Helsinki, a city guide
The magic of the festive period comes early in Helsinki, Finland, with lights twinkling across the city as the sun sets in the milky sky. The city is quiet in winter months, which is a lovely break from the frenzied London streets, and makes any traveller feel special in this beautiful city.
Giant ice-breaker ships sit in the harbour, waiting to sail to even colder climes and churches rise out of the wide, welcoming streets. In true Scandinavian style, everything about Helsinki’s design is streamlined and sleek. The public transport runs smoothly, with boats ferrying people to nearby islands twice an hour and trams passing through the city all day. And the clean uncomplicated buildings have the feel of space well-used. Even the cathedral is simple inside, with lightly decorated white walls and a magnificent domed ceiling. While in many cities this could be taken as stark and empty, here it seems to embody the clean northern light and air.
Food and drink are an integral part of the culture in any city and Helsinki has so much to offer. The Finnish specialities are still widely available, but the Finns are great at the small details and have mastered food from different cultures.
Gaijin offers a truly special Asian fine dining experience. The diverse a la carte menu has everything from dim sum to fresh sushi to grilled marbled beef and truffle soy butter. But we would suggest the tasting menu. Each dish is based on the journey the local flavours have taken, which boldly combine the best tastes of north Asia. To start, the green shell mussels with Szechuan flavoured lemon dressing are delicate and fragrant, and the perfect portion size. The menu also includes bull tartare, sashimi, acacia marinated fried white fish, pork ribs, fried scallops and crispy fried pork. The veggie option is equally as delicious, with miso roasted cauliflower, crispy enoki mushrooms and Karashi (Japanese mustard) and miso mushroom skewers. Gaijin’s love and respect for Asian cuisine shines through each dish and opens up new worlds of possibility in terms of what can be achieved.
Naughty Brgr is a burger joint opened by the first winner of Finland’s Top Chef competition, Akseli Herlevi. The company’s culture is based on using the freshest ingredients to develop the best burgers in the industry. The style is laid-back and the highly trained, attentive staff ensure that everything works incredibly well and runs efficiently. The restaurant is bang on trend, full of neon lights and pop-art touches. And the food matches its surroundings. Pick any burger on the menu and it will be one of the best you’ve ever had – meat or not. The Cuban Frita, with spicy Finnish beef, roasted chorizo, bull’s eye egg, papitas potatoes and hot sauce is refreshingly different, while the NYC cheese makes the classics look effortless. And the three veggie options are amazing, with the Beyond Vegan Brgr using the ever-popular Beyond Meat in a simple pairing with pickles, fried Tabasco onions and chipotle aioli. Naughty Brgr is perfect for a quick lunch or a more relaxed sit-down dinner.
Pien, in the city centre, is the most colourful beer shop we’ve ever seen. But don’t be fooled by the adorably cute design, this place is a showcase for some very serious beer knowledge. It proclaims to have the widest selection of speciality beers in the country, and after trawling the internet for one we had there, we would agree. The staff are friendly and eager to help and Helsinki is a world-leader in sour beer, so Pien is the perfect place to start. Our favourite was Duckpond Brewing’s cherry bubblegum – don’t knock it before you try it. Fruitless searches online have led to some Instagram begging for the company to bring its sours collection to London, they’re that good.
Mikkeller is a Danish brewing company with bars all over the world. But tucked away on Kalevankatu street in the Kamppi region, Mikkeller Helsinki is one of a kind. It has 20 rotating beers on tap from Mikkeller and other top craft breweries and collaborators, plus an extensive bottle list. And once again, the staff are amazing – this is a theme in Helsinki – taking the time to go through everything with you. Tell them what you like, trust their recommendations and you won’t want to leave.
Bryggeri is another cosy pub tucked down a side street in the shadow of the city’s beautiful cathedral. It has its own brewery and a wide range of beers on offer throughout the year. This is the perfect place to stop for an afternoon drink or a bite to eat. Bryggeri has a restaurant downstairs, but also serves a bar menu of burgers, sausage, sandwiches and fries.
Noodle Story is further out from the centre, but the beauty of Helsinki is it’s all very walkable. This neighbourhood noodle place has a homely feel, with a cute little salad bar and teas and coffees on the side for customers to help themselves. The menu of noodle bowls, noodle soups and handmade dumplings is small and perfectly formed – ideal for a pit-stop as you take in some of the city’s less obvious sights and walk off that sour-beer hangover. Everything is bursting with flavour and colour, and the ingredients are all so fresh. The vegetarian dumplings with tofu, spinach, spring onions, ginger and squash melt in the mouth and the generous portion sizes mean everything is great for sharing. Although Noodle Story may look unassuming from the outside, the inside is buzzing with locals who clearly know their way around a great noodle dish.
Loyly – go for the sauna, stay for the food. A beautiful wooden building — more like an art installation — looking out to the islands surrounding Helsinki, Loyly is famed for its sauna, which is only a short jump – or ladder climb – down into the Baltic Sea. The three wood-fired saunas and black concrete wet rooms are perfect for relaxing at any time of year. And once you’re done with the sauna and spa, the spacious, light-filled restaurant is just a few feet away. Get a real taste of Finland with elk meatballs, reindeer fillet or smoked fish mousse and roe. Or try the roasted pumpkin and kale or the Loyly veggie burger of portobello mushrooms, goats cheese and salad.
Helsinki holds a magic that sets it apart. We don’t know if it’s the northern air, the Baltic Sea or the low-key civility of its inhabitants, but this city will capture your heart and soothe your soul.