Helsinki is one of those cities that have an air of mystique about it, where east meets west, and the historic past harmonizes with futuristic visions. The capital of Finland was also designated as the World Design Capital (WDC) of 2012.
This year long event highlights not only design in the traditional sense, but overall city infrastructure, services, and lifestyle components as well. Here’s a snapshot look at what I discovered on a recent visit to this land of the midnight summer sun and near 24-hour winter darkness.
Three restaurants worth a visit for their Nordic fare are Juuri, a tiny sapas (tapas) style abode that prides itself on freshly prepared dishes handmade according to Finnish culinary traditions. The one-star Michelin rated Olo deems itself as new Nordic cuisine, offering a choice of three to nine course selections with or without wine pairings. Recently opened Spis seats only 18 people, and has a strong focus on vegetables with at least one local meat and fish entrée as well. All three locations have extensive international wine lists, most of which cannot be purchased elsewhere.
A few new developments were constructed for WDC, Including the Chapel of Silence, a tiny oval shaped place of solitude built in the center of the bustling downtown core. The solid wood structure blocks out all surrounding urban noise, with tiny crevices allowing just enough light for natural daytime illumination. The Pavilion was created to act as the hub of activity for WDC with special programming and events happening throughout the year, located within the Design District directly between the Museum of Finnish Architecture and the Design Museum
There’s plenty of shopping to be found, with The Esplanade being the most prestigious where Finnish design stores such as Marimekko, Iittala, Arabia, and Artek can be found along with all the typical international brand name shops. There are also two shopping malls within the downtown vicinity, and Stockmann's department store is one of the longest established in the country with the slogan, “If you can’t find it at Stockmann’s, then you don’t need it”. Open-air markets are also a primary hub of activity for both locals and visitors.
It seems that Helsinki is in a huge state of transition, with much of the former industrial and shipping waterfront areas being transformed into a mix of residential, commercial, and green space. One area that led the way with this transition a few years back was Kallio, a former working class section of town that is now hip and happening. This is where the younger set flock to for cheap booze and late night partying. The bohemian crowd of students, artists, and hipsters mingle in cafes, galleries, and pubs most every day of the week.
The Design District comprises some 50 home decoration and gift shops, fashion shops and boutiques, jewelry and antique shops, galleries, restaurants and cafes. Design Forum Finland is an umbrella organization promoting Finnish design of all kinds, where shoppers can peruse many of these designer wares all under one roof. There’s also a small exhibition space with rotating shows of current works. The Finnish Design Market is a specific area located within the famed Helsinki Market Square reserved for Finnish handicrafts, design, materials and production.
The Finnish GLO Hotel Group has three centrally located within the downtown core. GLO Kluuvi is a modern lifestyle hotel designed to meet the needs of each individual guest by customizing their stay with a variety of recreational opportunities. Guests can request laptops, exercise equipment, and other amenities be brought to their rooms. Located next door, Hotel Kämp has accommodated royals and heads of state, as well as world-class international artists. The two properties are connected via the luxurious Kämp Spa, an oasis of luxury amongst the hustle and bustle of the city. The new GLO Hotel Art is a unique combination of a 1903-built Art Nouveau castle, with new modern amenities located in the heart of the Design District.
The Kotiharju Sauna in Helsinki is the only remaining traditional wood-fired sauna block. This renowned sauna built in 1928 is recognized as part of urban culture. There are separated male and female sections, and the whole building was fully renovated with respect for tradition in 1999. There are also three large co-ed soaking baths and massage therapists onsite. Frequented mostly by locals, this is one place to check out if you want to have a true Finnish sauna experience.
The most famous island to visit is the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site reachable in 15 minutes by ferry. The structure was built during the Swedish era as a maritime fortress and a base for the Archipelago Fleet. The old buildings are still in everyday use as housing, working space, maintenance facilities and visitor service facilities. For those wanting to delve even closer to nature, Natura Viva offers daily escorted kayaking tours around the beautiful archipelago of Eastern Helsinki, characterized by clear water, rocky islands and sandy beaches.
Helsinki is a city best navigated by foot, bike or public transit. Its compact size virtually makes it a 15-minute walk from the center of the city to the water’s edge in any direction. The extensive cycling system is well marked with over 750 kilometers of well-maintained bike paths. Public transit is frequent and easy to use, with a combination of trams, buses and underground metro. For those wanting to venture out even further, there are daily ferry and cruise services from Helsinki to Estonia, Sweden, Germany, and Russia. Finnair also provides regular airport to city center transfer service for around $10 each way.
Nightlife in Helsinki is divided between pubs and cocktail culture, late evening night clubs and live music venues, and surprisingly a strong presence of karaoke bars. The A21 Cocktail Lounge is a must place for anyone interested in Finnish cocktails and drinking culture. The amazing cocktail list includes a Suomi / Finland section that captures the tastes of Finland in a glass. Liberty of Death recently opened and is reminiscent of a 1930’s speak-easy. The darkened interior and potent cocktails have already made it a favorite among night crawlers. Lounges and pubs close at 2am, whereas some nightclubs and bars stay open until 4am. Click here for a complete listing of nightlife options.
Getting There – Finnair has regular year round non-stop service out of New York, and summer seasonal service out of Toronto.
More Information – Visit Helsinki, World Design Capital 2012
Watch World Design Capital 2012 video here.