfront market hall of Vanha Kauppahalli is the most accessible of Helsinki’s fine traditional markets. Dating back to 1888, it’s ideal for planning a picnic with Finnish cheeses, smoked salmon and herring, and berries, while Story is the pick of the onsite cafes.
  • Kuu is one of Helsinki’s best-loved kitchens, combining as it does traditional ingredients such as reindeer, forest mushrooms and lingonberries with unexpected contemporary innovations. 
  • Not far from the main harbour, Ravintola Aino is a perfect introduction to modern Finnish cooking in stylish surrounds. The creamy salmon soup is a fine place to start.
  • Over on the fortress island of Suomenlinna, Suomenlinnan Panimo combines microbrewery creativity (seven home-brew beers and three ciders) with traditional dishes like reindeer.
  • Not everything in Helsinki is sleek and contemporary – Savoy is the city’s grand old dame, designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto in 1937 and with a menu steeped in forest-foraging traditions and game meats.
  • For the best views in Helsinki and perfectly poured cocktails, Sky Room, atop the Clarion Hotel Helsinki, is the ideal place to discover the Finnish love of vodka.


Travel in comfort in sassind


100% cotton relaxed fit knit $129

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merino oversized wrap $219

merino jodhpur in charcoal $209

denim a-line skirt $99

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