48 Hours In Helsinki

Helsinki swings in summer, when its northern locale gives it 23 hours of daylight, and Helsinkians stay out for most of it. And celebrations commemorating the 250th anniversary of Suomenlinna, Helsinki’s stone fortress on an idyllic little green island at the city’s south, are in full heat this summer. Both Suomenlinna and the city’s breathtakingly charming portside market are chock-a-block with festivals, open air concerts, tall ship celebrations and wonderful food stalls.

Get Your Bearings
Helsinki, with its delightful mix of Scandinavian, European and Russian architecture, was established in 1550 as a market to compete with Tallinn, across the Baltic Sea. Held by many to be the real gateway between east an d west, Helsinki offers the best of European, Baltic and Russian cultures.

Because the compact centre grew up round the port and market area, Helsinki’s easily walkable; 15-minutes walk from the central train station brings you to the port, where ferries and charter boats await to bring you round the city’s more than 300 small islands. From the port, too, are ferries and cruise ships leaving for Tallinn, St Petersburg and destinations in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Finnair coaches connect the central train station with the airport every half hour; the journey takes 35 minutes.

Check In
One lovely surprise is that all hotels – and even most hostels – in Helsinki have free saunas for guests’ use. The city’s Hotel Booking Centre is a terrific source of help, especially when large events book out the city’s somewhat limited hotel space. They’re in the west wing of the central railway station (tel from the UK 00-358-9-171-133, fax 00-358-9-175-524), and book rooms for Helsinki and all of Finland. They’ll also fax you a price list, or do on the spot bookings.

The Arctia Grand Marina Hotel is one of the city’s finest secrets and a personal favourite. A four star hotel in a renovated former port warehouse, rooms are large, staff attentive and friendly, and weekend deals can get you snuggled up with a view of the harbour for under GBP55 (tel 16-661), Katajamokanlaituri 7.

Another pleasant place near the water is the Seaside Hotel (tel 69-360), Ruoholadenranta 3, with weekend double room rates of GBP66 for singles and doubles.

The best tip for a cheap room – if you are prepared to forego an en-suite bath – is the friendly and spotless Eurohostel, right near the port, which has private single and double rooms for GBP22/28.

Night on the Tiles
Helsinki starts hopping early, and people head for discos around 11 pm. Happy Days, Pohjoisesplanadi 2, is a yuppie hangout with mainstream hits and a fun crowd, and Nylon, Kaivokatu 10, is a small but jamming dance and hip hop club with a younger and much wilder crowd. Opposite Nylon, 10th Floor, Kaivokatu 3, is an upmarket flashy late night club. Too wild? Throw on some nicer duds and take a friend over to Vanha Maestro, Fredrikinkatu 51, for some wildly popular Finnish Tango (you read that right).

Take a Ride
The TourExpert desk at the excellent Helsinki City Tourist Office (tel 169-3757), Pohjoiseplanadi 19 near the port, sells tickets to sightseeing tours throughout the city and surrounding islands. The cheapest way to get your bearings is by hopping on a tr am No 3T, which makes a 45-minute figure-8 orientation loop through the heart of the city. Too pedestrian? In the evening hop on the Bar Tram which offers much the same plus beer!

The greenest way to take a tour is through TandemTaxi (tel 040-540-0400), which guide you round on tandem bicycles. And if money’s no object, charter one of the tall wooden sailing ships that gather in port for a lunch or dinner cruise (from GBP200).

Take a Hike
The most popular place to get away from it all is Suomenlinna, the fortress-village on an island off the centre where celebrations and special events continue throughout the summer. Walk through the villages streets or in the outskirts for nice walks along the shore. Helsinki residents – especially lovers – hold Kairopuisto, another island at the city’s southeast corner, dear to their hearts. It’s great for summer outdoor concerts and picnics in the park.

Lunch on the Run
Tops for a delicious and quick lunch are the food stalls around the city’s excellent covered market. Inside are dozens of options from smoked raindeer meat to excellent vegetarian; from authentic Italian and superb Vietnamese to the more pedestrian doner kebab. Outside, along the waterfront, do sample some of the heavenly smoked fish sold from small boats.

Cultural Afternoon
Invest in a Helsinki Card (GBP13), for unlimited use of city public transport (including the Suomenlinna ferry), tours and admission to most of the city’s museums.

Kiasma, the city’s new contemporary arts museum, opened with a bang in May; along with the prerequisite multimedia installations, don’t miss Christian Steel’s immensely popular scent installation, Babylon: a series of intricately-shaped porcelain pots from the Royal Danish Porcelain factory filled with oils scented with everything from birch tar to galbanum (through December). The Cygnaeus Gallery, in a lovely villa, has a great collection of 19th and 20th century Finnish paintings and sculpture. There are fine industrial and fine arts exhibits at the Helsinki City Art Museum, and transport buffs love it here: there’s a good aviation museum at the airport and a fascinating tram museum in the centre.

Window Shopping
The best shopping is right in the centre, around the enormous Stockmann’s department store. While it’s heavily touristed, the market near the port is not a tourist trap, and there’s a fine selection of Finnish handicrafts on offer, with good value for the money.

An Aperitif
Throughout the city you’ll see sidewalk cafes overflowing into the streets at the first sight of good weather: Helsinkians love drinking outdoors. Do try Koskankorva, a vodka-like firewater taken in shots or mixed with fruit juice.

One place not in most guidebooks is Helsinki’s outstanding Garlic Restaurant (tel 651-939), Fredrikinkatu 22, a must stop for any garlic fan, with fine service, sensational homemade bread and herb butter and a very creative menu. Try the stupendous fish-kebob: pike wrapped in fresh salmon, char-broiled then served in a garlic-cream sauce over home-made seafood ravioli. Wash this down with a garlic beer (much, much better than it sounds) and you’re guaranteed a seat alone on the flight home!

For traditional Lappland specialities of salmon, gorgeous fish soups and tender raindeer steaks, head for Lappi Ravintola (tel 645-550), Annankato 22.

There are lots of places to get expensive, stylised Russian food, but when Russians come to town they go for the delicious down-home (and reasonably priced) Russian food at Babushka Ira (tel 680-1405), Uudenmaankatu 28 right in the centre.

Early Hours
A fun place to start a night out is Molly Malone’s Irish Pub (tel 171-272), with good beers and live Irish music on weekends. Then head for the Kallio district, about 1 km from downtown and packed with typical Finnish pubs and beer gardens, or for the flashy and trendy pubs that line flashy and trendy Uudenmaankatu, in the centre.

Sunday Service
The city’s premiere Lutheran church, in Senate Square, is currently closed for renovations, but its main competitor, the Temppeliaukio Church, Lutherinkatu 3, is worth a visit for its unusual architecture: built into rocks, it looks for all the world like a downed UFO. The best bet is to attend Russian services at the largest orthodox cathedral in western Europe: the glorious brick Uspenski Cathedral, Kanavakatu 1.

A Walk in the Park
There are bits of green throughout Helsinki, including Goff park at the southern end of the centre. And to get away from it all – or from what passes for hustle and bustle in Helsinki – head straight for Pihlajasaar, a wild island where you’re immediately immersed in the quiet of the countryside (except on weekends, when you’re immersed in crowds of Finns looking for the quiet of the countryside!).

Seurasaari’s yet another island, a combined historical park, picnic area and swimming spot. Lined with 19th century houses, the island’s also got some small beaches.