To the more rugged Helsinki-ite, used to temperatures of minus 30, the UK’s pre-Christmas dip below zero barely called for an extra cardigan.
Foraging is big in Finland, so mushrooms (the tiny nuggets of gold known as chanterelles are a particular favourite) and berries (cloudberries and lingonberries, which are similar to cranberries) are often stars of the show.
Finland's capital is cool in every sense of the word. The “Pearl of the Baltic” gets so, er, Baltic, that the harbour freezes over during mid-winter. The Finns know how to cope with a spot of hard sea though. They just skate over it. Reassuringly, Helsinki airport hasn’t shut due to bad weather in the last 50 years, and some streets even have outdoor heating.
When I visited in November the snow was still a distant promise; the city’s trees had begun to scatter leaves of pale green and brilliant yellow on the pavements. The sky was not really sky, more a silvery sheen that cloaked us and there was a damp cleanness, or clean dampness in the air.
Helsinki would of course be ridiculously fairytale-like under a mantle of snow; and the hedonistic mood during the long white nights of summer, which whips up the usually reserved Finns into the party mood, is equally enticing but I enjoyed the subtleties of autumn, with the expectant stillness that hangs like mist over the harbour.
I loved Helsinki immediately - certainly it was cold (the Scandinavians have a saying, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes) and if you were after a beach holiday, you turned left over Leeds when you should have turned right. (Helsinki does in fact have a beach though, which is very popular in summer). With more than enough to fill two or three days without collapsing under the cultural pressure as you might in say, Paris; romantic, picturesque and sophisticated Helsinki is the perfect city-break destination.
Not everyone has appreciated the Finns though. In a major diplomatic incident, Silvio Berlusconi said the Finns should be denied the EU Food Safety Agency because “the Finns don’t even know what prosciutto is.” Four years later his mate Jacques Chirac chimes in with the claim that Finland has the worst food in Europe (surprise, surprise he thinks we have the second worst). Amazingly, the Finns haven’t pronged the delightful duo on either side of a reindeer’s horns and instead quietly plotted their revenge.
As it turns out, 2010 was the year foodies the world over realised there is more to Nordic cuisine than a cone of meatballs from Ikea after a hard day’s shopping for Billy bookcases. Noma in Copenhagen topped the Best Restaurants list with clear, strong flavours, seasonality and fresh, high-quality ingredients cooked simply.
Foraging is big in Finland, so mushrooms (the tiny nuggets of gold known as chanterelles are a particular favourite) and berries (cloudberries and lingonberries, which are similar to cranberries) are often stars of the show. Russian influences make themselves felt in the presence of pickles, honey and sour cream.
Meat is a staple, bear and reindeer being local specialities and though vegetarians may not have the best luck in every place, many of the cafes serve large lunches which err towards the vegetarian side of thing. Belly, in the Kampinmalmi district, does a buffet-style lunch which includes a hearty veggie soup, big colourful salads, and interesting breads and cheeses, and is also a handy stop off when browsing the design shops in this area.
Breakfast can also be an indulgent affair, with meats, smoked fish, cheeses, breads, eggs fruit and pastries all served smorgasbord style. Interestingly, meat comes with a side of watermelon. One of the best places to eat a leisurely breakfast and watch the world go by is the old-fashioned Café Ekberg (breakfast buffet is €8 on a weekday, €16 at weekends).
For a romantic meal, the surroundings of the Kappeli restaurant are nigh-on perfect. The glass building has a fairytale feel, enhanced by the twinkling lights in the tree-lined senate square overlooking the harbour. Try the smoked reindeer or one of the many fish dishes. Michelin-starred Demo is probably the most sought-after restaurant on the Helsinki scene, so head to sister establishment Grotesk for excellent service and wine list in quieter surroundings.
Without getting too much into national stereotypes and so on, the Finns are generally known for liking a drink. I can’t comment too much on sociological trends of alcohol intake but I do know I had a pretty jolly time. On a Monday, trendy Bar Moskova, ironically referred to as “the last monument of the Brezhnevian era” for its deliberately downtrodden interior, was healthily populated for the tiny room, though not overly crowded.
Window-shopping in Helsinki can still befuddle even the best of us at parsing the desire divided by means equation. On the northern peninsula, a twenty-minute tram ride out of town sits a solution: the Iittala outlet store at the Arabia ceramics factory. Trust me, it’s well worth the twenty-minute tram ride (easy enough as the line goes directly to it and the stop is even named Arabia). Many of those divine objets that reduced you to trembling wrecks with tears of frustrated desire in your eyes in the city centre are here for much less. Personally I scooped up Moomins-branded items, which make amazing presents for younger children, or the twee and sentimental among us (guilty). The ninth floor of this, probably the world’s most tasteful outlet mall, is devoted to artists studios and the Arabia museum, so you can learn about ceramics production while mentally working out your baggage allowance.
The Finns really excel at taking their clothes off. Not in a seedy stripper fashion, but in the we’re-so-comfortable-with-our bodies-we-can’t bear-to-cover-them-up way. Not to say the streets of Helsinki are thronged with nudists (well maybe in summer, but in winter, well even the hardiest Finn might reconsider). A trip to a local sauna, which is ingrained into the local psyche the way an evening at the pub is here, is such a relaxing and convivial experience; you’ll soon forget you’re exposing your shame to a load of genetically blessed strangers. The amount of public saunas is decreasing as apartment blocks and private homes install their own, so it really is worth getting over any embarrassment and giving this tradition a whirl. Get beaten up by a load of birch twigs, have a cold beer, a massage and even your hair washed. It’s not fancy but it is great fun, and yes you can keep your bikini on if you must.
Architecture and excursions
Helsinki really is a fascinating city. For such a design-led nation, there is of course plenty of interesting architecture, including excellent examples of Jugend (art nouveau) styles and home the of famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto should be visited by any architecture fan – Aalto’s design philosophy set the agenda for the Finnish aesthetic some 80 years ago and continues to be a major influence.
Another sight not to be missed is the Temppeliaukio Kirkko, or rock church. The church is set entirely underground, blasted into a slab of granite. The interior, with its copper ceiling and balcony, is stunning.
Finally, the island of Suomenlina is a great excursion, with its fort it is exciting to explore, but just as magical is seeing the harbour recede behind you and feeling the fresh sea air on your face. That's if it hasn't been transformed overnight into a curious solid mass, in which case I recommend doing as the Finn's do and getting your skates on.
If you are in Helsinki for more than a few days consider getting the hydrofoil over to Tallinn for the day, as many Helsinki-ites do to take advantage of cheaper shopping and of course exploring that city in its own right. A new train link means St Petersburg is also considerably closer at a 3 1/2 hour journey, though be mindful that any journey over a couple of days requires a visa, so make sure you look into restrictions before planning a trip.
Finnish is a difficult language to get to grips with and most Finns speak excellent English, though it is worth remembering ‘kiitos’ (thank you) and ‘kapiss!’ (cheers) to get you through most social occasions.
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