The city of Helsinki has futuristic people, great food, and stylish locals. What’s not to love?. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Did all of your friends take a European vacation this summer? Did you resent their smug Facebook photos? Don’t be bitter— there is still time to take one yourself!
The dollar is strong, but not for much longer. So you have to go now. But don’t go to Paris and Rome….everyone goes to Paris and Rome. You’ll be standing behind a sea of selfie sticks and fanny packs trying to catch a glimpse of the top of the Mona Lisa.
Personally, I want a holiday with European charm and culture, but without all the crowds. I want some modern Scandinavian architecture and delicious pastries. Most people would suggest a trip to Copenhagen, but now I know that Helsinki is where it’s at.
When you look in guidebooks, everything they right about Finland makes it sound boring. Everyone seems to focus on how “stoic” the Finns are, which in guidebook language means, “don’t expect anyone to care when you tell them where you’re from, or when you speak to them at all.”
Before I went, friends suggested that three or four days would be enough, but now I believe this advice is just propaganda designed to keep the masses from discovering how amazing Helsinki is. Once you get on the ground, wonderful, cool, hilarious, and charming secrets pop out at you all over the place. All you have to do is walk around to find them.
Here are just 10 of the reasons you should get on a plane and go right now.
1. Futuristic architecture
If this is a library, where are the books? (Photo: Lara Naaman)
You’ll see some neoclassical and Nordic Classical or whatever type buildings in Helsinki. But a lot of the city was destroyed in a fire in 1808, so you don’t get the 500-year old buildings that you see in other European capitals. Instead, you get modernism, with many buildings resembling creations from the future.
For example, the photo above may look like a meeting on the holodeck of the Enterprise, but it’s a library…where people study! It’s the Helsinki University Main Library, and it’s open to the public.
Walk up the stairs, and you catch all the crazy spaceship angles! (I also spotted a hot Swedish Exchange Student or two.) And if that’s not futuristic enough for you, go to church. The city has a Rock Church, and despite Finland’s devotion to all things heavy metal, this is actually a Lutheran Church, it’s just carved into a rock.
Believe it or not, this structure is a church. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
And then there’s the Kamppi chapel, which also identifies as Lutheran, but welcomes anyone who wants to have a moment of silence in the busy city center. That said, it looks like an IKEA wastebasket on the outside.
People who know fashion know that bunny’s are totally cool. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
Louis Vuitton has its famous logo, and so does Chanel, but Finnish designer Minna Parikka has bunnies and sushi. In addition to amazing sneakers, she also does glorious heels with furry pom-poms on the front. Louboutin? So yesterday. Parikka’s store in the city center has some splurge-worthy finds for adults and children.
If you need any further proof of the prowess of Finnish fashion, do take in the Design Museum’s Anthology of Finnish Fashion, which runs until late September.
3. Salty Licorice Ice Cream
Salty licorice gelato atop peach gelato. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
Sounds gross, right? It doesn’t look much better because it’s black ice cream. Honestly, the only reason I tried it is because I promised myself I would try new things. “You know what?” I said to the ice cream lady, “Throw some of that black stuff on top. If I hate it, I’ll knock it off and eat the flavor I underneath.”
Moments later, I was so in love with salty licorice ice cream that we basically entered a committed relationship. It was sweet, salty, sassy and worth every bite.
4. Candy for miles
A plethora of options at Roobertinherkku. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
The Finns are crazy for candy, and Finland is the Fort Knox of the sweet stuff. The Finns like to stack it in pretty piles, they like to put it all over their ice cream bars, and they know they’re good at it.
Karl Fazer Café is the main purveyor of delicious chocolates. They have a café in central Helsinki where you can get pastries, ice cream, and even sandwiches. Everything is exquisite.
Roobertinherkku, which I can’t even pronounce, is in the terribly hip Punavuori area. This shop has jars on jars on jars of candy, and fudge that will melt your face off with happiness. Lemon licorice fudge? Who knew?
If you’re looking for even more options, go to any deli or gas station for the full spectrum of every day Finnish candy. I enjoyed the Corny Big not just because the name cracked me up for a full ten minutes. It was also delicious.
5. Whimsical textiles
This dress is obviously very popular in Finland. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
Finland is perhaps best known for the art-pop floral prints made by Marimekko — it’s basically the national uniform. During my visit I saw several women wearing the same print, but feel free to visit one of their many stores to snag an original print of your own.
There is also Finlayson, where I spotted an amazing Tom of Finland duvet & pillow combo. It’s the perfect gift for all the weddings you’ll go to this year. They also have patterned mod designs, regular flower stuff, and super cool kids sheets with pandas and raccoon and more.
It may not be perfectly round, but the taste makes up for it. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
As a resident of Brooklyn, I wasn’t expecting much from Finnish pizza. And no, it’s not New York Pizza, but it was pretty tasty.
I recommend you check out Skiffer, which has two locations in the city. I sampled a pie topped with smoked trout (a relief, considering it was listed as ‘smoked roach’ on the menu) poached egg, fennel, cucumber, dill, carrots, and caraway seed. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the surf ‘n’ turf pie, or the more exotic option topped with local strawberries and goat cheese.
Helsinki’s hippest restaurant is Sandro, which focuses on North African cuisine. I didn’t know what to expect, but they blew my taste buds off with a Garlic Kale Pizza Man’Ouche. The kale added a bitter yet spicy balance to the cheesy goodness. The restaurant solidifies its North Africa influence by offering up a side plate of Tabbouleh salad with pomegranate, Sesame hummus, mint yogurt, and an eggplant tomato tapenade. Try dipping your crusts in that!
The waiter told me this was not a personal pizza, and he’d be surprised if I could finish the whole thing. I told him I come from the land where obesity was invented, and proceeded to clear my plate. He was so impressed he gave me free dessert: rose pistachio baklava.
7. Bike friendly
Separate your bike from the others with these fancy seat covers. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
Helsinki is small and walkable, but a bike is the best way to truly see the city. There are plenty of bike lanes, and they go past all the major sites. Ride past the waterfront, catch the breeze, then park your bike and take a nap. This isn’t the sort of place where your ride will get stolen.
You can also grab some adorable accessories for your bike at home, like these colorful seat covers.
8. Easy access to Tallinn
Two countries in one day? Yes please! (Photo: Lara Naaman)
Who doesn’t love to cross an extra country off their list with a quick day trip? If you have 70 Euros, and an extra 1.5 hours, you can take a ferry to Tallinn, a.k.a the capital of Estonia.
The ferry itself is a booze cruise with the occasional karaoke setup. And once you land in the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you’ll be met with ancient cobblestone streets and medieval architecture.
For contrast, a fun bike tour takes you to an abandoned Soviet-era prison, the public beach (where everyone’s so happy to be in the sun they don’t care how they look in bikinis), and a Russian flea market where you can buy a gravestone or a heavy metal t-shirt.
The perfect end or beginning to any day. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
The Finns will cast a spell over you with their carbo-sorcery. If you see a sign for ‘Kaffe & Pulla,’ pull over — that’s coffee and a cinnamon roll, a staple treat any time of day. They are also known to throw cardamom and caraway seed into their sugary bread-magic.
The shop, Karl Fazer, also has assorted breads—sweet and savory, as well as things that look like mini-cheesecakes and a filled brioche.
At this market you can order cheese while sitting on cheese seats. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
Helsinki Markets spill into the streets on the weekends, but are open every day inside multi-story buildings that house food stalls, sell vintage wares, and even a few souvenirs.
But what about cheese? This stand in the Hakaniemi Market Hall has little benches painted like Swiss Cheese, which you can sit on to eat real cheese. And don’t get me started on the smoked salmon.
11. The Finn Window
If this doesn’t make you want to visit this shop, what will? (Photo: Lara Naaman)
I named this phenomenon myself, because I’m not sure the Finns realize they do it. To put it simply, I have never seen such a knack for spectacularly random window displays. In New York, stores hire consulting companies to arrange the perfectly pleasing array of color, shape, and spacing. In Helsinki you get wonderful creations like taxidermy animals with vintage kitchen utensils. It’s weird…and awesome.
12. Loo with a view
Loo with a view? Don’t mind if I do. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
And finally, if nothing else, relieve yourself in style atop the Hotel Torni. Buildings in Helsinki aren’t very tall, so the rooftop bar scene is limited. However, the bar atop the Hotel Torni is the only rooftop barn you need. It provides near-panoramic views of the city, and includes 4 bathrooms with giant windows where you’ll want to take your time.